The days of Julia Louis-Dreyfus being known simply as Elaine Benes are now so long behind us it’s hard to remember them. All for the better. The role that initially made the comedy actress famous is, if not a footnote, just one more credit in a career marked by unstoppable hilarity.
Against all odds, Louis-Dreyfus broke the curse of Seinfeld actors (and sitcom stars in general) whose future TV projects sink into oblivion. (Pop quiz: Do you remember any moment from Jason Alexander’s 2001 show Bob Patterson? You’re not alone.) She proved herself after the notoriously love-it-or-hate-it NBC touchstone with a smaller part on Arrested Development, then again with her own vehicle The New Adventures of Old Christine, and put in her time reuniting with her old Seinfeld pals on creator Larry David’s brilliant, savage HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm.
But, of course, Veep is what has sealed her name in Hollywood’s comedy hall of fame. Louis-Dreyfus has won 11 Primetime Emmy Awards out of a stunning 24 nominations, with most of her trophies being awarded for the HBO political satire—in which she plays Selina Meyer, the smart yet somehow clueless, cynical, and vengeful power player who flails her way to the Oval Office. Louis-Dreyfus is now not only the Emmys’ winningest performer for a single role, but she’s also tied with Cloris Leachman for the most winningest actor.
Elaine, Christine, Selina: What they all share is the forceful, pitch-perfect humor and timing of Louis-Drefyus herself, a woman who has also managed to seem impossibly sweet and normal outside of the small screen. All of which is to say that she defies expectations at any age. But, at 57, she defies quite a few more, especially in a business that can still be extremely cruel to aging women. Louis-Dreyfus, much more than any of her sometimes nasty characters, is a living legend who deserves the due she’s received. And she’s nowhere near ready to quit.
Louis-Drefyus has become increasingly aware of the fact that, at least to some, she’s considered something like a deity. When accepting the 2018 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, she did so in the usual droll way, deadpanning, “This is a great night, a great honor. Anybody would be lucky to be part of a night like this honoring someone like me.” At every moment, comedy runs through her blood. When asked if she considered leaving Veep because of the Stage 2 breast cancer she was diagnosed with in 2017, she didn’t hesitate. “Oh, no,” she told the Washington Post, “I love making people laugh, and I love making people cry even, and I find the pursuit of a truthful performance to be deeply satisfying to my core.”
For someone so universally beloved, it can be hard to explain the power of Louis-Dreyfus, who has both bewitched viewers and complicated how we see women in popular culture for decades. She’s a little inscrutable.
That’s no coincidence. Louis-Dreyfus snuck up on us in the unlikeliest of ways. She shouldn’t have been famous, or at least TV-famous, but she especially shouldn’t have been so obviously talented at what she does.
The fact lingering over her public persona is that she’s an heiress—of sorts, anyway. She grew up shuttling between the Upper East Side in New York City and Washington, DC, as the daughter of the late Frenchman Gérard Louis-Dreyfus, who ran the Louis Dreyfus family company, which has massive holdings in energy, among other things. Her mother is a writer. This has led to speculation that she is a billionaire, a reputation she has dispelled. “I’ve been attached to that,” she told Rolling Stone. “It’s unbelievable, because whatever I do, people just assume it’s true.” Though, to be clear, she was and is anything but needy, especially after the hefty Seinfeld royalties, as she has freely admitted in the delightful manner that she alone has mastered. “Money and finances are so private, and I was raised not to talk about them,” she told the same magazine. “The whole thing is just bizarre. And of course, I didn’t grow up poverty-stricken, so it’s not like I can say, ‘Hey, leave me alone, I’m poverty-stricken.’”
Louis-Dreyfus didn’t have to become a sitcom stalwart, but she also seems to have been predestined for the job. The perfectly clumsy mythology of her rise goes like this: At age three, she fumbled at a routine in dance class, only to find reward in the failure when people laughed. “Of course, my mother was mortified, but I thought it was real good!” she said in a conversation with Vulture. “And I stuck with that choreography for the rest of the class.”
That glimmer of optimism among what could have been a deeply negative experience is not a bad metaphor for her work: This is the same Louis-Dreyfus, after all, who would go on to make television history with her hysterically terrible dance moves as Elaine in an episode of Seinfeld, one of the show’s most re-watchable. According to one of the main writers, Spike Feresten, Larry David wasn’t a fan of the season-eight episode “The Little Kicks,” and another writer asked Feresten, “Are you sure about this? Are you sure you’re not ruining Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ career?” His response, “No, I’m not.”
He was on to something. She awkwardly kicked her way to her first of many Emmys. There has always been something both cringeworthy and yet relatable about Louis-Dreyfus’ characters, which Elaine brought to the masses. The character was so ahead of her time that watching old episodes still drops jaws: She unapologetically sleeps with various men she may or may not care about, deciding whether they’re worthy of 1990s-appropriate contraception devices.
A certain confidence has run through everything Louis-Dreyfus has done, even going back to her days attending an all-girls school in Bethesda, Maryland, where she ascended to class president (a fact that will no doubt make Veep viewers cackle). She has admitted that the early leadership position may have made her more assertive than most women of her generation.
Louis-Dreyfus went on to Northwestern University outside of Chicago and joined the improv group the Practical Theater Company, which her now-husband, Brad Hall, cofounded. She never finished college (though she did pick up an honorary degree later), but the comedy stuck. A producer for Saturday Night Live cast her and Hall for the late-night sketch show. The gig didn’t last long, but she found an inseparable partner in Larry David, who wrote for SNL and also didn’t quite fit into the mold. “There were plenty of people who I didn’t think were particularly funny when I was there,” Louis-Dreyfus said in the Rolling Stone piece. “It’s not like I did SNL when it was at the height of its cool and hipness, you know? Or at least Eddie Murphy was cool, but I wasn’t.”
She was cool, just not in a way that could be appreciated. Her true call came from David as he was working on the NBC pilot that would become Seinfeld, a network experiment so hip that it made its own conception a meta storyline. Behind the scenes, the production was a boys’ club in need of a strong woman, and Louis-Dreyfus was just that, but also able to play along. “When it came to casting Elaine, we were lucky she was available,” David said of how the actress made chemistry happen. “Casting is like dating. Sometimes you like someone, only to find out she’s taken. Surprisingly, she wasn’t. Go figure. As they say, lucky in casting, unlucky in love.”
Throughout the historic nine seasons of Seinfeld, Louis-Dreyfus was at least as interesting as her male counterparts. What set her apart was that she could be just like them (as in rudely denigrating fellow city dwellers), or better than them (as in her fancy fashion catalog job), while also being feminine and fully in charge of her own path. Turns out, Louis-Dreyfus might share a couple things with her alter ego, apart from the dancing.
Veep and Julia Louis-Dreyfus found each other in the same serendipitous way that has characterized her entire body of work. She could’ve easily rested with the knowledge that she had already helped revolutionize TV comedy and pop culture’s portrayal of women. But then another opportunity felt just right. HBO was looking for a DC-set series to send up the inner workings of the beltway. The Scottish satirist Armando Iannucci, who made his name on both sides of the Atlantic with the Iraq War-era geopolitical comedy film In the Loop, was tapped to make it happen. Louis-Drefyus’ casting was reportedly set as soon as the two met.
“I’ve followed my instinct. I’ve tried to be as thoughtful as I could be and pure in my thinking in terms of looking at projects and, by the way, the people who are attached to those projects,” she told Marie Claire. “It’s kind of like getting married to a stranger: You spend a lot of time together, and you have to be in sync creatively—and you can’t always know that. For instance, with Armando, I didn’t really know him that well, or at all, actually. And then you sign your life away.”
Iannucci has since left Veep and been replaced by current showrunner David Mandel, but to viewers at home, it’s as if nothing has changed. The show still expertly skewers the people elected—and in other cases, the people who strong-arm their way to governance. Veep has always been decidedly bleak in its portrayal of DC, and sidesplittingly hilarious. Meyer, the vice president who also briefly dabbles in the presidency, and her staff trade adults-only insults like small talk about the weather. (Louis-Dreyfus, known as a diligent notetaker, is also more than willing to rely on her improv skills for an extra punchline.) And, per Iannucci’s original instructions, all the offices are drab and sad, like real offices. The goals of the republic are an afterthought.
The show’s ultimate genius may be that no specific party is mentioned. Meyer sometimes seems like a centrist Democrat, and at other times like a Republican nervous about the way her constituency is shifting, but she’s always a self-interested operative. And in this way, Veep has become that rare parody that the people it mocks actually embrace.
“Veep is way more realistic than House of Cards, which people on [Capitol] Hill tend to hate-watch,” a US Senate aide told Rolling Stone of its insider appeal. “Veep is really sharp satire, and like all satire, it works because it’s revealing truths.”
“They think we’re poking fun [at] the other side,” Louis-Dreyfus said of the careful balancing act, careful as ever not to name a side. “It’s true! Depending on who you talk to.” (The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was apparently a fan.)
Louis-Dreyfus’ own politics are only slightly mysterious. She has long worked on behalf of environmental causes, while remaining mostly mum on partisan debates. “To be honest with you, it’s a tricky needle to thread,” she told The Daily Beast. “There’s only so much of this I want to discuss [with people]. I’m not an authority on campaigning. I don’t understand a lot of the, I suppose you could say, nuances of the election. I mean I do understand a lot of it, but a lot of it I don’t. I don’t want to speak like I’m an authority on it. And under certain circumstances I will.”
And so she did. At the 2017 Screen Actors Guild Awards, she used her acceptance speech for Best Actress in a Comedy to make a pointed and personal rebuke to the then-new immigration ban issued by President Donald Trump’s administration.
“I want you all to know that I am the daughter of an immigrant,” she told the audience. “My father fled religious persecution in Nazi-occupied France. And I am an American patriot, and I love this country. And because I love this country I am horrified by its blemishes. And this immigrant ban is a blemish and it is un-American.”
As a product of the larger DC region, Louis-Dreyfus has continued to make statements at select moments. She showed support for Christine Blasey Ford, who accused the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, in a letter in which she joined other alumni of Ford’s high school.
But politics, as Louis-Dreyfus herself has made clear, is not her aim. She’s after something richer, more complex, and more human. That’s what she’s always done, from horribly grooving with self-assurance to offering a window into the psychology of a cutthroat female politician who feels pushed on all sides. With a cheeky smile and a withering one-liner, she manages to flip the script. There’s the flash of the woman behind the wit, the same one seen in unscripted photo ops wildly cheering for her son at basketball games. She makes the least likeable person or situation suddenly sympathetic and real.
That’s another thing with which she takes issue: “Unlikable characters can be very relatable,” she told Marie Claire. “I don’t think we’re all so likable all the time. I include myself in that, and I don’t consider myself to be a bad person. Likability is—I don’t know what the hell that means.”
Poking holes in our distorted reality is a specialty for Louis-Dreyfus, as it is for Larry David. What has allowed Veep to continue for as long as it has—even while the world it portrays spins in unseen directions and the landscape of TV comedy constantly evolves—is not just that it makes fun of everyone. (While spectators love to make sport of analogies between Veep and what’s happening in the halls of the federal government, the series’ production schedule doesn’t really allow for that kind of real-time commentary.) The magic is above all, in Louis-Dreyfus’ presence, her ability to ground us. That’s the mark of a true comedic mastermind.
It hasn’t always been easy, even for someone with her gifts. As she’s said in Rolling Stone of being a woman over 50 in show business, “It’s a drag, man!” She added, more hopefully, “I think the way I have sort of motored through that is to not think of it as a challenge. Because I don’t. There is sexism. I’m not denying its existence. But I’m saying that I will deny its effort against me. I just pay it no never mind, and say, ‘Get out of my way.’”
Luckily, the path looks clear. Yes, Louis-Dreyfus will finally bow out of Veep when the show ends with its seventh season, premiering in 2019. It will put a cap on arguably the longest successful streak for a female comic performer in Hollywood, one who might just go down as the greatest ever in her line of work.
Going out on a high note has always been Louis-Dreyfus’ style, ever since her Elaine sat with Jerry in a jail cell in the mind-bending Seinfeld finale that left everyone wanting more. And she’ll be in high demand once again when Meyer retreats from public life. She’s certainly capable of more, if not the political positions some fans dream of, then more material that reorients our perspective. One of her lesser-seen but more powerful roles was playing opposite the late James Gandolfini shortly before his death in director Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said, a low-key drama about a divorced woman finding her way back to love, or something like it. As Louis-Dreyfus has said, it’s sad that Gandolfini couldn’t see the finished film, but watching, it’s hard not to break into a smile.
Whatever Louis-Dreyfus does, it will make us laugh even when we feel we shouldn’t. What’s not to like about that?