Julia Louis-Dreyfus was already a comedy legend before Veep – but it turns out she was just hitting her prime. The actress has spent five years on HBO's D.C. satire as foul-mouthed President Selina Meyer, who claws her way to the Oval Office just to lose it again. The 56-year-old started out on Saturday Night Live before reaching stardom as Elaine on Seinfeld, the most spongeworthy of sitcom heroines. In the new Veep season, she's as fearsome as ever, snarling political observations like, "This election is going down like Eleanor Roosevelt at Dinah Shore Weekend." "Dark is what we do," Louis-Dreyfus says. "It's our bread and butter. But that's because funny is often in a dark place."
In the time Veep has been on the air, the political scene has taken some strange turns. Is it a challenge to keep up with reality?
I'm certainly interested in politics – I'm an active citizen in my own life. But there's no correlation between what's happening and the world of Veep – we've set it aside as an alternate universe. From a timeline point of view, anything after Reagan is off-limits. So it's like we time-shifted, and our world began. Fortunately, I'm surrounded by creative geniuses on Veep. As funny as Selina Meyer is, I think you need to be able to hear other voices. Albeit very swear-y voices.
You don't have any innocent bystanders on Veep – it's a whole show full of horrible people.
With the possible exception of [campaign aide] Richard. He is an earnest and dear soul, and somewhat oblivious to the nastiness of those around him. And he doesn't really swear.
What's the most loathsome aspect of Selina Meyer?
Her inability to see beyond her own ego and narcissism. I think it's safe to say that she is a pathological narcissist, which can be problematic for a mother, a wife and a friend, but might really work well for a politician.
What have you heard from D.C. insiders about Veep?
I hear from both sides of the aisle, and each side thinks we're making fun of the other side. Very frequently, I am told that we've captured what it's really like, which I am hoping isn't exactly the case. People often come up to me and say, "I'm Dan!" "I'm Jonah!" or "I'm Amy!" which does kind of make me wonder about their self-esteem.
When we did our countdown of the 100 best Seinfeld characters, Elaine was Number One. People really relate to her.
I think maybe it's because Elaine was not defined by the men around her – she was a pissed-off, independent, egocentric woman in her own right. She wasn't too hung up on trying to behave. You know that was our moral on the show: "No hugging, no learning." There was never any kind of message, and thank God for that. I think likability is really overrated. I've played a lot of badly behaved people.
Your career took so many twists in the Eighties. I even saw Soul Man [a trashy 1986 comedy] in the theater because you were in it.
Don't hold that against me. I was just an actor trying to make a living, man.
What kind of music do you enjoy?
I'm a big rhythm & blues and soul fan – Aretha, James Brown. And my son's music, which I think is remarkably fabulous. My son's named Henry Hall, and he does really cool indie-rock music.
I loved the sitcom where you played a jazz singer, Watching Ellie. I reviewed that for Rolling Stone in 2002, and I predicted a massive hit.
God, I wish you'd been right. It was ahead of its time. In today's world, it would have lasted longer. It was single-camera at a time when that was an anomaly. And every episode was in real time. That was fun to do, although it was a shit-ton of work.
After the huge success of Seinfeld you could have retired and lived on a yacht. What keeps you still working so hard?
Well, I couldn't have retired on a yacht because I really don't like boats.
You appeared naked, with the Constitution tattooed on your back, on the cover of Rolling Stone in 2014. Is it hanging somewhere in your house? What did your kids say?
My social media kind of blew up around the time that cover came out. It's not hanging in my house because I don't like to hang magazine covers in my house. No offense. I think my boys are just happy that tattoo isn't real.
You've been more politically outspoken lately, like when you criticized the Muslim ban at the SAG Awards.
A funky time, isn't it? In fact, the day of the election, we were shooting the third episode of the new season, in which Selina is monitoring the first open election in the country of Georgia. Shortly after we found out Hillary was clearly gonna lose, I had to deliver the following line: "Jesus Christ, democracy – what a fucking horror show." It was at a Georgian polling place with women in babushkas and chickens. And I don't think I've ever delivered any line more truthfully in my life.