With Seinfeld and Veep under her belt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus is officially one of TV’s most successful talents. We’ll try not to get an inferiority complex
Words: Catherine Gray Photography: Rex Features
Before there was Lena Dunham or Tina Fey there was Julia Louis-Dreyfus, an actress who dominated American TV and showed the world that she is a master of smart, savvy humour. She is funny. Infectious, sweary, record-breaking number of Emmy nominations funny. At 25, Louis-Dreyfus was cast as Elaine Benes; the female star of now-iconic sitcom Seinfeld (immortalising the ‘Little Kicks’ dance in the process – definitely worth a google), before going on to star as the ruthless yet likeable Vice President Selina Meyer in Veep, winning three Emmys along the way. Tina Fey even based 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon on her. So, in case you were in any doubt, we are in the presence of comic royalty.
In person Louis-Dreyfus is utterly disarming. She is a 5ft 3 powerhouse of positive energy with a filthy, irrepressible laugh. She waves away attempts from someone offering her a drink, “No, no, don’t worry about that,” she says pouring us both a water. Unlike many comedians, who can be more dour than expected in real life, Louis-Dreyfus smiles constantly and has a knowing, ‘I’d be amazing to drink dirty martinis with’ manner. And we are in the room all alone. No publicist, no PA. Celebrities who do this are as rare as snow leopards. It speaks of two things: an easy-going humility. And a quiet confidence that she can handle any curveball questions I might throw her way.
ABOVE: Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Enough Said
Currently in the throes of a punishing publicity schedule for new romantic comedy, Enough Said, Louis-Dreyfus has just stepped off the red carpet at the UK premiere before heading to our meeting at London’s Hampshire Hotel, yet she’s as luminous and upbeat as if she’s been to a spa day.
In a nutshell, Enough Said explores dating in later life with wit, warmth and grace – never reducing the protagonists to fifty-something caricatures (Louis-Dreyfus is now 52). Something for which the film has been met with wild applause (I cried but left feeling uplifted and charmed). As Eva and Albert, Louis-Dreyfus and her co-star the late James Gandolfini play divorcees who fall for each other; their on-screen chemistry warm and believable, despite the physically unlikely pairing (6ft 3 Gandolfini dwarfs her). But, in a humdinger of a moral dilemma, Eva accidentally befriends Albert’s ex and can’t resist pumping her for information on the man they share in common. “She’s a good person, but she does this terrible thing,” says Louis-Dreyfus. “I can understand why she does it though. Good people are capable of making horrible mistakes. That doesn’t make them bad people.”
Tragically Enough Said was Gandolfini’s last screen role before his death in June aged just 51. “Jim was nothing like Tony Soprano – he was a big softie,” she says, her voice cracking. “He was the person on set who made sure the guys sat out in the hot sun had an umbrella. A tiny thing, but which speaks of a much bigger compassion.”
ABOVE: With James Gandolfini in Enough Said
After training with improvisation group The Second City and The Practical Theatre Group, Louis- Dreyfus was snapped up to perform on Saturday Night Live aged 21. “It wasn’t a female friendly environment. I didn’t write, so I didn’t show up with a bagful of characters. It was like grad school for show business, I learned so much there. When I went back six years ago to host, it was much friendlier,” she beams. “Kristen Wiig and Tina Fey were there and it was a shining moment in my career, like opening a time capsule, being able to go back to that set and bring all the knowledge I’d gleaned to it.”
The question of whether women can be as successful at comedy as men has never troubled her. “It’s moronic. Of course women are funny,” she exclaims. “If you’re thinking about gender, it will get in your way, so you have to toss it aside and push forward.”
ABOVE: Julia on the red carpet
She too ignores ‘The Seinfeld curse’ (there was a lot of media speculation after its nine-year run that the stars of the show would never be able to achieve such stellar success again). Indeed, it’s something Louis-Dreyfus has poked fun at repeatedly; when winning one of her Emmys she held the award aloft crying out, “Curse this, baby!” “The media love to construct these curses out of thin air and hone-in on any slight negative as ‘proof of the curse!’” she sighs. “The Seinfeld Curse, The Cheers Curse, The Friends Curse, they’ve done it with every comic sitcom. I just call it the ‘continuing-to-have-a-career-in-show- business curse’ because that’s what it is, essentially. It’s really hard to hit it out of the park once in this industry, let alone twice. It’s not just the writing, or the casting, it’s so many other things aligning. It’s a miracle when it happens.”
But lightning has stuck twice for Louis-Dreyfus, because the political comedy Veep, in which she plays the lead, is hilarious. The Huffington Post named her, “One of the funniest people ever” in the wake of the first two series and a third has just been commissioned. “Playing Selina has definitely made me more sympathetic to politicians and their predicament,” she says, sounding surprised. “It’s so tricky for politicians to hang onto their morals and survive politically, I don’t know how they actually do it.”
And how has Washington reacted to her take on politics? “I was invited by Joe Biden for lunch at The White House actually,” she admits. “It was mind-blowing. All his staff started introducing themselves as characters from the show. ‘Hi, I’m the Dan Egan of the office,’ and ‘Hi, I’m the Sue,’ and so on, which was so neat. There was a lot of talk about me basing my character on Sarah Palin, but I didn’t at all, I can only assume it’s because I look a bit like her,” she shrugs.
In real life politics, Louis-Dreyfus’ heart lies with environmental concerns. Her home in California is solar powered, radiant-heated and built by recycled materials. “I like clean water better than dirty water and clean air better than dirty air, it’s a basic human right. I think of celebrity as like a bank account, I spend the collateral on issues that are important to me.”
ABOVE: In the Seinfeld days
Louis-Dreyfus lives with her husband of 26 years, producer Brad Hall and their two sons, Henry, 21, and Charles, 16. “I work hard at making my husband and sons my priority and that seems to have paid off,” she says. “It’s so easy to get seduced by the smoke and mirrors of this nutjob business – particularly when you live in LA – that it’s been great to have Brad as a constant anchor. He can drive me bananas. But I really like him, y’know?” It reminds her of Enough Said. “Even the best relationship is going to have fundamental flaws. The notion of a perfect relationship is a myth. They all have bumps – and we have lumps – and that’s all perfectly lovely.” I can’t resist asking her for her advice on finding long-term love. “Well, you could marry my husband,” she laughs. “He’s great. I’ll get you his number later,” she winks. I love her a bit more.
Louis-Dreyfus doesn’t have her Emmys on display in her office. But what she does have aptly sums up her self-effacing personality. “When I got my star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, they misspelled my name,” she explains. “They left out the ‘o’ in Louis. I thought it was hilarious. Now I have it hanging in my office as a reminder not to think too much of myself. There’s always going to be people who misspell your name.”
Enough Said is in cinemas now
Veep is on Sky Atlantic HD on Wednesdays at 10.35pm