Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Queen of Frazzled Single Women, on Taking Her Act to the Big Screen (Video)
The 52-year-old star of the acclaimed indie hit "Enough Said" tells THR, "As much as aging sucks, there's a huge advantage to it and that's called life experience. I don't like having lines on my face, but I really like knowing what I'm doing."
On Thursday morning, unless the sky falls, Julia Louis-Dreyfus will receive the fifth and sixth Golden Globe nominations of her career: one for her portrayal of a miserable vice president on Armando Iannucci's satirical TV series Veep -- one of the most critically acclaimed shows of the 21st century -- and the other for her performance in Nicole Holofcener's romantic-comedy film Enough Said, one of the breakout hits of the fall.
Talk about having a moment.
"I'm very proud of it," the 52-year-old told me when she stopped by The Hollywood Reporter's offices not long ago for an in-depth conversation about her life, career highlights and lowlights and experience making Veep and Enough Said. (You can watch highlights of our conversation at the top of this post.) "It's nice to be this age and have this happen because I know so well that it might have been otherwise, it could be otherwise, it may be otherwise a year from now -- who the hell knows? But it's really nice to enjoy this moment."
Louis-Dreyfus has received plenty of prior recognition for her work on the small screen. Since getting her start as a regular on Saturday Night Live (1982-1985), she has won Emmys for a record three different series -- NBC's Seinfeld (1989-1998), CBS's The New Adventures of Old Christine (2006-2010) and, in each of the last two years, HBO's Veep (2012-); this year, she surpassed her idol Lucille Ball to move into sole possession of the record for most comedy acting Emmy noms for a woman: 14. But never before has she been honored for her work on the big screen, if only because it has been so limited.
That has clearly been everyone's loss, because Louis-Dreyfus is out of this world in Enough Said as a single mother who starts dating Albert, a man who she later learns is the much-maligned ex-husband (James Gandolfini) of her new best friend (Oscar nominee Catherine Keener) -- but she elects not to share with either of them. According to RottenTomatoes.com, 96% of film critics liked the movie, and most of them singled out Louis-Dreyfus' performance as a big reason why. No less a critic than New York Times' A.O. Scott described the film as "a small miracle of a movie" and "one of the best-written American film comedies in recent memory," and said Louis-Dreyfus had created a character "like no other movie character I have ever seen."
With that sort of passionate support, it's no wonder that Louis-Dreyfus is now a part of the conversation about not only the Golden Globes but also the Oscars.
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When did you first express an interest in acting, even just as sort of a fun, silly thing without any ideas for the future?
I always wanted to do it. I remember performing at a very young age, even during naptime in kindergarten. I would get up on my blanket and dance, hoping somebody would watch me. [Laughs.]
The summer between your junior year and senior year at Northwestern, something pretty significant happened. Can you share what that was?
I was doing theater outside of Northwestern while I was there. I worked with Second City and I also worked, very happily, with the Practical Theater Company. I had a show that I was involved with at the Practical Theater Company that was a big hit in Chicago the summer between my junior and senior year. Unbeknownst to us in the cast, the producers of SNL were at the show one night, and when the show ended they came backstage and offered us jobs on SNL. I was like, “Yeah! Where do I sign? I’m going.” And so, I left school, and I went off with my then-boyfriend [now-husband] Brad Hall and our friends to New York.
At the time you arrived at SNL, you were the youngest female cast member in the show's history, and you spent the next three years there. How you would characterize that time?
It was a very difficult time. I went into the show not having any notion of how to be in show business outside of doing theater in Chicago. Even doing theater in Chicago, my experience was quite limited. I just did improv comedy and, of course, shows in school. I was really very green, and I didn’t go in prepared; I didn’t go in with a whole bag full of characters from which I could pluck and perform X, Y and Z. It was not a very female-friendly landscape when I was there, on top of that. There were a lot of drugs and it was a frat environment. I didn’t come out of that experience a star by any means; nobody really knew who I was. But I did come out with a lot of experience, and my priorities got shifted to the right spot -- not that they were in a bad place before, but things became more clear over that period of time.
Right after leaving SNL, but before coming out West, you got to work with Woody Allen...
Oh, yes. I had a very small role in Hannah and Her Sisters -- one or two lines -- and that was a thrill, an absolute thrill to work with Woody. Scary, but thrilling.
What went into your decision to move out to LA?
I’ll tell you what went into the decision to move to LA: it was called unemployment. [Laughs] I was not getting work in New York. I wanted to stay in New York -- I was born there, I grew up there and in Washington, D.C., and I was very much an East Coast girl. I had this groovy cool boyfriend who was from California, but he wasn’t from L.A. He was from Santa Barbara. But I said to Brad, who’s now my husband, “Yeah, I’ll go out to L.A., but if we end up getting married, I’m not having kids there and I’m not spending the rest of my life there.” Anyway, 27 years later, I call Hollywood home. [Laughs.]
I don’t think it was terribly long after getting here that you heard from a former associate from SNL by the name of Larry David...
Yeah, Larry David was there for my third year on SNL, and he never got a sketch on the air, so we were both a little bit miserable together. We kind of bonded in misery, which is always a good, very firm bond. [Laughs] The Seinfeld scripts, which were then called The Seinfeld Chronicles, were sent to me in ’89, I think -- maybe it was ’90, I’m not quite sure. But yeah, I’d been in L.A. for a while, and had done some television and gotten work here, but it was around that time that Seinfeld happened.
There was an audition process because they didn’t even intend to have a female character originally, right?
Yes, that’s right. They made the pilot and then NBC said, “OK, well, we’ll pick it up for four episodes,” a big stamp of approval, “but you need to add a female character.” So, the audition was me just going in to meet Jerry [Seinfeld], because NBC already knew me -- I’d had a series on NBC, a short-lived series, so I was already approved by the network -- and Larry knew me. I met Jerry. He was eating cereal. We got along. We read a scene together -- just us and Tom Cherones, the director -- and then we made a deal over the weekend. As I recall, we started shooting the next week. It was very lickety-split.
Was it immediately clear to you that the show was something special? Because it took audiences a few seasons, right?
Yeah, it took audiences a few seasons to catch on. I mean, I knew that the show was really a cut above. I didn’t know it would be a hit. Of course, I hoped it would be a hit, but I didn’t know that because it was really vastly different from anything that was on television.
As you saw it, what was Elaine’s function on the show?
I think she was the female loser in the bunch. I mean, they were all pretty horrible and mean to one another, these people, and caught up in meaningless conflicts and misadventures. I don’t know how to define her except to say that I’m really glad I got to play her.
Is it fair to say that it was a show about nothing?
Well, it’s a good launching point for so many of the show’s premises from one episode to the next, you know, be it a Pez dispenser, which is a fairly meaningless thing, or a puffy shirt, or a pen, or you know, I mean, the list goes on -- a mango.
When that show came to an end, what was your outlook? Were you saying, “I need a break” or “I feel that I have to do something equally as good?” What was your thought process?
I needed a break. I had two kids during the run of Seinfeld and my youngest was 10 months old when the show ended its run, so I really needed to just be home, and I was for a few years, just sort of getting my bearings again. I mean, we shot Seinfeld in Los Angeles, so it wasn’t like I was away from home all the time, but it was nice to have some real true downtime, and that’s what I did. And then I started working again a few years later.
That was on Watching Ellie?
What did you make of the idea of "the Seinfeld curse?" For a few years, people were saying, “Oh, it’s tough. How are these guys going to follow it?” Obviously, you've completely disproved that, but was there actually a sense of pressure to do something that was going to be in the same league?
Well, there wasn’t pressure as related to Seinfeld for me, but there was pressure just called showbiz pressure, which I feel as I’m speaking to you now. I mean, you’re always challenged to do something successfully, you know? Mediocre is not really acceptable. I think showbiz is its own kind of curse in that sense, you know? You are really asked to hit it out of the park every time. That’s your charge. And you can’t. I mean, who can? Nobody. Even Babe Ruth didn’t.
With The New Adventures of Old Christine, you had another very good part on a very good show that was recognized by the TV academy, critics and all sorts of people. Was that show a major milestone in your view?
Yeah, I think it was. It was a happy experience making it. It was nice to enjoy the success that came with it. I wish it had lasted longer than it did. But, you know what? I’m really proud of the product. And it was nice, also, to have the experience of making that show with the experience of having made shows before. I’d been around the block a few times so I kinda knew what I was doing, and that felt good.
It seems like everything in your personal and professional life really prepared you for your next one, Veep...
Totally. You know, as much as aging sucks, there’s a huge advantage to it, and that’s called life experience. No, I don’t like having lines on my face and stuff, but, on the other hand, I really like knowing what I’m doing. I mean, of course, I’m going to screw up, but I’ve had a lot of opportunities and I can bring all of that to bear moving forward, and that’s fun. It’s nice also not to have to be apologetic about it, too.
So with that show, what was the thing that hooked you? Was it Armando Iannucci’s writing track record? Was it the pilot? What did it?
Two things did it for me: unhappy vice president -- I heard that, an incredible concept -- and Armando Iannucci, whose work I knew and loved, and his voice and his tone. So the combination of those two things was irresistible.
In other interviews, you’ve talked about how he writes beautifully but also encourages and welcomes outside input and improvisation. How much was improvisation of something that you had employed previously? And, is it something that you’re comfortable with doing and enjoy?
I love improvisation. I’m uncomfortable without it. That doesn’t mean that I don’t respect the written word; I totally do, and the written word needs to be there. You know, it’s not like I can just go out and fashion a whole show out of thin air just standing there working things out. But I would imagine that the majority of actors will tell you that the skill of being able to improvise is almost a necessity in performance. Now, some people can do it better than others, but to be able to wiggle around within material and find more layers and more jokes on the way to the joke is a great benefit to everybody. And it’s also a really fun way to play with the other actors. I think it’s very playful and happy, the whole adventure of that.
To prepare to play that character, you really did your homework as far as talking to a wide variety of people...
Yes. I can’t share too much because I did talk to Joe Biden and to Al Gore. I talked to others, too, but those are the two that have said it was OK for me to say. And, you know, I really did ask them very personal questions about the realities of the job, the day to day of the job, and it was very nice of them to be forthcoming about all of that. It is a sort of, shall we say, sticky wicket, that job. It’s complicated. And therein lies the comedy.
And do you adhere to the idea that it is a job that’s not worth a bucket of warm piss, or whatever...
That’s what [Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first vice president] John Nance Garner said. I wouldn’t agree with that comment, but I would say that it is a very powerful and yet powerless office. It really does hinge on the relationship that the vice president has with the president. The realities of that office can change from administration to administration quite radically.
One last question about Veep. Having exclusively done network shows prior to that, you went to cable to do that show. I wonder if you could compare and contrast the experiences? And, in the same way that Veep would not be possible on a network, do you think that your other shows might have been enhanced by being on cable, having that work there?
Well, the other shows that I’ve worked on were written for a network, so there were certain boundaries that were in place, and certain equations that had to be sort of navigated. The delightful thing about being on cable, for starters, is that it’s a very limited run, and that really makes it possible, I think, to be even more thoughtful. It still manages to be quite a lot of work, but it’s not having to do 22, which becomes a bit of a treadmill, particularly once you get to about episode 16; 16 is a lot of shows, and then you’ve got to go all the way to 22, or sometimes even 24. Anybody who’s done that knows the rigors of that challenge. So there’s that sort of practical, obvious point. Now the other thing at HBO, which I think is a marvelous place to work, is that you’re really left to do your job. In other words, they hire writers to write. They hire actors to act. They let you do it. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have an opinion -- their opinions are valuable -- but they do let the artists do their thing, to do what they’ve been hired to do, and they don’t meddle too much. And when they do have an opinion or a comment or a thought, somehow there’s a respect that’s built in. As an actor or producer or writer, you’re interested in what their point of view is because they’ve been treating you very respectfully, and so, therefore, you do the same. It’s a nice marriage. Maybe it’s this way because the business model is such that it can be this way, or maybe they’ve just figured out a way to make really good television, because they’ve been doing it now a long time.
When Enough Said came out earlier this fall, a lot of people, amongst the general public and critics, really loved it, and one question that’s come up a lot was, "Why doesn’t she do more movies? She’s so good at it."
Well, first of all, I’ve been getting work in television and I’m a working mother. So, doing these series that I’ve been doing, when I have my hiatus, as it’s called, which always would fall during the summer, I didn’t want to leave home to do a movie, much to my agent’s chagrin. We’ve had some very pretty intensive conversations about that over certain projects, but I just couldn’t do it. Now my life is sort of opening up a little bit more. And Enough Said was shot in Los Angeles, where I live, so it was a manageable thing for me to do. And it’s not like there are gobs and gobs and gobs of roles for women over the age of 35 in film, so this was an incredible opportunity. And Nicole Holofcener is the most extraordinary writer-director, and she wrote something that is its own thing, its own voice and never really been done before, I think.
How did it first come to your attention?
Really in a boring way. It came through my agents. They sent me the script and I read it and flipped out. Nicole and I met and we hit it off right away. And I had just had the experience of dropping our oldest son off at college, which was a landmark moment in my life, in our family’s life, very dramatic emotionally. And so I had plenty to draw from in terms of the role.
Obviously, the equation also involved another person, who unfortunately is not here to enjoy the success of the movie. How did it come to be that your partner in this movie was James Gandolfini? And, did you guys have any kind of a history together? You certainly had chemistry...
Jim and I met just very briefly a couple of times. I remember that when he was in God of Carnage, I went backstage after seeing the show and met him very briefly to say that I thought he was spectacular, which he was. But we didn’t really know each other. We’d never worked together before. So, when Nicole said to me, “Hey, what do you think of James Gandolfini?” it was like, bing, light bulb, perfect casting. The guy’s a genius. And then we met and we hit it off right away. I mean, he’s just so perfect in this part.
From what I’ve gathered from other articles and interviews, he was not super confident that this was the kind of role for him...
Right. He was very insecure about playing this part. He would make jokes along the lines of, “Listen, if you guys want to talk to Clooney -- see if he’s available for this part over the weekend -- I totally get it.” The idea of playing "the guy who gets the girl," so to speak [he just didn't see himself as that]. But it was just that very sort of self-effacing quality, that sort of insecure thing that made him that much more appealing and, of course, that much more perfect for the character of Albert in the movie.
What was the secret to the chemistry? Was there a lot of rehearsal? There was some improv, right?
Yes, there was improv. There wasn’t tons of rehearsal; we didn’t have the time for it. We rehearsed maybe just two days or so, something like that. I have to say that it just worked. Like certain things in life and, in particular, in the entertainment industry, there are a lot of pieces that are purely fate. We got along really well. We came at the material slightly differently. But, even though we came at it differently, we found a way to connect happily. We talked a lot about it. We had similar styles, in that we were both very intuitive, so we talked about scenes -- it seems silly or weird sounding -- from an intuitive point of view. "Does it seem authentic?" You know, we just talked. The more the characters got to know each other better within the film, the more we got to know each other better as people making the film, which is sort of interesting, actually.
Was it shot in sequence, for the most part?
For the most part -- not completely, but for the most part.
The last scene and the last line of the film are particularly special. Do you have any memory of how that went down?
Well, the last scene was a big deal. It was toward the end of the run of making the movie, and there was some debate as to how to end the movie. Were we going to wrap it up in a nice, tight, pretty bow? Most of us felt we shouldn’t do that, but there was that conversation. "Where do we leave these two people when we leave this film?" And so there was a lot of debate about what the last line is, the nuances of the scene, even the physical touching between the two characters -- "What does it signify?" And so there was an element of improv in that last scene. When Jim and I did it, we had this one take where we both felt as if we really nailed it. It was very fraught emotionally for the characters, and also kinda for us, I guess. We did the scene, we both walked off the set and we hugged so tight. We were both kind of weepy because we both felt like we had nailed it. And it was, in fact, the take that Nicole ended up using. And so it was a very triumphant moment for us as actors. It was exciting.
This is probably a stupid question, but has it been very tough to go around talking about this movie and reflecting on it and reminiscing about it without him?
Yes, it has been tough. To be honest with you, it feels surreal. I kind of don’t even really believe it, that he’s not here. If he came walking through the door, I wouldn’t be surprised. It’s horrible that he’s not here, obviously. And it’s a great loss. But I like to think of this movie as a celebration of him and his abilities. I’m really proud to have been a part of it with him, and I think it’s wonderful for his legacy for people to be able to see this as one of his very last performances. And this character is very close to who he was as a person. As I’ve said before, he really was no Tony Soprano; he was much more Albert, in fact, in real life.
Has it been fun to see how people have responded to the movie?
I can’t get over how people are responding to it. It’s such a thrill that it’s worked out the way it has. It might’ve been otherwise, but here we are. I mean, it’s done this thing called crossover, which means it’s gone from being a little small independent movie into more of a commercial success, and now it’s in a lot of theaters and people are seeming to like it and to go back to see it. I’m delighted. You know, it’s really satisfying when you feel something very intimately and personally and it feels right to you, and then people take from that the same thing. It’s nice to share it. And I’m very proud of it. Again, it’s nice to be this age and have this happen because, like I say, I know so well that it might’ve been otherwise, it could be otherwise and it may be otherwise a year from now. Who the hell knows? But, it’s really nice to enjoy this moment.
And there will be more movies?
Oh yes, I would think so, yes.
This year, you passed one of the people who you said was an inspiration to you, Lucille Ball, to move into sole possession of the Emmy record for most comedy acting nominations: 14. If you stop to think about that, what goes through your mind?
It’s going to sound corny, but gratitude -- and also gratitude that maybe somebody’s miscounted because I’m not sure I believe it. I mean, I’m not going to question it. I’m not going to demand a recount. But I can’t believe it.
You're the expert, so I have to ask: based on your experience in comedy, is comedic ability something that can be learned or is it something that you either have or you don’t?
My take is you either have it or you don’t. Sorry to say. It doesn’t mean it can’t get better. And it doesn’t mean it can’t get worse. You can have it, and then it’s just a question of what you do with it. But, if you don’t have it, forget it. [Laughs.]
And finally, often, people try to identify a screen persona. You know, Jodie Foster’s always the tough authority figure. For Julia Louis-Dreyfus—
—some have suggested that it’s sort of the vulnerable-seeming single woman who gets through her trials and travails with humor. Does that sound crazy? I mean, you’ve said in another interview, “Shame and humiliation are my comic bread and butter.”
Well, you know, it’s funny. I hadn’t, until very recently, put it together that so many of the roles that I’ve played are these single women -- and that may be because I’m not very bright, fundamentally. [Laughs] But I don’t think of it so much as being single as I think about it as being a little bit lost -- not that you need to be with a man to be found, but that’s what I think of as the connective tissue. I also think that somebody who is surefooted and in a good place, be they single or with a partner, is not quite as funny as somebody who’s off balance. So I like living in that area, and that’s what I mean by the "shame and humiliation..." and so on. I like shame and humiliation. I think it has a lot to be said for it. [Laughs.]