Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ talents power through ‘Veep’
BALTIMORE — The good staffers of Vice President Selina Meyer’s office had been trying to put out a fire all afternoon when their slightly discombobulated leader, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, turned up on the set of HBO’s “Veep.”
Before she stepped into character, however, Louis-Dreyfus had a question.
“Did you talk to the actors about the script changes?” she said to the show’s creator and all-around head coach, Armando Iannucci, as he sat behind a monitor watching takes. He nodded. “Good,” she smiled, then stepped in front of the camera, where in the next scene her character took hold of a developing crisis — and made it much worse.
Over a 30-year television career, Louis-Dreyfus has played some rich parts. But she’s never juggled skills likes she has in “Veep” — physical and verbal comedy, broad humor and political satire and, maybe most important, acting and producing.
When the half-hour comedy debuts its second season Sunday, it will mark not only the beginning of the next phase of droll British humor on U.S. airwaves (Monty Python, anyone?) but the latest chapter for Louis-Dreyfus. As someone who’s “not only the quarterback but the one who can call the audibles,” in the words of castmate Reid Scott, Louis-Dreyfus, 52, will often improv new material, guide cast members and offer suggestions to writers.
“It does feel like I can do more than I’ve done before,” said the actress, who won a 2012 Emmy for her performance, as she took a break in her trailer between scenes. “This is a comedic gold mine. Selina has ambition, and that ambition is thwarted. That allows for a lot of opportunities.”
The performers are making the most of them. Over its eight-episode first season, audiences were introduced not only to the manic, self-absorbed Selina but to her dueling senior staffers, Amy and Dan (Anna Chlumsky and Scott), longtime sad-sack press hack Mike (Matthew Walsh) and sycophantic, Purell-equipped assistant Gary (Tony Hale).
At its essence, the show examines a simple comedic premise: What happens when people wear the vestments of power without possessing any of the real thing?
The show is the result of some diverse sensibilities. Behind “Veep” are a group of Iannucci-led egghead British writers (the kind who are proud of coining a word for the Oxford English Dictionary, as scribe Tony Roche did), some veteran Hollywood producers annd and even the political pundit Frank Rich, who also serves as a producer and adviser.
The new season continues the series’ pattern of a skewed-eyed view of Beltway life — a press release must be, as a character says in one early episode, the “Gettysburg Address of tightrope-walking, say-nothing” hogwash — only this time with a lot more plot turns. Selina is given a whiff of power, particularly in the area of foreign affairs. It’s just enough influence to make us — and her — realize how little she has (think: diplomatic missions to Helsinki, Finland).
“Getting a little bit of power is always funnier than not having any at all,” Iannucci said dryly.
Louis-Dreyfus, who signed on after her successful CBS sitcom “The New Adventures of Old Christine” ended its run in 2010, has assembled more than a bit of clout herself. It’s rare for an actor to have three bona fide TV hits. It’s rarer still for a principal member of the “Seinfeld” cast, all of whom besides Dreyfus have failed to carry a new series.
As she’ creates her “Veep” character she calls upon some familiar strengths. There is the physical aspect, the “Get out” pushes Louis-Dreyfus made famous on “Seinfeld,” only now upped to 11. The actress is often pointing her finger, running barefoot through the Old Executive Office Building or playing a contentious Bert and Ernie game with smug string bean Jonah (Timothy Simons), the unwelcome messenger from the White House.
“Maybe it’s because I’m short and I’ve had to push my way through a lot in life,” she said, possibly only half-joking. Louis-Dreyfus is 5-foot-3, though her slight frame and, these days, de-poofed hair gives her an even smaller appearance. She projects the air of a woman who’s more contained than the exuberant characters she tends to play, though there is often a joke playing on her lips, as thought waiting for the right moment to get out.
Before it shoots across a series of locations around metro Baltimore (for reasons of both tax credits and D.C.-proximity) “Veep” employs a rare approach, in which actors at a table-read will riff, and writers will take those riffs and incorporate them into future scrips drafts, a kind of slow-motion improv session. Louis-Dreyfus, castmate Walsh said, is vocal in these gatherings. She might go for “a big or broad joke, then ask ‘Is that too big?’ like she wants to make sure to check herself.”
Said Iannucci: “She’s not afraid to look awkward, which is a lot rarer in actors than you’d think.”
At the moment, Louis-Dreyfus’ face is covered in fake cuts and bruises. The day before she was involved in a painful physical stunt that the actress chose to do herself rather than rely on a stand-in; she didn’t get hurt, though all the makeup might suggest otherwise. (No spoilers, but let’s just say it involved a fast-moving politician and an immovable object).
The actress’ greatest challlenge, and talent, on “Veep” may be verbal. Selina spends much of the series trying to dig her way out of messes she and her staffers have made, often using a string of meaningless platitudes or cleverly deployed obscenities in response. (The show has a knack for combining F-bombs with unexpected words , including but not limited to “pencil,” and “DEFCON.”)
For an unprintable joke involving a croissant, Louis-Dreyfus was excited for weeks before the scene was to shoot, producers recalled. “I guess I just like cursing,” she shrugged.
The show’s audience in its first season was at the niche level, often hovering just around 1 million viewers for its initial airing. And some commentators have criticized it for going back to the awkwardness well too many times.
But those involved say the comedy is appreciated by those who matter. An hour away in D.C., where actors will sometimes go to socialize, shoot exteriors and collect wisdom for their characters, they are often stopped by people who say “Veep” accurately captures the drudgery or absurdity of their jobs.
“What we’re trying to get,” Rich said, “is a timeless view of what gets done — or how nothing gets done.”
With the current debate about feminism and leaning-in, there is some topicality to the show — Selina, after all, is an accomplished woman but a not-exactly-loving mom of a college-age daughter.
Herself a mother to two boys, ages 15 and 20, Louis-Dreyfus said she sometimes can’t believe the awful mother Selina can be. She doesn’t think “Veep” is trying to make a grand feminist statement. But she does find parallels between Washington and Hollywood.
“There’s always that fear in both politics and show business that, no matter how successful you are, there’s someone younger and more famous who’ll get the job. I mean, I’ve felt that,” she said. “This is a show that’s not as much about politicians as it is about the behavior of people who are in politics.”
Then she added, “That sounds like some nonsense Selina would say, doesn’t it?”
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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