Julia Louis-Dreyfus will forever be known to millions as Elaine Benes, the character she played for nine seasons on Seinfeld. But she was also an early cast member of Saturday Night Live, and she won the Emmy for Best Comedy Actress while starring in the CBS series The New Adventures of Old Christine, which ran for five seasons after Seinfeld.
Now she's starring in a new HBO comedy called Veep, in which she plays Vice President Selina Meyer, a former senator struggling to exert power and influence from an office much of Washington regards as irrelevant and powerless. The series finds comedy in the awkwardness of the vice president's role, and in the interactions between Meyer and her staff, who are alternately fawning and cynically ambitious.
To prepare for the role, Louis-Dreyfus met with former vice presidents, speechwriters, lobbyists, chiefs of staffs, senators and schedulers. What struck her during her research in Washington, she says, was just how insular Beltway culture can be.
"It sort of feels like it's the only universe when you're there," she tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "I remember that a woman who was a scheduler for a senator saying, really very proudly, that she slept with her BlackBerry on her pillow right next to her head, just in case she was needed while she was sleeping. And I thought that that was extraordinary."
After arriving back on set, Louis-Dreyfus created an elaborate back story for Meyer, a career politician who spent many years in the Senate and once had aspirations for even higher office.
"But then a couple of things happened — an incident with a hat and the eating of a corn dog," says Louis-Dreyfus. "She began her fall from grace and ultimately came in third in the [presidential] nominating process, and then was asked to join the ticket."
Louis-Dreyfus says her character is someone who is used to power, but remains powerless.
"I play it as if that circumstance has a way of paralyzing her," she says. "That's how I justify certain hiccups that she has. Her agenda is often clashing with the agenda of the president. ... It's a mess, and if it weren't a mess, it wouldn't be funny, of course."
Louis-Dreyfus certainly knows what's funny. After discovering improv comedy in college, she was asked to join the cast of Saturday Night Live when she was just 21 years old. She says it wasn't a great time for women on the show, and that she never felt like she fit in.
But there was one bright spot. On the set, she met Seinfeld's co-creator Larry David, who worked as a writer for the show for exactly one season.
"He was miserable," she says. "He didn't get a single sketch on. He did get one sketch on, but it was cut between dress [rehearsal] and air. So we sort of bonded in misery, and there you go."
Their friendship on the set of SNL led to Louis-Dreyfus' iconic role as Seinfeld's Elaine. She says she liked the concept from the moment it was pitched.
"I remember thinking, 'This show is so unusual. I can't imagine people are going to be with it,' " she says. "Because it didn't resemble anything that was on television at the time. It really didn't."
On 'Saturday Night Live'
"I was very young, and I was very naive. And I was coming from college and doing theater work with my friends, and we would all work really hard as an ensemble to make the best possible show. So there was sort of an earnestness that I took with me to doing SNL that really had no place. I didn't understand the politics and the dynamics of the show — that it wasn't everybody all linking arms and working together in that same way. I also went in thinking I would just work with writers; I didn't go in with characters that I worked and worked and worked on. I was not a writer myself. I can write with people, but me and a blank page and a pen, that doesn't always work out. So I was somewhat unprepared."
On the 'He. Took. It. Out.' scene from 'Seinfeld'
"I think that scene is exceptionally well-written. It was really a question of how not to mess it up. Because that was just so artful, that writing. And the tricky part with that scene is that that scene in particular is all about timing in a weird kind of way. All comedy's about timing, but this scene in particular had a rhythm to it. And then you had to factor in the laughs into the rhythms. And I remember it that night, thinking, 'This is not how we rehearsed it because of the laughs.' And I'm not complaining, but it did alter things a little bit. There are pauses there that we didn't really have, as I recall, in rehearsal."
On fame after 'Seinfeld'
"People feel very comfortable coming up to me and hugging me and engaging. And of course I understand that. I'm in their living rooms. I get it, I really do. I'm also very short. I don't have a physically imposing presence. So maybe I'm not intimidating. I don't know what it is. And the reality is, the vast majority of people who come up are unbelievably gracious. I really do consider myself lucky. So for the most part, I'm happy to engage. Maybe not the hugging so much, but talking is certainly fine."
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Our first guest, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, will forever be known to millions as Elaine Benes, the character she played for nine seasons on "Seinfeld." But she was an early cast member of "Saturday Night Live" and won an Emmy for Best Comedy Actress starring in the CBS series "The New Adventures of Old Christine," which ran for five seasons after "Seinfeld."
Now she's starring in a new HBO comedy series called "Veep," in which she plays Vice President Selena Meyer, a former senator struggling to exert power and influence from an office much of Washington regards as irrelevant and powerless. The series finds comedy in the awkwardness of the vice president's role, and in the interactions between Meyer and her staff, who are alternately fawning and cynically ambitious.
Here's a scene from "Veep" in which the vice president, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, has discovered an opening in her schedule she wants to fill. Her staff are played by Anna Chlumsky, Matt Walsh and Reid Scott.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "VEEP")
JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Vice President Selena Meyer) Come on, let's go somewhere. Let's meet the public.
MATT WALSH: (as Mike McLintock) You want to normalize it?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Meyer) Yes, exactly. I want to meet some regular normals. Where are we going to find them?
WALSH: (as Mike) Photo-ops with the normals and the normalistas.
ANNA CHLUMSKY: (as Amy Brookheimer) There's a book fair in, um, Adams Morgan.
REID SCOTT: (as Dan Egan) Oh my God, that's too dull.
WALSH: (as Mike) You're not going to get a good photo holding a book. You need something active.
CHLUMSKY: (as Amy) Kids read or something, like read.
WALSH: (as Mike) Kids are unpredictable. They wet their pants.
SCOTT: (as Dan) Keep it simple, keep it simple, ma'am, frozen yogurt is huge in this town right now. All right, it's hot out. Let's go to a store. There's one that I know that I go to all the time on U Street. It's owned by three generations of African-Americans. I mean, there's a narrative built right in.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Meyer) Done, excellent, it's perfect, done deal. We can totally normalize with those guys. That's what we're going to do. Make it happen, guys.
DAVIES: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: Thank you.
DAVIES: Or should I say welcome back, Madam Vice President?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LOUIS-DREYFUS: Yeah, I prefer that.
DAVIES: OK, we'll try and stick with that or at least maintain a certain amount of respect and protocol.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: I've gotten very used to being called that. It's rather peculiar.
DAVIES: Yeah, a little heady. How did you prepare for this role, being the vice president?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: I met with a lot of people on Capitol Hill. I met with a couple of vice presidents, speechwriters, lobbyists, chiefs of staff in various offices, senators, schedulers, you know, the list goes on. I watched a lot of C-SPAN, and I've met some politicians, you know, along the way in my life, even prior to this project.
DAVIES: As you had these conversations with politicians and political operatives and staff members, give us a sense of what you learned that - what kind of questions you asked and what tips you picked up or insights that helped inform your performance.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: I was very much struck by how insular Capitol Hill and the land of politics is, not dissimilarly from show business, to tell you the truth. You know, it sort of feels like it's the only universe when you're there.
I remember that a woman who was a scheduler for a senator saying, really very proudly, that she slept with her BlackBerry on her pillow right next to her head, just in case she was needed while she was sleeping. And I thought that that was extraordinary and that she was boasting about it. And I just thought that is amazing.
DAVIES: It occurs that your character is - she's the vice president. We don't learn what political party your character Selena Meyer is, not that much about her political career and kind of inherently has ambitions that maybe exceed her talents. But she can't be a fool, either. I mean, nobody who gets to be vice president doesn't have something on the ball and some accomplishments.
I wonder, as you developed this, was there sort of a sweet spot you had to find between someone who is competent but maybe not too competent and kind of neurotic?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: Yeah, totally. I mean, you know, buffoonery is funny, let's face it, and you'll see as the series sort of unfolds, you will see her behave competently in certain situations. But she's betwixt and between, you know. She is somebody who's used to power. She's in a powerful position, and yet she's powerless at the same time.
And it has a - that circumstance, I play it as if that circumstance has a way of paralyzing her. So that's how I sort of justify certain so-called hiccups that she has. You know, her agenda is often clashing with the agenda of the president. And how does one survive under those circumstances? It's a mess, and if it weren't a mess, it wouldn't be funny, of course. So, you know, we keep it messy.
DAVIES: Right, right. I thought we'd listen to another clip. In this scene, you have just, as the vice president, have just met with a senator who you're trying to get to support a bill that you're backing. And it kind of didn't go as planned, and you've just come back from the meeting and are kind of confessing what happened to your staff.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: The staff members here are played by Reid Scott, Anna Chlumsky and Matt Walsh, and you speak first, let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "VEEP")
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Meyer) I think I did the right thing, but I just need you to confirm that I did the right thing. I said something to someone...
WALSH: (as Mike) What exactly did you say, ma'am, and to who?
SCOTT: (as Dan) To whom.
DAVIES: (as Meyer) Senator Doyle(ph) said that he would sponsor the bill if we keep oil off of clean jobs, and there was an implication, perhaps...
CHLUMSKY: (as Amy) You didn't say yes?
DAVIES: (as Meyer) No, I didn't say yes. I said yeah.
WALSH: (as Mike) OK, well, we told oil we'd put one of their guys on clean jobs. That's why we got away with the cutlery tweet.
DAVIES: (as Meyer) I know, I know, I know.
CHLUMSKY: (as Amy) She's aware of that.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Meyer) OK, I was charmed by Doyle. He's got that little twinkle in his eye. He just niced me. I got niced, all right. And where were you, Amy, by the way? Where were you?
CHLUMSKY: (as Amy) No, you said you had it covered.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Meyer) No I didn't have it covered, and it's your job to know that if I say I have it covered, I don't have it covered, and you cover me. I need you all to make me have not said that. I need you to have make me unsaid it.
DAVIES: That is our guest, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, as the vice president in the new series "Veep," there, trying to straighten things out with her staff, I mean very funny scene.
DAVIES: You can imagine this character as a senator, when she had her own base of power and kind of more sure of where she was handling a negotiation with another senator well. But here, she's kind of undermined by her position and gets frantic and does stupid things.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: Exactly, in fact in the first episode, when she has a meeting with Senator Hallowes, played by the marvelous Kate Burton, and she comes in, and she says: Barbara, what have I been missing here? And Senator Hallowes says power. And there's this - when she says that, I sort of played it like it was a punch to the gut because - I mean, it was a very brief, tiny punch to the gut that was sort of relayed, but it was in fact that because she's sort of speaking the truth, and that throws Selena off her game, and she's off her game for the rest of that scene as a result.
She's sort of struggling to get her balance back, and she doesn't quite recover it.
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Julia Louis-Dreyfus. She stars in the new HBO series "Veep," in which she plays a vice president. It airs Sunday nights at 10 o'clock.
You were - now if I have the story right, folks at "Saturday Night Live" saw you in the Practical Theater Company and invited you to join the cast at the age of 21. Is that right?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: Yeah, that's it.
DAVIES: Yeah, I mean, this must have been a dream come true.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: Well, it was - because also, understand that I was in high school watching "Saturday Night Live" when it was - had just begun, you know, when it was Belushi and Gilda and Danny Aykroyd and all those guys. And so I was, you know, their audience. And then all of a sudden to be, you know, however many years later picked to be on the show, it was just - it was Cinderella going to the ball time, you know.
DAVIES: But I gather the ball wasn't so much fun for you.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: Yeah, it wasn't that great.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DAVIES: Why not?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: Well, I was very young, OK, and I was very, very naive. And I was coming from college and doing theater work with my friends, and we would all work really hard as an ensemble to make the best possible show. So there was sort of an earnestness that I took with me to doing SNL that really had no place.
I didn't understand the politics of - and the dynamics of the show. I also went in thinking I would just work with writers and, you know, you just sort of - I didn't go in with characters that I worked and worked and worked on. I was not a writer myself. I was somewhat unprepared.
Larry David was there my third year, he was a writer on that show for the, what, third, my last year. And it was his only year. And we became friends during that period of time. We sort of - he was miserable. He didn't get a single sketch on. He did get one sketch on, but it was cut between dress and air.
And so we sort of bonded in misery, and there you go.
DAVIES: And that's what led to "Seinfeld," right?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: Yeah, pretty much. I mean, there was a period of time in between, but yeah, it did.
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus. She stars in the new HBO series "Veep," which airs Sunday nights at 10.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who stars in the new HBO series "Veep." She's best known for playing Elaine Benes for nine seasons on "Seinfeld."
Let's listen to a clip. This is I think from Season 5, and it's a moment where Jerry arranged a date with a - for you with a friend of him, and then on the date, the guy exposed himself, and you're in - do you remember this one?
DAVIES: And you're in the apartment after the date, and Jerry asks you about it. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "SEINFELD")
DAVIES: And that is our guest Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine Benes on "Seinfeld" there with Jerry. Gosh what a fun scene.
DAVIES: The premise of the bit is funny, but the back-and-forth with you and Jerry and the way you read those lines are really what make it. I mean, did you - I don't know, did you practice a lot? Did you develop those different, you know, vocal inflections and expressions?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: I love the compliment, and thank you very much, but I will say that I think that scene is exceptionally well-written, and it was really a question of how not to mess it up because that was just - that was just so artful, that writing, as I was listening to it.
And I remember the tricky part with that scene was it - you know it's - that scene in particular is all about timing in a weird kind of way. I mean, obviously all comedy is about timing, but this scene in particular had a rhythm to it. And then you had to factor in the laughs into the rhythm, the laughs of the audience.
And I remember that that night, shooting it, thinking: This is not how we rehearsed it because of the laughs. And believe me, I'm not complaining, but it did alter things a little bit, you know. There are pauses there that we didn't really have, as I recall, in rehearsal because, you know, we weren't holding for the laugh.
But it had a sort of a - it was a little bit arch, that scene, I think, the way it was written, a good arch, by the way, but arch.
DAVIES: Now someone said that, you know, the character of Elaine evolved a bit over the course of the series, and someone wrote found when they started writing for Elaine as if she was just one of the guys, it somehow really clicked. Does that make sense to you?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: Totally, yeah, and I loved that because it opened up everything. All of a sudden, we were all on the playground together. You know, I wasn't in a separate area. And the whole idea of gender sort of not being an issue was one of many strengths of the "Seinfeld" show. And I think in particular I think of the episode "The Contest," and that was the episode in which all four characters entered a contest in which they would try to refrain from masturbating.
And by the way, never used the word masturbate in the entire show, which was lots of fun, too.
DAVIES: Yeah, it's a memorable episode.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LOUIS-DREYFUS: Yeah, memorable episode. But what was great is that Elaine was a part of this contest, and that was just how it was. And I was very proud to be a member of the contest.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LOUIS-DREYFUS: And by the way, when we were shooting that episode, I swear to you I was - every instant, looking over my shoulder waiting for somebody from NBC to come and shut us down, and they didn't, inexplicably.
DAVIES: Well, maybe we should just listen to a bit of that scene in the coffee shop, where you guys are making plans. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "SEINFELD")
DAVIES: And that's our guest, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, with the cast of "Seinfeld" in a famous episode from the series. You know, after you left, there was a very funny episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," the Larry David series, where Larry needs some permission from his neighbor for something, and the neighbor is a big fan of yours.
And so to help Larry out, you agree to come over and meet him. And there is his wife, she's aiming a video camera at you, and you're saying, you know, gosh, I really don't like these things. And, you know, these are the kinds of things I guess celebrities have to deal with.
But it occurred to me that your character, Elaine on "Seinfeld," was such a, sort of, in some ways, down-to-Earth, you know, approachable sort of person that I can imagine people might feel more comfortable coming up to you than they might, you know, I don't know, pick a name, you know, Judi Dench or somebody. Do people see Elaine on the street and want to come up and chat just like you're old buddies?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: Oh yes, definitely. People feel very comfortable coming up to me and talking to me and hugging me and engaging. And of course, I understand that. You know, I'm in their living rooms, and I get it, I really do. I'm also very short, and I think, you know, I don't have a, sort of, physically imposing presence, you know.
And the reality is that the vast majority of people who come up are unbelievably gracious and, you know, for the most part, I'm happy to engage. Maybe not the hugging so much, but talking is certainly fine.
DAVIES: Well, you had a hit with "The New Adventures of Old Christine," you won the Emmy for Best Actress in a Comedy Series," and this ran for five seasons. Elaine Benes and Christine from "New Adventures" are both, you know, working women and really kind of insecure. Is the - is there a comedy in the insecurity?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: Absolutely. There's no comedy in security, and I don't think there's any comedy in things working out well. Conflict is where - what's interesting. And I love playing that undercurrent of a lack of confidence. I think I can tap into it very easily.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LOUIS-DREYFUS: And - but yeah, insecurity is great fun.
DAVIES: You know, I have to ask: Are you really insecure as an actress? I mean, most people will never have a hit like "Seinfeld."
LOUIS-DREYFUS: Yes, there is - I do have - I am insecure, of course I am. Who isn't? Who isn't insecure? Can I just say that? Who isn't? And also in show biz, particularly, you know, you sort of - it's kind of an unforgiving business, in case you hadn't noticed.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LOUIS-DREYFUS: So it's like whatever your last job is is sort of like - is, you know, are you in, are you out. I mean, it's very fickle, and it can be very nasty. And so that plays into the security thing, for sure, you know. I mean, I fight it. I try not to give it any credence or anything like that, but, you know, easy come, easy go.
DAVIES: Well, I wish you success with the series. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, it's been great having you. Thanks so much.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: Thanks for having me. This was really fun.
DAVIES: Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars as the vice president in the new HBO series "Veep." It airs Sunday at 10:00. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.