Julia Louis-Dreyfus is the Lucille Ball of this era, an Emmy-laden comedian who’s both executive and actress. And she’d like you to know she’s A) fearless, B) ‘not interested in being the eye-rolling wife’ and, yes, C) ‘still pretty f—able'
In early 2013, Julia Louis-Dreyfus received what she considered the ultimate fan note.
"Dear Julia," it began, "Hope you get everything you want as Veep — gun control, immigration and education reform." The letterhead read Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State.
For Louis-Dreyfus, it was more than flattery. Here was confirmation, at the highest level, of just how much her HBO comedy had won the respect of the finicky Beltway crowd.
Then, some two years later, Louis-Dreyfus would learn of a second document — the note behind the note, as it were. This one, dated around the same time and unveiled as part of a batch of exposed Clinton emails, was from the secretary of state to her then-aide, Robert V. Russo.
“A friend wants me to sign something for Julia Lewis-Dreyfus for Veep. Any ideas?” Clinton wrote, her question (and mangling of the star’s name) suggesting unfamiliarity with the series. Russo responded: “Let me brainstorm on this one/do some research. I confess I haven’t seen the show!”
When I ask the seven-time Emmy winner whether she was piqued that Clinton might not be the loyal viewer she professed to be, Louis-Dreyfus cocks back her head of thick black curls and laughs. “Are you kidding?” she says. “I mean, it’s perfect — just perfect.” The joke, she understood, was on her, as if ripped from a Veep script. Louis-Dreyfus — whose on-set hairstylist has worked with Clinton and had relayed the actress’ admiration to her — keeps both notes framed side by side in her office.
That instinct to embrace the humor of almost any situation helped Louis-Dreyfus, 55, eclipse a similarly fearless performer, Lucille Ball, to become the most nominated comedy actress in television history. She also is the only one to have taken home Emmys for three different series — Seinfeld, The New Adventures of Old Christine and now Veep, for which she has won four consecutive times. One could convincingly argue she has nothing left to prove on the small screen; and yet, when Veep returns for its fifth season April 24, the spotlight will be on her in an entirely new way. For the first time, the show will be without its auteur, Armando Iannucci, who announced last spring that he'd be moving on. Under normal circumstances, that may have marked the end of the show — "When a creator says, 'I think I'm done,' we usually agree," says HBO president of programming Michael Lombardo — but Louis-Dreyfus wasn't ready to relinquish the role of Selina Meyer.
"This is not the kind of thing that's going to come along a lot," she says over an early April lunch on the fifth-story patio of Freds at Barneys in Beverly Hills. She is all too aware that roles like Meyer, a powerful if utterly reprehensible politician who has risen to the highest office, are not being offered in film, where Louis-Dreyfus has never built much of a career. "I'm not interested in being the wisecracking this or that or the eye-rolling wife," she says of the stereotypical roles she famously lampooned in the Inside Amy Schumer sketch "Last F—able Day" (more on that later). "Those roles are out there, and they've come my way, but I'm not doing that. I'm bored shitless by that."
The other reason she pushed to keep Veep going, of course, is that the craziness of the presidential campaign gives the series a fresh and starkly different orientation to reality. "Originally, this show was meant to be a political satire, and now I feel as if it's more a somber documentary," says the actress, a longtime Democrat who intends to get involved in the current election, though when and with whom remains a tightly guarded secret. She takes no pains to hide her outrage as she continues: "Certain candidates say things, and if you were to lift the language and put it into our show, we'd get notes back from HBO saying, 'It's too broad, too over-the-top.' "
The real-world contest and its coterie of larger-than-life characters will not be reflected in any way during the new season, which Louis-Dreyfus insists isn't noticeably different without Iannucci. To ensure as seamless a transition as possible, she personally recruited new showrunner David Mandel, with whom she worked on Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and has stepped up her involvement as an executive producer. Castmates say they often find Louis-Dreyfus on the Los Angeles set on her rare nonshooting days, posted up at video village pitching bits or monitoring for continuity. "Julia's obviously not in the writers room every second, but she might as well be," notes Mandel. "This is very much her show now."
If you believe the Louis-Dreyfus family lore, she first discovered a passion for performing at age 3, when her decision to stick a wad of raisins up her nose drew big laughs. That the gag also sent the budding comic to the ER is a minor detail. "I don't remember a time when I didn't want to perform," she says between bites of her chopped salad.
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