The 2016 Emmy race is underway, and Vulture will take a close look at the contenders until the awards on September 18.
After five seasons on Veep, it’s hard to imagine anything could keep Julia Louis-Dreyfus up at night. But the actress, who is also an executive producer on the show, was “terrified” about the series’ fifth season in the wake of creator Armando Iannucci’s departure and the series’ production move from Baltimore to L.A. The show ultimately proved impervious to these potentially tone-killing changes: Veep nabbed a whopping 16 Emmy nominations this year, including outstanding comedy series, outstanding supporting actors and actress (Tony Hale, Matt Walsh, and Anna Chlumsky), and another for the leading lady behind comedy’s most woefully ambitious politica, Selina Meyer. Here, Louis-Dreyfus shares why she thinks Veep achieved a rare seamless leadership transition, how the political comedy maintains a crucial fantasy element, and the “mind-fuckery” of being back at Saturday Night Live with her pal — and 2016 Emmy nominee — Larry David.
Have you had a nice summer?
It’s been pretty good! Actually, I don’t even remember now. Our writers’ room is up and running now for season six, so I’m back into Veep land.
I recently re-watched season five and it confirmed my initial reaction that the series was much darker and dirtier this year. Was this an intentional shift?
Good, I’m glad to hear that! It actually wasn’t what we were going for, but I’m assuming you like darker and dirtier?
Naturally. But it only makes sense that the show would evolve tonally seeing as you had two major changes this season in David Mandel replacing Armando Iannucci and the show moving its production from Baltimore to Los Angeles. How challenging were these transitions?
First and foremost, I went into this season absolutely adamant about preserving and protecting what we had done up to that point. I will admit to you that I was somewhat terrified because there were so many changes afoot. Not only did we move the show to California, but we had a new showrunner. I felt a lot of responsibility to protect what we had created and took it all very personally. I’d worked with Dave in the past, but handing over the reins to a new person always involves a lot of risk — and almost a whole new writing staff. Some of our U.K. writers stayed onboard, but the majority were new. But I think Dave hit it out of the park.
What are the biggest differences you see between David and Armando as writers and producers?
They are both ferociously funny writers. They’re also both very politically astute and have a great sense of government, politics, and history, which are vital qualities for this show. But I would say Dave is more about outlines and really mapping out where we’re headed. This probably comes from having worked with Larry David for years on Curb Your Enthusiasm. He’s used to tackling a lot of story in a tight 29 minutes. Whereas I think Armando was very comfortable with not being entirely sure where we were headed; having a more organic feeling about it. There was something delightful about that process as well. Both approaches have good things about them. Does that make sense?
Yes and they both worked, which is incredibly rare when you consider all the moving parts — on- and offscreen — for a show like this. For example, you no longer had access to all that great, stately east coast and Washington, D.C., architecture. How did you work to preserve the look of the series?
We were very cognizant of the fact that nothing could shift visually in a way that would take you out of the show. If all of a sudden you’re saying “Wait, that doesn’t look like D.C.,” then we’ve got a problem. First of all, we kept the same set designer, Jim Gloster who’s been nominated for an Emmy multiple times and is an incredible artist. Another thing was: We never shot anything exterior during the day in California to stand in for the East Coast because the light is so different there. We shot in California for the scenes in Nevada, but spent two weeks back east shooting at the end of our season to fill in all the holes.
What was the impact of creating season five during this, let’s say, incredibly tumultuous and absurd political climate? Are you consciously pulling inspiration from the news or always trying to maintain this somewhat fantastical version of reality?
We’ve always got an eye on what’s happening currently. That’s for certain. But we very deliberately created an alternate universe on our show so that number one, we’re not parodying any single person. We’re not going to have Wolf Blitzer or Katie Couric come on the show and play themselves. We need to stay in this pretend world. And number two, we don’t identify political parties in the show. I’m trying to think of the most current, real historical person that we referenced. I want to say maybe Ford or Nixon? And we made one Jimmy Carter joke, but that was it. We don’t go beyond that, and that’s very deliberate so everybody can come to this party and have a laugh.
After playing Selina Meyer for five seasons, have you found yourself becoming more or less like her in ways that you didn’t at the beginning?
I would like to think I’m a nicer, kinder person than she is. If I hadn’t grown out of my toddler years, Selina Meyer is who I would be today. (Laughs.) But like her, I am ambitious and do like being called Madam President. I can say that I would like for people to always call me that. It’s very lovely. It’s feminine and also it has authority to it all at the same time.
It definitely implies elegant authority.
Elegant authority, yes, thank you! But of course, she’s really not anything like me — but a delight to explore as a character. It is just a fucking gas-and-a-half.
Nailing the character the way you do must mean you’re constantly hit up for your thoughts on the presidential race. Do you decline to share your opinions?
I am hit up a lot. And, yes. What’s really interesting is that I’ll do interviews and all of a sudden I feel like I’m on the MacNeil/Lehrer Report, which is just not my deal, man. I will say I am a tried-and-true Democrat and will certainly be voting for Hillary this fall.
Another bonus to your shooting in Los Angeles was that your husband, Brad Hall, was nearby to direct an episode in season five.
He did! He directed “Cuntgate.”
I saw that and I thought, ‘How sweet for them work on such a romantic episode together.’
(Laughs.) I know. It just so happened that was the one, and so very apropos that he got to direct me in an episode entitled “Cuntgate,” it’s perfect.
You’ve been longtime collaborators, from Saturday Night Live to Watching Ellie. What was it like to work with him in this particular setting?
It was absolutely fantastic. He knows the show backwards and forwards. He knows the style, the look and what we’re going for, and he knew the process. You know, we do a lot of rehearsal and a lot of stuff comes out of rehearsal that’s folded into the script, and he was aware of that. So it was like he was a new director coming onboard, but he was a new director who wasn’t a new director in a sense. He’s spent a lot of time on set and watched a lot of stuff with me in the edit and all the rest.
Now that you’re working back home in L.A., how do you like to spend your downtime in ways that you couldn’t back east?
I love hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains and in Santa Barbara. Apart from almost stepping on a rattlesnake the other day, it’s a very relaxing way to be outdoors and get exercise. (Laughs.)
Another highlight for your fans this year was seeing you return as host of SNL in April, and watching you play Elaine Benes in the cold opening with your pal Larry David in his now Emmy-nominated guest stint as Bernie Sanders. The two of you were on staff together at SNL in the '80s. How surreal was it to back together at 30 Rock?
It was unbelievable. I knew he was doing it, but it hadn’t occurred to me how surreal it was to be standing in Studio 8H together again after, how many years? Thirty years? Look where our lives had led us. The whole thing was mind-fuckery but in a wonderful way. Good mind-fuckery.
And unlike 30 years ago, Larry actually got a sketch on the air.
(Laughs.) Yeah, exactly. Unlike 30 years ago, he was shown a little respect. And, frankly, so was I, so that was a nice thing.