It seems only fitting to meet Julia Louis-Dreyfus in a coffee shop. She is, after all, Elaine, the hilarious, no-topic-is-taboo Seinfeld character who, with her pals Jerry (Seinfeld), George (Jason Alexander) and Kramer (Michael Richards), routinely slid into a booth at Monk’s Café to hash over the issues of the day—steam room protocol, close talkers, rogue diaphragms. Twenty years later, Louis-Dreyfus looks like Elaine’s hipper sister. On a wintry afternoon in Santa Monica she could be mistaken for a grad student: upscale riff on an army jacket, black loose-fitting pants, a scarf twirled around her neck, large dark-framed glasses. If fellow diners at Caffe Luxxe recognize her, they’re not giving themselves away. When it comes to spotting celebrities, she says, “nobody in L.A. gives a shit.”
Or lets on that they do. Confronted with the comedy icon that is Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the coffee shop customers are more likely just playing it cool: Elaine’s navigation of our culture’s pesky social nuances was one of the key reasons Seinfeld became must-see TV. She got down with the boys (most memorably in the “master of your domain” episode) but was always our proxy, The Girl, brilliantly interpreting the role of smart, often shameless, always extravagantly funny female sidekick. Louis-Dreyfus is now deploying her potent comic arsenal as struggling Vice President Selina Meyer on HBO’s Veep, which begins its second season April 14.
She did her homework for the role. “I talked to a couple of vice presidents,” she says, without naming names. (Joe Biden and Al Gore are good bets.) “And I spoke to people on the Hill, chiefs of staff, people in the vice president’s office, in the Senate offices, lobbyists, just to get a feeling for the inside culture, the nitty-gritty of it all. One chief of staff told me that she slept with her BlackBerry on a pillow next to her head because she had to be available 24 hours a day.”
A large number of her character’s dilemmas arise from being center stage—a familiar predicament for Louis-Dreyfus, who finds similarities in the worlds of Hollywood and politics. “As an actor, there’s always another job that you want that you might not get,” she says. “There’s always someone who is more successful or more famous. They’re publicly competitive careers, and both worlds are male dominated, so I bring all of this to playing Selina.”
But the actress herself bears little resemblance to that comic character. “She is not in any way starry or conscious of her status,” says Armando Iannucci, the show’s British producer and creator. “She just wants to be part of the team. When we have a guest actor who’s about to work with her for the first time, you can sense their excitement but also nervousness. Julia will do her best to make them not feel worried. I have heard stories of her falling over on her face to make them feel at ease. She’s very good at falling over.”
The veep she portrays does a lot of face planting, too, but metaphorically; she’s routinely blindsided by the capital’s culture of posturing, intimidation and rabid ambition. But what’s painful for Selina is endlessly entertaining for the audience. Nobody does smart-goofy like Louis-Dreyfus, whose Selina is both authoritative and crippled with insecurity, speeding from classy to crass within a single sentence. Often ignored, she exorcises her frustration with elaborate profanities, which seem that much funnier coming from a perfectly coiffed five-foot-three woman in Dior suits and staggering heels. The expletives trip naturally off Louis-Dreyfus’s tongue; she uses them freely offscreen, too. “I don’t know how not to,” she says. “It’s part of who I am. I think if I was having tea with the queen, I would remember not to say, ‘Pass me the fuckin’ sugar,’ but beyond that . . .”