Long before a foul-mouthed Twitter-insult specialist actually became president, Julia Louis-Dreyfus began playing one on TV. Now, as the Emmy magnet begins its lame-duck season, 18 key talents open up about behind-the-scenes chaos, that shocking showrunner handoff and the devastating diagnosis that prompted a wholly new ending.
It's approaching dusk on a December evening, and the entire cast of Veep, along with nearly 200 crewmembers, executives, spouses and children, is huddled around a bank of monitors on the Paramount lot in Hollywood to watch Julia Louis-Dreyfus perform her final scene as vulgar, self-obsessed politician Selina Meyer.
Soon, showrunner David Mandel, 49, will carry out the unenviable task of calling wrap on the six-time Emmy-winning star and with her the HBO comedy that supplied one of the savviest satirical portrayals of D.C. culture. But before he does, a cadre of producers is trying to shield Louis-Dreyfus, 58, from the hurricane of emotion that's swept over video village. A portable playback monitor is rushed over so she can avoid any unnecessary distractions as she lands the beloved series.
Speeches, tears and far too much alcohol follow, as those gathered reflect on a series spawned nearly a decade earlier when British writer Armando Iannucci‚ then known for biting U.K. political comedies The Thick of It and In the Loop, decided it was time to tackle the absurdity of U.S. government. He'd been reading Robert Caro's Lyndon Johnson biography and was struck by both the comedy and tragedy of a politician, once powerful in the Senate, becoming vice president only to — as he puts it — "be sitting alone in a room, literally drumming his fingers, thinking, 'Has the president called?' "
Both Annette Bening's and Sigourney Weaver's names were floated early, but Seinfeld's Louis-Dreyfus was the only actress seriously considered. From there, Iannucci, with the help of famed casting director Allison Jones, populated Meyer's White House with a band of mostly ineffective, foulmouthed misfits, from a sycophantic bagman (played by Tony Hale) to a dim-witted press secretary (Matt Walsh). Washington immediately took notice, with bigwigs from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to the late Sen. John McCain offering input. Hollywood embraced the series, too, showering Veep with 17 Emmys, including three best comedy wins.
Now, with the series beginning its final season March 31, the cast, producers and execs reflect on behind-the-scenes chaos ("It was like a black hole of information"), Iannucci's shocking exit ("I think he might have had a nervous breakdown") and Louis-Dreyfus' devastating cancer diagnosis, which prompted a delay and a new ending.
CHAPTER 1: "It was a dreadful pilot, but it got me a meeting with HBO."
ARMANDO IANNUCCI, CREATOR The BBC had shopped The Thick of It to various U.S. networks, and ABC made a pilot. I remember being asked to one meeting to discuss the color of the suits and ties they'd be wearing. It was very much, "Thank you, we'll take your idea and now could you just fuck off?" It was a dreadful pilot, but it got me a meeting with HBO.
FRANK RICH, PRODUCER I started as a creative consultant at HBO in 2008. Early on Richard [Plepler, then-CEO] said to me, "I'd love for you to help us find a smart show about Washington."
CASEY BLOYS, HBO PROGRAMMING PRESIDENT So, we made a deal for a blind script with Armando.
IANNUCCI It was going to be someone in Congress or a senator. At one point, it was a governor's mansion.
BLOYS Then one day Armando called: "I've changed my mind, I think I'd like to set it in the office of the vice president, and she'll be the first female vice president."
IANNUCCI Partly so people wouldn't think, "Is it meant to be Cheney? Gore?" And I thought we were one election away from a female president. If only! Of course, once we started making it, people said, "Is it Sarah Palin?"
BLOYS Julia was the first person we cast. I mentioned her to Armando, "What do you think about Julia?" And he said, "Oh, that's interesting …" I didn't know if he liked the idea.
JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS, SELINA MEYER My agent, Mike Rosenfeld, said HBO was developing a show about a female, unhappy vice president. I said, "I want that." I liked the word "unhappy."
IANNUCCI Julia agreed to meet at the Four Seasons. We were scheduled for a half-hour and we met for three. I don't know how she felt, but I left thinking, "Well, she's Selina."
LOUIS-DREYFUS I walked away thinking, "Jesus, I hope I get this."
IANNUCCI She was telling me about her own experience of being on a very public stage — how every time she enters a room she knows people are looking at her and therefore she has to smile, which was very much Selina. I think she hadn't yet found the format to vent that frustration.
BLOYS We all agreed we didn't want to make Selina a buffoon. It was more about the lust for power.
IANNUCCI But Julia's perfectly prepared to look like an idiot. I remember the second episode, where there's a stomach bug, we sent the first draft around and she rang me up and said, "What if I just shit myself at the end?"
ANNA CHLUMSKY, AMY Amy's character name was originally Anna, and I've since corroborated that she was inspired by me. But I'd done so many pilots that I was expecting to jump through a hundred hoops. I'd been through the process where everybody said I was the only one testing, only to get the call that it wasn't me because, well, actually because of Les Moonves. Anyway …
REID SCOTT, DAN I walk into this tiny little casting office and there was some chemistry stuff. Then Armando says, "OK, enough of this." He's just a mad scientist throwing out the script. "Just talk. What brought you to the Hill?"
AMY GRAVITT, HBO COMEDY HEAD It was like watching a theater performance. Armando started interviewing the other actors in character as though they were auditioning for whatever position in Selina's office.
SCOTT My mind went completely blank, but members of my family have been in politics, so I knew these people. I just channeled all the worst shit these assholes say.
TONY HALE, GARY I was attached to another show when I got the script. A bunch of things needed to happen to get me out of it. Thankfully it worked out, but there was a week of massive anxiety, which I parlayed into my character.
TIMOTHY SIMONS, JONAH I'd never tested for anything. So I went back to work as a camera runner even after I got the part. I didn't know if this thing was going to go.
BLOYS I remember having a conversation with Tim where he was like, "Do you think it would be OK if I quit my job?"
SIMONS He was like, "Yeah, I think you're good here."
SCOTT Then came the cherry on the sundae: "We're going to shoot in Baltimore."
CHAPTER 2: "I got 'Veep'd.' "
HALE We had those four years in Baltimore where we were all away from our families and we got really close.
SCOTT We had to band together because Baltimore sucks.
SARAH SUTHERLAND, CATHERINE I can tell who's walking in a room from their footfall at this point.
MATT WALSH, MIKE The first season I had a bachelor pad in the Johns Hopkins area. I hosted the first crab crack; we bought a bushel of crabs and just trashed the place. There were crab claws still in my floor two months later …
SUFE BRADSHAW, SUE It was really like being in college.
SCOTT You're forced to jell, which was really important with this material because the insults are so scathing and personal. You're told to tell someone they look like melted Play-Doh on a flagpole. In the beginning, we'd be like, "I'm sorry, I don't really mean that." Tim bore the brunt of it.
SIMONS The ones that hurt the worst are the simplest. Like, "He's just the wrong shape." In season two, Reid came in hot with "Hepatitis J." I broke immediately. At some point, he called Tony "Fuckin' Cow Eyes," too. I don't think that was in the script. Reid was a little more sociopathic about his ability to come up with them.
SCOTT The schedule got more and more frenetic every season. Longer rehearsal periods, more time between shooting. We'd stop in the middle of the week and they'd rewrite the whole thing. You'd tell your wife or your husband, "I will definitely be home this weekend." And then, like, "Sorry, I got 'Veep'd.' "
WALSH There were never exact times. Like, "When's rehearsal?" "Maybe 10, maybe noon. The pages aren't ready; we'll let you know." It was like a black hole of information. There were times where we'd go in for a table read and they'd be like, "Nope, two-week break. We're getting you flights, you can go home."
SAM RICHARDSON, RICHARD In the third season, I was "Veep'd" a lot. I'd go out to Baltimore for a week and not work and then go back home.
WALSH Every year, we’d come back they'd say, "We're going to give you guys accurate call sheets." It would start good for maybe, like, one episode and then the wheels would just fall off.
IANNUCCI In D.C., the cloth we pull away reveals that a lot of these people are making it up as they go along. So there's something appropriate about the fact that our poor cast genuinely has fear in their eyes as they're shooting. If you want a dozen people looking like they're almost having a nervous breakdown, push them to the point of having a nervous breakdown.
CHAPTER 3: "He might be my boss, but he's a fucking idiot."
SCOTT Because of HBO — specifically, Frank Rich's connections and Richard Plepler's connections — the access that we had on the Hill was amazing.
IANNUCCI I remember Julia and I had a conference call with Al Gore, who told us about finding out that there was a screening of some new film in the White House screening room and then realizing he wasn't on the list of people invited.
LOUIS-DREYFUS I met with Gore, Barbara Boxer's chief of staff, Joe Lieberman's people. We met with lobbyists, attorneys, agents for politicians, pundits. Senators Amy Klobuchar and John McCain. Mitt Romney was super helpful — he was very forthcoming about mistakes he might've made in the process. And, of course, I've spent a lot of time with Joe Biden.
SCOTT At first, everyone was very professional. "This is the Senate floor, this is the cloakroom." Then you'd break for lunch, and the real shit happened. They were like, "You don't really want to know what it's like here." Everyone was dishing out [their business] cards.
IANNUCCI We were shown around the West Wing by Reggie Love, who was Obama's Gary at one point, and he kept referencing The West Wing, saying, "This would be where C.J. and Josh would sit down. I'm thinking, "But you're real. Why don't you say, 'This is where President Obama would sit down with Angela Merkel?' "
WALSH People loved our show. It was more accurate than anything they'd seen.
LOUIS-DREYFUS Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan told me that she and Antonin Scalia used to get together every week and they would discuss Veep.
WALSH The people we portrayed, the underlings, they felt like, "Oh thank you, people [didn't] get it — these are assholes we work for — and now they do."
KEVIN DUNN, BEN I had a guy come up to me at a lunch, he wasn't 40 years old and he looked like shit. He shook my hand and said, “Hi, I'm a Ben.” I said, “Oh, a manic-depressive alcoholic?” And he just went, (shrugs).
SCOTT I was pretty blown away by how readily they spilled their guts. They only needed two drinks and they told us fucking everything. We were at this dive bar and these very young staffers all came in. We were asking things like, "What's your day-to-day?" By the end, someone who worked for Joe Lieberman was like, "He might be my boss, but he's a fucking idiot."
HALE They said, "Scripts get what's called 'pencil fucked.'" Cut to the pilot, and there's a whole thing about "pencil fucking." All these little things we'd hear got into the scripts.
IANNUCCI We started getting requests from politicians to appear. I remember thinking, "But it's not that kind of show." The governor of Maryland [Martin O'Malley] was trying to get on and I kept thinking of more and more ways to postpone [rather than say no] because we were getting a big tax credit [to shoot in the state].
SIMONS We got absolutely shit-assed at the second season wrap party, and O'Malley had been playing in a band down the street and he showed up lit. I have a great picture of the governor and me that I don't remember taking. He likely doesn't either.
SCOTT We went to the White House Correspondents' Dinner one year, and Rolling Stone had done an article where they named the "real-life" [people we portrayed], which is not actually flattering. The guy who got named the real Dan met Tim at the dinner. Tim's like, "Oh my God, you should come meet Reid," and he said, "Why doesn't he come over and meet me?"
SIMONS That same fuckin' guy was like, "I heard your show is good, but honestly you guys are going to be off the map because Madam Secretary is coming out this year and nobody's going to give a shit about you."
CHAPTER 4: "I think he might have had a nervous breakdown."
IANNUCCI As we came to the end of season three, I [started to feel like] I'd said everything I wanted to say about the American political system. And there was a horrible virus going around, and I was the most ill I'd ever been. They just shoved me on a plane and flew me home [to England]. It was at that point that I thought season four should be the last one for me.
RICH He had children and a wife at home in London, and it was very difficult for him to be away. To me, a real turning point was when his daughter was giving a performance in her school assembly. The schedule had all been arranged for him to get back there and see it — and then the plane is delayed and he misses it.
IANNUCCI Julia took it very well. I think she could see that I was getting a bit homesick and brain-dead — I was turning into a zombie. I remember telling HBO, "I'd like to finish Veep," and Mike Lombardo, who was head of programming there, just goes, "Ugh …"
LOUIS-DREYFUS My first thought was, "Oh my God, what am I going to do without this guy?" And then my second thought was, "Oh my God, I've got to keep doing this." I understood he'd had it and needed to get back home. I was also very tired — but I didn't feel done.
SIMONS I didn't know he was leaving until I got the [cast-wide] email from him.
WALSH I think he might have had a nervous breakdown, as they say in the old days.
SCOTT Honestly, I was worried for him.
WALSH Julia was [the only one] who knew everything, but she was like, "I can't let the kids know that this is a fucking house ready to fall." She was sheltering us.
IANNUCCI The final episode I did was when the Electoral College ends in a tie because I wanted to stress the logjam, the fact that nothing gets done, that both sides are kind of canceling each other out. Metaphorically, that was what I wanted to say as my parting shot.
RICH All the agencies submitted lists of potential showrunners [to replace Armando], but I remember Casey calling me, saying, "There's only one person who can do it. And if he can't, we'll end it honorably." That was Dave.
DAVID MANDEL, SHOWRUNNER I get the call one day from my agent, Richard Weitz, that Armando was leaving and would I be interested? I'd been very much in the HBO family [working on Curb Your Enthusiasm] and I was a huge fan of the show.
RICH Casey's thinking was that the show closest in sensibility to Veep was Curb in that it's fast, very verbal, very cynical and, of course, very funny.
BLOYS Armando ended [season four] with Selina being president and handed it to Dave a bit as a puzzle. I remember having people question me about making her president. Like, "Are you going to lose what's good about the show?" And, "Do we have to change the name?"
MANDEL I went to London to meet with Armando. I just thought it was important. It definitely felt like so much of his show as opposed to a show. I told him about the broad strokes [I'd planned]. And he said something like, "That's what I would've done." It's all I wanted to hear.
IANNUCCI He asked, "Do you want to stay on as a producer?" And I said, "No, treat me as if I'm dead." Because if I was involved, I'd then end up getting completely involved again.
LOUIS-DREYFUS This showrunner thing is a tricky business. It's kind of like getting married.
HALE I didn't know Dave. Armando's process was so specific that I was just thinking, "Oh God, how's this going to work?"
CHLUMSKY Frank Rich was like, "Dave Mandel is coming to New York, let's all have lunch." I was keeping it together, but deep down, it felt like your parents got divorced and you hung out with Dad more because you knew him longer but you still have to stay in Mom's house and now she's got this new boyfriend. I'm sure I had resting bitch face.
CHAPTER 5: "Is this the show we're making?"
MORGAN SACKETT, PRODUCER I met Julia on Seinfeld, so after season four, she called and said, "The show is moving to L.A., would you produce it for us?" Then, about two weeks before we started shooting, I went to the Emmys and Veep won [best comedy for the first time]. When we walked out, somebody at HBO, whom I won't name but I probably should, is like, "Well, don't fuck it up!"
MANDEL I was watching it at home and I definitely went, "Ohhh fuck." But by the morning, I'd actually convinced myself that no matter how I drove this car off the cliff, they got their Emmy. [Then] we did our first table read and it went terribly.
GARY COLE, KENT Everybody had that face, which was like, "Is this the show we were doing? This is not really recognizable to me."
SCOTT And when you don't see eye-to-eye with the new regime, you panic. Julia and I were outside [after], and she's like, "Don't worry. I'm on it."
LOUIS-DREYFUS I was frightened, but I felt I had this huge responsibility to everyone, so I couldn't show my fear. But after that table read, I had a very uncomfortable conversation [with Mandel] in which I was saying to him, "This didn't work." Those are not happy conversations, but that tension has fueled this fucking show for eight years.
MANDEL We'd brought back Chris Addison, who had been one of Armando's key guys, as a director. He led the cast in improvising our scenes, but it became very free-form because nobody liked the script. I'm being forced to sit there, losing my mind. It felt like humor prison.
RICH There were moments of, like, "Oh God, have we made the wrong decision?" But the ship was very quickly righted.
MANDEL It was a simple fix. The difference was just the realization that this wasn't a Seinfeld or Curb, where people are sitting in a coffee shop only so that they can then get up and get involved in the story. Veep is the exact opposite. So much of the show is about other things happening.
SCOTT After [the writers] got over that hump, you could see the collective sigh of relief. Season six was when you really saw the new regime's voices come into their own.
DUNN Their take on politics was different than the British group. It was more manic and meaner.
GRAVITT This is a bizarre thing to say about Selina Meyer, but Dave has brought out more of her humanity. You get a sense of who her mother was and what happened in her marriage and that helps you get underneath the character and why she might behave the way she does.
MANDEL The show was the same but different, and that was important to me. Then the reviews come out. At that moment, I realized how many critics assumed I'd fail because some of those reviews were more effusive than they should be. Expectations were so low.
CHAPTER 6: "It's been this weird crystal ball."
MANDEL We were shooting on election night  — we're in the middle of our Georgia episode where Selina is supposed to be watchdogging an election. We don't even have TVs, so we're refreshing our phones [for returns].
SACKETT Selina's first line once we got set up — and by this time, it looked pretty clear Trump was going to win — was something like, "Democracy is a piece of shit."
MANDEL It was beyond horrific. And there was a real sense of, like, "What is this show anymore?"
SCOTT I was still just in a stupor over, like, "What the fuck happened?" But now you're left with the reality that this entity that we've all been discussing as material is now going to be very much part of all of our lives. To its credit, Veep has never been a ripped-from-the-headlines show. If anything, it's been this weird crystal ball. We'd do something absolutely bonkers, and then two months later, it happens.
BRADSHAW I wasn't able to participate in season six because I'd gotten ill. I developed a glucose issue related to my pancreas … and had to go to the hospital. But Sue's such a rogue character anyway, I think it was easier for the writers to just write her not in the office.
SIMONS We usually [have a storyline] and then it happens before we air and then everybody thinks we stole it. And we're like, "Jesus, no."
MANDEL There were things we had to change because all of a sudden somebody is president who talks as coarse as some of our characters. Oh, and we had to change a golden shower joke because of the pee tape accusations.
IANNUCCI I'm relieved that I'm not involved anymore because I have no idea how you would pitch it. But I still watch. Genuinely not knowing what anyone is going to say next, I actually laugh spontaneously.
CHAPTER 7: "Julia Louis-Dreyfus doesn't get cancer."
BLOYS The cast deals were coming up, so there was a natural conversation about how much longer the show goes. Nobody involved wanted to do it just to do it.
WALSH I was at the UCB [Upright Citizens Brigade] Theatre when I got a call from Julia, saying, "I think we're going to end it [after this next season]. It just feels like we're hitting a wall, and it's always better to go out on top."
CHLUMSKY I was driving when Julia called to tell me. I totally got it, all good things come to an end. Then I pulled over and just wailed.
RICH One thing that people don't seem to understand is that there's no correlation between the [decision to] end the show and Julia's illness. This decision was made before she was diagnosed.
SACKETT The Emmys were on a Sunday night, and Julia found out [she had cancer that] Monday. I've known her for a long time, so when she called and said, "Listen, I've got some news, I went to the doctor …" I made a joke: "Are you pregnant?" She said, "No, I have cancer." I felt really bad about my joke.
MANDEL I got a call from Morgan saying that Julia wants to talk to me. When she said, "I've got some bad news," the only place my head went was that we were losing an editor or our DP had taken another gig. Julia Louis-Dreyfus doesn't get cancer.
SIMONS For some reason Julia's email is in my phone as Julia's assistant. I was at a lunch and I stepped away because my phone had been buzzing and it was the first email I saw. I was like, "Oh my God, Julia's assistant has cancer." It wasn't until I got to the bottom of the email that I saw, "Love, Julia."
MANDEL At first, Julia had these crazy ideas, like, "I'm going to have chemo on Thursdays and so I'll just shoot Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday." I remember talking to Morgan and Frank and we all [agreed], "Just let her figure that out herself."
LOUIS-DREYFUS I was in a state of denial about what I was about to embark on.
BLOYS There'd been some talk that maybe we'd start back [in production] by February, but as she got into chemo, it was clear we weren't [doing that]. We were going to spend what we're going to spend, do what we need to do. Some of it's insurance, not all of it. But what are you going to do?
DUNN We had a few table reads while she was doing chemo.
MANDEL It was awful for her. The day before [each] chemo cycle, as she got her strength back, such as it was, we'd do another table read. I'll be the first to admit, I hated every second of it.
LOUIS-DREYFUS Particularly toward the end, I was tired and not well. And, frankly, I was losing a lot of weight. I remember feeling self-conscious.
GRAVITT I do think it was an important part of Julia's recovery to know that the show was on the other end of things.
LOUIS-DREYFUS It was vital. [The show] was a very buoying reminder of this wondrous thing called life that was waiting on the other side of this cancer romp.
RICH We'd spent the summer of 2017 in the writers room plotting season seven. It had a hilarious ending that Casey and Amy Gravitt signed off on. We all loved it.
MANDEL But as we got to Christmas, and it was clear [we weren't coming back as quickly as we thought], we decided to shut down the room. After that, I started rethinking things.
RICH Then in May [of 2018], with Julia on the eve of her last surgery, things were looking hopeful that we'd start shooting in the fall, so I went to L.A. to see her and spend time with Dave. He said Trump was weighing on him.
MANDEL By then, we were living in this almost new version of Trump where he seemed more emboldened and freewheeling. And it really did make me think, "What is Veep about now?" Because in the old version she insulted somebody in a tweet and that was a giant crisis and then she had to blame the Chinese. That doesn't work, Trump does that six times a day. I really used that time to think about how we could reflect Trump without doing Trump.
RICH Ultimately, Dave came up with a new way to land the show.
CHAPTER 8: "Thank you for your service."
RICHARDSON The final season was very emotional.
SACKETT We'd had so many great guest stars over the years, and pretty much every one of them is on their own TV show now, but they all wanted to come back. I got to know a lot of producers in town because there was a lot of calling and begging and jockeying.
SUTHERLAND There's no way around eight years of your life. And particularly because of everything that Julia had to go through, there was a preciousness and a unity. The last two episodes, specifically, were pretty brutal.
CLEA DUVALL, MARJORIE I remember walking into the last table read and Tim was already there, and we looked at each other and just started crying.
SIMONS Julia made a speech right before we started that table read and everybody just fuckin' lost it.
MANDEL [At the taping of the final episode] I somehow ended up with the role of yelling, "That's a wrap on so-and-so," which was not fun.
LOUIS-DREYFUS Every time somebody wrapped, it was gut-wrenching.
SCOTT Tony Hale was giving me a lot of shit, like, "When are you going to break, man?" I'm like, "I don't fucking break."
HALE I'm big on, like, "Hey, let's feel it." I cried for, like, four days straight.
DUNN Julia took us all to dinner [the Saturday before we wrapped]. Just the cast. She gave everybody a Cartier watch.
SIMONS It has "Thank you for your service" inscribed on it, which is a long-running joke. Somewhere in season two, Mike has a line where he says something really dumb to a military person and he knows it was dumb, so he just goes, "Thank you for your service." It became a joke, on set and off. When you've really fucked up something you say, "Thank you for your service." I mean, it's perfect.
WALSH It's very Julia.
SIMONS It immediately became the nicest thing I own.
DUNN We went around the table at dinner and everybody started sharing memories, what the show meant to them.
CHLUMSKY Kevin Dunn had started to cry and I lost it. I was a mess. I'm still sort of embarrassed.
SCOTT I had such special moments with every single castmember at that table, and it will never be like that again. Never. Ah man, now I'm going to break.
SACKETT The last day on set was something I'll always remember.
MANDEL The whole schedule had been built so the final Veep shot we did was with Julia. So, we get to it and, I kid you not, easily 200 people — wives, kids — were at video village. Afterward, we went back to the writers' offices and no one wanted to go home. Like, if we leave, it's over.
WALSH Tim, Sam, Lew [Morton, a Veep writer], Julia, Brad [Hall], me … we were just drinking in the writers room. It was more tequila than I should’ve had …
LOUIS-DREYFUS It was probably 3 in the morning and what was going through my head was, "Well, this isn't really goodbye." I wouldn't let myself go there …
SIMONS One by one, people started peeling off. It ended in the perfect way. Lew gave me a hug and said, "Hey, look at that, we all used to work on a show called Veep."
A version of this story first appears in the April 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.