As the Lucille Ball of this era takes on a bigger producing role in this season of HBO's 'Veep,' she opens up about the lack of films roles available for women ("I'm not interested in being the eye-rolling wife"), how she pushed to keep 'Veep' going when Armando Iannucci exited and how she found out that Clinton might not be as big a fan as she professed to be.
This story first appeared in the May 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
In early 2013, Julia Louis-Dreyfus received what she considered the ultimate fan note.
"Dear Julia," it began, "Hope you get everything you want as Veep — gun control, immigration and education reform." The letterhead read Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State.
For Louis-Dreyfus, it was more than flattery. Here was confirmation, at the highest level, of just how much her HBO comedy had won the respect of the finicky Beltway crowd.
Then, some two years later, Louis-Dreyfus would learn of a second document — the note behind the note, as it were. This one, dated around the same time and unveiled as part of a batch of exposed Clinton emails, was from the secretary of state to her then-aide, Robert V. Russo.
"A friend wants me to sign something for Julia Lewis-Dreyfus for Veep. Any ideas?" Clinton wrote, her question (and mangling of the star's name) suggesting unfamiliarity with the series. Russo responded: "Let me brainstorm on this one/do some research. I confess I haven't seen the show!"
When I ask the seven-time Emmy winner whether she was piqued that Clinton might not be the loyal viewer she professed to be, Louis-Dreyfus cocks back her head of thick black curls and laughs. "Are you kidding?" she says. "I mean, it's perfect — just perfect." The joke, she understood, was on her, as if ripped from a Veep script. Louis-Dreyfus — whose on-set hairstylist has worked with Clinton and had relayed the actress' admiration to her — keeps both notes framed side by side in her office.
That instinct to embrace the humor of almost any situation helped Louis-Dreyfus, 55, eclipse a similarly fearless performer, Lucille Ball, to become the most nominated comedy actress in television history. She also is the only one to have taken home Emmys for three different series — Seinfeld, The New Adventures of Old Christine and now Veep, for which she has won four consecutive times. One could convincingly argue she has nothing left to prove on the small screen; and yet, when Veep returns for its fifth season April 24, the spotlight will be on her in an entirely new way. For the first time, the show will be without its auteur, Armando Iannucci, who announced last spring that he'd be moving on. Under normal circumstances, that may have marked the end of the show — "When a creator says, 'I think I'm done,' we usually agree," says HBO president of programming Michael Lombardo — but Louis-Dreyfus wasn't ready to relinquish the role of Selina Meyer.
"This is not the kind of thing that's going to come along a lot," she says over an early April lunch on the fifth-story patio of Freds at Barneys in Beverly Hills. She is all too aware that roles like Meyer, a powerful if utterly reprehensible politician who has risen to the highest office, are not being offered in film, where Louis-Dreyfus has never built much of a career. "I'm not interested in being the wisecracking this or that or the eye-rolling wife," she says of the stereotypical roles she famously lampooned in the Inside Amy Schumer sketch "Last F—able Day" (more on that later). "Those roles are out there, and they've come my way, but I'm not doing that. I'm bored shitless by that."
The other reason she pushed to keep Veep going, of course, is that the craziness of the presidential campaign gives the series a fresh and starkly different orientation to reality. "Originally, this show was meant to be a political satire, and now I feel as if it's more a somber documentary," says the actress, a longtime Democrat who intends to get involved in the current election, though when and with whom remains a tightly guarded secret. She takes no pains to hide her outrage as she continues: "Certain candidates say things, and if you were to lift the language and put it into our show, we'd get notes back from HBO saying, 'It's too broad, too over-the-top.' "
The real-world contest and its coterie of larger-than-life characters will not be reflected in any way during the new season, which Louis-Dreyfus insists isn't noticeably different without Iannucci. To ensure as seamless a transition as possible, she personally recruited new showrunner David Mandel, with whom she worked on Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and has stepped up her involvement as an executive producer. Castmates say they often find Louis-Dreyfus on the Los Angeles set on her rare nonshooting days, posted up at video village pitching bits or monitoring for continuity. "Julia's obviously not in the writers room every second, but she might as well be," notes Mandel. "This is very much her show now."
Louis-Dreyfus met with senators, lobbyists and schedulers, but it was time with Al Gore and Joe Biden that proved the most helpful as it confirmed her suspicions about the VP role: “Nobody goes into government or politics wishing to be vice president of the United States,” she says. “Nobody wants to be number two.”
“It’s so outrageous what’s happening right now in the political landscape,” says Louis-Dreyfus, who was photographed Feb. 25 at Root Studios in New York. “I think Selina Meyer would have a shot at winning — she could give Donald Trump a run for his money.”
If you believe the Louis-Dreyfus family lore, she first discovered a passion for performing at age 3, when her decision to stick a wad of raisins up her nose drew big laughs. That the gag also sent the budding comic to the ER is a minor detail. "I don't remember a time when I didn't want to perform," she says between bites of her chopped salad.
Her author mother split from her father, who ran the family's multibillion-dollar conglomerate, when she still was a toddler, and each parent quickly remarried and had more children. When Louis-Dreyfus wasn't in Manhattan, she'd spend time with her mother and stepfather, a doctor, in such far-flung locales as Sri Lanka and Tunisia, where he'd treat the locals. By 8, she'd moved with them to Washington, where, in a prestigious private school with several politicians' children, she gained an early understanding of D.C. life. Louis-Dreyfus would become both the class president and the class clown at Holton-Arms before heading off to Northwestern, where she narrowed her focus to comedy. She landed a coveted role in the university's famed Mee-Ow sketch show during her freshman year and later joined Chicago's Practical Theatre Company with Brad Hall, now her husband.
It was there that she was discovered by a Saturday Night Live producer, who was so impressed by her, Hall and two other members of the troupe that he offered them jobs on the spot. Louis-Dreyfus was not yet a senior in college. "It was mind-blowing," she says, "just f—ing unbelievable." Her comeuppance, however, came quickly. At the first table read, she and her buddies were asked to try out their more popular Practical Theatre sketches. "Here we were coming in as these stupid-ass new kids who had not a clue doing our goofy Chicago sketch comedy in front of a bunch of kiss-off, more experienced, bitter people," she says of the Eddie Murphy-Joe Piscopo era at SNL. "And so we go to that Wednesday table read, and it really did not go over well." How did she know? "There was no noise coming from anybody. It was f—ing bad."
With the perspective of several decades — and three turns as host — Louis-Dreyfus faults her own naivete in part for her failings at SNL. At 21, one of the youngest castmembers in the show's history, she hadn't come with a collection of sketches or ready-made characters and had falsely presumed SNL would offer the kind of collaborative environment that Northwestern had. What she found instead was a show in transition: Its visionary, Lorne Michaels, had departed two years earlier, and successor Dick Ebersol had just fired a handful of castmembers the previous season. "The culture was not friendly — very dog-eat-dog," she says, recalling the many nights that ended with her in tears.
"It was this very chauvinistic situation back then: very few women, lots of sexism, issues of sexual harassment and some really big-time drugs," she continues. "Of course, I was so oblivious. I just thought, 'That's so weird that that guy's sketch is 17 pages long and at the table read he's howling laughing.' " Louis-Dreyfus left in 1985 after three seasons. Though her memories of the period are largely bleak, she did emerge with some name recognition within NBC and a bond with Larry David, a writer who was just as miserable there as she was.
A few forgettable years followed as Louis-Dreyfus struggled to regain her footing. Then came a call in 1989: David and his pal, stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld, were working on an NBC comedy about, well, nothing, and the network felt their three-man ensemble needed a shot of estrogen. Louis-Dreyfus met with Seinfeld, who already had seen several actresses audition to play Elaine Benes, Jerry's ex turned good friend. "I sat with Julia and read a few pages of dialogue, and I could tell immediately that she knew how to play this game," says Seinfeld. "The ball comes to her, it's up, and she's firing it right back to you with the kind of energy I was looking for."
Mandel remembers being struck, even then, with how committed she is. "There is no joke she's unwilling to do," he says, "and the few of us writers who were right around 25 or 26 back then were all just head over heels in love with her."
Seinfeld famously struggled during its early years, but by the series' fifth season it was a full-blown juggernaut, among the highest-rated shows on television and with a regular audience of more than 30 million. Everything from the series' major plot points to the $600,000-per-episode salaries that Louis-Dreyfus and her co-stars Jason Alexander and Michael Richards secured for the show's ninth and final season were splashed across the press. That interest would spill over to their personal lives as well; Louis-Dreyfus recalls with horror the day she and Hall came home from the hospital with their second son (now a basketball player at Northwestern) to find a swarm of paparazzi outside their house.
Ultimately, it was Seinfeld, the series' co-creator, writer and star, who decided after nearly a decade that he'd had enough. "Jerry was understandably exhausted," says Louis-Dreyfus, "but there was this deep sadness because we knew that it was a phenomenon and that it would never come around again as it was and that we were bidding it goodbye." After wrapping with a finale watched by 76 million in May 1998, she took a few years off to spend time with her boys before diving back in. When she did, it was with her husband's creation, Watching Ellie, a comedy in which she starred as a California jazz singer. It lasted just two seasons before NBC pulled the plug.
The "Seinfeld curse" that had afflicted her former co-stars — whose follow-ups had fumbled — suddenly applied to her as well, and the actress, as competitive as she is talented, was driven to dispel it. By 2006, she had signed on to star as a divorced mom on CBS' The New Adventures of Old Christine, and in the comedy's first season she picked up an Emmy. "That was a big deal because everyone kept writing about the 'Seinfeld curse,' " says her longtime TV agent, Michael Rosenfeld of CAA. "And even though we didn't want to give weight to it, probably in the back of our minds we felt like we better prove everybody wrong."
Old Christine ran for five seasons, and each one earned Louis-Dreyfus a nomination for her performance. But if it took that role to prove she could carry a series, it was the one of Selina Meyer that would solidify Louis-Dreyfus as the most celebrated comedic actress of her generation.
Louis-Dreyfus and her college sweetheart (now husband) Hall collaborate often. Up next: HBO miniseries Soldier Girls. He also directed an episode of Veep this season.
On a February afternoon, Veep's White House set on the Paramount lot is dressed up for a congressional ball. Whizzing through the dozens of black-tied extras is Louis-Dreyfus, pulling at her ball gown as she works through the scene at hand. The script calls for Selina to toss her purse onto a passing server's tray, where her body-man (played by Tony Hale) will retrieve it while she busies herself with photo ops. But right now, the timing isn't working for her.
Without warning, Louis-Dreyfus' actor hat comes off and she snaps into director mode. "Now if you can come over quicker," she requests of one extra; then, as the episode's actual director stands off to the side, she works with another: "And if you wouldn't mind waiting just a bit longer to pick up the camera, that would help us, too."
If you don't stick around to see that each time Louis-Dreyfus offers a suggestion, the scene improves, you could walk away intimidated — or worse, turned off. But many who have worked with the actress insist that this level of engagement has long been part and parcel of her process and key to her and her series' success. Lombardo recalls seeing Louis-Dreyfus in the initial casting sessions for Veep and marveling at her dedication. "From the beginning," he says, "she's been as integral in shaping that character and the development of the show as the writing staff."
That hands-on quality impresses co-star Timothy Simons, a virtual nobody when he signed on to play weaselly White House liaison Jonah Ryan. "She knows more about comedy [than almost anyone], and I love that she's not willing to be like, 'Well, I'm just going to do my thing over here,' " he says. "She doesn't just want her moments to work, she wants all of it to work. And if a scene isn't ringing true to her, she'll keep suggesting things, she'll keep asking questions, she'll keep trying to make it better, and the scene is always better for it."
With Veep co-stars Matt Walsh (center) and Hale in season five.
Those closest to Louis-Dreyfus insist she doesn't take herself nearly as seriously as she does her work, however. She's beloved by her Veep castmates for her generous spirit and filthy mouth. Simons recounts the years spent on location in Baltimore playing cards together. (The show relocated to L.A. for season five thanks to a generous tax break.) "We'd play Shanghai, and Julia would get murderously competitive," he says. "She was nice to everybody in teaching them the rules, but as soon as we all knew them, she'd be like, 'All right, f— this.' And if you won, she'd try to put on a brave face and say, 'Good game,' but you knew she wouldn't mean it."
On the set of the 2013 dramedy Enough Said, writer-director Nicole Holofcener says it was Louis-Dreyfus who not only kept the mood light, but also regularly had her in stitches. "Julia knows how to have a good time," she says, recalling the kind of sophomoric fun that the two would have with a noise machine Holofcener kept on set. "There we were [hysterical over] these enormous belch sounds and a couple of good fart noises, which I'm sure drove the crew absolutely nuts."
Holofcener has tried to enlist Louis-Dreyfus for a handful of other projects in the years since, but the only yes she's received was for that Inside Amy Schumer sketch she directed. As part of the setup, Schumer stumbles upon Louis-Dreyfus, Tina Fey and Patricia Arquette, who have gathered in a field to toast Louis-Dreyfus' "last f—able day." As she explains to Schumer, "In every actress' life, the media decides when you finally reach the point when you're not believably f—able anymore." Fey adds that while nobody overtly tells an actress when that day arrives, there are signs: "You know how Sally Field was Tom Hanks' love interest in Punchline, and then like 20 minutes later she was his mom in Forrest Gump?"
But halfway through the day of filming, Louis-Dreyfus admits she found herself in a complete panic. "I started to feel unbelievably paranoid that I was making fun of myself and wondering, was this really happening to me? Like, 'How meta is this moment in my life?' " she says. "I started to have a kind of soul-searching crisis in the middle of the day. And I didn't know the women well enough to bring it up, so I was just trying to be a good sport even though I was dying a little bit on the inside." When the sketch debuted in April 2015, it quickly racked up several million YouTube views and spawned a series of think pieces about Hollywood's double standards.
At this stage of her career, Louis-Dreyfus doesn't shy away from addressing those inequities directly. When I ask her to expand upon a recent comment she made about the challenges she's had in securing producer credits on Old Christine and Veep, she says, "I don't want to disparage people whom I've worked with, but let's just say I had to work really hard to get those credits, and they did not come easily." I ask whether she thinks it would've been different if she were a man. "I know it would have," she replies. "There's no question."
“I kept thinking, like, ‘How meta is this moment in my life right now?’ ” Louis-Dreyfus says of shooting “Last F—able Day.”
She will have a producer credit on the forthcoming adaptation of the award-winning Swedish film Force Majeure, for which she's reteaming with former Veep writer Jesse Armstrong, just as she will on the HBO miniseries Soldier Girls, which she's developing with her husband and longtime producing partner. Based on Helen Thorpe's book Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War, it tells the true story of a bond forged between women who enlist in the National Guard and serve during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. She hasn't ruled out starring in it as well.
If she can secure the time and the right material, Louis-Dreyfus says she's eager to find more stories with strong women at the center. "I'm trying to change things," she tells me as the check arrives. "I mean, I'm playing a powerful woman who's middle-aged," she pauses, a smile washing over her face. "And who, at least I think, is still pretty f—able."