Her personal experience, combined with the comedic timing and intelligence she brings to every role, makes Louis-Dreyfus the perfect choice to portray Vice President Selina Meyer on HBO's ruthless new comedy "Veep." The show was created by Armando Iannucci and Simon Blackwell, who earned Oscar nominations for scripting "In the Loop," an equally skewered take on British and American governments. In "Veep," Meyer finds herself in an influential yet insignificant position; she is essentially ignored by the president and spends more time worrying about her appearance than about affairs of state. (In one scene, she worries wearing glasses will make her look weak and calls them "a wheelchair for the eyes.") Says Louis-Dreyfus, "She's in a powerful position, but she's also powerless at the same time. That's what's so great about this role: The office of vice president has kind of a built-in paradox."
After her five-season, Emmy-winning run on "The New Adventures of Old Christine" ended in 2010, Louis-Dreyfus was looking to return to TV but says even she was surprised by how soon she found the right project. "I didn't think it would be this quick," she says. "I was immediately intrigued by the notion of the vice presidency as an area to explore comedically." A huge fan of "In the Loop," her meeting with Iannucci sealed the deal. "We got along unbelievably well," she says. How does a Brit know so much about American politics? "He's an American political junkie," Louis-Dreyfus says. "He knows a lot about the system and how American government works. In fact, the entire writing staff is British, and I think it's probably a good thing this show is crafted through their lens, to a certain extent. There's a kind of objectivity that may be easier to come by."
Louis-Dreyfus, who also signed on as a producer, was excited by the tone the show was attempting. "It's so political, it's sort of apolitical," she says. She points to the ways D.C. has traditionally been portrayed in the media, noting, "There are shows like 'The West Wing,' which was noble and earnest and really well done. Then there's the other depiction, which is more of a sinister, CIA-driven look. This is really its own thing." To that end, she says, "you will never know what party she is in. You will never see the president. This is a completely different take on the presidency than I think we've seen before."
To prepare, Louis-Dreyfus watched hours of political coverage, particularly on C-SPAN. "I loved finding the in-between moments, when these people are not on, so to speak," she says. "I find that fascinating. Particularly when they're listening to a question in the audience, and you're watching them listen." And she met with many politicians, including Gore. Asked what advice they gave her, Louis-Dreyfus hesitates. "I'm sort of not telling people, and I'll tell you why," she says. "I met with a couple vice presidents, and the only reason I confirm I met with Al Gore is because he said that I did. But I like to keep it private because I wasn't going to ask him questions about his policy or how he negotiated treaties. I really wanted to know in a more personal, intimate way: What was it like? So I don't want to say because I'd like him to keep talking to me about it!"
At the same time, she doesn't want anyone to think she is in any way parodying a former VP. "This is such a character," she says, "as opposed to a caricature of any one person." And while comparisons to a certain former vice presidential hopeful are inevitable, "I worked really hard to not make this character anything like Sarah Palin," Louis-Dreyfus clarifies, "for the very reason that I knew people would be asking me about it."
Back to School
Among the draws of "Veep" for the cast was the amount of improvisation involved, and Louis-Drefyus and her co-stars enjoyed six weeks of rehearsal before shooting a single frame. "During that time, certain scripts were written and certain scripts were partially written, and we worked on everything," she says. "We monkeyed around with the written stuff and sort of found our way through the non-written stuff." She points out, however, that every episode has a script. "It's a testament to Armando, because he's a really gifted writer, that he is constantly looking to make things look real," she says. "And if that means scrapping what's on the page and going with what just happened, that is exactly what he does. And he does it a lot."
Improvising marks a return to a skill set Louis-Dreyfus developed at the start of her career. While attending Northwestern University, she performed improv with the Practical Theatre Company and was part of a troupe called the Meow Show. In her sophomore year, she began studying at Chicago's esteemed Second City. While performing in the Practical Theatre's production of "Golden 50th Anniversary Jubilee," she was asked to audition for "Saturday Night Live," becoming at 21 the youngest female cast member ever (a record she now shares with Abby Elliott).
Like many other performers, Louis-Dreyfus says her time at "SNL" was tough, due to the grueling schedule and the behind-the-scenes politics. "I was very ill-equipped for the gig," she says. "I wasn't really a writer, which was one problem. Another was that I was very young and naive, and I didn't go in having a bunch of characters prepared to put on display. I did fine. But I didn't come out of there a big star, you know? They weren't making movies based on characters I created."
She did, however, make the acquaintance of a writer on the show named Larry David. "He worked there for a year and didn't get one sketch on the air," Louis-Dreyfus says. "He had one sketch that made it to dress rehearsal, and it was cut before air." David and his partner Jerry Seinfeld went on to shoot a "Seinfeld" pilot to which NBC said it would give a four-episode order provided they added a female character. Louis-Dreyfus had just done a short-lived sitcom for NBC called "Day by Day" and had the network seal of approval. "So when I went into the office, I met Jerry and we just sat together in a room and read a scene," she says. "It was a very basic scene from one of the early episodes; he asked if I want to get something to eat, and I say sure. He said, ‘Where do you want to go?' And I said, ‘I don't care; I'm not hungry.' It was one of those scenes about nothing." Nine seasons, an Emmy Award, countless catch phrases, and television history followed.
Another attractive aspect of "Veep" for Louis-Dreyfus is the schedule; the first season runs only eight episodes. "I couldn't have done it otherwise," she says. "We shoot on location, and I couldn't be gone from home for 22 episodes. Also, because of the style of the show, it's a very demanding workday. On one hand, thank God, because I'm away from home and if I wasn't busy, I would have lost my shit."
With her previous series, Louis-Dreyfus says she didn't have much time to pursue outside projects. Though she's appeared in films such as Rob Reiner's "North" and "Father's Day" with Billy Crystal and Robin Williams, Louis-Dreyfus hasn't been seen on the big screen since 1997's "Deconstructing Harry." "When we had our hiatuses, I really wanted my hiatus," she says. "So I've never really known how to marry the moviemaking life with my own life. So there have been a handful of projects I didn't do because I just couldn't leave home, and a lot of my agents thought I was out of my mind. But you can't do everything. At the end of the day, I wanted to raise my children."
But Louis-Dreyfus plans to do more films. She is attached to star in the next film from "Please Give" writer-director Nicole Holofcener. In addition, she and her husband, Brad Hall, produced a short called "Picture Perfect" that is making the festival rounds; Louis-Dreyfus stars in it, and Hall wrote and directed. "We had such a good time working together, and it was our way of kind of dipping our toe into the independent film world," she says. "So we're going to do it again." She adds that she enjoys developing projects and producing while admitting that it's hard work. "I like feeling more in control of the product, and at this point I like to think I bring something to the project," she says. "It feels like your baby you're putting out there, and you want to take care of it." Still, she says she will gladly be an actor for hire. And when it comes to dream roles or projects, she has only one guideline. "I want to do good work," she says simply. "Whatever is out there that's good, I would like to do it."