It has been more than a decade since Julia Louis-Dreyfus hung up her sensible oxfords as Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes. In the intervening years, she’s starred in two other network sitcoms (the failed Watching Ellie and The New Adventures of Old Christine), and she’s deeply excited to be heading up her first premium cable show: Veep, a profane, hilarious show about a scheming vice-president named Selina Meyer.
Veep was created by Armando Iannucci, by now an old hand at trenchant political satire — he also created the British series The Thick of It, and he directed and co-wrote the movie In the Loop. (See Matt Zoller Seitz’s review of Veep here.) We spoke with Louis-Dreyfus about the hours she logged watching C-SPAN in preparation for her role as vice-president, the perks of working in premium cable, and how much better television has become for women since her days on Seinfeld.
I read that you talked to Al Gore in preparing for this role. What did he tell you about being vice-president?
Well, I have to say that I can’t tell you. I’m so sorry! How’s that for a first answer? Or, maybe it’s better for me to say no comment. That’s more authoritative. The reason is because I want to keep this private, and I did speak to Vice-President Gore, but I also spoke to other vice-presidents. I’m keeping all of that under wraps because I don’t want anybody to feel as if I’m plucking moments from their life or, you know what I’m saying?
Of course. You don’t want anyone to feel like you’re making fun of them. I totally understand that. Did you do anything else to prepare for the role? Were you watching a thousand C-SPAN clips with Armando Iannucci?
Yes, I was indeed. A lot of C-SPAN, and I met with speechwriters — vice-presidential and presidential speechwriters — and chiefs of staff on the Hill for vice-presidents as well as senators, and schedulers, and lobbyists, and senators themselves. I mean, the list goes on and on and on. The research is really kind of never-ending, and there’s always food for thought out there. On any given day anything can happen, and it’s just great stuff for our show all the time.
Was there anything you learned along the way that you’ve found particularly illuminating about the way politics works that you didn’t really know before you started doing the research?
Well, I will say that it’s just fascinating to see the kind of devotion that a staff has to have around a particular candidate, or I should say a powerful political person, be it vice-president or senator. I recall that one person who was a scheduler for a senator told me that she slept with her BlackBerry next to her head on the pillow, every night. And that speaks to that kind — and she told this to me very proudly — it speaks for the level of devotion that these folks have for their particular, shall we say, leader.
That seems surprisingly earnest to me considering the characters on Veep are a little bit more cynical or perhaps motivated more by power than necessarily by faith in a leader.
Well, I’m not sure about that. I’m not sure I agree with that because for instance, Anna [Chlumsky] who plays my chief of staff, she’s been with me for years and years and years, and is very at ease at putting out fires. Tony Hale, who plays Gary, my body man, is devoted to me in a way that is probably psychologically harmful, but all right. It’s good for the show.
There’s a great scene where he wants to be on the elevator with your character. He ends up running down the stairs just to stay with you.
Yeah, that was really good. And then he ends up running, that’s right. So have you seen … what episodes have you seen?
I’ve seen the first three episodes.
I thought it was really amazing that the whole yogurt shop incident … [Editor’s note: Selina has a botched photo op at a local frozen yogurt store, and months before the show aired, Joe Biden had a controversial custard shop visit.]
Oh, yeah! And the custard? I mean, seriously! Isn’t that uncanny? Uncanny!
Unbelievable. I mean, obviously I haven’t seen the whole season, but do you follow politics enough to see parallels like that all the time with Veep?
All the time. It happens all the time. After we shot the pilot episode and we have the whole thing about Selina greening up Capitol Hill, and then of course there was Nancy Pelosi got a lot of pushback for trying to green up on Capitol Hill. But this is after we shot it, and the list goes on and on. And right now, I mean there’s so much going on out there of, shall we say, trying to straddle to a certain both sides of the aisle, only because it’s primary season. There’s a lot of material to be mined. Or let’s just say there’s a lot of material being given over to us.
Did you find the experience of doing an HBO show much different from doing the network TV you’ve done?
Yes, absolutely. It’s an entirely different experience in many ways. There’s great artistic license and credence given to the artist making the shows at HBO, for which I’m very grateful and constantly amazed by because I’m sort of not used to it. But I mean, beyond being able to sort of say whatever you want in terms of swearing and so on and so forth, it’s well beyond that in terms of respecting the process. I like to tell people that making a show … you know we shot eight episodes, right? And we had six weeks of rehearsal leading up to shooting. So in other words, before we shot a single frame of this show, we’d rehearsed for six weeks. And HBO was behind that idea, and that wasn’t an inexpensive idea. We reaped the benefits of it I think creatively, and they understood that this is the way it had to be, and they were completely fine with it. And same is true with script and story lines and so on. I’m not suggesting that they don’t have an opinion; I guess what I mean is that it’s a very thoughtful opinion and there’s more of a clear focus on what the sort of artistic ultimate goal is, and what the artistic product is gonna be. They don’t have to worry about numbers and the ratings game, so it takes away some of that stress and people are able to focus on the product itself.
Was it a conscious choice to move away from network stuff or was this just a great opportunity that you felt you didn’t want to pass up?
I would say it was a great opportunity. I mean, to be honest it’s always been sort of a fantasy of mine to have a series on cable. And by the way, just to be clear, I’m not knocking network television. I worked in it for many, many years and very — I mean, Jesus, had such happy times and great success there. So there’s an aspect of doing that that of course I adore. But this is just a different thing; it’s just a different way of making comedy and a different landscape. It just so happened that this idea came down the pike and it happened to be on HBO. So, lucky me.
This is the third show you’ve done since Seinfeld. Do you feel you’re moving further out of the shadow cast by that show? Not that it was a burden — it’s great to have such wonderful success — but do you feel like you’re identified less by that at this point?
I don’t know, you tell me. I mean, I’m not sure. People come up to me on the street and they very much identify … they often call me Elaine, and they often call me Christine, and with any luck in a couple of years they’ll call me Selina, or Madam Vice President. But, the reality is having had the experience of those shows and the success of those shows, it’s opened up a lot of doors for me, so I say bring it on. I’m happy to be identified as any of those characters.
It seems over the course of your career you’ve really found your medium with TV. Was that conscious? Did you want to do movies and you didn’t get the right roles, or is it that you feel more comfortable with this medium?
Here’s what happened: I was doing, let’s see … when did Seinfeld start? In ’89, yeah. Prior to Seinfeld I did a number of films. And then I did Seinfeld, and I obviously, when you’re doing 22 or 24 episodes a year your schedule’s pretty locked in. And at the same time — you know, we did Seinfeld for nine years — during that period of time I had two children. So to be honest, I had some film opportunities that I didn’t take because I didn’t want to go away on location because I was already suffering such guilt trying to sort of juggle the working mom thing that the idea of on my down time going away and shooting a film was untenable, for me. And I know plenty of people who do it, but I wasn’t able to wrestle that myself. And then I just sort of … I don’t know. Those doors kept opening, in a way. Particularly for a woman that’s my age, and even ten years ago I think there was more opportunity in television than in film. You know?
You feel like that’s getting any better at all? You were so great in the live episode of 30 Rock, and with people like Tina Fey being so powerful and showrunners. Do you feel like it’s gotten better for women since you started out in TV?
Yes. Yes, I do.
Was it a gradual thing?
I don’t know because … and I’m just trying to think about … I’m thinking. We’d have to sort of look at a graph and figure out how many shows were being run by women. You know, fifteen years ago compared to today, and how many shows were about women fifteen years ago compared to today. I’m not really sure. I’m assuming there are more female showrunners. I sure as hell hope so. And also, when I was doing Seinfeld, I was an actor for hire. I didn’t produce that show. So maybe there was a certain awareness that I did not have that I certainly have now.
So going back to when you really started out, at Saturday Night Live, you’ve said the show wasn’t a wonderful experience. What was not a good fit about that for you?
I was really young. I went into the show, I was 21 years old, I was still going to college and I was hired to come and do the show. And I went in very naively. I figured … not only did I go in naively, I felt like Cinderella going to the ball ‘cause I had grown up in the seventies watching SNL with the original cast and they were just like, the be all end all. That was it. I was their demographic. And then to be hired on your most favorite show of all time was just head spinning, right? So I went in there, and I had been doing theater at Northwestern and in Chicago and the bulk of it was all about creating the best possible show, and working with an ensemble, and everybody helping each other out. I went into SNL thinking it was going to be an ensemble in the same way and it wasn’t. And I also went in unprepared, that is to say, I didn’t have characters that I had to work on. I didn’t come in with a whole bag of tricks and material. So I had to learn the ropes the hard way. But also at the time it wasn’t a super female-friendly landscape. And so all of that together made for not the best experiences. And I myself was not a writer. So, it was complicated but I really learned a lot — I’m gonna say that much. I really learned a lot during the process, it was going to grad school in show business. And my third year, Larry David was there and was very miserable and we connected through our misery. And perhaps … we were happy about that. And he never got a sketch on the air, except I believe he got a sketch on for dress, but between dress and air it got cut.
Heartbreaking, yeah. It was a little bit of a heartbreaking time. Anyway, whatever. Live and learn, and I learned a lot. And I had the grand opportunity to go back and host, and in fact I was the first female cast member to go back and host and it was a very heady week and it felt full circle, and it was nice to go back with the experience that I’ve had and be able to apply it to the week as host, and it was a very different landscape, and Lorne Michaels was producing it, and it was very female-friendly, and Tina and Amy and Kristen and Maya, and all these nice women were there and it was just heaven.
Do you think that’s something that you’d want to do again given the opportunity? Would you want to host again?
Oh, sure. Lots of fun.
When Seinfeld happened several years after you were on SNL, did your life change immediately or was it a more of a slow burn, popularity-wise?
No, it did not change immediately. It was a — you know, I think people maybe think it was an overnight sensation but it was a four-year overnight sensation. It wasn’t until I think season four that we were kind of at the top of our game in terms of being a highly rated show.
I know you mentioned that you were pregnant twice during the filming of Seinfeld. Was that tough to deal with while you were playing a character who was obviously not experiencing the same thing? Obviously you’re a professional and that’s your job, but was it tough to manage while you were sort of physically going through that?
It was. And of course, I was the size of a whale, so that was tricky too. My first pregnancy we sort of tried to cover it up and I would carry boxes and walk around with, you know, things on hangers in front of me and things like that. But by the time I was pregnant the second time it was like, ugh, we just gave up. I just started to be fat. [Laughs.] I remember once, in fact it was during that pregnancy that Jerry suggested that maybe we should just write it in that Elaine was getting fat. Of course, I burst into tears so that idea didn’t fit but … actually, looking back on it, it would have been kind of a good idea. I didn’t feel confident enough to pull that one off. That belies my vanity, frankly.
It was interesting watching Veep and thinking about those issues of vanity. Selina dresses fabulously, but it seems like there’s ever more scrutiny on anyone who’s a public figure — even with female politicians, their appearance is constantly under the microscope. Is that something you thought about with the role?
A hundred percent. One hundred percent. Particularly for female politicians, they’re scrutinized in a way that male politicians certainly are not physically scrutinized, that is to say. What Hilary wears, what Sarah Palin wears, what Nancy Pelosi wears, people are talking about it. And these are women who are leaders. Well, some of them are leaders anyway. And the fact that they’re put under that kind of, I don’t know … what shall we say, that they’re pulled apart in that way is highly unjust and definitely something that is on my mind as I play this character.
Do you almost feel like Hollywood and Washington are becoming more similar?
Well, I mean there’s definitely a crossover for sure. And there’s an aspect of being a celebrity and being in show business that I can certainly draw from as I play this character, because there’s a lot of work at presenting yourself a certain way and then going behind the curtain and being somebody else. There’s a presentational personality, or character — excuse me, there’s a character for presentation, and then there’s the real character behind it. And that’s true in show business as well, of course. But we demand, particularly nowadays with our, with this 24-hour news thing and all this social media and scrutiny, you can’t put one foot in front of the other without it being scrutinized and analyzed and sound bite-ized and so on. So that is very much a part of the political process and something that we talk about, and it’s a great part of many of the story lines in this upcoming season of Veep, beyond the first three episodes that you’ve seen.
I know that you were somewhat involved in politics in 2008. Do you plan to sort of be involved at all in 2012?
Well, I personally supported Barack Obama. And by the way, I say this almost hesitatingly not because I don’t want to be in support of Barack Obama but because this show is nonpartisan. So we make every effort, right? So that’s very important for the comedy of the show that you never know what party she’s in, or the opposition is in. You don’t see the president, all that stuff. So, I’m keeping my political point of view very far from this. Having said that, I will do what I can to help get President Obama reelected because he’s my guy, and there you go.
Do you have any plans for future research? Are you going to hide behind the curtains in the oval office?
Yeah, well not the oval office necessarily, but I would like to spend more time talking to vice presidents and chiefs of staff and so and so forth. I really would. And I think although people were very generous on Capitol Hill, letting us come around so on and so forth, I’m hoping that once they see this show that we’re not parodying and one specific politician that maybe they’ll open their doors even a little bit more, which would be a generous gift, of course, but it’s what I’m kind of hoping. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.