year in culture 2013

Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the Present Tense: How the Actress Made Her Transformational Turn on Veep

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, photographed by Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine. Styling by Cristina Ehrlich at Margaret Maldonado Agency; Hair by Matthew Monzon at Tracey Mattingly; Makeup by Tina Turnbow using Chanel at Crosby Carter Management; Manicure by Aggie Zaro at Bryan Bantry Agency using Essie; Dress by Yigal Azrouel; Earrings and ring by Carbon and Hyde Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine

It is a Saturday night in November, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus and I are sitting in the lobby bar of The Four Seasons Hotel on East 57th Street, perched high inside the towering … atrium? No one speaks of atriums anymore! Everything about this place is dated, and I mean that in the worst possible way. It’s not old enough to be interesting as a vintage curiosity like, say, The Four Seasons restaurant five blocks south; it’s more like a sad, shopworn precursor to all the Bloombergian “luxury product” rising to the heavens all over midtown. Even the building’s history reads like something retrieved from a time capsule opened too soon: Zeckendorf … I. M. Pei … Japanese financing. The construction of “the tallest hotel in New York” was announced in 1989, which, as it ­happens, was the year Seinfeld went on the air.

Indeed, the experience of having a drink here is not unlike watching sitcom reruns on a rear-projection television. Something that once—not all that long ago!—seemed so vital and modern and daring can, in an instant, become trite and cumbersome. Was it ever actually as good as we once thought? As a friend recently said, “Have you noticed how old Madonna songs suddenly sound like nursery rhymes?”

“I think this place is in trouble,” says Louis-Dreyfus out of the corner of her mouth, and we both laugh. This is one of her gifts—the way she can freight the tiniest nothing of a line with so much observational funny. The hotel she had intended to stay at was booked, so after a ten-hour day of shooting Veep in Baltimore, she took the train to New York and checked in here. We both have new iPhones on the table and quickly launch into the inevitable conversation about how the thumbprint-recognition feature doesn’t really seem to be working out. “There’s some real glitches with this thing,” she says, “but first I thought it was my fault because I wash my hands too much.”

Suddenly, a waitress named Wendy appears beside our table. I know her name is Wendy because it says so on the tag pinned to her uniform. Her hair is piled up in the back with just the ends hanging down like a tassel holding back drapes. Louis-Dreyfus is fascinated. “We should ask her to join us,” she says. As Wendy gets us situated with menus and water, we notice that her speech is devoid of contractions, like Barbara Eden in I Dream of Jeannie (“I do not know, Major Healey”), and that she deploys the word shall as if it were still in common usage. At one point, when she asks if we would like something from the bar—“May I inquire whether you will be enjoying a drink this evening?”—our eyes widen as we stiffen from stifled laughter. When Wendy is out of earshot, Louis-Dreyfus leans in and whispers, “You know who she looks like? Cristina DeLorean. But that wasn’t her name originally. It was something else because she was some sort of Miss America woman or something. And she had the same …” She gestures around her mouth. “This part is exactly the same.”

She is talking about Cristina Ferrare, who was once married to John DeLorean and who recently had a cooking show, Big Bowl of Love, on Oprah’s network—and Wendy does, indeed, look just like her. “Am I right?” she asks with a big eager grin splashed across her face. “Can I tell you something? I’m very good at that. I can look at someone and immediately identify who or what it is they look like, be it another person or an animal. Okay? That’s number one. Number two, I can very often recognize somebody from afar, someone who I haven’t seen in a long time, just from behind. I immediately know who they are even from the back. So I am trying to find a way to market these skills and turn it into a business. I’m convinced it’s a gold mine.”

That all of this feels like a Seinfeld episode—the peculiar waitress, the cleanliness issues, the preposterous moneymaking scheme—is heightened by the fact that Louis-Dreyfus, 52, is the only person from that show who has completely moved on and remained … vital and modern and daring.

In the fifteen years since Seinfeld left the air, Louis-Dreyfus has been a part of two other network projects: Watching Ellie, an admirable experiment in reinventing the sitcom that utterly failed, and The New Adventures of Old Christine, a return to a more conventionally scripted show that was sort of like the sitcom version of a cult hit. But with one ballsy career move—agreeing to play the reprehensible Selina Meyer in Veep—she has yanked herself into the television future and is now one of the funniest, best things on semi-regular rotation in the on-demand wilds of the digital frontier. Indeed, by playing Selina, she has put so much distance between herself and the NBC sitcom that there are probably millions of people who have never even heard of Elaine and who know her only as the foulmouthed woman gamely playing the mess of a vice-president on HBO.

In the history of television comedy, few actors have come back after one hit sitcom to appear in another successful show as an entirely different character. There was Andy Griffith in Matlock, which aired nearly 30 years ago—and a full twenty years after The Andy Griffith Show. Lucille Ball may seem like the right historical ­analog, but let’s be honest: She mostly pulled faces and always played the same lovable idiot. Louis-Dreyfus has kept her career going with three distinct new ­characters, in three successful shows, on three different networks.

Speaking of Lucy, Louis-Dreyfus broke her Emmy record this year when she was nominated for her fourteenth best actress in a comedy award—the most of anyone in history. She won (delivering the funniest speech of the night), which means that she is now the only actress to win three Emmys for three different comedy series. In the grand scheme of things, these are just fun facts, and they don’t really provide the right framework by which to judge her accomplishment. So how about this? If comedy (as opposed to drama) is consumed more like popular music—as a series of moments, often enjoyed with friends, remembered fondly in a greatest-hits kind of way—then Julia Louis-Dreyfus is not the Billy Joel of television comedy, but the Elton John: a national treasure, still trying to surprise us.

One such surprise came this September in the form of the first great film role of Louis-Dreyfus’s career. Nicole Holofcener, who seems to be inching ever closer to being the Woody Allen of Los Angeles, is known for making ensemble films about a very specific slice of urbane, conflicted white people, like Walking and Talking and Friends With Money. Enough Said starred Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini (in his second-to-last film; he died of a heart attack in June at 51) as divorced and lonely middle-aged parents. After they meet cute at a backyard party and improbably fall in love, the film explores their flaws and pathologies with such tenderness (and humor) that I left the theater in a sad-happy daze that lasted for hours.

I am still in it when I meet Louis-­Dreyfus at The Four Seasons later that night, which is one of the reasons I gush a little. “Oh, I love to hear gushing!” she says, laughing. I actually wept in the ­theater, I tell her. “I’m glad you wept!” she says, now cackling. The film got mostly great reviews, which turned it into a sleeper hit, taking in nearly $20 million—a lot for a “specialty” film, which is the industry’s new term for anything not starring Jennifer Lawrence.

A significant part of the film’s success is the surprising chemistry between its co-stars. As Holofcener says, Gandolfini “was anxious about playing a leading man and a fairly vulnerable one. I think she was reassuring to him.” Louis-Dreyfus first met Gandolfini when she went backstage after seeing God of Carnage on Broadway in 2009. “I was in awe of him as an actor,” she says. “Always have been. So when his name came up to play this part, I just thought, Oh my God, that’s perfect. He was a dreamy guy, very sweet. He didn’t have tons and tons of confidence, which was surprising.”

From Elaine to Ellie to Christine to Selina.

Louis-Dreyfus has been in very few films and had not played a dramatic part since she was a theater major at Northwestern. She knew, now that she had reached middle age, that her chances of landing a juicy film role were fading. “I mean, I sort of believed that I could do it. So I thought one might come along. But I didn’t pine for it.” I am not entirely convinced by that last bit, because one of the strangely endearing things about Louis-Dreyfus is that she has the teensiest chip on her shoulder, which is why her giddiness about the success of Enough Said is so infectious: It feels well deserved. “The reaction to it has been so un-fucking-believably fabulous,” she says. “And it’s nice that people are having such a personal reaction to it, because it was such a private … thing.”

In what way? I ask.

“I don’t know,” she says, then ponders it for a moment. “I think maybe because I had to delve into areas that are very private.” The most wrenching scene in the film comes toward the end, when her character, Eva, who radiates loneliness, has to put her only child on a plane to start college. “Our oldest son, Henry, had gone off to college the year before I filmed that movie, and it was such a traumatic thing in our lives.” She thinks a little more. “And there was a kind of rawness to this part that required … Ugh. How do I say this, exactly? No artifice. There was a kind of vanity that I had to really let go of—as much as I possibly could.”

When I ask her if she had any inkling during filming that the movie was going to attract such an audience, she explodes with a laugh. “Naaaooh! Are you kidding? Who fucking knew? But I did know that it was a very gratifying experience. So I walked away from it thinking, That reeeaaally felt good. And truth be told, this is the kind of job I’ve always wanted to have. I just haven’t gotten these jobs. Let’s just cut to it: I haven’t! I haven’t been given the opportunity. The gigs that I’ve gotten, about which I have no remorse, have been straight-down-the-middle comedies. I’m not complaining, but these are the jobs I sort of fell into. I spent the beginning part of my adult life as an actress, and the jobs I got happened to be in comedy. But it’s not like I came from comedy. I didn’t do stand-up. But it’s funny: You get pegged a certain way. I mean, it’s nice to be in a position to be pegged, I suppose. There’s virtue in that, right?” She stares at me and blinks her big brown eyes a few times. “But to have this film come out and, frankly, to have Veep going at the same time? It’s like a joke. It’s such good fortune.” Pause. “Really.” She blinks a couple more times. “It’s a joke!”

Photograph by Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine

Columbia, Maryland, is neither here nor there, which is to say that it’s somewhere between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. As far as I can tell, it’s home to one of the dreariest American landscapes imaginable: office parks, chain malls, and a cluster of Northeast-corridor warehouses for Sears and the like. That it is also now home to the production back lots for highbrow East Coast television does nothing to ameliorate this aspect.

“Thank God the work’s good,” says Louis-Dreyfus, dressed in Selina’s ­chocolate-brown trench and stilettos. “Can you imagine if it wasn’t? It would be like a prison.” She is sitting on a giant Coleman cooler on the set of Veep, waiting for a call from her 16-year-old son, Charlie, who is in L.A. with his father, the actor-writer-director Brad Hall, just waking up. Here in vast-and-drafty-warehouse-land, where there are painstaking reproductions of the West Wing and the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, it is 10 a.m. This is where much of The Wire was filmed. In another empty warehouse turned soundstage, just up the highway, Netflix’s House of Cards has set up shop.

I’m not allowed to give away too much about season three, which, as Louis-­Dreyfus says, “is more controversial” than the previous two. The first season was promising, and sometimes funny, but many criticized it for not having enough at stake—that the show relied too much on the age-old joke about the office of the vice-president as an American punch line, and the idea of a woman finally occupying the office. Veep’s creator, Armando Iannucci, had made a terrific political comedy for the BBC called The Thick of It, which had spun into an even better feature film called In the Loop, so perhaps expectations for his HBO show were unrealistically high. Still, Veep’s premiere last year was a little disappointing; it seemed like yet another British import watered down for American taste.

When it returned this past spring, the show had taken a comic quantum leap. This is mostly because it got deeper and more real as everyone—the audience, the actors, but especially the writers—got to know the characters better and became more invested. “I think it was a subconscious thing of just being able to explore them a bit more intimately,” says Iannucci. “And to take on the political process a lot more aggressively: What are the real consequences of your decisions? How does it actually affect people? And for season three, we’re exploring that even more.” In other words: You will actually get to see Selina’s principles before she abandons them.

Iannucci and his head writers, Tony Roche and Simon Blackwell, are all British, but it’s clear after two seasons that they are in on the joke about Washington in a way that seems to elude most homegrown political satire.* Sure, Jon Stewart is funny and smart, but it’s all torn from the headlines. Veep gets at the phoniness of the whole setup—the permanent cynicism, the constant whiplash—but also the crushing boredom, the way that a broken and deeply dysfunctional system actually functions. It doesn’t really matter which party Selina Meyer belongs to (we still haven’t found out), because the result will be the same.

One of the many pleasures of Veep is watching Selina walk into a room full of people and small-talk her way through a plastered-on smile as she shakes the hands of people she disdains. Louis-­Dreyfus grew up in D.C. as part of what’s known as “permanent Washington” (she went to school with one of Gerald Ford’s daughters), and she gets the milieu in a bone-deep way. But she also feels perfectly cast because, almost 25 years into a career as a very famous TV star, she is used to, as Iannucci points out, “walking into a room and knowing what it’s like when everyone is staring at you. She knows what’s funny about seeing someone privately and then seeing someone publicly and making those two things feel very different. She really gets that.”

The scene being shot today is a perfect example of this. I can only disclose that the vice-president appears at a convention of sorts, a gathering of women, and wanders from booth to booth, condescending to strangers about one of the most divisive, hot-button issues in American culture. And it is hilarious. As with much of the filming of this show, it is done in a three-minute-long take that follows the action through the room with dozens of extras milling about. The bookends of the scene have been written and rehearsed, including some of the dialogue. (Dan, one of her press guys, whispering in her ear, “You need to be both conservative and liberal”; her daughter, Catherine: “It’s great that we can both be embarrassed by this, but for different reasons.”)* But the lion’s share of the scene is entirely improvised by Louis-Dreyfus. They shoot it over and over, while she does it a little differently—and a little ­better—each time. At one point, she says to one of the people with whom she must shake hands, a woman who greets her with a reference to gangster films, “Isn’t it fun to go to the mooovies?”

When the director yells “cut,” Roche says to Louis-Dreyfus, “That might be the best piece of small talk you have ever come up with. It’s fantastically banal.” After a break, the cast reassembles on set to shoot one last scene—her exit from the room to a cheering crowd—and as she is walking out the door, she throws in another little piece of business, complaining in a loud whisper to one of her staffers, “Jesus Christ, just one freaky dyke after another. I can’t get out of here fast enough.” Iannucci, who is sitting behind his monitor, collapses in on himself in silent laughter.

“Although we put a lot of effort into the script,” he tells me later, “once we get in front of the camera, it’s all about making it feel like it hasn’t been written. That’s where she’s so good. I never had her down as an improviser, but actually her ability to come up with a very straight line and make it really funny, in a very unexpected way, is amazing.” Iannucci has directed and written for so many funny people; I ask him what is it, precisely, that makes her so fun to watch? “She’s able, in one second, to be glamorous and bright and witty and intelligent and, at the same time, be a real shit.”

A little while later, during another break from filming, Louis-Dreyfus comes over to the director’s chairs where Iannucci and the writers are hanging out, flops down, pulls off her heels, and groans loudly. She is exhausted. Everyone is scarfing down delicious pieces of fried chicken that are being passed out by the caterer like Popsicles. Meanwhile, she nibbles like a rabbit on an unappetizing-looking almond bar, reminding you that life can be very different for women—in show business and in politics. She is the only person on set who has to look like a million bucks every day in five-inch heels and tight skirts.

Back at The Four Seasons a couple of weeks earlier, when Louis-Dreyfus found out that I’ve written a handful of political profiles over the past few years, she had asked me a series of questions about what it’s like to be backstage and on the planes and in the offices with the staffers of big Washington characters. She’s always doing research. She was particularly interested in Chelsea Clinton, whom I spent two months trailing in 2011. I mentioned that after the story came out, a Clinton staffer told me that the reason she finally opened up about her life was because she wanted to find out if she was “likable” or not. “That is ­absolutely fucking riveting!” yelled Louis-Dreyfus, holding her head so that it didn’t pop off. “Likable to whom? To you? To ­voters? She’s going to run for office. No doubt. Oh my God, this is so Veep-y.”

2013: Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini in Enough Said.

Now, on the set, she asks me to repeat the story for Iannucci, and when I get to the “likable” part, Louis-Dreyfus says, “We’re using likable in the show.” Iannucci explains that Selina’s daughter will become more of a “political beast,” but she will find out that “she’s not quite ready yet because …”

“There’s a likability issue!” says Louis-Dreyfus. “Heh-heh.”

Partly because she is a star and can get an audience, but also because it’s in her nature to be curious and thorough, it is Louis-Dreyfus who has met with Joe Biden and Al Gore and asked the questions that would help provide her with, as Iannucci puts it, “a take on what being vice-president does to you in terms of the office and how it affects you.” Louis-­Dreyfus’s interest in keeping the show grounded is the reason everyone I know who works for a politician watches it. As one staffer to a senator says to me, “It’s brilliant. Most of D.C. watches it. My boss watches it. It’s way closer to reality than House of Cards.”

Iannucci would agree. “I’ve never seen American politics depicted as a bit tedious, with people just trying to get through the day and hoping they don’t screw up.

“The big comedy moments are not necessarily the most believable moments,” he adds. “The rehearsal process is about keeping it stuck in reality, and she’s very, very keen on all of that. At those points you know you are dealing with someone who for the last twenty years has been at the real sharp end of television comedy. And all the writers and I thrive off of being able to give her material and seeing what she’s going to do with it. Simon Blackwell likened her to a musical instrument, where you just want to try chords out on it. You look forward to playing it because you want to see what sound it makes.”

After lunch in a big mess tent pitched in a cold parking lot (where everyone loads up on ribs and grits and Louis-Dreyfus eats a kale salad), we head to her trailer, parked outside the soundstage. She’s wearing an oversize white fuzzy bathrobe, Uggs, and Selina’s wig, which is the exact color and texture of Louis-Dreyfus’s hair, except cut and styled like Hillary-hair, circa 2008. It is only in this setting that I notice just how tiny she is. No bigger than a minute. She makes herself a cup of tea, and we squeeze into the camper booth that doubles as her desk and kitchen table in this home so far away from home.

Louis-Dreyfus is the child of parents who divorced when she was 3 and shuttled back and forth between New York City and D.C., and she spent time as a kid living in Sri Lanka and Tunisia because her stepfather, a surgeon, worked on a traveling medical ship for Project Hope, so she has a lot of separation anxiety. “Going back and forth between two homes,” she says, “that soul connection was tricky, psychologically and emotionally, for me. And plus, I’ve got a teenager and he’s a great boy, but it’s hard for Brad to be alone as a daddy. But having said that, if Brad wasn’t who he is, I wouldn’t be able to pull this off, because he’s a very hands-on father, and I mean very hands-on. And I’m so grateful for that. And he’s found a way to do this cheerfully.”

Do you feel guilty being away? I ask.

“Yeah, I would say I do have moments of feeling very guilty.” She pauses to think. “Anxious! That’s the word I would use. Because there are certain things I fear I’m going to miss, and that gives me high ­anxiety.” Here, she bursts into a couple of bars of the song from the Mel Brooks movie and then cracks up. “That’s kind of my theme song.”

Louis-Dreyfus does not have to work this hard. Thanks to years of very public squabbling among the principals over Seinfeld money, most people have an exalted view of how much she earned from the show, but it did, in fact, make her independently wealthy. And then there’s her family’s money. The Internet has decided that her father, William Louis-Dreyfus, who works in commodities, is a billionaire. When I bring this up, she says, “He’s a very wealthy man, but he’s not a billionaire. There are no billions. And I’m not crying poverty or anything—and that’s the other problem, because this is a very unsavory subject—but there is a perception out there that I’m, like, a Rothschild or something.” She rolls her eyes. “If only.” A mordant laugh. “I guess.” She laughs harder. “I forget that a lot of people assume that about me, so there’s this other layer of shit that’s just weird. It’s a real bummer, actually.”

Against all odds, it would seem, they are a close-knit broken family. “I wouldn’t say everyone is best friends,” she says, “but everyone does get along. There’s not a lot of acrimony there.” Several members of her clan have come to the set—both sets of parents, her half-sisters, some aunts. “They all seem lovely and charming and there doesn’t seem to be any villain,” says someone who works on the show. “You see where it all comes from.”

I had been wanting to ask Louis-­Dreyfus where one thing in particular comes from: the funny. “There’s a very strong line in my mom’s side of the family of very dark humor,” she says. “My mother’s mother and her sisters were hilarious. And I have a very vivid memory of my great-­grandmother, who lived to the age of 99 or something nuts like that, doing an impression of—and this is very off-color, so I’m just sayin’—her ­kindergarten teacher having, um, a seizure.” She starts laughing and talks right through it. “And how at the time they thought they just needed to lock her up in the basement. It’s a horror story, what I’m telling you, but if you’d seen Great-grandma Betsy—she was ancient, really wrinkled—doing this impression, you would have howled. It was very dark. But funny!”

One of the ways that Enough Said demonstrates what a wonderful actress Louis-Dreyfus is—as opposed to just a sitcom funny lady—is that Eva, her character, is such a sad sack: insecure and unrealized to the point of being a doormat. In other words, nothing like Julia Louis-Dreyfus. And of the many clever details Holofcener lent her characters, the best may be the lonely jobs she invented for them. Eva is a masseuse who drags her giant table from house to house, rubbing backs without connecting with the naked person on the table. Gandolfini’s is even better: He works at a television library, trundling among the stacks in an archive of old sitcoms and variety shows that no one ever comes to watch.

This detail probably wasn’t meant to be a winking reference to Louis-Dreyfus’s ­Seinfeld career, but it reads like one. It reminds you that, unlike movies, which have a shot at becoming classics, sitcoms—even great ones—are always time-stamped, with a mercilessly short shelf life. Is there anything lonelier and more depressing than watching Roseanne late at night when you can’t sleep? Great old films suggest that there is a forever; old sitcoms only serve as reminders that we’re all going to die.

When I met Louis-Dreyfus at The Four Seasons, I explained to her that we were here to look back on the great year she has had. “Oh, I see,” she said with a gimlet-eyed smirk. “So we’re just resting on our laurels, in other words.” Another Louis-Dreyfus gem—the subtle, ironic comeback in the midst of a throwaway moment of small talk—but also perhaps a window into the very particular plight of the wildly successful sitcom star: The money rolls in, while the episodes play over and over. (Including almost every weeknight, at midnight on Channel 11.)

Now, in Baltimore, when I ask her how she sees the Seinfeld experience with more distance, she looks like I just asked her to choose which son is her favorite. “God, I don’t know how to answer that. It’s a toughie.” Long pause. “Obviously it was a gigantic experience.” Another pause. “It’s funny. When we went back to do the reunion show on Curb Your Enthusiasm in 2009—and I see these guys from time to time, but never in that context, never with everybody and the sets all there—and it was sort of like going back in time, except that I went back in time older and wiser. It was such a successful, creative endeavor and so well written and it made us laugh while we were doing it and you take away from that what you’ve learned—it gets under your skin and stays with you.” She pauses once more. “This is going to sound really pompous, but if you’re a musician, I’m guessing you’re probably a better musician when you’re 50 than you were when you were in your twenties. And that’s just because you’ve been playing longer and you might not be able to say why, but you just feel more skilled at it, so I think it’s safe to say that I sort of feel that way.”

Someone peeks a head into the trailer to tell her she’s needed on set. It’s time for her to get back into Selina’s sexy-veep clothes and go back to the grind. I bring up Tony Roche’s compliment earlier in the day about her fantastically banal bit of small talk—Isn’t it fun to go to the ­mooovies?—and we both start laughing. “But there’s room to improvise, and that’s the thing that’s great about this show. It really embraces that kind of fucking … I don’t know. I want to call it grout humor. It’s what’s in between the tiles—that grout.” She laughs. “There’s room to expand and to find new stuff all the time.” She gulps down the rest of her tea. “I don’t know how I worked any other way,” she says, as dead-serious as she has been all day. “Actually, I will never not be able to work this way again.”

*This article originally appeared in the December 16, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

*This article has been corrected to show that Veep’s head writer is Tony Roche, not Tony Roach and that Selina’s daughter’s name is Catherine, not Kathryn.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the Present Tense