(Oh, Columbia, don’t get your panties twisted. She doesn’t mean it in a bad way.)
On a recent afternoon, Louis-Dreyfus and the rest of the cast and crew are putting in a long day finishing the last few scenes in“Veep’s” much-anticipated second season, which begins airing Sunday night. During a short break, Louis-Dreyfus is wearing jeans, a snug black top and comfy boots. She is curled up in the sort of enormous reclining chair you see only in VIP trailers and man caves.
From the neck up, she is veeped-out and ready for the rest of the day’s scenes, sporting the careful, chin-length tresses of her character, Vice President Selina Meyer. It’s a wig (It’s a wig?), which has the appropriate effect of making Selina’s head look a tad too large.
Speaking of hair, at one point in Sunday’s season premiere, Selina must endure a grueling round of 27 satellite interviews on the local affiliate morning news show circuit. She’s working on no sleep, having spent the night watching midterm election losses that have sent the White House into a tailspin. To make it just that much more taxing, Selina’s hair has been blown out into a hideous Lady Bird helmet. It’s another tiny but perfect detail in what has to come feel like the only show that has ever gotten the mundane absurdity of Washington.
In “Veep,” Selina is mainly the victim of her own hubris, casting about on a sea of political whim and raw ambition. Her frequent public gaffes travel at the speed of tweet, leaving her in a perpetual state of damage control.
But what the public sees of Selina is nothing compared with what goes down in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where the vice president is a foul-mouthed, egocentric boss surrounded by an inept and panicky staff, all but one of whom are more concerned with their careers than Selina’s political agenda. The exception would be Gary Walsh (played by Tony Hale), Selina’s loyal “bag man,” who follows at her side and anticipates her every need — whether it’s a quick squirt of hand sanitizer, the reapplication of a particular shade of coral lipstick, or whispering the name and personal details of the muckety-muck seconds before Selina shakes his hand (an act of lip-syncing the veep’s staff refers to as “Gary-oke”).
“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.”
“In one way, it’s a role that’s built on the roles [Louis-Dreyfus] has played before,” Iannucci says of her work on “Veep.” “And in another way, it’s the anti-version of all those roles. This isn’t some sweetie, and Julia is quite happy to portray her brutally if need be.”
The show works, Louis-Dreyfus says, because “it’s not noble.” This is a TV version of Washington that, at long last, is neither scandalous nor intriguing nor Shakespearean in scope and feel; nor does it buy into the notion that Washington operates under a master plan. It’s a wallow in the town’s most narcissistic tendencies, which has nothing to do with shaping history.
“Veep” has been a critical hit, and Louis-Dreyfus won an Emmy for it. This season, Iannucci says, the story pushes further toward the Oval Office, bringing on new characters (including Gary Cole as a preening adviser), and exposes some of Selina’s deeper vulnerabilities. She gets a larger role in a foreign crisis; her ambitions grow, but her staff grows weary of her outbursts. On this particular day of filming, actors Reid Scott and Anna Chlumsky shoot several takes of a scene in which their characters, Dan Egan and Amy Brookheimer, catch each other applying for new jobs. “She’s not a commander-in-chief,” Amy says. “She’s a demander-in-chief.”
When the camera’s not rolling, Louis-Dreyfus drops the Selina act immediately, but she retains some of its sense of control. When she’s in the room, everyone watches her. The cast has been shooting since November, with only short breaks here and there, and a sense of camaraderie has settled in. Although “Veep” draws heavily on the fact that many of its players have improv chops, the writing still comes first; scenes are shot over and over (and over) so that they can be densely compacted in the editing stage. At both the table reads and between takes, the cast is encouraged to come up with ways to make it more funny.
“We laugh [bleepin’] hard on this show,” Louis-Dreyfus says, so much so that she has had to revert to an old trick she used during the mirthful “Seinfeld” days, curling her fingernails into her palms to keep from cracking up. “It’s very corny but it’s the honest truth that we just like one another. And it makes being away from home palatable. I think if I was doing some sort of intrigue-murder-detective-something show and it had a darkness to it, it would be hard to be away.”
“I love that woman,” cast member Sufe Bradshaw (who plays Selina’s no-nonsense executive assistant, Sue Wilson) says of Louis-Dreyfus. “She’s the first one in to work and the last one out, and she’s always trying to make something better . . . working on getting the funniest product that one can get. [During a script reading] she makes the entire table laugh.”
Iannucci agrees: “She’s unstarry. If she thinks it’s funnier that someone else says the line besides her, she’ll be the first to suggest that. She just wants to be part of the gang because fundamentally what really excites her is doing funny stuff with other people.”
Washington can actually claim Louis-Dreyfus, in the way it can claim anyone. When she was a little girl, her parents divorced in New York; her mother married surgeon L. Thompson Bowles, who became dean of the George Washington University school of medicine.
The family lived in the Spring Valley section of Northwest Washington; Julia went to Holton-Arms, the private girls school. She remembers how, in fourth grade, she and a friend sang “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” at a charity event. Someone told Julia that Art Buchwald was going to be in the audience. “And I remember thinking to myself, ‘I’m going to make it in Hollywood.’ Art Buchwald is going to be there, and somehow this meant he would hear me sing ‘Raindrops.’ I didn’t get a call or anything, but I felt as though it went well.”
She remembers 1970s Washington as a conservative place in a conservative time. The business of politics was all around. One girl’s dad ran the CIA; Susan Ford came and went with her Secret Service detail. At Holton-Arms, teenage Julia appeared in a string of school plays (“Harvey,” “You Can’t Take It With You,” “I Remember Mama”), and, she says, “I was interested in student government, but mostly because I got to get up in front of people and make jokes while talking about the whatever-it-was — the honor code or something.” She’s been to a couple of reunions of the class of ’79, and she keeps in touch with a core group of friends from those days. One of her closest friends in Los Angeles is someone she’s known since third grade.
“What’s it like to be a teenage girl anywhere, period? It sucks,” Louis-Dreyfus says, racking her brain to come up with any grand thoughts or telling anecdotes about growing up in Washington. “I don’t know, I ate a lot of Montgomery Donuts. What else? The usual, going to Georgetown and trying to get into bars with fake IDs. Dances at Landon School. . . .
“Listen, in a lot of ways it was fantastic. But I think Washington feels groovier now to me than it did in the ’70s,” she says.
“Well, I don’t know. You tell me. I just get that sense. Maybe it’s because I’m older,” she says. “We certainly have a groovier president.” (Louis-Dreyfus has been an ardent supporter of President Obama, although she has publicly dinged the administration on what she perceives to be its lagging environmental agenda.)
Rich says he thinks Louis-Dreyfus draws a little bit on her background as a child of upper-class Washington to play Selina. But being a celebrity helps more. “She kind of lives a little bit of Selina’s life already, because of who she is,” he says. “I’ve seen it. If she goes to a restaurant, people will be looking at her, and she has to put that smile on even when she doesn’t want to. People come up to her and want to talk to her” — about “Seinfeld,” usually — “and clearly she’s very tired after a day of filming, but she’ll do it.”
“That world, being a political leader, Washington, is very similar to the life in Hollywood,” Louis-Dreyfus says. “There’s a lot to tap into, just from my own experience
. . .
I relate to [Selina] in a lot of ways. I hope I’m not an unkind person like she can be, but I understand an aspect of her frustration. I understand her desire to succeed. Which is fundamentally what’s going on here. She is thwarted. And I love to be able to play someone whose ego and narcissism are allowed to bloom fully, in an environment where that is allowed to be — until it isn’t and then it is utterly shut down. I mean, I get it. And that she’s stymied by herself, her rage. Her frustration is almost paralyzing, and she can’t get beyond it.”
She laughs. “It’s just a good area. It’s a really good area.”