The Joys of Being Julia Louis-Dreyfus
by kelly jane torrance
photography by robert ascroft
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.
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
Celebrating the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner at Carnegie Library.