In 'Veep,' Julia Louis-Dreyfus Plays A 'Political Animal' With Bite

Apr 22, 2012
Originally published on April 23, 2012 7:42 am

Julia Louis-Dreyfus knows it must seem like she's "arrived," as NPR's Rachel Martin says during their discussion on Sunday's Weekend Edition. She's well-known from Seinfeld, of course, but she's also been on Saturday Night Live, and for five seasons held down her own CBS sitcom, The New Adventures Of Old Christine. Her new HBO comedy, Veep, in which she plays the vice president to an unseen and unknown president, premieres Sunday night.

But she says it doesn't always feel quite so much like she's arrived. She has a certain level of insecurity even as a successful actress who's still working in Hollywood — much like you might have both authority and insecurity as the vice president. That's part of the reason she says Selina Meyer — whom she calls "exceptionally frustrated and exceptionally ambitious, and thwarted" — is "the role of a lifetime."

"She's a political animal, and I'm kind of an actress animal. It kind of all works at the same time. I have a kind of an authority, like she kind of has an authority. Does that make sense? So there's a vulnerability, an insecurity, and the opposite — and there's also a confidence and a narcissism all at play, all at the same time, and I can use all of that."

While Julia Louis-Dreyfus may find Selina Meyer the role of a lifetime, Meyer fairly clearly does not find being VP to be the same. For one thing, there's a running joke in which Meyer asks her assistant whether the president has called. The answer is always no. "We're depicting a situation in which that relationship is highly dysfunctional," Louis-Dreyfus says, "and the president is very much trying to keep this vice president, Selina Meyer, at arm's length away."

Also at arm's length? The politics of the particular president and VP involved. "You'll never see the president," she says, "and you'll never know what political party Selina is in." Louis-Dreyfus says this helps to preserve the focus on the people involved and the fact that no matter what party Selina is in, she works both sides to survive.

The vice presidency may not be a very satisfying place for Selina Meyer, but Veep is a good place for Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who says she hopes to play this role for a long time. "It feels fantastic," she says.

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When you're in the seat of power, every decision counts. And when you are near the seat of power, every decision counts. But the decisions may be slightly less important?


JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Selina Meyer) Now, what do you think? Glasses on, the intellectual look, focused form of vision?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Character) I like your glasses.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Selina Meyer) No, glasses make me look weak.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Character) Yeah, I agree

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Selina Meyer) It's like a wheelchair for the eye.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Character) Yeah.

MARTIN: That voice you heard near the seat of power is, of course, comedic actress, and "Seinfeld" alum Julia Louis-Dreyfus. She plays fictional U.S. Vice President Selina Meyer in the new TV sitcom "Veep," created by British comedy writer-director Armando Iannucci. The series premiers tonight on HBO and we spoke Julia Louis-Dreyfus recently. She says "Veep" was originally pitched to her as a show about an unhappy vice president, and she sensed major comedy potential.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: The idea of being in a powerful position and yet powerless, you know, so close and yet so far, it's just inherent conflict. It's just too delicious to pass up.


MARTIN: This character, I think it's fair to say, she's got this anger kind of bubbling just below the surface.



MARTIN: And that is something that you have done before. I mean I think "Seinfeld" fans might remember Elaine in a lot of different ways, but in many episodes she comes across as kind of angry.


MARTIN: Why are you so good at being angry, Julia?

LOUIS-DREYFUS: I think I'm furious.


LOUIS-DREYFUS: I'm not really angry at all. But she's very angry. Well, she's not really angry. It's exactly - I would say she's exceptionally frustrated, and exceptionally ambitious and thwarted. You know, obviously the constitutional duties of the vice president are few. They preside over the Senate and then, of course, you have to step in as vice president should the president not be able to govern - that's obvious.

But beyond that, it really is about the relationship between the president and the vice president, and that it's changed from administration to administration. And we're depicting a situation in which that relationship is highly dysfunctional. And the president is very much trying to keep this vice president, Selina Meyer, at arm's length away.

MARTIN: There are just many funny moments that illustrate that. A recurring theme is that character keeps asking your assistant if the president has called and...


MARTIN: ...the answer is always yeah, no, no, yeah. No, the president didn't call. No. And we never actually, as the audience, the president himself or herself is never revealed.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: Yeah, you'll never see the president and you'll never know what political party Selina is in. So...


LOUIS-DREYFUS: I think in an effort to keep it about behavior and not about ideology.

MARTIN: What is fun about her for you? I imagine that in every character, you've got to like her. Right?

LOUIS-DREYFUS: Yeah, well...

MARTIN: What do you like about her?

LOUIS-DREYFUS: It's fun for me to play somebody who can very easily blame everybody else around her for her own mistakes. That is a gas. I will say that the other thing that's fun for me is all of the actors, the cast of our show, highly skilled improvisers. And so, we would use the script as sort of launching pad for going into other areas.

So, say, we have shot a particular scene a couple of times and then Armando would come up and he would, OK, well, how about if we loosened it up a bit?


LOUIS-DREYFUS: Let's just loosen it up. And so, what happens is stuff would just flow out and people talking over each other. And it's - I can't tell you how much fun it is. It's challenging for sure but good challenging, not bad challenging.

MARTIN: When you kind of take a step back and look at where you are in your career, I'm wondering where you think you are in your comedy. I mean we all associate you so much with Elaine on "Seinfeld." And she, that character, had such a brash kind of in-your-face attitude and style to her. This is different. This is British satire. There's far more stuff bubbling under the skin.

Is that a comfortable place for you to be as comedic actor? Is that something that feels right to you right now?

LOUIS-DREYFUS: Yeah, it feels fantastic. It feels like this is the role of a lifetime for me, to tell you the truth. I'm crazy about this part. It has to do with being my age at this point in my life still working in Hollywood. And I guess you could says she's a political animal and I'm kind of an actress animal.


LOUIS-DREYFUS: And so, there's something to - it kind of all works at the same time. You know, I have a kind of an authority, like she kind of has an authority. Does that make sense? So there's a vulnerability, an insecurity, and the opposite all at the same time. And, you know, I can use all of that.

MARTIN: But I think of Selina in this character as being - just in my brief exposure to her - someone who is so vulnerable and insecure.


MARTIN: And you are Julia Louis-Dreyfus. And I would think at this point in your career, you've arrived. You don't have anything to prove.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: I know but that's what you think. That's what you think.


MARTIN: Not so?

LOUIS-DREYFUS: No, I'm not complaining in any way. But, you know, there's always something bigger. There's always something better to get. So I can play on that for this part.

MARTIN: Julia Louis-Dreyfus. You can catch "Veep" on HBO, the show premiers tonight.

Julia, thanks so much for your time. We really appreciate it.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: Thanks, it's so nice to talk to you. I love being in the sound booth.

MARTIN: You can stay there for a while if you'd like.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: I'd like to. It's very - it's very - yeah, it feels really good.

MARTIN: Oh, quiet, yeah.


MARTIN: We'll leave you the keys. Thanks a million. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.