Hollywood is not a place generally known for its humility. But Julia Louis-Dreyfus – one of the most decorated performers in American television history – has taken to hiding some of her glittering haul of awards. “I don’t want to keep them all in one spot – that feels sort of show-off-y,” she says, with a wince. “So I have some out… but others are tucked away under a bed.” The 58-year-old actress holds a record number of Emmys (eight for acting; three for producing), nine Screen Actors Guild awards and one Golden Globe, the latter for her role as Elaine Benes, whom she played for eight years in seminal US comedy Seinfeld. While other actresses might have struggled to shake off a character as career-defining as Elaine, Louis-Dreyfus dispatched any danger of that by then bagging six Emmys in a row for her portrayal of Selina Meyer, the potty-mouthed, power-hungry, sometime President in HBO’s Veep, on which she also serves as executive producer.
Selina, one can be certain, would not be found tucking awards away under the bed, but Louis-Dreyfus claims there is, nonetheless, “tons” of her in the narcissistic politician. “It’s delicious to play someone so self-obsessed; I tap into my inner two-year-old toddler,” she enthuses. Delicious it may be, but the actress is waving farewell to her alter ego, as the final season of Veep draws to an end on May 12. “It’s definitely bittersweet,” she nods.
“Why is a POWERFUL woman a complicated thing? Why is asserting ourselves so hard? Any time I ASSERT myself, there is a voice in my head that wonders if I should REIN myself in”
We meet in a grand Manhattan hotel suite, where Louis-Dreyfus apologizes for greeting me in her workout gear – cropped leggings, trainers and a striped T-shirt. “I wish I was wearing your outfit,” she observes of my not-very-understated leather skirt and leopard-print faux-fur coat. The only downside of the room, she comments, is that it’s freezing; she ducks into the bedroom to put on her coat. “Now I look like a crazy person,” she laughs, buttoning it up. “Tell everyone I am naked under the coat. That’ll make me sound cooler.”
In the seven years since Veep first aired, the American political landscape has changed exponentially, with reality becoming more absurd than any fictional comedy. “There’s no doubt Trump has made our job harder,” nods Louis-Dreyfus. But Veep also represents a more progressive political landscape, in which a woman has already served as president. “My agenda was only ever to make an exceptionally funny show, but wouldn’t it be nice if it further opened up the conversation about powerful women?” she asks rhetorically. “Why is a powerful woman a complicated thing? Why is asserting ourselves so hard? I feel it myself; any time I assert myself in a strong way, or I feel highly opinionated about something in a work environment, there is a voice in my head that is questioning it, wondering if I should rein myself in.” She points to the current crop of strident female politicians who suggest that attitude is shifting. “I’m a big fan of [California senator] Kamala Harris, and I admire AOC’s [Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] pluck,” she says. “She’s tough as nails, and I dig that, a lot. [Massachusetts senator] Elizabeth Warren is a powerhouse.”
“If I hadn’t had a show that was RELYING on me, I don’t know that I would have gone so PUBLIC with [my cancer diagnosis]. But I had 200 people waiting to go BACK to work”
That Louis-Dreyfus should end up portraying a politician feels almost fated. Born in New York City – where her late French-born father, Gérard Louis-Dreyfus, was the wealthy chairman of an energy company – she grew up primarily in Washington, D.C. “My family was not in politics, but I went to school with lots of kids of politicians and, living there, it’s in the air you breathe,” she says.
Her parents divorced when she was a year old, and, after relocating the family to Washington, her mother, Judith, a writer and special needs teacher, married Lawrence Thompson Bowles, the dean of the George Washington University Medical School. He also worked for the medical organization Project Hope, which taught doctors in developing countries. “So, we lived in Tunisia, Colombia and Sri Lanka, just for three or four months at a time, but we always came back to D.C.” The comedy gene, she believes, came from both sides. “Both of my parents are very funny in different ways – my mother and I share a dark sense of humor, and my father could be very ribald. It’s not like everyone was cracking jokes all the time, but there was wit in both homes.”
“Going to work was a JOYFUL distraction [during chemo]. To be CREATIVE for a living, to make people laugh or cry, is a f***ing GIFT”
She studied drama at Northwestern University, where she also joined The Second City, one of America’s best-known improvisational theater groups, whose alumni include Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, and where she was spotted and asked to join the cast of NBC’s Saturday Night Live in 1982. It was not a happy experience. “It was so misogynistic and not female-friendly whatsoever,” says Louis-Dreyfus. “But I was also 21 and unprepared to be there as a performer. A mash-up of those two very negative things made it a hard time, but I learned a lot.”
In 1986, she moved to Los Angeles with the writer and comedian Brad Hall, whom she had begun dating at Northwestern. “I started to get work, but I didn’t like living in Los Angeles. I always thought, ‘Oh, I’ll come back to New York,’” she says with a chuckle. “I remember saying to Brad: ‘When we have a family, I am not raising my children here under any circumstances.’” The couple, who have been married for 32 years, have two sons – Henry, 26, a musician, and Charlie, 21, a final year student at his parents’ alma mater, Northwestern – both born and raised in LA. “I’m excited to have both [my sons] around. I really like their company,” she beams.
With the sort of bleak pathos even television writers would rarely broach, the morning after winning the Emmy in September 2017, Louis-Dreyfus was diagnosed with breast cancer. She broke the news on Instagram, to her 1.2 million followers: “1 in 8 women get breast cancer,” she wrote. “Today, I’m the one.”
“If I hadn’t had a show that was relying on me, I don’t know that I would have gone so public with it,” the actress admits today. “But I had 200 people waiting to go back to work. And I wanted to talk about it in a way that could maybe highlight something important,” she continues. “Universal healthcare was an important issue to me prior to getting this diagnosis, and it certainly is even more so now.” She underwent six rounds of chemotherapy, causing extreme nausea and diarrhea; she struggled to keep food down, and developed sores on her face and inside her mouth.
Incredibly, she never stopped working. “We weren’t shooting, but I read scripts. My rounds of chemotherapy were three weeks apart, so at the end of every three weeks I would go in and do table reads,” she says. “The effects of chemotherapy are cumulative, so I definitely felt that more towards the end, but going to work was a very joyful distraction, and I was so pleased to have the strength to do it. To be creative for a living, to make people laugh or cry, is a f***ing gift,” she says, emphatically. “I love it and I love hard work to that end.”
However, she says, “I was very worried about would I have the brain power to get back to the hard work [of shooting]. I have to memorize a lot and I was concerned about whether I’d be able to do that.” She began training her mind in preparation. “I started doing tricks, trying to memorize poems and things – I think it was mainly just comforting to me to get them in my head.”
“[Cancer] finally crystallized my PRIORITIES… I have an even deeper appreciation for the GOOD stuff. That sounds corny, but it’s f***ing TRUE”
In spite of having lived in California for more than 30 years, Louis-Dreyfus retains a very New-York-style, no-nonsense attitude; it’s difficult to imagine her embracing the more alternative end of the treatment spectrum. “People were very kind and sent me all sorts of things, you know: crystals, angels, lotions,” she smiles, eyes flashing mischievously. “I have become more mindful of what I eat though. I was always a healthy eater, but I’ve made adjustments.” Cancer, she adds, “finally crystallized my priorities, which didn’t really need that much crystallization. But I would certainly say that I have an even deeper appreciation for the good stuff. That sounds corny, but it’s f***ing true.”
The “good stuff” includes forging ahead with developing and producing her own projects, such as Downhill, a black comedy based on the Swedish film Force Majeure, co-starring Will Ferrell. She has no desire to go backwards, even to other good stuff, such as Seinfeld, in spite of frequent questions about a possible reunion. “I don’t want to sully it. It was pretty special and it’s been a long time now,” she shrugs. “You don’t want to f**k something like that up.” As for the awards under the bed, they are not, and never have been, what drives her. “Storytelling is what keeps me motivated,” she says. “A really good story, that you can sink your teeth into and help tell to the world, is, for me, the most inspiring way to live.”
The final season of Veep is on HBO now
The people featured in this story are not associated with NET-A-PORTER and do not endorse it or the products shown.