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Julia Louis-Dreyfus Is the Leader We’ll Always Need

It’s time to repeal term limits

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

In the Internet Age, monoculture is unachievable. But there remain a few things that we can all agree on.​ The Ringer is looking at this rarefied group all week. These are our Undeniables.

Earlier this month, Timothy Simons, who plays the repellant Jonah Ryan on the satirical politicomedy Veep, got a present from the president for his birthday. Well, sort of.

Selina Meyer, the caustic, narcissistic, frenetic leader of the show’s free world, has never in five seasons been the type for such thoughtful gestures. (In a recent episode, she was totally unprepared for a diplomatic gift exchange with Chinese officials.) But over the years, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the seven-time Emmy-winning actress who plays the diminutive politician, has forged a deep relationship with the series and its motley cast. So when someone has a birthday, she’s on the case.

Louis-Dreyfus called up her costar’s neighborhood wine store to ensure that it wrote out the accompanying card for Simons just so: Happy Birthday, Jizzface! it read. Lots of Love, Julia + Brad.

Back in Season 2, Louis-Dreyfus crafted the descriptor “Jolly Green Jizzface” for the gangly, leering Jonah. (Over the years her character has also called him “that unstable piece of human scaffolding” and “Long-Tall Sally.”) “Julia’s obviously not in the writers room every second, but she might as well be,” Veep showrunner David Mandel, a Seinfeld veteran who took over for series mastermind Armando Iannucci after last season, told The Hollywood Reporter this spring. “This is very much her show now.”

Each season before the cameras start rolling, the Veep cast reportedly spends weeks doing nothing but rehearsing, getting serious about clowning around. It’s how the actors can veer off the rails while remaining on script, and how they can luxuriate in their characters’ breathtaking incompetence while still keeping things snappy and light. It’s why, on this show — on her show — everyone loves each other so much. In a Reddit AMA, Tony Hale, who plays bag man Gary Walsh, stressed that this freedom is not the norm in television.

What’s really remarkable, though, is that this isn’t the first time Louis-Dreyfus has been part of an uncommonly special situation. As Seinfeld was nearing its finale in 1998, Louis-Dreyfus, in a conversation with New York magazine, acknowledged how lucky she was. “That’s really rare, really rare,” Louis-Dreyfus said. “You never know. I hope in 10 years I’ll be enjoying other creative experiences that are equally satisfying. But the reality is, these things don’t come around a lot.”

Since that interview 18 years ago, Louis-Dreyfus has survived one high-profile flop, Watching Ellie, and won Emmy awards for her titular performances in The New Adventures of Old Christine and Veep. (She also won a supporting Emmy for Seinfeld in 1996.) She’s become the most-nominated comedienne in Emmy history, surpassing Lucille Ball. Her influence on Veep extends beyond her on-screen role: She is one of the show’s producers, and recently her husband of almost 30 years, Brad Hall, directed the show’s “C**tgate” episode. She’s gotten lots of laughs and laughed lots of things off: that there’s some kind of Seinfeld curse, that aging precludes fuckability, that you only get one role of a lifetime.

“She’s a miserable, decrepit old wretch” is how Louis-Dreyfus described Elaine to Entertainment Weekly in 1996. “If you hear a man say he’s looking for an Elaine-type woman,” she said in New York magazine two years later, “run in the opposite direction of that man.” Louis-Dreyfus was only 21 when she dropped out of Northwestern to join the cast of Saturday Night Live for three unspectacular seasons, and it wasn’t for another decade or so that she would grow synonymous with the bored, brilliant, belligerent Elaine Benes. Once she did, though, it was hard to figure out how she could ever be associated with anyone else.

Television’s many blessings can also be a curse. Its long-haul intimacy causes viewers to invest deeply in characters, and a successful run on a hit show can prop up an actor for life. But that’s also a lot of time to spend on one part, and it’s no wonder many people find themselves wandering a bit in the aftermath of a defining role. Louis-Dreyfus was 29 when she first appeared on Seinfeld (there was no Elaine in the pilot, but she was cast after NBC executives asked that the gang have a woman) and 37 when the show ended — not the easiest age for an actress to hit the labor market.

“I’m certainly not a model type,” she told Movieline in 1998, “so I couldn’t be that kind of a leading lady. But how about a regular old leading lady, like they used to have in those Preston Sturges movies and all those great movies from the ’40s and ’50s?”

Her first post-Seinfeld show, 2002’s Watching Ellie, was written by her husband, featured a “real time” clock in the corner of the screen (the series was a contemporary of 24), and had the full muscle of NBC’s marketing arm behind it. Louis-Dreyfus played a Southern California lounge singer. Viewership steadily declined after a promising debut, and the show’s second season was retooled to include a laugh track and eliminate the clock gimmick. There was no third season.

She busied herself with a bat-wielding guest stint on Arrested Development before connecting with Kari Lizer, a former Will & Grace writer and producer who wanted to develop a show about a divorced mom. It’s a testament to the strength and depth of Louis-Dreyfus’s career that The New Adventures of Old Christine, which ran for five seasons, doesn’t get much attention: it was a very network-y multi-camera sitcom on the surface, sure, but within those constraints the material was lively and sharp. (“It was like a hair-arrow pointing to my C-section scar,” is how a muttering Christine describes the aftermath of a Brazilian wax.)

In 2006, Louis-Dreyfus’s Season 1 performance led to her second Emmy win. “I’m not somebody who really believes in curses,” she said as she accepted the award. “But curse this, baby!”

There is no actress so appealingly profane — so charmingly assholic — as Louis-Dreyfus. Her bared teeth are pearls; her jutted chin could cut diamonds. Whether she’s Elaine, Old Christine, or Madam President — ma’am — she is at her best when she is battling back: foul-mouth motoring, eyes mid-roll, diminutive bod in a pose of affront. “Get out!” Elaine Benes always erupted. What’s incredible is how undeniably Louis-Dreyfus has stayed in.

She has now won four straight Emmys for her work as Selina Meyer in Veep, enough accolades to fill an entire first term in office. The character is a callous flip-flopper with an inflated sense of self-worth who is surrounded by mediocre yes-men. In other words: She’s a successful politician. This most recent season, which concluded Sunday night, heavily featured Selina’s drag of a daughter, Catherine, which meant it displayed the president at her self-involved, Bad Mother worst. But what could play in the wrong hands as either slapstick caricature or unlikeable phoniness is instead imbued with charisma and spirit. Selina Meyer is part Hillary and part Trump, and there aren’t too many who can bring those two together.

Louis-Dreyfus’s three signature characters have had common threads: they’re impatient, they’re sexy, and they’re constantly screwing something up. Like Selina, Elaine was the daughter of an imposing man. In real life, Louis-Dreyfus’s dad is a French magnate, though she laughs that people think she’s “like a Rothschild or something.” (In Veep, she complains: “They called me Selina Vanderbilt, as if the Vanderbilts had any money left!”) Like Christine and Elaine, Selina still has a strange chemistry with an ex — but then again, it’s hard for Louis-Dreyfus not to crackle next to anyone. As if it isn’t unusual enough for her career to be better than ever, Louis-Dreyfus has somehow only gotten foxier with age. Her most recent Veep romance is a reminder that she’s basically the female John Slattery.

As she has amassed awards, Louis-Dreyfus has started to mess around with the form, and even her silly moments are borne of confidence and respect. (It’s a far cry from her backstage speechlessness — and crimped hair — in 1996.) In 2012, she and Amy Poehler did a bit where they “accidentally” exchanged acceptance speeches. In 2013, she brought Hale on stage with her to prompt her, the way the obsequious Walsh would help out Selina. “The second I won, the first thought that went through my head was, I’ve got to get up and do this bit,” she told the The Wall Street Journal. In 2014, she made out with Bryan Cranston. And in 2015, she got up and said, beaming: “I think it would be appropriate at this moment to quote our political satire, Veep: ‘What a great honor it must be for you to honor me tonight.’

She paused. “Oh wait, oh, God, no, no,” she said. “I’m so sorry. Donald Trump said that. I’m sorry. It’s getting trickier and trickier to satirize this stuff.”

It’s also getting harder and harder to unpeel the onion layers of truth. If this were an episode of Veep, someone would probably point out that while Trump had said that, it was a tongue-in-cheek reference during a 2011 roast of himself. And maybe Selina Meyer would get mad, as she did in one Veep episode, and start screaming at whoever had gotten that wrong. “That’s like trying to use a croissant as a fuckin’ dildo,” Meyer once exploded. “No, no, no, let me be more clear: It doesn’t do the job, and it makes a fuckin’ mess!” Her castmates better hope she resists the urge to use this bit as the inspiration for her next impromptu birthday gift.