Julia Louis-Dreyfus: 'I Don't Think I've Made It ... And I Like That'

Aug 23, 2019
Originally published on August 23, 2019 5:13 pm

Julia Louis-Dreyfus remembers drawing her first laugh. The joke was performed for the benefit of her mother.

"I stuck some raisins up my nose when I was 3," she says. "Classic. Classic! ... And then we promptly went to the emergency room because I sucked them up into my brain and had to have them extracted."

Since then, Louis-Dreyfus has sharpened her act a bit. She was presented with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor last year. And between playing Elaine on Seinfeld, Christine on The New Adventures of Old Christine, and Vice President Selina Meyer on Veep, she's won a record-tying eight Emmy Awards in acting. She's up for a ninth next month.

In an interview as part of an All Things Considered series on women in comedy, she talked about her start on Saturday Night Live (straight out of improv groups in Chicago), the #MeToo movement and whether she thinks she's "made it."

Interview Highlights

On joining the Saturday Night Live cast at age 21

[As a teenager in the '70s,] I had been the audience for Saturday Night Live. I mean, I was devoted to it. And I felt as if it spoke to my generation, and it was irreverent, in a way that nothing else on television was. So then, to be plucked from this particular situation in Chicago and to go to New York to do the show was a very heady experience, to say the least. ...

I'd been doing shows on campus at Northwestern [University] where everybody worked together and you built the sets and you did the lights and you acted in it and you link arms and "let's go after this!" Anyway, it was nothing like that. I was very, very green going into the SNL experience. And I learned really fast how to do live television in a very cutthroat kind of — I don't mean I "succeeded," but I learned. Because I had no idea how to perform on television. You know, I'd been on stage, and that's a different skill set. And I didn't know how to dial it down, I didn't know how to control my nerves; I mean, it was pretty terrifying.

On her experience as a woman on SNL

It was a little bit heartbreaking, truthfully, particularly as a woman there. There were very few women, and they did definitely at that period of time got short shrift. And you know, there were a lot of drugs, and I was very naive about even that. I couldn't really identify when somebody was very coked up on something, even though their script was 35 pages long and they were laughing hysterically about something that I didn't really pick up on. And so it was not a raucous good time. ...

There was a culture in which the writers, who are mainly male, would only write the really meaty, funny stuff for other male actors. And the women — and again, there are exceptions to this of course, because there were moments in which we as women on the show (myself, Mary Gross, Robin Duke), we all got moments to shine. But they were not as frequent as the men. You just had to really, really — it was like banging your head against the wall to get anybody to pay attention, to write material for you.

On a line of dialogue from the latest season of Veep

I'll tell you something about justice, Senator. When I was coming up as a lawyer if I didn't have to remind everyone I was a woman every 10 seconds because they never let me forget it. I smiled all through the casual grabbing of my behind and all the secret meetings on the golf course that I wasn't invited to. So how about giving a little thanks to the women like me who built the ladder that you use to get up onto your soapbox? How 'bout for once in your life, you stop whining, you stop complaining and just man up?

Every time I played [Selina Meyer] even at her most heinous, I had to find a way in to make that seem truthful. You know, this is a woman who has been — she's been in battle a long time, but she is, without really realizing it, a victim of a male-dominated culture, because she herself is a woman-hating woman and does not think well of her sex. So that's why I was so pleased when we were able to come up with that whole idea of "man up" because ... it's so layered in terms of its messaging.

On reflecting back on "#MeToo-type moments"

It's made me angry. It's made me frustrated, and it's fueled me. ... I just want to do my work well. I guess I'm fueled by ambition. And I want to have a good time while I'm doing it. Otherwise, what the hell's the point of life, you know? For me. I just want to play with people that I really enjoy, men and women. I really like men, by the way — well-behaved men. I'm a fan. ... I know a lot of well-behaved men, yeah, sure. I know some ill-behaved men too, but ... they're behind me now.

On if she feels like she's "made it"

No, I don't think I've made it. I keep thinking about what will be my next challenge. And I like that. But I don't think of that as a negative answer, FYI. ... Does it get better? And I would say, well, the answer to that is: yeah. You know, keep pounding away at it and the actual pounding can reap rewards, you know? It doesn't mean you won't fail.

On the mixture of anxiety and ambition

They work well together. They really, really do.

Bilal Qureshi, Art Silverman and Connor Donevan produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

I like to ask comedic actors about the first time they got a laugh out of someone. Julia Louis-Dreyfus did not disappoint.

JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS: I remember making my mom laugh when I stuck some raisins up my nose when I was 3.

CORNISH: (Laughter) A classic routine.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: Thank you. I appreciate you're pointing that out.

CORNISH: Since then, let's just say she's sharpened her act. She's won eight acting Emmys, most recently for playing the character Selina Meyer on HBO's "Veep." She's up for a record-breaking ninth next month. But before she was the queen of scripted comedy, she was an upstart on the improv scene at Northwestern University and in Chicago. When Julia Louis-Dreyfus was hired out of the gate to be on "Saturday Night Live," she made the local news.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LOUIS-DREYFUS: I'm very nervous about it and terribly excited. And I think it'll be great fun. I - the prospect of becoming an adult is thrilling.

OK, first of all, that sounds like an old-timey movie, doesn't it?

CORNISH: It does a little bit.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: That sounds like it's from 1915, and they first learned how to work a recorder. My God, what is happening? My voice sounds absurd.

CORNISH: So the prospect of becoming an adult is thrilling to me.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: If I had had a therapist present at the time, they might have been writing that one down. And they would be right to do so because I think, you know, from an early age, I was eager to grow up and get going with my life. And I've always sort of been like that.

CORNISH: But I'm thinking this is the equivalent of, like, college person getting drafted into the NBA.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: Totally. It really was because I had been the audience for "Saturday Night Live." I mean, I was devoted to it. And I felt as if it spoke to my generation, and it was irreverent. So then to be plucked from this particular situation in Chicago and to go to New York to do the show was a very heady experience.

CORNISH: And you get there, and it's not exactly what you imagined it would be.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: Yeah, I'd been doing shows on campus at Northwestern where everybody worked together. And you built the sets, and you did the lights, and you acted in it. The whole idea being, you know, ensemble work. And anyway, it was nothing like that. I was very, very green. And I learned very quick how to do live television in a very cut-throat kind of - I don't mean I succeeded. But I learned because I had no idea how to perform on television. You know, I'd been on stage, and that's a different skillset. And I didn't know how to dial it down. I didn't know how to control my nerves. It was pretty terrifying.

CORNISH: What was it like for you to learn these lessons in such a public way? Because you strike me as a person who's incredibly ambitious and you said earlier kind of impatient - right? - impatient to get to where you're going.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: Yeah. Well, it was a little bit heartbreaking, truthfully, I mean, particularly as a woman there. There were very few women, and they definitely, at that period of time, got short shrift. And, you know, there were a lot of drugs. And I was very naive about even that, so I didn't really know - I couldn't really identify when somebody was very coked up on something, even though their script was like 35 pages long, and they were laughing hysterically about something that I didn't really pick up on. And so it was not a raucous good time.

CORNISH: You mentioned - earlier you said, especially as a woman, you had some difficulty there.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: Yeah.

CORNISH: What did you mean by that?

LOUIS-DREYFUS: There was a culture in which the writers, who were mainly male, would only write the really meaty, funny stuff for other male actors. And again, there are exceptions to this, of course, because there were moments in which we all got moments to shine. But they were not as frequent as the men. It was like banging your head against a wall to be - sort of get anybody to pay attention to write material for you.

And I came away from that show thinking to myself, OK, look; if this is what it's going to be, then I don't think I'm going to do it. Unless it's fun, I'm not going to do it. So it's always been important to me to have a very happy, supportive set, to hire people who are fundamentally kind and generous. And from that comes just so much fun.

CORNISH: It takes a lot of guts. I think there's a lot of women, as we've learned out of the #MeToo movement and the Time's Up movement who felt like they were in a position where they couldn't ask for more, so to speak.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: Right, it was a bear. And I had my share of those #MeToo-type moments, you know, which - but we got somehow soldiered on through. And I'm very happy that this whole movement has had such force because it's so crucial.

CORNISH: This brings me back to a moment on "Veep" this season, which very much pitted Selina Meyers (ph) against another woman in an election. And here she is in this scene in a debate with this younger character, and Selina lands this attack.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "VEEP")

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) When I was coming up as a lawyer, I didn't have to remind everyone I was a woman every 10 seconds because they never let me forget it. I smiled all through the casual grabbing of my behind. So how about giving a little thanks to the women like me who built the ladder that you used to get up onto your soapbox? How about for once in your life, you stop whining, you stop complaining and just man up because...

CORNISH: This kind of launches her back into the election, and she is by no means a feminist.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: She's been in battle a long time. But she is, without sort of really realizing it, a victim of a male-dominated culture because she herself is a woman-hating woman. And so that was an example. That's why I was so pleased when we were able to come up with that whole idea of man up, you know, because it's so layered in terms of its messaging.

CORNISH: You mentioned in passing just the idea that you've had #MeToo moments. How did those things affect you?

LOUIS-DREYFUS: It's made me angry. It's made me frustrated. And it's fueled me. It was very important to me to - I don't know what - prove myself, I guess. I just want to do my work well with people that I really enjoy, men and women. I really like men, by the way, well-behaved men.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

LOUIS-DREYFUS: I'm a fan.

CORNISH: You are.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: Yeah.

CORNISH: Is that a very long list (laughter)?

LOUIS-DREYFUS: In my life it is, yeah.

CORNISH: That's good.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: I know a lot of well-behaved men, yeah. Sure. I know some ill-behaved men, too, but...

CORNISH: You've survived them.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: ...They're behind me now.

CORNISH: I want to ask you lastly about being nominated for so many Emmys. We spoke with Nicole Byer. She has a TV show on Netflix called "Nailed It." It's up for an Emmy.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: Uh huh.

CORNISH: We asked her what she'd want to ask you, a pro.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: Oh, gosh.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NICOLE BYER: Do you ever feel like you've made it? Because the way I view things, it doesn't seem like there's ever an end. I don't think there's ever a point where you're like, I did it. Like, yeah, I would like to know what does she think that she's made it. And does it get better?

LOUIS-DREYFUS: No, I don't think I've made it. I keep thinking about what will be my next challenge, and I like that. I don't think of that as a negative answer, FYI, because...

CORNISH: No.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: ...She says does it get better. And I would say, well, it's - the answer to that is yeah. Keep pounding away at it, and the actual pounding can reap rewards, you know? It doesn't mean you won't fail.

CORNISH: The thing I heard in her voice was anxiety and ambition. And I thought back to you in that Chicago clip (laughter).

LOUIS-DREYFUS: Yeah, they work well together. They really, really do.

CORNISH: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, thank you so much for speaking with us.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: She's up for a ninth acting Emmy next month. We spoke to her as part of our series about the rule-breaking and risk-taking women of comedy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROOSEVELT SONG, "MOVING ON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.