Julia spent her early childhood in New York. Her mother, Judith, and father, William Louis-Dreyfus, a Frenchman who was the president of the billion-dollar commodities firm Louis Dreyfus Group, divorced when she was young. Her mother’s second husband, Thompson Bowles (whom Julia also calls Dad), worked for Project Hope, and the new family moved overseas, living in Tunisia, Sri Lanka and Colombia before settling in Washington, D.C. “I remember all of it,” Louis-Dreyfus says of the travel. “Particularly Sri Lanka. I was seven or eight, and it was a shock to go there from Manhattan.” She was the only white girl in school, and although she was advanced in English, her classmates were ahead in math. “I have a very fond memory of my dad teaching me my multiplication tables by making it into a song and figuring out a dance to go with it,” she says. “It was wonderful. Then my mom would tutor me in English. I looked forward to reading because there was no television, so books and stories became the replacement.” She remembers the family passing around a copy of Little Women, then sobbing and being unable to finish when they got to Beth dying.
The family moved to Washington, where Louis-Dreyfus went to an all-girls school and became active in theater. She was a freshman at Northwestern when fellow undergrad Hall recruited her for a troupe he and a friend had started. “I was crazy about her before she even knew I was around,” he says. It wasn’t long before the prestigious Chicago comedy group Second City drafted her, and then, in 1982, Saturday Night Live came calling, hiring both Louis-Dreyfus and Hall as cast members. The couple moved to New York.
Both were unhappy. The SNL culture was “difficult,” she says. “The show wasn’t particularly friendly toward women.” She and Hall, who fared somewhat better on the show as a news anchor, lasted three seasons. In 1986 they moved to L.A.; they married the following year. “I sort of went kicking and screaming,” she says. “I said to Brad, ‘Let’s come out here for a little bit of time, but I don’t want to have kids here. Let’s just try to get some work and go back to New York.’ ”
Seinfeld, initially written for two guys, interrupted that plan. When NBC executives said the show needed a woman, Larry David, with whom the couple had worked on Saturday Night Live, brought in Louis-Dreyfus, and the outspoken Elaine Benes was born.
Elaine’s bulky sweaters and boxy jackets concealed Louis-Dreyfus’s pregnancies. Her work hours were family friendly; as toddlers, the boys went to the set, and when they were older, she was frequently finished for the day in time to pick them up from school. Though TV actors often use the summer hiatus to make movies, she turned down any project that would take her away from home. “I just couldn’t bear to do it,” she says.
With her second son’s departure for college on the horizon, Louis-Dreyfus is thinking about her next phase. “I adore my children,” she says, “and their growing up is bittersweet—mainly sweet; that’s what people do, they grow up. As a parent, you’re always worried about your children, but I’m looking forward to having a kind of freedom to go places and have adventures that I might not have been able to have when I was younger. That’s what I’m telling myself right now, anyway.”
Later this year she’ll appear in a new movie from director Nicole Holofcener (Friends with Money), costarring James Gandolfini, as her love interest, and Catherine Keener. “The character I play is a masseuse and a little unkempt,” she says. “I’ve got long, straggly hair and my Buddha things and my yoga pants.” In this movie, too, her character grapples with a child leaving home. “Julia is very funny and down to earth and warm,” says Holofcener, remembering their first meeting. “When she started talking about her son going away to college, she started to cry. I thought, OK, you’re cast.”