"Running," the "Veep" episode that Julia Louis-Dreyfus submitted to Emmy voters, began its life several years ago when the show's creator, Armando Iannucci, walked into a glass door while vacationing in Cape Cod. After Iannucci told Louis-Dreyfus the story (and the three-time Emmy winner finally stopped laughing), they agreed that Louis-Dreyfus' striving, status-obsessed U.S. vice president, Selina Meyer, should suffer a similar mishap at a particularly crucial moment.
"We filed it away, waiting for the right time to use it," Iannucci says by phone from London. "Between the accident itself and then the pain medication that would follow, we knew it'd be another fun way to explore how these very public figures have to keep it together, even when they're out of their minds on a bad cocktail of drugs."
Louis-Dreyfus won the Emmy for lead comedy actress for "Veep's" debut season last year, but she'll be the first to tell you that the show and its terrific ensemble spent the first eight episodes finding their "sea legs" and discovering their characters. For the second go-round, Iannucci and his writers raised the stakes for Selina, giving her some wins amid the humiliations and nonstop barrage of creatively profane insults, allowing Louis-Dreyfus' charm to shine brighter. The payoff can be seen in "Running," a showcase for its actress' facility for physical comedy, verbal sparring and surprisingly emotional character work.
Here, Louis-Dreyfus and Iannucci break down the episode.
Walking on broken glass
Selina, riding the momentum following a strong TV interview, heads to a meeting with potential contributors to schmooze. Before she can shake hands, however, she runs into a glass door. Iannucci wanted the accident to "come from absolutely nowhere" and then dominate the show.
"That was just a thrill to be covered in blood and carrying on in a scene, almost entirely clueless as to how bad she looks," Louis-Dreyfus says. "It was a fine line how gross to get the blood because you wanted to remain funny while still looking damaged. The most fun for me was to see the reactions, when Tony [Hale] and Matt [Walsh] see me for the first time."
Adds Iannucci: "We had four goes at it with her walking into this sugar glass, which smashes very easily, and then the [blood] squibs going off. They did a great job on the makeup. I remember her coming to me with her hand grazed and cut. 'Oh, my God, what happened?' 'No, it's the makeup, you idiot!' Which tells you how good it was."
'It's the euphoria'
Selina's staff stashes her in a hotel suite to prevent the media from seeing her bloodied face. Hopelessly loyal assistant Gary (Hale) offers St. John's wort ("It's herbal! It's from the earth!"), which, combined with Selina's regimen of antidepressants, blissfully relaxes the veep to the point where she's even offering to buy Mike's (Walsh) burdensome boat.
"When I was in labor with my first son, they gave me some sort of pain medicine," Louis-Dreyfus remembers. "And all of a sudden, I had so much love for everybody in the room. I remember saying something incredibly positive, like, 'Aren't we all lucky to be alive?' And the doctor turned to my husband and said, 'You see? It's the euphoria.' And I feel like that it was that for Selina, the euphoria coming through."
Iannucci marveled at the subtlety Louis-Dreyfus brought to Selina's chemically imbalanced state, avoiding going for the cheap laughs by slurring or acting obviously affected.
"It's more to do with her behavior being a combination of little odd things that pile up and make you think there's something wrong with her," Iannucci says.
Before she can get her head straight, Selina must briefly meet the press, to whom she proclaims, "I fully intend to run," referring to a 10K fun run, though the White House fumes about the way the statement could be misunderstood.
"These politicians have to present themselves a certain way, but you pull back the curtain, and there's something more raw and real," Louis-Dreyfus says. "That's where the tension and the humor come from in the show."
Getting serious after the slapstick
Selina does indeed run the next day, making sure she finishes behind the disabled vet but ahead of the guy wearing the banana costume. ("I'm not going to get beaten by a banana!") After the race, she decides she's "done with all of it," specifically the president, "this man I loathe." She'll resign from the ticket and run for president herself in six years. For Iannucci, the primary concern here was to make sure the slapstick seen earlier in the episode wouldn't undercut the seriousness of Selina's choice at the end.
"We knew, going in, there were so many things pulling against each other," Iannucci says. "It all boiled down to Julia's performance, and she played the end absolutely straight, even with a man running beside her in a banana costume."
"She's had to fight so hard for a measure of dignity and not get it," Louis-Dreyfus adds. "And I liked the symbolism of bleeding and being out of breath and bloodied. That's how she's feeling about her aspirations. Because the American experience is not about aspiring to be No. 2. It just isn't. It's always No. 1. And there's a great argument to be made for No. 2. Or even No. 3. But somehow, No. 1 seems as if it's the only place to be."