Black humour in the White House

Mon, Apr 16, 2012, 01:00

Julia Louis-Dreyfus remains best known as Elaine in Seinfeld, but in new comedy Veep she plays the woman not quite inside the oval office. It’s the part she’s ‘been preparing for my whole life’

JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS spent much of her childhood in and around Washington, DC. But when she returned last September to shoot HBO’s new comedy, Veep, in which she plays US vice-president Selina Meyer, decked out in a power bob and important- Washington-lady stockings, she got used to something new about the city: travelling by motorcade. She also noticed some curious overlaps between her life as a highly- recognisable celebrity and the lives of highly-recognisable politicians.

Occasionally, for instance, a group of people on the street would see her emerging from the motorcade and react to her; she’d respond in character as Meyer, pantomiming the exaggerated greeting a famous actress might bestow upon fans. “It was worlds colliding in ways I hadn’t anticipated,” she says.

This interplay between politics and show business has grown increasingly strange and tangled. There has been a profusion lately of celebrities portraying real-life female politicians, from Tina Fey as Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live to Julianne Moore’s more sober (or, rather, sobering) treatment of Palin in Game Change, to Meryl Streep as former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.

Veep is created by Armando Iannucci, best known for British political comedy The Thick of It. As for Louis-Dreyfus as Meyer, the pairing of her sex and her office might seem like yet another allusion to Palin. But Meyer is an entirely fictional, even chimerical, creation. The central joke of Veep, in fact, is that Meyer, whose party affiliation is never revealed, is far from an ideologue; rather, she is a political animal struggling for survival in an alternately hostile and indifferent environment. Unlike Palin, who seemed to come out of nowhere, the very point of Meyer is that she’s a consummate insider. She knows exactly how the Washington sausage is made. She knows because she is the sausage.

There’s something about Selina that’s also inescapably familiar. It has to do with her combination of intelligence and petulance, self-confidence and neuroticism, narcissism and charm. In many ways, Selina is the quintessential Julia Louis-Dreyfus character: a power-suited version of Elaine from Seinfeld. Louis-Dreyfus, however, turns out to be distinctly un-Elaine-like in person. Not only is she much more stylish than the characters she usually plays, but she’s also considerably sunnier. And unlike her perennially single or prolifically divorced characters, she has been married to the same person for the past 25 years, the writer-producer Brad Hall (with whom she has two sons, Henry, 19, and Charlie, 14).

There is one way in which Louis-Dreyfus is like her new character: she curses like a sailor. “I’m a big swearer in my life,” she says. She sees it as a way of keeping the private self separate from the public, and of releasing some of the tension that builds from being constantly on display. The proclivity comes in handy for Veep, where characters’ frustrations tend to culminate in soaring arias of profanity so ardent and genuine and unguarded that they can only be described as life-affirming. What better way to purge the phoniness from your system, Louis-Dreyfus says, “before you end up eating your own arm off, you know?”

Every decade gets the political show it deserves, or thinks it deserves, though some decades are pretty disingenuous. The West Wing gave us an idealised account of the Clinton era, with a saintly president and high-minded politicians. In the 2000s, 24 offered an ultra-paranoid version of the Bush era that legitimised torture as the primary means of dealing with a world in a constant state of crisis.

Veep, by contrast, comes not to justify Caesar but to goose him. It captures a post-Reagan, post-Clinton, post-Bush, 24-hour tabloid news and internet dystopia, and reflects a collective queasy ambivalence toward a political system that the US public fears simply reflects their own shallowness back at them. If The West Wing was a fantasy of hypercompetence, Veep is its opposite: a black-humour vision of politics at its bleakest, in which both sides have been co-opted by money and special interests and are reduced to posturing, subterfuge, grandstanding and photo ops. Naturally, it’s hilarious.

Despite her many flaws, Selina comes across as sympathetic: a cog in a failing system that’s dirty, noisy and obsolete. Aside from a single, brief brush with greatness, she spends most of her time setting and putting out public relations fires, trying to stay in the game. Iannucci wrote Selina without any particular actress in mind, but when HBO suggested he meet with Louis-Dreyfus, he was elated. “She’s a terrific actress, and she has such range,” he says. “She’s also quite willing to humiliate herself . . . She’s happy to make her character emotionally difficult and demanding.”

In her private life, Louis-Dreyfus is active in politics, having campaigned for Al Gore and raised money for environmental causes; recently, she appeared in an anti-Keystone pipeline video. But she sees no dissonance between being passionate about politics in life and lampooning them on TV. In preparation for the role, Louis-Dreyfus spoke to Gore, as well as chiefs of staff, vice-presidential speechwriters and her old friend and fellow Saturday Night Live alumnus senator Al Franken, posing questions about whether they followed guidelines when talking to the press and whether the Secret Service followed them to the bathroom at night. She also spent hours observing the gestures, postures and body language of politicians on C-Span and getting them down pat. Iannucci describes a hand gesture she perfected that he particularly admired, “a clenched thumb thing” used only by politicians “that no one else does in real life”.

“It’s not a fist, and it’s not a finger-point,” Louis-Dreyfus explains. “You could call it a thist. You make a fist and then you move your thumb on top of the bent fingers, like you’re ready to have a thumb fight with someone. It’s not a natural human gesture. It tries to straddle both sides, you know? To be powerful, but not aggressive.”

Until he met her, Iannucci had no idea that Louis-Dreyfus grew up in Washington, and he found her perspective on the culture invaluable. “She could tell you things,” he says. “Not just what the politicians were like, but also how staffers behaved, the 20-somethings, what their outlook on life was like, what their interests were, how they networked.”

Louis-Dreyfus was born in New York in 1961, and her father, William Louis-Dreyfus, is a French-born businessman whose great-great-grandfather Leopold founded the commodities firm SA Louis Dreyfus Cie. Julia’s parents divorced when she was a baby, and her mother married Dr L Thompson Bowles, dean of the George Washington University medical school. His work for Project Hope, a teaching hospital on a ship, took the family to places such as Colombia, Tunisia and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where she lived for a year, enrolled in a convent school. “I was really little. I was seven. It was hard. I was homesick, and my mom would come and eat lunch with me there every day. Everything was unfamiliar . . . There were elephants in the street, and the bathroom was a hole in the ground,” she says. “But their math program was pretty good, actually. It was quite advanced.”

The family settled back in Washington when Louis-Dreyfus was eight, and she grew up there, watching the world of Washington as both a native and an outsider.

It gives her an edge, says Frank Rich, the former New York Times columnist who serves as an executive producer on Veep. “It’s a very rare, idiosyncratic thing to have grown up in Washington not as a part of a political family,” he says. “It’s a very off-centre take that you get. Certain things about Washington never change, including the fact that it’s not nearly this romantic Hollywood set that people outside think it is. It’s actually a place where people dress out of fashion, where there are a lot of aspiring young people who have grunt jobs and live terribly. And if you grew up there as not part of a political family, you’re in on the joke.”

Louis-Dreyfus studied theatre at Northwestern University and became involved with the Practical Theater Company, which was founded by a group of Northwestern alums including Hall, her eventual husband. When some producers from Saturday Night Live showed up at one of their performances, they cast both Louis-Dreyfus and Hall in the show. She met Larry David during her third year on SNL, where, she says, “he was as miserable as I was.” Several years later, David and Jerry Seinfeld wrote and shot a pilot for a show called The Seinfeld Chronicles, and were told by NBC that they needed to write a part for a woman. David asked Louis-Dreyfus to come in and meet with Seinfeld. As you can imagine, the meeting went well.

“I feel like I’ve been preparing for this my whole life,” Louis-Dreyfus says of her new role as vice-president. “Everything that I’ve done up to this point has helped me in this particular moment.” Not only have the parallels between politics and celebrity given her plenty to draw upon, but the longevity and success of her career has fed into it, too. “There is an authority to this character that I feel I have because I’ve been doing this a long time. There’s also an insecurity underneath that authority, and that’s something I’m very comfortable with. I don’t feel that secure, you know.”

According to Rich, “Politics has become a performance art, largely because of the omnipresence of the media,” and the weirdness of tending to a carefully constructed public image while trapped inside a fishbowl is another central theme of Veep. Much of the show’s humour comes from watching Selina switch in and out of her public and private personas at warp speed, as if crossing a portal between two worlds. “What appealed to me about this gig were those in-between moments,” Louis-Dreyfus says.

In fact, the show finds its comedy in just those types of indiscreet comments and unguarded expressions that are captured and broadcast instantly, that haunt people forever and that outsiders are never meant to see: former US president George W Bush calling a New York Times reporter a profane name just before a campaign speech in 2000 when he didn’t know his mic was on, or US secretary of state Hillary Clinton reacting candidly (and happily) to the news of Col Muammar Gadafy’s capture moments before a television interview in Afghanistan.

As much as Veep draws on real life, it has already proved eerily prescient. In an early episode, Selina caps a long and trying day with a disastrous photo op at a frozen-yogurt shop, where her press secretary has been fielding complaints from the owner about his taxes. The episode had already been shot when, in real life, US vice-president Joe Biden visited a custard shop and sharply chastised the manager for complaining about his taxes, setting off a minor controversy. (Or maybe not so minor: Googling “Joe Biden,” “custard” and “swear” yields more than six million results.) The resonance doesn’t surprise Louis-Dreyfus, as a real-life celebrity or a pretend politician. “Think of these things on all the time everywhere you go,” she says. “You cannot put one foot in front of the other without being photographed or videotaped.” The pressure of being constantly on display, having to present oneself in such a narrow, restricted way – it all strikes her as incredibly silly. Which is why, of course, it’s such a fertile source for comedy. Why should it matter what kind of dog a politician chooses or the flavour of frozen yogurt she orders?

Why do we demand public figures be “authentic”, yet recoil from them when they slip and let their humanity show? “We live in a culture now where it’s almost like we are used to being lied to,” she says.

“It’s an incredible age that we live in.”


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Veep starts on Sky Atlantic in June