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."