Julia Louis-Dreyfus on Coincidences, Creative Freedom, & Joy of Watching C-SPAN

The 'VEEP' star sat down with Frank Rich to discuss their shared HBO project, which premieres this Sunday, and the many instances of serendipity that led up to it.
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Julia Louis-Dreyfus VEEP Photo

Louis-Dreyfus on VEEP. (Photo: Patrick Harbron/HBO)

Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s entrance at the 92Y Thursday night wasn’t her first. In fact, it was a homecoming more than five decades in the making.

Shortly after Louis-Dreyfus walked on stage with moderator Frank Rich — New York Magazine's writer-at-large and VEEP executive producer — to applause that nearly knocked her off her feet, she informed the crowd that, at age three, she had taken dance classes at that very location — a very predictive dance class.

The choreography that the three-year-olds in the class were instructed to perform, Louis-Dreyfus explained, was run, run, run, jump. However, when it was her turn, “I went, run, jump, run, jump, run, jump, run, jump.” And everyone laughed, which she took as the highest praise. It was arguably the start of her comedy career and even foreshadowing of her Seinfeld character Elaine’s infamously and hilariously awkward dance moves.

It was just one of several coincidences and charming stories she shared about the factors that have informed her celebrated comedic work in television over the past 33 years.

She was a DC insider from an early age

Although Louis-Dreyfus was born in New York City, her family moved to Washington, DC, when she was seven years old, giving her early insight into the town she’d pretend to be the most powerful resident of as Vice-President-turned-President Selena Meyer many years later on VEEP.

“I went to an all-girls school in Washington called Holton-Arms,” she said. “A lot of political people sent their kids there,” including President Gerald Ford’s daughter, Susan, as well as the daughter of Judge John Sirica, who became famous for ordering Nixon to turn over recordings of his conversations relating to the Watergate scandal.

“So there was an inside-Washington kind of thing that I was able to witness,” she said.

Interestingly, years before they would become colleagues and friends, Louis-Dreyfus also crossed paths with Rich due to the fact that his father owned a DC-area shoe store, “where we went to get all of our shoes,” she said, still seeming astounded by the happenstance.

DC wasn’t all politics and shoe-shopping for Louis-Dreyfus, though. She realized early on that she wanted to be an actress, and it didn’t hurt her ambitions to live next door to Margaret Edson, who would eventually become the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of Wit.

“She and I and her brother and sister and my sisters formed a theatre troupe,” she recalled, explaining that they would put on performances in their basements. “We lived on University Avenue, so of course we called ourselves the University Players. Or, depending on the week, we were sometimes Julie and the Umbrella People.”

Creative freedom varies when filming for HBO versus a network versus the White House

Having worked — and won Emmy awards — on sitcoms on NBC and CBS and now on HBO, Louis-Dreyfus is deeply aware of the differences between working on a network show and a premium cable show.

“It’s really different. It’s night and day,” she said, going on to explain the limitations of working at a network. “You very often have to compromise in a way that I think is a bummer for the product, the content that you’re making. And of course, you’re a slave to ratings and demographic numbers,” as well as sponsors, which simply isn’t the case with doing a show for HBO.

“It’s never an edict. It’s never ‘No, you may not case this person,’ ‘No, you may not say this word.’” And she truly enjoys this creative freedom and respect.

The restrictions of filming for a network are nothing compared to filming something for the White House, however, which Louis-Dreyfus learned while doing a short spoof video for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

“It was extraordinary because everything had to be approved,” she said. “Everything had to be approved by: the First Lady’s office, obviously the Vice President’s office, Speaker, Pelosi’s office — she was the most sort of loosey-goosey about it, she was pretty easygoing — and of course the President’s office. It made working in Hollywood seem like a cinch! It was like working for six studios at once.”

C-SPAN: Both entertaining and inspiring

In order to create their own believable universe on VEEP, there’s a strict no-real-politicians-allowed rule. You’ll never see a living politician make a guest appearance or even be mentioned on the show.

That doesn’t mean that real politicians don’t serve as inspiration for Louis-Dreyfus, though.

“I think it’s a lot of fun sometimes to watch C-SPAN, believe it or not,” she said, to which the audience laughed in likely disbelief, ”because you can see behavior there that you’re not meant to see.”

How her wardrobe informs her performance

Louis-Dreyfus’s character Selena is faced with an endless barrage of rage-inducing frustrations on VEEP, and her wardrobe, she admits, serves as an excellent foundation for acting out this vexation.

“I think that the clothes and wearing this wig and these tight clothes and these shoes that are nuts — it’s all very physically constraining,” she said, pointing to her own pointy-toe stilettos. “It feels right. It’s a nice place to start getting really mad.”

She doesn’t remember having worked with her VEEP costars on previous shows

Louis-Dreyfus has the utmost respect and genuine fondness for Tony Hale, who plays Gary Walsh, and Kevin Dunn, who plays Ben Caffrey. That said, it completely slipped her mind that she had done scenes with them in earlier TV projects.

Tony Hale VEEP Photo

Tony Hale in VEEP. (Photo: Patrick Harbron/HBO)

She told the audience about a recent experience in which she got into bed after a long day of shooting and turned on the TV to none other than a rerun of Seinfeld — but not just any rerun. It was the 1990 episode called Male Unbonding, in which Dunn was a guest star, and it was Louis-Dreyfus’s very first episode.

Something similar happened with Hale, whom, she said, she immediately knew was right for the part of Gary.

“I did a couple episodes of Arrested Development,” on which Hale played Buster Bluth. “Both of us were under the impression that we hadn’t had a scene together. Years into VEEP — season three — somebody sends a picture of a scene we did together. Neither of us had any memory of it.”

The new season of 'VEEP' premieres Sunday, April 12th, on HBO.