Home TV TV Features

Julia Louis-Dreyfus on Journey From ‘Seinfeld’ to ‘Veep’

First Lady of Comedy wears absolutely nothing but the immortal words of America’s founding fathers on magazine cover

Julia Louis-Dreyfus Veep

Julia Louis-Dreyfus poses naked for Rolling Stone.

Mark Seliger for Rolling Stone

Julia Louis-Dreyfus pulls up to the mouth of the Temescal Canyon hiking trail in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles in her gray Tesla, then jumps out in a flurry. Standing barely five-feet-three and mostly made of muscle mass, with wowee brown eyes, a heart-shaped face and energy as coiled as her hair, it’s hard to believe she’s in her mid-fifties. This is the morning ritual Louis-Dreyfus prefers: a stout hike after rising from bed around 6 a.m.; a sadistic fitness class involving cardio and weights; or, on occasion, a two- to four-mile run. “I love exercising,” she says, tossing a seven-buck parking fee in a brown national park requisition box and zipping up a black Nike windbreaker. “I’m a bit addicted to it. I’d love to do a full marathon, but now I worry about blowing out things, and I don’t want to be fucked forever as a result.”

Though curse words often issue forth from Louis-Dreyfus’ mouth, this energetic 53-year-old is as discreet and demure as can be. She’s a people-pleaser, this one, and several times, as we proceed on the trail, while she points out some of the local oddities, like an oak tree with two trunks, which has a name she can’t recall – “I learned it two days ago, and now I can’t remember it; there endeth the lesson” – she mentions that we should have gone for this hike in Will Rogers State Historic Park instead of this canyon because the ranch there, where Rogers used to live with his polo ponies, is so beautiful. “That was the place!” she says. “Damn it!”

Louis-Dreyfus leads a quiet life here in the Palisades, at her 1920s home retrofitted with solar power and energy-saving measures like compact fluorescent light bulbs. She’s the only woman in her nuclear family of very tall men, including her husband of 27 years, comedian and writer Brad Hall, and their two sons, one of whom is enrolled at Wesleyan University and plays in an indie-rock band called Grand Cousin, and the other, a junior in high school, still at home. All three of the guys are over six feet, and she’s only a “fireplug,” as she likes to call herself. Her younger son, coming up on six feet four, is a star basketball player, and last night she cheered her heart out for him in the state quarterfinals. “There was a big turnout, and it’s been an exciting year – they played phenomenally well,” she says, as brightly as she can manage. “But I’m afraid they didn’t win. Of course, there’s a little disappointment.”

Louis-Dreyfus’ professional life, however, is a lot more hectic than the easy California dream of her home life. Although she has the most interesting acting role of her career right now – the narcissistic, thwarted vice president of the United States on HBO’s political satire Veep – it’s been almost 25 years since she first played Jerry Seinfeld’s nervy sidekick Elaine Benes on his TV show. “I’m a perfectionist in my work,” she says. “I think I might drive people nuts. I don’t ask them, because I don’t need that bullshit on top of how I’m feeling.” Today, she even canceled an appointment so that she had enough time to put together notes on two new Veep episodes that Armando Iannucci, the show’s creator, sent for her perusal from London, and she’ll spend much of the day in her home office, guzzling down coffee while she types up an e-mail of suggestions for him.

Louis-Dreyfus arrives at an overlook
now, pausing for a moment to take in the Pacific Ocean, Century City and her
neighborhood of mostly gleaming white multimillion-dollar homes set like teeth
on the surrounding hills. It’s a brief stop, though, and she soon bolts off for
another peak, the crisp dirt crunching under her sneakers. “I have a hard
time relaxing,” she says. “I’ve tried meditation, but I always fall
asleep. You have to stay present when you meditate, and I have the worst time
with that I’m just, ‘Forward!'” Then she spots something on the trail, and
jumps over to the side for a moment. “Watch out,” she calls behind
her. “Poop!”

The only cast member to create a satisfying post-Seinfeld professional life, Louis-Dreyfus has been very good throughout her career at not stepping in the poop. She’s been nominated for or won an Emmy 14 times in the past two decades, starring on three TV sitcoms since Seinfeld, including Watching Ellie and The New Adventures of Old Christine, and scored her first major dramatic film role last year, opposite James Gandolfini in Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said, a movie about divorced lonely hearts (Gandolfini died several months after they wrapped). Frustrated women are her specialty, ones who shake their fists at a world that doesn’t hand over everything they want, like a nice nuclear family of six-foot-tall guys, a new Tesla or a gorgeous solar-powered home. “I have my share of angst, but I channel it into my acting,” Louis-Dreyfus says, putting her hands on her hips. “It’s a good release.”

In fact, it’s hard to think of an actress other than Louis-Dreyfus who could play Veep‘s Vice President Selina Meyer, toggling between political facade and Lady Macbeth-level ambition as she issues irrational demands and acid insults, cutting everyone around her down to the size of toy dolls. (Disses fly around her office: A West Wing statistician is a “man who can’t take a leak without polling his balls”; a position as the secretary for the VP is a job so meaningless, it’s “like being Garfunkel’s roadie”; a particularly unpleasant and lanky presidential aide is “Jolly Green Jizz-Face.”) The HBO show, in its third season, has become a secret guilty pleasure in Washington. “Veep is way more realistic than House of Cards, which people on the Hill tend to hate-watch,” says a Senate aide. “Veep is really sharp satire, and like all satire, it works because it’s revealing truths.”

Like many of Washington’s political animals, Meyer is blinded by her desire for the presidency, a job “she’s been trying to get to for her whole fucking life,” as Louis-Dreyfus puts it, and considers the vice president’s realm, as one of FDR’s vice presidents said, worth little more than a bucket of warm piss (“Sometimes I think A Bucket of Warm Piss might have been a good title for the show,” Louis-Dreyfus has said). Meyer is supposed to be a relatively sophisticated politician, but she still consistently misreads situations and gets caught in embarrassing incidents like looking at her BlackBerry while supposedly directing the rescue of American hostages. Says Louis-Dreyfus, “Selina is playing the game, and she knows how to play the game. There are a lot of parallels between political life and life in show business, so there’s plenty for me to draw from. And it’s great fun to play around with a character who, when anything goes wrong, thinks it isn’t her fault.”

Veep‘s creator, Iannucci, a contemplative British baby boomer who dropped out of a literature Ph.D. at Oxford University when he was in his twenties, hatched the idea for the show after he was contacted by HBO in 2010 – they had been looking to develop a series set in Washington, D.C., but hadn’t hit on the right man for the job. By this point, he was a cult icon in the U.K. for his earlier work, including The Thick of It, a political farce for the BBC, and In the Loop, a film about the fakery promulgated by the Americans and Brits in the run-up to the Iraq War. Iannucci’s brand of black humor is defiantly nonpartisan, and in his earlier comedies, his characters never mention real-life politicians like President George W. Bush or Prime Minister Tony Blair. Iannucci uses the same trick in Veep, in which political parties are ignored, and no one ever actually sees the president, though his presence looms over all things. “Armando has an outsider’s eye for Washington that’s sharp and knowing,” says New York magazine columnist Frank Rich, a creative consultant for HBO who is intimately involved with Veep as an executive producer. “Most treatments of Washington tend to be romanticized even when they’re muckraking. The idea here was to do a show about what it’s like in the trenches.”

The day-to-day life of American politicians fascinated Iannucci, and he considered setting Veep in a congressman’s or a Cabinet secretary’s office, before hitting on the vice president, a position where there is a lot of power and yet at the same time none at all (according to the Constitution, the vice president has hardly any responsibilities – he or she only needs to break a tie in the Senate, and take over if the president is incapacitated). For Iannucci, the veep’s life perfectly encapsulated the boredom of most politicians, who are nevertheless thought of by the American public as celebrities – and regard themselves that way, too. “In the U.K., we don’t hold political office in high regard the way you do in America,” he says. “We’re much less formal with our politicians. It’s very unusual to have a politician mingle with short-listers, whereas in the U.S., if you’ve arrived, you’ve arrived, and you spend your time mingling with anyone else who’s arrived. You have the feeling that politicians even envy the glamour of Hollywood.”

With his fatalistic, scabrous sense of humor – Iannucci is mostly responsible for the cutting dialogue on Veep, like calling the notion that senators would vote for Senate reform “persuading a guy to fist himself” – it seems as though he and Louis-Dreyfus may not come from similar comedy bloodlines, but they’ve seen eye to eye for the most part on Veep. The show wasn’t written with Louis-Dreyfus in mind, but after a single meeting between the two of them, the casting was decided. “As far as I know, there was never another serious contender,” says Rich. Veep is 95 percent pre-written and five percent ad-libbed, estimates Iannucci. “Julia’s not just a natural comedic performer – she’s a natural comedic brain,” he continues. “Once we have a script, she likes to go away and have a real think on what her character would do to react to the reality of every situation, if it would be funny to have her twitch, or to be thirsty, or if her mind was on something else. Julia brings all the behavioral expertise of what the character would do.”

Louis-Dreyfus, who usually watches The Colbert Report or The Daily Show before tucking herself into bed, isn’t a political junkie, but she keeps up with current events. She’s also a political force in her own right, and has been an activist for environmental causes for more than 20 years, along with her husband, who grew up in Santa Barbara and was disturbed as a teenager when an oil-derrick explosion covered his beach with black sludge. Today, Louis-Dreyfus mostly works with the Natural Resources Defense Council and Heal the Bay, a Santa Monica-based charity that addresses water-quality issues in Southern California (she also worked on the successful campaign to ban plastic bags from Los Angeles), and is full of ideas about marketing environmentalism, like car manufacturers should have launched a hybrid vehicle after 9/11 called Patriot, and painted it red, white and blue, as she once suggested. “An actor is an actor, and you don’t have to speak out because you’re well-known – it’s not your responsibility,” she says. “I do it because I feel responsible. I am guilt-ridden, therefore I act.”

Through her political work, as well as being a Hollywood star – or, perhaps, the irresistible combination of the two – Louis-Dreyfus has met several vice presidents, including Al Gore, “who did win, by the way,” she says, raising a finger. Joe Biden even recently seated her next to him at a White House state dinner. “He loves to tell stories, and I’m a good listener,” she says. “I loved that dinner. There was no cynicism, just a very earnest jubilation about being there. I got to meet Madame Christine Lagarde, Supreme Court Justice Kagan, Nancy Pelosi, Valerie Jarrett – you know, the list goes on.” She smiles. “Dr. Jill Biden was also at my table, and she had this great idea. As soon as everyone sat down, she said, ‘Let’s each take the menu, get a pen, and we’ll sign them.’ So by the time we were done, everyone had a menu with everybody’s name. Isn’t that cool?” Her eyes sparkle. “Totally gonna sell that on eBay.”

Louis-Dreyfus is right when she describes herself as a good listener: Conversation flows when she asks questions instead of answers them. “Julia is not a class cutup,” says Rich. “She’s very much in human scale offstage: a centered, direct person who cares about quality.” In many ways, Louis-Dreyfus is a quiet woman, an observer, a polite thank-you-note writer and a sender of flower bouquets on special occasions. From watching her play Elaine on Seinfeld for so many years, I just assumed she liked being teased, but the one tense moment in our conversation occurs when she talks about the 11-page essay that she wrote to get into college, and says, “I can only imagine it must have been so self-important and so self-serious,” and then I joke, “Maybe you said, ‘I want to be a celebrity and use my good for the environment,'” and she says, without pause, “No, that would not have been what I would have said.”

Louis-Dreyfus grew up elegantly between New York and D.C. as the daughter of a Frenchman running his family firm, the Louis Dreyfus corporation, a conglomerate that has had holdings in energy, soybean-crushing plants and real estate, though today, her father is a poet (as is her mother). She was wealthy, but not quite as wealthy as readers who have Googled her name may think. She says there have been misunderstandings over how much money her family has, because reporters have confused her father’s personal wealth with the fact that the family business has been valued in the billions. “I’ve been attached to that,” she says. “It’s unbelievable, because whatever I do, people just assume it’s true. Welcome to the fuckin’ Internet.”

Isn’t it a good thing, being perceived as a billionaire? Louis-Dreyfus shakes her head. “No, no, it’s not good,” she says. “Money and finances are so private, and I was raised not to talk about them. The whole thing is just bizarre. And of course I didn’t grow up poverty-stricken, so it’s not like I can say, ‘Hey, leave me alone, I’m poverty-stricken.'” She says there’s also a widespread assumption that if she’s not a billionaire by way of an inherited fortune, Seinfeld must have allowed her to bathe in money. “And of course I made a lot of money on Seinfeld – but I don’t own Seinfeld, OK?” she says. “It’s sort of the same thing.” She looks at me with a hint of despair. “Please, if you write about this, write about it in a way that I don’t sound like an asshole.”

As a child, Louis-Dreyfus loved to perform for her four sisters, though a piano teacher scared her off instruments “after she hit me in the face,” she says. Her parents, who are also philanthropic – her father, in fact, recently donated $1 million to help eradicate voter suppression – separated when she was young. “I was born in 1961, so divorce wasn’t like it is today – there were three kids in my junior high class whose parents were divorced,” she says. With her father on the Upper East Side and her mother in D.C., she spent a lot of time on a plane between the two cities, clutching a Madame Alexander doll. “I’d take the Eastern Shuttle alone at nine,” she says. “It felt like a really big deal. To be honest, airports are a bit fraught for me.”

At her all-girls high school in Bethesda, Maryland, which Gerald Ford’s daughter, Susan, also attended (“For Halloween one year, she went as Goldilocks and dressed her Secret Service agents as the three bears,” she’s said), Louis-Dreyfus was elected president of her class. At first she says “that was more about getting to wear shorter skirts,” but later she mentions it’s possible that the leadership role at a single-sex school led her to be more assertive than most women of her generation.

While at Northwestern University, Louis-Dreyfus joined an improv group, the Practical Theater Company, that her future husband, Brad Hall, co-founded, performing next door to Chicago’s Second City Theater (some of the skits involved parodying Carter-era problems with oil dependency and environmental distress). One night, NBC’s Dick Ebersol, then the producer of Saturday Night Live, visited their show, and after the curtain fell, he scooped up the entire improv team for SNL. (Louis-Dreyfus never graduated from Northwestern, but received an honorary degree after giving a commencement address, “so I’m actually Dr. Louis-Dreyfus,” she says, brightly.) She became the youngest female SNL cast member up until then, at 21 (Hall remained on SNL for two seasons, running the fake-news desk, before being replaced by Christopher Guest).

Unfortunately, these were not SNL‘s greatest years. On the show, Louis-Dreyfus befriended Larry David, who wrote there for a year, but never found her footing in the larger scene, nor did she want to. “There were plenty of people who I didn’t think were particularly funny when I was there,” says Louis-Dreyfus. “It’s not like I did SNL when it was at the height of its cool and hipness, you know? Or at least Eddie Murphy was cool, but I wasn’t.” She and Hall were married in 1987, and at that point had moved to L.A., which they hoped might be more welcoming to their brand of comedy. The two have collaborated on several projects, including the sitcom Watching Ellie, and Picture Paris, a quirky short film for HBO about a mom from Glendale, California, who is obsessed with visiting Paris after becoming an empty-nester.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus high school photo

David would always cast Louis-Dreyfus in his sketches on SNL – “only one of which made it on-air; definitely not her fault,” he says – but a couple of years later, in L.A., he called Louis-Dreyfus about a part on a network pilot he’d created with Jerry Seinfeld: They had received a note from the executives that they needed to put a new female character on the show, or else. Louis-Dreyfus is “bright, charming – striking, actually – and she had a great disposition, which, considering the bunker mentality that was SNL at the time, wasn’t easy,” says David. “When it came to casting Elaine, we were lucky she was available. Casting is like dating. Sometimes you like someone, only to find out she’s taken. Surprisingly, she wasn’t. Go figure. As they say, lucky in casting, unlucky in love.”

Louis-Dreyfus perfectly embodied Elaine, Jerry’s old-girlfriend-turned-platonic-sidekick, though she did not share her pet peeves – when pressed on them, Louis-Dreyfus comes up only with riding horses, and people answering the phone with “Hey, what’s up?” (she finds it rude and too informal). “The show was conceived and written by Larry and Jerry, and that voice is very specific to them,” she says. “I understood it, and I definitely wore those shoes comfortably, but that’s not me.” She talks about how much she enjoys Veep, and the contrast between being brought up as a proper young woman and the way she gets to talk on the show. “Once, when we were trying to come up with the particular perfect, horrible, swear-y thing to say in Veep, I said, ‘You do realize that if we were 12, we would get in big trouble for this conversation,'” she says. “That was not part of the curriculum in high school, and the fact that it is now a part of the curriculum of my life is a pleasure, which is the understatement of the universe. It’s a big, deep itch that you get to scratch.”

After so many years in show business, and as an activist, Louis-Dreyfus receives a lot of awards. The night after our hike in the canyon, she’ll be at “unite4:humanity,” a dinner party/photo op on the Sony lot that’s being orchestrated by a little-known Russian businessman’s nonprofit. Many celebrities will be there to promote their chosen charity – Louis-Dreyfus’ is Heal the Bay – and there will be lots of political figures there too, like Bill Clinton and Bobby Kennedy Jr., who will present Louis-Dreyfus with the complicated-sounding “Creative Commitment in Television Award.” She’s been working on her speech for a few days, which includes a paraphrase of a quote by environmentalist John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club: “When you tug on a single thing in nature, you find it’s connected to the rest of the world.” Hall is helping her write the speech – “Well, he’s basically writing it, who am I kidding,” says Louis-Dreyfus, waving a hand.

It might look silly; it might be an inauthentic moment, at least from the outside. But will her smiles be real? Louis-Dreyfus doesn’t even miss a beat. “Heal the Bay is getting a big chunk of change if I come to this event and accept this award,” she says. She cocks her head. “How could I say no?”

Another afternoon, before Louis-Dreyfus takes a call from her older son, who wants to talk to her about his band’s touring schedule for the summer, she sits down at the restaurant at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills in a much more stylish outfit than a Nike windbreaker. She’s a bit burned out from the past six months, which have included many “demanding-as-shit” 14-hour days on Veep‘s set in Columbia, Maryland, tromping around in Meyer’s stiletto shoes (she keeps Uggs next to her chair to wear during breaks) and swapping her beautiful L.A. home for a hotel. “A hotel is nice, because if I get lonely, I can call downstairs and ask the concierge to come talk to me,” she says. “Nope. It’s more like, when I’m done I take the wig off, get into bed, and in the morning, go right back to set.”

Wearing an elaborate gold necklace that hangs low on her blouse, and a beautiful assortment of rings, like a yellow sapphire arranged inside of antique mine-cut diamonds, Louis-Dreyfus looks near her age today, with little of the youthful, mischievous glint in her eye that she has on camera in Veep and elsewhere. Today was a day for her to get beautiful: She got her legs waxed, though she doesn’t do her armpits because they hurt too much, and then met her stylist to pick six outfits, including one for the premiere of Veep and another to go on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Beautifying herself, from waxing to styling, “is its own business,” says Louis-Dreyfus. “I’m definitely a girly girl, so I do like fashion, but it sure does take a lot of time.” She adds, “I’m not a model, you know? I’m not one of those kinds of girls. I constantly feel like I’m trying to fit in. I’m really most interested in just not looking like an asshole.”

To read the menu, Louis-Dreyfus puts on progressive lenses. “I had perfect vision until I hit fortysomething, and then the wheels started falling off the bus.” She also now dyes her hair dark brown. “It’s silver,” she says, then sighs. “At some point, I’m going to let everything go.” Television is still welcoming to older actresses, she says, but “film is hard. There are more opportunities in TV.” Finally landing a meaty dramatic role in Enough Said is a point of pride for her. The movie was locked when Gandolfini passed away, but he “never saw the full film, which is too bad,” she says. When she heard about his death, “I was shocked,” she says. “I thought [the media had] the wrong information. He’d just had a baby. But he was definitely out of shape. This is a guy who carried too much weight.” Gandolfini’s struggles with his weight, she says, are part of why he took the role in Enough Said, which called attention to it. “The part was written with such loving care, and I think he recognized that. It’s not like he was being made fun of.”

Louis-Dreyfus is open to another great
film role for a woman her age, but “those things don’t drive off the
freeway easily,” she says. “Sometimes it feels like panning for
gold.” Earlier, when I ask her what the difference is between male and
female comedians, she raises a hand and says, “Please don’t ask me
that.” Then she proceeds to answer the question, very carefully. “Saying
women aren’t funny is like women can’t smell, they can’t breathe. I mean, what
are you talking about?” But there is misogyny in Hollywood, I say.
“Yes, and there’s misogyny among male businessmen too. There’s misogyny,
period. I think the way I have sort of motored through that is to not think of
it as a challenge. Because I don’t. There is sexism I’m not denying its
existence. But I’m saying that I will deny its effort against me. I just pay it
no never mind, and say, ‘Get out of my way.'”

In This Article: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Seinfeld, Veep

Show Comments

Newswire

Powered by
Close comments

Add a comment