She'll make you laugh until you cry... ...TV's funniest woman already has her next punch line
Ask Julia Louis-Dreyfus how much of her is in Selina Meyer, the politician she plays on HBO’s Veep, and she grins. “Tons!” she says. Really? Selina is profane, narcissistic, needy and disagreeable, as cruel to her own daughter as she is to her beleaguered staff. Louis-Dreyfus, on the other hand—the Emmy-winningest performer in TV history—has always had an “America’s sweetheart” quality. But in the noxious politician, Louis-Dreyfus finds a pressure valve for the anger and frustration many women bottle up in public. “One has to power through it,” she adds. “And frankly, I’ve made a career of playing unlikable people. I don’t cotton to likability.”
It’s a cloudless January morning in the Austrian Alps, bright sun glinting off fresh snow, and Louis-Dreyfus is digging into a breakfast of oatmeal with almond milk and chia seeds in the restaurant of her hotel. Having just finished shooting Veep’s seventh and final season, which debuts March 31, she’s come here to produce and star in Downhill, a feature film with Will Ferrell. “There are plenty of things in trying to stay alive in show business that are very similar to trying to stay alive politically,” Louis-Dreyfus tells me. “And being a woman, a middle-aged woman, trying to stay relevant and viable–I get it. Not being taken seriously. It’s infuriating.”
Louis-Dreyfus has always demanded to be taken seriously. For three decades, she has been portraying funny, self-centered women who are compelling despite often being ill-behaved. Selina, her capstone creation, pushes the envelope furthest: the accidental President’s megalomania, and her flamboyant vulgarity, have helped Veep break awards records. (“I was the game changer!” Selina yells in a scene from the upcoming season. “I took a dump on the glass ceiling!”) The show has made Louis-Dreyfus, 58, arguably the most decorated television comedy actress in history. But over the course of her career, Louis-Dreyfus hasn’t only made a lot of people laugh. She has also left an indelible cultural mark, expanding the possibilities for women in comedy–and maybe in politics and public life as well.
It hasn’t come without a fight. On Seinfeld, Louis-Dreyfus spent years battling the all-male writers’ room to get Elaine more substantive story lines. After it ended, she struggled to break the dreaded Seinfeld curse and bust out of sitcom purgatory. More recently, she has spent four years working to bring Downhill from passion project to production. Like Selina, Louis-Dreyfus has managed to navigate the catch-22 of a business in which likability is power–but power has a way of making women “unlikable.” Selina is at once a ruthless satire of this kind of double standard and a testament to Louis-Dreyfus’ singular ability to defy it. The audience can’t get enough of Selina, in all her awful glory.
“People like her, you know?” Louis-Dreyfus says, sipping coffee. “Despite the fact that she’s a horrible human being! People like her, and I think they root for her.”
Louis-Dreyfus speaks with the wonder of someone who knows from experience that hardly anyone ever roots for that kind of woman in real life. You can’t be evil–or rude or annoying or bitchy or ambitious–and still be beloved. In real life, those traits make you polarizing, problematic. From Lena Dunham to Hillary Clinton, we still struggle to make sense of difficult women–women who want power and respect despite being imperfect. As the comedian Michelle Wolf put it in a recent special, “If you’re in charge of something and think you’re a nice lady, no one else does.” (As the headliner of last year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Wolf managed to be so caustic that she got the tradition canceled; rather than a comedian, this year’s dinner will feature a white male historian who can be trusted not to offend.) It’s telling that there’s no masculine synonym for prima donna or diva–the talented woman who asks for too much.
Yet difficult women are having a bit of a moment, from Hollywood to the halls of power in Washington. Formerly blackballed actresses have taken down tormentors like Harvey Weinstein and Les Moonves who squelched their careers, kept them in their place and decided what kind of stories they could tell. Monica Lewinsky, once depicted as a villain, has re-emerged as a compelling and articulate activist. Tonya Harding and Lorena Bobbitt have been the subject of sympathetic re-evaluations. Feminists provoked by Trump and other male power brokers–wearing Nasty Woman and Nevertheless, She Persisted T-shirts–handed the House of Representatives back to the first female Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, who stood her ground and forced the President to cave on his demand for border-wall funding after a long government shutdown.
Comedy is changing too. Stand-up specials like Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette and shows like Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel have challenged assumptions about whether and how women get laughed at, and for what. Comedian Amy Schumer, who grew up watching Seinfeld, remembers finding the character of Elaine Benes revolutionary. “She didn’t do the things that we’re all taught, as women, to do: be selfless, control your impulses,” Schumer says. “She had no interest in filling that role we’d all been sold about how women were supposed to be. That probably contributed to my development as a person as well as a comedian.”
In comedy as in politics, everyone these days is trying to figure out the boundaries of acceptable behavior. The White House is occupied by an insult comic whose routines are laced with racism and sexism; meanwhile, comedians like Jerry Seinfeld grouse that they can’t crack a joke without rousing the PC police. Louis-Dreyfus professes little tolerance for this kind of complaint, noting that Veep has spent plenty of time satirizing sensitive political topics without causing controversy. “I think as soon as people start bitching about ‘politically correct,’ it’s a term for something else,” she says. “I’m in favor of political correctness. I’m suspicious of those who have a problem with it. I think it is language for something else–for ‘It’s O.K. to make racist jokes,’ or ‘It’s O.K. to make violence-against-women jokes.'” And yet, at a time when jokes are political and politics is a joke, America’s reigning queen of comedy is telling us it’s still O.K. to laugh.
Louis-Dreyfus is a morning person. Here in Ischgl, a ski village on the Swiss border that makes up in Old World charm for what it lacks in vowels, Louis-Dreyfus has been up for hours before breakfast, editing Veep (which she also executive-produces) on her laptop before heading to today’s film shoot.
Downhill is a mordant marital dramedy that’s more cringe-funny than ha-ha-funny. Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell play an upper-middle-class couple on a ski vacation whose marriage is shaken by a traumatic event. It’s the first movie she has produced as well as starred in, and the role comes at something of a pivot point in her career. The past two years have been a blur of milestones, both good and devastating: her father died; her sister died, at 44, of a drug overdose; she was treated for breast cancer; her younger child went off to college; she received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor; she won a record 11th Emmy, the most ever by a single performer. Now her cancer is in remission, and the empty nest makes it easier, she says, to do things like spend a couple of months in Austria, getting pelted with snow atop a glacier for her art.
In today’s scene, Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell sit next to each other on one side of a large desk, across from a bureaucrat with an intimidating red beard, played by Game of Thrones‘ Kristofer Hivju. (His cameo is a callback to the 2014 Swedish film on which Downhill is based, in which he played a different role.) “We wish to make a complaint,” Ferrell’s character says.
Louis-Dreyfus’ character leaps in to clarify. “There was an avalanche that caused alarm yesterday,” she says, her eyebrows arching to convey the import of what she’s saying. The avalanche catches the couple and their children by surprise, and the husband and wife’s differing reactions gradually drive a wedge in their relationship. The scene is an important one, revealing the shifting marital dynamic as Louis-Dreyfus finds herself caught between two men who refuse to validate her version of reality.
“Great, great, cut, cut,” calls Nat Faxon, one of the directors. Louis-Dreyfus comes off the set still wearing her character’s scowl. “Was it?” she says, consulting a monitor to make sure her arms were in the same place from one take to the next.
During a break, Ferrell, who’s working with Louis-Dreyfus for the first time, analyzes her comedic gifts. “It’s just her overall commitment to the character she’s playing, and the absurdity of it,” he says. “Not winking at the audience ever, but at the same time making fun of herself as the character.”
Louis-Dreyfus was born in New York City. Her father was the billionaire heir to the family industrial conglomerate, the Louis Dreyfus Group, which had interests in everything from shipping to natural gas. Her parents divorced when she was young, and she spent most of her childhood in Washington with her mother and stepfather. Growing up with pale, blond sisters, she considered herself the ugly duckling of the family, and has said she gravitated to comedy in part because she didn’t think she was pretty enough to be a starlet–which sounds ridiculous, given how stunning she is. But she wouldn’t be the first performer to use comedy as a combination of attention getter and defense mechanism.
During college at Northwestern University, she joined a Chicago theater troupe, where she stood out for her natural comic timing and willingness to do anything for a laugh. She also met the man who would become her husband, Brad Hall, a writer and producer. Hired by Saturday Night Live while still an undergraduate–she dropped out after her junior year–she moved to New York with Hall. But her three seasons on the landmark show were frustrating; she chafed at the lack of screen time and the male-dominated writers’ room. After leaving SNL, she spent a couple of years at loose ends, playing forgettable roles, until the script for Seinfeld came along. It was a smaller part than others she was considering, but she liked the writing.
Elaine had been an unwanted addition to the show. Seinfeld‘s creators envisioned a guy-centric sitcom; it was NBC that insisted they add a female lead. Louis-Dreyfus’ attitude and physicality made Elaine iconic. Yet the part was chronically underwritten at first, and she spent years agitating for richer story lines. “I didn’t think I was getting enough really meaty comedy stuff,” she said in a 2006 DVD-extra documentary about the series. “I had stuff, but it wasn’t, like, the really funny stuff.” Peter Mehlman, one of the writers, said at the time that they were more comfortable writing for the outlandish male characters. “The mandate back then from Larry [David] and Jerry [Seinfeld] was, ‘Write Elaine as if she were a guy,'” said Matt Goldman, another writer. On a show considered one of history’s finest, the only way the writers knew how to fully realize the character was to imagine she was male.
When Seinfeld ended in 1998, its stars struggled to move on. Louis-Dreyfus eventually found success with The New Adventures of Old Christine, a CBS comedy in which she played a divorced mom trying to navigate family and romance. (Most of Louis-Dreyfus’ characters have been single.) The show, for which she won an Emmy, ended in 2010 after five seasons. She also landed her first major movie role in 2013’s Enough Said. The film’s director, Nicole Holofcener, recalls Louis-Dreyfus competing with her late co-star James Gandolfini to make the most outlandish faces with the fart machine Holofcener brought to the set. Louis-Dreyfus, Holofcener says, had a way of making men listen to her and a habit of sticking up for other women. “When Jim wouldn’t listen to me–he’d say, ‘Aw, I can’t say that, I sound like a pussy’–Julia would sock him in the arm and say, ‘C’mon, listen to her. She knows what she’s doing.'”
Holofcener also directed Louis-Dreyfus in a memorable 2015 guest role on Inside Amy Schumer, a skit titled “Last F-ckable Day.” Louis-Dreyfus plays herself–an actress of a certain age, picnicking in the forest with her friends Tina Fey and Patricia Arquette, celebrating a bittersweet milestone: the point at which women in Hollywood tip from playing men’s love interests to playing their mothers. Other actresses, Schumer says, had turned down the role, but Louis-Dreyfus was game. “It speaks to how brave and down to comment on this clear but unspoken thing she was,” Schumer tells me. The skit has since become something of a touchstone for women in all kinds of fields. Both Louis-Dreyfus and Holofcener say the filming of it left them shaken as the truth of the gag hit home.
Over the course of her career, Louis-Dreyfus has offered mentorship as well as inspiration to younger female comics. Abbi Jacobson, co-creator and star of the antic millennial slacker comedy Broad City, saw in Elaine a woman who could be goofy and dumb without being the butt of a man’s joke. “The characters we created,” she says, “are a direct result of watching that and being allowed to be that as a woman.” Jacobson’s co-creator, Ilana Glazer, cherishes Selina. “She’s like a coach for living in a man’s world,” Glazer says. “She proves how much badder women are, because we receive so much f-cking trash, and we turn it into artillery.”
Louis-Dreyfus sees progress in the advances women have made in the entertainment industry. “There’s more opportunity for women in comedic roles than 20 or 30 years ago,” she says. “There’s more opportunity for roles that are not just the wife–the exasperated wife–or the girlfriend.” She smirks and rolls her eyes. “The adoring, hot girlfriend.”
The next day, Louis-Dreyfus, bundled up in a long, red Canada Goose parka, gets on a gondola to go up the mountain, where she’s overseeing a scene at an outdoor restaurant. After we get off, she bends down and plucks a cigarette butt out of the snow. She keeps it pinched between two fingers as she walks through the ski lodge to where Ferrell and the actor Zach Woods are lying on chaise longues. Then she hands the butt to Ferrell. It’s a running joke between them–“a bit we’re doing,” she tells me later.
“Oh, thank you, I love it!” Ferrell says, accepting the sodden butt. “Anybody got a light?”
Some comedy legends have learned lately that there is behavior they can no longer get away with. Of Louis CK, who’s been trying to come back from his sexual-misconduct scandal by, of all things, mocking mass-shooting survivors, Louis-Dreyfus says she was “offended by his most recent comments,” but also that he’s a talented comedian.
Of Al Franken, the Saturday Night Live performer turned Senator who resigned after multiple women accused him of inappropriate touching, she says she hopes he makes a comeback. “He was and is an intelligent leader who got things done,” she says, the jagged peaks forming a panorama behind her. “He was on the right side of the issues.” What he’s accused of, she says, “pales in comparison to what else is going on out there. This #MeToo revolution, I’m very much in favor of it, but it takes no prisoners.” (Weeks later, she follows up with a phone call to clarify that her “default position is to believe victims.”)
Growing up in D.C. gave Louis-Dreyfus an instinctive understanding of Veep‘s milieu. Politics was ever present, but in an atmospheric, company-town sort of way. “Susan Ford went to my high school,” she recalls of the 38th President’s daughter, “but she was much older than me, so unfortunately, when they had the prom at the White House, I wasn’t able to go.” Another graduate of the Holton-Arms School was Christine Blasey Ford, who last year accused Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of assaulting her in high school. (Kavanaugh denies it.) The two weren’t contemporaries, but Louis-Dreyfus was one of 200 alumnae who signed a letter in support of Ford during last fall’s confirmation drama.
D.C. insiders have long agreed that Veep nails Washington better than any other show. The West Wing, they say, is what people wish politics was like, but Veep is what it’s really like. When it began in 2012, President Obama had just been re-elected, and much of the show’s mockery targeted the political world’s fussiness, formality and status-consciousness. Representative Katherine Clark, a Democrat from Massachusetts, has long been a fan; one of her favorite scenes features Selina, bedridden with flu, pulling herself together to film a televised address to the nation, then collapsing in her bathrobe. “It just goes to the difference between the curated presentation of her vs. the actuality,” Clark says.
The show’s writers and producers, including Louis-Dreyfus, labor over details, taking advantage of pols’ fandom to consult them for verisimilitude. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan used to discuss the show with her late colleague Antonin Scalia. Vice President Joe Biden once had Louis-Dreyfus into his office for lunch, then whisked her along in the motorcade for a visit to the CIA, according to a former aide.
When Selina ran for President in Season 4, Louis-Dreyfus and a crew of writers sat down with former presidential candidate Mitt Romney for a lengthy debriefing. “I’m waiting for some kind of Emmy or whatever for passing that along,” says Romney, now a Senator, of the wisdom he imparted. A Seinfeld die-hard, Romney says his favorite episode is “The Merv Griffin Show,” adding, “I also quite enjoyed the Soup Nazi and Rusty, the farting horse.” He’s fond of Veep, too: “They make sure to be close enough to the truth to be uncomfortable,” he says, though he allows that he wishes it had less swearing, which isn’t the norm among his own political staff. “People are very gentle to me,” he says. “They realize I have such tender sensibilities.”
There’s a peculiar challenge to political comedy in the Trump era, as an unconventional presidency gives new currency to the idea that truth is stranger than fiction. During the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton’s communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, and her deputy, Christina Reynolds, watched Veep compulsively in their shared Brooklyn apartment. “Running against Donald Trump, it sometimes felt like we were living in a Veep episode,” Reynolds says. “It was escapist for a while, but then it was kind of real.” When Trump does something surreal on camera–like trying and failing to get the President of Mexico on speakerphone, or forgetting to sign a bill during a signing ceremony–fans often superimpose the footage on Veep‘s distinctive closing credits.
What Louis-Dreyfus has learned about politicians, she says, is that “they’re just people. That’s all. Which is in one way comforting, and in another quite terrifying, given all the responsibility that they carry.” Most of them, she believes, are trying to do the right thing. Louis-Dreyfus, whose Twitter profile shows her in a pink pussy hat, isn’t so sure Trump fits that category. “He’d be funny if he didn’t have the power he has,” she says. “He’s sort of a pretend, fake President. He’s a complete moron, start to finish.”
There’s no reference to Trump in Veep, which takes place in a fictional world and doesn’t identify Selina’s political party, though it’s implied that she’s a Democrat. But in the coming final season, the humor had to become more outrageous to meet the moment, Louis-Dreyfus says. Situations that once seemed absurd–like the episode in which Selina tries to hunt down the anonymous staffer who called her the C word, only to find that everyone is guilty–now seem like toned-down versions of a real-life White House where senior officials take to the New York Times to accuse their boss of mental instability.
In the new season, Jonah Ryan, the lunkheaded staffer turned pol played by Timothy Simons, runs for President on a platform of unabashed idiocy. “You have the second lowest vaccination rate in the nation,” he tells a crowd at one point. “When I’m President, you’ll be No. 1!” It might be funnier if there weren’t currently a measles outbreak in Washington State, which experts attribute to vaccination skeptics. Or if Trump hadn’t spread the debunked conspiracy theory linking vaccines and autism, including in 2015 during a presidential-primary debate.
After an hour or so on the freezing mountaintop, we go inside the ski lodge to warm up–pushing past pink-cheeked skiers speaking German–to a dark room reserved for the film crew. For all her success, Louis-Dreyfus is still pushing for what she deserves. She has finally gained the creative control she spent so long demanding, and she plans to keep it that way. “It was a hard fight for me to be able to produce my own material,” she says, leaning forward in her chair and resting her elbows on the table. “That was a long yim2005.infoing. There was a lot of pushback. But, you know, I prevailed.”
How, I ask, did she know she could do it, when the world kept telling her she couldn’t? What made her so sure? Louis-Dreyfus tilts her head and pauses. When she speaks, it’s with steely clarity: “I can honestly say that I have a sh-t ton of experience when it comes to making entertainment. So I think I have …” She stops, detects the note of insecurity in her phrasing, and decides to edit it out. “I don’t think,” she says, “I have a lot to add.”
This appears in the March 11, 2019 issue of News time.