The Joys of Being Julia Louis-Dreyfus
by kelly jane torrance
photography by robert ascroft
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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.”
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
We go behind the scenes with the SNL Weekend Update anchor.