by kelly jane torrance
photography by robert ascroft | December 12, 2011 | People
When HBO announced last April it had picked up Veep, a political sitcom, the cable channel’s press release was remarkably (if unsurprisingly) cut-and-dried: “Armando Iannucci is a master of smart, savvy humor, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus is one of the sharpest comic actors around.” Leave it then to the comedienne, making her own announcement on her Facebook page, to give us a better taste of what lies in store: “Get ready people. I’m coming back to television on HBO. So you know what that means. That’s right, motherf#$!ers, I get to use very bad language.”
The statement is all the more amusing simply because it’s Julia. Her humor is dry, sarcastic, and best used in the form of a deadpan. Few people, even in that ocean of talent that is Hollywood, have that sort of charm that Louis-Dreyfus effortlessly lets loose—and it works. She has been making America laugh for nearly three decades now, from her precocious stint on Saturday Night Live to her culturally iconic work as prototypical neurotic New Yorker Elaine Benes on Seinfeld to leading-lady stardom as California do-it-all mom Christine Campbell on The New Adventures of Old Christine—and let’s not forget her hysterical guest turns on Curb Your Enthusiasm and Arrested Development. She is not afraid to temper her very American style with the self-effacing humor more common among British contemporaries, as just a few minutes of conversation makes endearingly clear. She is whip-smart but not afraid to get goofy. It is an inspiring trait to uncover in such a beautiful woman—better looking than ever at 50—whose vitality and, yes, sensuality make her one of the most glamorous actresses working today.
Remembering Her DC Roots
Chatting one Saturday morning, during a rare break from filming Veep at a soundstage made up to look like the vice president’s office near Columbia, Maryland, Louis-Dreyfus reveals another attractive quality: Superstardom—with the awards, magazine covers, red-carpet appearances, and household-name status that follow closely behind—hasn’t kept her from nourishing the roots she laid down right here in Washington. She was born in New York City and lives in California, but she still considers the capital home.
During our conversation, the actress answers each question a bit differently. Some queries lead to long pauses, in which she carefully collects her thoughts. Others result in an immediate roar—as is the case with most great comedians, she loves to laugh at other people’s jokes (or their attempts at humor). When she talks about Washington, though, she sounds almost demure. She is here, obviously, to shoot episodes of Veep, in which she plays the title character, a former Senator from Maryland named Selina Meyer, who finds herself in over her head as the new vice president of the United States, a position she’s not exactly thrilled to have won.
But Louis-Dreyfus does not gush or brag about being the star of a sitcom for HBO, known for its numerous highly acclaimed series. She does not even mention that she is pulling double duty, producing as well as acting in this hotly anticipated new sitcom. No, it is something else about being in this city that makes the actress, despite a grueling shooting schedule, sound serenely happy. “It’s nice to be back here and know that my parents are close by,” she says. That is not to say she isn’t enjoying the feeling of returning to her childhood home as a successful celebrity. “It’s so funny,” she admits, “that it’s almost full circle that we’re shooting a show and driving around in a vice-presidential motorcade in my hometown. It’s really surreal.”
Louis-Dreyfus came to Washington when she was around nine years old and left after graduating high school to attend college in Chicago. Those formative years in the city—her family lived in the District proper, and she attended Holton-Arms School in Bethesda—left an indelible mark. “I’m very close friends with the girls that I grew up with in school at Holton. We are still very much in touch,” she says. It’s not just friendships that Louis-Dreyfus developed there. She credits the all-girls school with making her the singular woman she is today. (Which, to this observer, is confidently assertive and immensely talented.) “There were things I did in school that, had there been boys in the classroom, I would have been less motivated to do. For instance, I was president of the honor society,” Louis-Dreyfus says, with obvious pride. Her experience at Holton sounds like good training for an actress destined to play a woman a heartbeat from the presidency—or simply one who is always determined to hold the reins of her own career.
Born to Act
Louis-Dreyfus also discovered her first great love at school: “Any play that was ever put on at Holton, I was a part of.” It wasn’t known as an arts school, by any means, but the actress says the drama teachers were top-notch. “Judy White and Phyllis Ehrlich were both incredibly influential in my life. I consider myself very lucky to have gone there and had that experience.” (The school now offers a Phyllis Ehrlich Award in Drama.)
She continued exploring acting at Northwestern University—where she found her second great love. While still a student, she worked with the legendary Second City and the Practical Theatre Company. A single show with the latter, costarring then boyfriend and now husband Brad Hall, changed her life. The producers of Saturday Night Live were in Chicago, heard about the hit show, and decided to take it in. “They hired us, straight up, right there and then,” Louis-Dreyfus says, still sounding incredulous after nearly 30 years.
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She joined the seven-year-old comedy staple in 1982, becoming its youngest-ever cast member at the age of 21. “When SNL first began, I was their demographic—a young teenager watching Gilda and Belushi and Bill Murray and all of those guys—and I was just riveted,” she recalls. “It was a huge Cinderella-getting-to-go-to-the-ball kind of experience, really.” She left Northwestern early but scored an education in comedic acting her peers could only dream of. At the age when people are excited just to be able to drink legally, Louis-Dreyfus had already found her lifelong love and her lifelong passion.
Everyone knows what came next. She costarred in one of the greatest sitcoms ever produced, playing the inimitable Elaine on Seinfeld, a role that earned her an Emmy for Best Supporting Actress in 1996. When the show came to an end in 1998, critics speculated the cast members might be subject to a “Seinfeld curse,” finding it impossible to step out of the shadow of a largerthan- life project. Her next show, Watching Ellie, her husband’s creation, was canceled in 2003 after just two short seasons.
However, The New Adventures of Old Christine gave Louis-Dreyfus a fresh start—and her second Emmy, in 2006, this time for Lead Actress. “I’m not somebody who really believes in curses, but curse this, baby!” she couldn’t resist saying upon accepting the award.
Still, after five seasons on CBS with Christine, from 2006 to 2010, Louis-Dreyfus says she was ready to try something new. And Veep, slated to air this spring, is almost certain to be a political comedy unlike anything else on television.
Veep’s creator, Scottish satirist Armando Iannucci, has styled the American show from his BBC sitcom The Thick of It, which he spun off into the 2009 feature film In the Loop, one of the cleverest and funniest political movies ever made. Iannucci appreciates the spontaneity that makes great politics and great art, encouraging his actors to improvise “tons,” Louis-Dreyfus says. “Scripts are being born out of improvisation. They are written, then we’ll go off the page completely and the scene becomes about something else. It is incredibly fulfilling to see where it goes. All of the actors are very capable improvisers on this show.”
Not least the star herself. She cut her teeth at Second City, after all. And as she is quick to point out, “I have done a lot of Curb,” referring to Seinfeld co-creator Larry David’s HBO series, Curb Your Enthusiasm. “To be honest with you, I rely on my skills as an improviser a lot. Even in very scripted material. I think most actors do, though.”
Politics On and Off the Screen
It sounds, then, like Veep has found its perfect star. How many actresses have the chops for improvisation and the ability to project the cerebral seriousness playing the vice president requires? Despite the two aforementioned Emmys, a Golden Globe (for Best Supporting Actress for Seinfeld), and five Screen Actors Guild awards, Louis-Dreyfus still demonstrates the wary reserve of a seasoned Hollywood veteran. She pauses when given a list of reasons she’s the ideal choice for Veep. “Well, we’ll see,” she finally says with a laugh.
Some critics, aware that Louis-Dreyfus endorsed Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary and is active in environmental causes, might suspect her new show will skewer the Republicans that Hollywood sometimes loves to hate—and, more particularly, another attractive woman with well-coifed dark hair who just happens to have been a Republican vice-presidential candidate. But the actress is insistent: “This is in no way a parody of [Sarah Palin] or any other female politician.”
Veep, in fact, sounds a lot more interesting and provocative. “You will never know what party she’s in,” Louis-Dreyfus says of the character she plays. “There’s talk of the opposition and that party and this party, but it is never identified. So this is not a partisan politics show in any way. What it is, though, is a show about political behavior. And that is where the comedy comes from. The right thing happens for the wrong reason, or the wrong thing happens for the right reason. That is what this show is about.” Veep, then, is for anybody who enjoys politics—or the humor of its machinations. “It is for anybody who likes a good joke,” the actress says. “We poke fun at it all, all politicians, and the way Washington is run."
Given the current mood—with polls showing disappointing approval rates for both the Democratic president and the Republican Congress, with Wall Street and cities around the country recently “occupied” by angry protesters—Veep just might be the television show the country has been waiting for. “Yeah,” Louis-Dreyfus agrees, with a knowing laugh. “Let me just put it this way: We think it’s really f---ing funny. We can’t sit through scenes sometimes for quite a while because it’s making us laugh so hard,” she affirms. “It’s going to be unbelievably raunchy and funny.”
Raunch and fun aside, the subject matter is still politics, which any Beltway insider, or anyone who grew up here, will concede is a topic that can be a little touchy, if not completely drive one to the bowels of bitterness—but not Louis-Dreyfus. She doesn’t consider herself a cynic. “I am hopeful about the political future of our country, because I think the alternative of not being hopeful would be a bit of a drag,” she says after a beat.
Optimistic as she may be, Louis-Dreyfus is a busy modern woman, with a shooting schedule she describes as “completely nuts” (but “really fun”), a husband and two sons, and all of the demands of a hot Hollywood commodity—lest we forget, she’s not just a comic, she’s got the cred of a full-fledged brand. If she were cynical about “big picture” stuff, she likely wouldn’t have the insight to balance her life. “At this point, I have had a lot of experience doing it,” she says of her career and all of the additional trappings, adding, “I am a bit of a control freak, so I like to weigh in on all aspects of production.” It’s a business that she is comfortable engaging in on all levels—and she has earned the respect of an industry in the process. “I am not running for office,” she says. “I try to use my celebrity to support environmental issues in California. I am an activist back there,” she explains. “Norman Lear [creator of sitcoms such as All in the Family and founder of advocacy group People For the American Way] once said that celebrity is something that you can spend. If I can bring attention to environmental issues and concerns of mine in California and people I believe are doing the right thing environmentally, then I am happy to spend it on that.”
And, of course, she always makes time to come back home. Louis-Dreyfus reflects that the city has changed a lot since she left to become a star. “When I was growing up, it was a conservative political time,” she recalls, in a tone that is first reflective and then filled with unalloyed enthusiasm. “Of course, you can never really appreciate, to a certain extent, the city you grow up in until you come back to it. So it’s nice to return as an adult to Washington and its environs. You can really take in the fabulousness of this area. And it is indeed that. It is such a great city.”
Styling by Wendi & Nicole for The Wall Group
Hair by Daniel Howell at traceymattingly.com
Makeup by Karen Kawahara for Cloutier Remix for Dior Beauty
Manicure by Beth Fricke using OPI for Artists by Timothy Priano