T he idiom “national treasure” tends to get thrown around quite a bit in the entertainment-journalism sphere, but no one is more worthy of it than Julia Louis-Dreyfus. After all, she’s appeared in two of the greatest television comedies ever in Seinfeld and Veep, cut her teeth on Saturday Night Live, is now a ubiquitous presence in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, and has won the most Primetime Emmys of any actor (eight, tying Cloris Leachman for the distinction).
She’s now mainly focusing her attention to film. On May 26, she’ll star in and produce You Hurt My Feelings, her latest collaboration with writer-director Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said) that sees Louis-Dreyfus’s Beth, a struggling New York City novelist who teaches writing classes, suffer a crisis of confidence (and trust) when she overhears her therapist-husband (Tobias Menzies) criticizing her latest book. With the help of her sister Sarah (Michaela Watkins), whose partner Mark (Succession’s Arian Moayed) is also at a career crossroads of sorts as an actor, Beth must put the pieces back together.
Louis-Dreyfus, who is wonderful in the film, talked to Rolling Stone about this new phase of her extraordinary career.
I enjoyed You Hurt My Feelings. It was nice to see a film actually shot in New York City. What do you enjoy most and least about NYC?
I’m originally a New Yorker. I was born in Manhattan and moved away from there when I was eight years old. There are very few things about New York that I don’t like. I love New York City — with the possible exception of dog shit on the streets. But beyond that, I adore it. I love the loudness. I even love the traffic. It’s in my bones, that city.
What’s the most New York City thing you’ve ever witnessed?
It happened recently, actually. I was having dinner at a groovy place — I wanna say it was a Peruvian restaurant. We were eating outside, because it was the pandemic, and I saw a number of rats scurrying to and fro on the patio, and I just … kept eating. I don’t dig rats, don’t get me wrong. The food was that good.
You and Nicole Holofcener are so in sync, and her films really do capture the interiority of women like few others. Why do you feel you two are such good collaborators, and what do you think makes her work stand out?
I hope this doesn’t sound trope-y, but she has a brand of authenticity that’s undeniable. I believe that we recognize truthfulness in the characters she writes and the stories she writes — in the tiny detail that is very often symbolic of something much larger in terms of the human experience. I’ve had a number of opportunities to work with her and I hope that they continue. I consider her a great friend as well as a colleague in … showbusiness. [Laughs]
Do you have any lasting memories of working with James Gandolfini on your previous collaboration with Nicole, Enough Said?
I think what you saw in Enough Said with Jim was really who he was. He was a really tender guy and had a softness to him. It was that same tenderness that was underneath Tony Soprano, which is why his depiction of Tony Soprano had such effect. That’s what made that character fucking kill — no pun intended.
You Hurt My Feelings centers on a scathing critique you overhear from your husband. Is there a piece of negative criticism that’s stuck with you?
When I see a piece of criticism that’s warranted it really sticks with me, and I think about it a lot. As an artist, it’s part of the game — and the other part of the game is not giving it too much weight. That goes for criticism and applause. I got a bad review very, very early on in my career from Tom Shales in The Washington Post, and it was particularly stinging to me because my family lived in Washington, D.C., and I spent half of my childhood in D.C. It was for Saturday Night Live. And you know what? He wasn’t wrong.
Your character Beth in You Hurt My Feelings is at a professional crossroads of sorts. Have you ever had a big fork-in-the-road moment in your career?
I think any time a project ends, it’s gutting for me. And that’s true of movies and TV shows. There is a focus and a camaraderie that’s very much present when you’re working hard on a project that you believe in, and when the circus leaves town, it’s a huge transition. There’s a real feeling of sadness for me. “Where did all my buddies go?” “Where are my friends?”
There was the whole “Seinfeld Curse” thing that was invented by the media, which you’ve of course proven wrong several times over at this point.
It was invented by the media. They thought it was clever. You don’t need me to prove it wrong, it was ridiculous! It made no sense. I was amazed that it had legs, because it was so moronic. I don’t know how else to say it! [Laughs]
Beth and Don are in an argument but seem to have an overall healthy relationship in the film. You seem to have one as well offscreen, having been married to your husband for 36 years. What do you think is the secret to a healthy, lasting relationship — especially in showbiz?
I think there’s an element of luck involved. You have to, in my case, marry the right guy. People ask me this, and I don’t really know what to say! I just really enjoy his company. I like to have life adventures with him, and I don’t know what I’d do without him. I have no advice there, just good luck! That’s my advice.
Your son in the film works in a weed shop, and I’m curious: Do you yourself smoke weed?
Well, I wish I could. I did when I was in college a lot, and then something happened, and I started to get paranoid whenever I smoked pot. I’ve tried multiple times to go back to it, but I cannot. It makes me nuts. And I get very unhappy with it. So, it’s not for me.
What do you do to unwind and relax?
You mean what drugs do I take? [Laughs] I exercise a ton and I love to hike, so I hike in the mountains here in California a lot — and elsewhere. I’ve taken some pretty groovy hiking trips. I love good food. I love good wine. And, when I remember, I knit. But I would say exercise is my go-to for when I need to relax.
What was your most ambitious knitting project?
It’s really, truly unimpressive: It was a very excellent hat. [Laughs] But it was good! I’ve made a few of them. I have a pattern I go to, and I love it. What’s nice about making a hat is that it’s a quick project. Doesn’t take super long. Like a beanie. A really, really good beanie.
I’m not sure if this is bullshit or not, but I read that one of your nicknames is “Little Yum-Yum.” Is that true? And where did that come from?
They started calling me that on the Seinfeld set. It wasn’t an everyday thing, like, “Where’s Little Yum-Yum? We’re about to roll camera!” But occasionally they called me that. I don’t know who invented it or why it was happening, but there ya go. It seems positive? So, I wasn’t offended.
Do you have a favorite Seinfeld episode?
I do not. But on occasion, if I come across one of those gag reels, I just get a massive kick out of that — only because it brings me back to the wonderful joy we had in making that fucking show.
Now it’s on Netflix, so newer generations are enjoying Seinfeld, but what’s your theory on why it’s remained so timeless and still connects with audiences? I have my theory, which is that no other show so replicates the chaos and absurdity of living in New York City.
I mean, I gotta say, I just think funny is funny! It was superb writing and, dare I say, a superb cast that supported the writing — and perhaps even elevated it sometimes. It was fuckin’ lightning in a bottle in a lot of ways. Also, it was very outside the box at the time. This was nothing like the sitcoms that were on television at the time. It had a different rhythm and comedic architecture.
Do you remember the first time you met Larry David?
I don’t remember the first time I met Larry, because it was back in the SNL days. We spent a lot of time complaining together because he couldn’t get his sketches on the air, and I couldn’t get anything meaningful or funny to do on the air, so we were bitching and moaning in his office a lot. That was the general memory I have of that time. I do remember meeting Jerry for the first time, and he was eating a bowl of cereal. I remember thinking, “Oh, this guy is a regular guy.” And Larry was my complaining friend. So, it felt like the kids were in charge, which was really nice.
Is it still weird for you to go to weddings? Do you feel like people have eyes on you?
Oh, you mean for dancing? They definitely do. They absolutely do. It’s a little self-conscious for me.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
The best piece of advice I’ve ever received was from my high school physics teacher who said, “Have fun at all costs.” I know that’s a dangerous phrase, and can be misunderstood, but there was a lot to be said for the notion of pursuing fun. And I took his advice.
What are your guilty-pleasure TV shows? What do you watch to turn your brain off?
My guilty-pleasure TV shows to truly turn my brain off are Survivor and Amazing Race. I don’t know why, but I just love both of those shows. They’re good!
You don’t get into the dating shows, do ya?
I do not. I can’t take.
What about the Housewives shows on Bravo?
Nope. Pass. Absolutely not. Absolutely not. I think all those people are out of their fucking minds.
I saw a clip of someone throwing a prosthetic leg at someone else at a dinner party.
Nope. We do not need this. We do not need this.
Veep was great, but what was it like for you all on the show when Trump took office and reality became even crazier than the show?
Well, we ended the show! That’s what happened. [Laughs] They were doing a better version of our show, but of course it wasn’t funny at all. It was tragic. And we just couldn’t compete with that shit, so it felt like the right time to depart.
How did the 2016 presidential election hit you? To have one of the great misogynists of our time defeat a far more qualified female candidate who would have been the first woman president seemed like a messed-up referendum of sorts.
Believe it or not, the day of the election we were shooting a Veep episode in which Selina Meyer is monitoring the first democratic election in the country of Georgia. And so, it was bizarre. I remember we were finishing one scene and Hillary’s numbers were looking good, and then we were finishing another and I looked over to one of our producers and he said, “It’s not looking good.” I was shocked, as so many people were shocked, that this was happening. It’s a stark reminder of how fragile democracy is, and how vigilant we must be to guard it.
How did you land the role of Valentina Allegra de Fontaine in the Marvel movies, and what’s it like to act in these massive superhero projects?
How did that happen? I met with Kevin Feige and Louis D’Esposito at Marvel because they wanted to meet, and we had a lovely conversation. My boys are huge Marvel fans — massive — and I was down to do it because I thought my boys would get a kick out of it. And then it happened! I had to immediately educate myself on this universe and this world, and who Valentina was — which I’m still doing, by the way, because there are so many characters and there are so many universes and these lives are so intertwined with one another. I’m by no means a scholar when it comes to the Marvel universe, but I’m working on it. And I was so delighted to jump into another genre. It’s an absolute gas.
Has this gotten you cool points with your boys?
Yeah. They are down for this. Totally down for it.
Are you signed to a 20-picture deal, or how long will you be Valentina?
For a while, it seems!
To be on three award-winning, long-running TV series is extraordinary — and that’s not even counting your time on SNL. Would you ever return to TV or do you feel lightning’s already struck so many times?
I love working in television, and love working on a character for a long period of time, so I would if the right idea came along. But good luck finding it! Good ideas are very hard to come by. So right now, I’m very focused on film. But I would never rule out another good TV series. I just wouldn’t.
What advice would you give young women who are breaking into comedy?