'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Julia Louis-Dreyfus ('Veep')

Arguably the greatest comedy actress in TV history reflects on how a bad experience at 'SNL' led to 'Seinfeld,' how she stared down "the 'Seinfeld' curse" and why she loves playing bumbling politician Selina Meyer on the hit HBO show that won the last two Emmys for best comedy series.
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Julia Louis-Dreyfus

"The parallels between Washington, D.C., inside the beltway, and Hollywood, are very, very wide, thick, deep parallels," says Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who has won five consecutive best actress in a comedy series Emmys — a record — for her portrayal of a D.C. politician on HBO's Veep. The show, on which she also is a producer, has itself has won the last two best comedy series Emmys. As we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of THR's 'Awards Chatter' podcast, Louis-Dreyfus — who, like Veep, is nominated again this year and, thanks to previous wins for NBC's Seinfeld and CBS's The New Adventures of Old Christine, would tie Cloris Leachman's all-time record for most acting nods if she wins — elaborates: "The notion that you have to keep yourself relevant and fresh and in people's faces in order to stay alive career-wise? Well, that notion really applies in both worlds. And, by the way, you're selling a brand of yourself in both scenarios." She adds, "And then, of course, being a woman? Well, please. As a woman in show business or in politics, it's brutal out there. I mean, I'm stating the obvious, but it's a different playing field."

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Louis-Dreyfus, who is 56, was born in Manhattan, but largely raised in D.C. She was something of a class clown, dabbling in what she later realized was improvisation well before she ever matriculated at Northwestern University with the goal of leaving it an actress. While an undergrad, she landed parts in competitive school productions and also began working with several outside groups, from the fabled improv troupe Second City to The Practical Theatre Company, which was co-founded by Brad Hall, who became her boyfriend and later her husband. "Unbeknownst to us," she recalls, "one night the producers of Saturday Night Live were in the audience [for a performance of a Practical Theatre Company production during her junior year], and after the show they came backstage and offered us all jobs." She explains, "This was like one of those moments in a movie," adding, of the opportunity to leave school and head to New York, "It was like a dream come true."

When Louis-Dreyfus arrived at SNL in 1982, she was the youngest female castmember in its history up to that point — and, she says of her three seasons with the show, "It was a disaster from start to finish." Her ideas were discounted and she rarely appeared on the air; her appearance was picked over by producers in what was generally a misogynistic culture; and many around her constantly were high on hard drugs. "It was crushing," she recalls. During her third and final year with the show, she overlapped with an eccentric young writer named Larry David, with whom she often commiserated because his work also wasn't being used. After her third year, neither she nor David were asked back to the show. "I came out of that pretty bruised," she admits, noting that she landed small parts in a few other projects in New York, including Woody Allen's 1986 film Hannah and Her Sisters, but ultimately relocated to Los Angeles for pilot season, since there was a greater potential of landing work.

Oddly, Louis-Dreyfus attracted far greater interest from NBC out west than she had back east. She was cast in a pilot for a Family Ties spinoff show that wasn't ultimately picked up by The Peacock Network, but shortly thereafter was cast by it in a supporting part on another series that was and which ran for two years. Then she received a call from her old SNL pal David who, with Jerry Seinfeld, had created a show for NBC called The Seinfeld Chronicles, but had been told by suits that its pilot only would be picked up if a prominent female character was added in subsequent episodes. Consequently, Louis-Dreyfus was hired to play Seinfeld’s ex-girlfriend and best friend, Elaine Benes, on a show that soon was renamed Seinfeld, and eventually became a hit. The show was groundbreaking in its lack of emphasis on making its characters "likable," and Louis-Dreyfus' Elaine was unprecedented in that she was just one of the guys, with her own ambitions and sexual appetite and self-centered outlook on life. Over the next nine years, Louis-Dreyfus says, she loved playing "a girl who was unapologetically in your face" and had "balls."

Almost as soon as Seinfeld came to an end in 1998, with the third most-watched series finale in TV history (76.3 million tuned in), people began speculating about — and, many cases, doubting — the future of those who had made it. "I did have a feeling, 'I have to show people I can do things beyond this,'" Louis-Dreyfus acknowledges. "I didn't want to keep playing this character for the rest of my life. And I knew, in my heart of hearts, that I was capable of [more]." Her next two projects were highly-regarded but short-lived sitcoms, NBC’s Watching Ellie, which aired from 2002-2003 ("It was sort of ahead of its time — no laugh-track, single-camera, in real-time"), and the The New Adventures of Old Christine, which ran from 2006-2010 ("It was definitely a departure for me, but at the same time it was also a very standard sitcom"). Even though Christine had brought her a second Emmy, it had not been a "hit," so many continued to bandy about the notion that she, like her fellow Seinfeld alums, had fallen victim to a "Seinfeld curse."

And then came Veep. Louis-Dreyfus, who had grown disillusioned with broadcast TV, was excited when she heard about an idea that had been sold to HBO by Armando Iannucci, a writer with a bent for political comedy, for a show "satirizing the culture of politics" that centered on an ambitious, bumbling, foul-mouthed female vice president fixated on the Oval Office "who will not own up to her own failings and blames everybody around her," as the actress describes Selina Meyer. "To me, that's hilarious." On the show, which blends brilliant writing with first-rate improv ("a very terrifying process"), Louis-Dreyfus says she draws upon both the sense of authority and insecurity she feels as an actress who has been successful in Hollywood for more than three decades now. Perhaps because of what she learned on Seinfeld — a former writer of which, David Mandel, replaced Iannucci as Veep's showrunner in 2015 — she never worries about Meyer's "likability," or lack thereof, but instead relishes her constantly getting knocked down and then bouncing back up. "Failure is absolutely our friend," she says. "It always has been my friend, comedically."

Some wondered if Veep could retain its potency after Nov. 8, 2016, when America elected as its president a man at least as inept as Meyer. Louis-Dreyfus was on set as the election returns came in and recalls the feeling as "surreal," noting, "On that very day, I had a line to deliver which was, 'Jesus Christ, democracy — what a horror show' or 'what a fucking horror show' — I can't remember which — and I've never said anything more honestly in my life." She adds, "I will admit to you that after this election came down, I did sort of question, 'What are we [who make Veep] doing and how can we be funny anymore?' I did have a real crisis of confidence about stuff." But, she says, real-life moments like the Australian prime minister trotting out a vacuous campaign slogan almost exactly like one used on Veep ("Continuity and Change" instead of "Continuity with Change"), and Donald Trump leaving an executive order signing ceremony without having signed the executive order (a Veep fan added the show's end-credits music over footage of this), boost her confidence. "I think we're doing the right thing. I think we've tapped into something that people are intrigued to laugh about — this behavior. It's just about human behavior."

The record 18-time Emmy nominee, who already has won a SAG Award and been nominated for Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice awards this season, can't quite believe that she may leave the 69th Emmys ceremony on Sept. 17 with as many acting wins to her name as any male or female performer in TV history, not to mention a third straight prize for best comedy series. "I don't know how to process that," she says, emphasizing that accolades mean a lot to her, but the work means more. (That being said, she cracks, "If we get the trophy, that would be fucking awesome and I would gladly take it.") How does one follow such a remarkable run? "I haven't thought about life beyond Veep," she insists, although she knows that what she does next won't resemble the show. "I want to try something really different," she emphasizes, acknowledging that she "would really very much like to try drama," something she did back in her Northwestern days and again in the hit 2013 film Enough Said. She won't rule out another Seinfeld reunion (one took place on Curb Your Enthusiasm in 2009), saying, "I don't discount another outside-the-box idea, but I don't know what that would be." But, as for pursuing political office in real-life, she is much more definitive: "I think I could run, and I think I might even win, but I have no interest in running."

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