“When my agent told me that [HBO was] developing a series about an unhappy vice president, I said ‘I have got to play that part,’ ” Louis-Dreyfus says. “I totally get this person, I totally understand her. It’s these in-between moments that are the most fun for me. I just like what happens there. I like the fakery [of Selina’s public appearances], and I like the moments where she comes out of the fakery. The rawness to it, the peeled-back-layer aspect. The moments you’re not supposed to witness.”
At 52, Louis-Dreyfus can afford to be picky. She doesn’t have to play Jonah Hill’s mother in a road comedy. (Unless she wanted to. If it came to that.) The “Seinfeld” residuals alone would suffice; her last series, “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” ran five seasons on CBS and also made syndication. There is also the fact, which nobody ever asks her about, that she comes from a long line of Louis-Dreyfuses, a family that traces its shipping and commodities fortunes back to mid-19th-century France. The Internet insists she’ll inherit billions!
Her celebrityhood appears remarkably manageable from the outside. It feels safe to stipulate that everyone likes Julia Louis-Dreyfus — everyone except perhaps the people intent on finishing the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which she has campaigned against.
She seems normal, like a woman you would actually know, thanks to the infinity loop of “Seinfeld” reruns and her tart appearances on talk shows, where she says whatever she wants and never misses a beat. She laughs a lot, mostly at herself. When she was a senior at Northwestern University, she and her boyfriend, Brad Hall, got plucked out of a comedy improv troupe and dropped into the cast of “Saturday Night Live” in the unenviable wake of the original cast. Hall and Louis-Dreyfus were married in 1987, and they still are. (They live in California and have two sons — Charles, 15, and Henry, 20, who goes to Wesleyan University.)
When “Christine” ended in 2010, British film director and TV producer Armando Iannucci was already developing a show for HBO in which the United States’s first female vice president would find herself stuck in a dead-end job. All they knew was the character was not going to be a parody of Sarah Palin, which would have been too easy and already old news. Iannucci likes comedy rooted in that sweet spot of utter awkwardness and embarrassment; his hit “The Thick of It” was a realistic comedy about the inner workings of British government, which was followed by his film “In the Loop,” a 9/11-era farce about warmongering.
HBO suggested Iannucci talk to Louis-Dreyfus about the vice president role, and, in a single lunch meeting, the two became fast friends. What works about “Veep” is that it isn’t about politics so much as it’s about the dark art of being political. We never learn what party Selina belongs to, and, in a real stroke of genius, we never see the president she nominally serves.
“The conception was always that [Selina] would be boxed in a job that had all the trappings of power and no actual power, surrounded by a bunch of staff who are so desperate to have any power that they’ll fight over a socket in which to plug a BlackBerry,” says “Veep” Executive Producer Frank Rich, the former New York Times columnist who now writes for New York magazine and is on the set most days, serving as one of the show’s sage sources for Washington verisimilitude. “I think we always wanted to make sure that the character was not ‘I Love Lucy’ goes to Washington.”