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Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Seriously funny woman

Text by Seb Emina
Portraits by Inez & Vinoodh
Styling by Paul Sinclaire
Issue nº 29, Spring and Summer 2024

Comic genius Julia Louis-Dreyfus stood up to the boys and won all the awards. Who’s laughing now?

One day in the Bahamas, Julia Louis-Dreyfus was swimming in open water when her husband, who was back on the boat, shouted something along the lines of “Don’t panic, but there’s a shark in the water. You need to come back.” It was the late 1980s, and they’d tagged along on a scientific expedition to study the local dolphins. The calm azure waters had been a dreamy setting for such an activity, but not any more. A shark can swim at up to 25 miles per hour, a human being no more than six. Julia turned to face the boat and began to kick.

Thirty-five years later and Julia and I are meeting in a garden area of the Stonehouse, a vast restaurant on the even vaster San Ysidro Ranch, which is in a high part of Montecito, Santa Barbara County, not too far from Julia’s house. There is a roaring outdoor fire in a rustic stone fireplace. There are fairy lights wrapped around loquat trees. In the taxi on the way here the driver had commented approvingly on my destination, describing it as “one of the best three restaurants in Montecito” before adding, “You might see some celebrities there.” Julia is one of the most decorated actors ever, so it makes sense she should live in the same sought-after enclave of California as Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Aniston, Harry and Meghan and so on, but in fact it’s a bit of a coincidence. Brad Hall, the husband on the aforementioned boat, was born and raised in Santa Barbara. This is really home.

So how is she? “I’m well,” she says, flashing the tiniest hint of the inherently funny, beseechingly intense smile she deploys to great effect in Seinfeld and Veep. “I’m always happy when I’m here in Santa Barbara.” Even so, our conversation turns quite quickly to death. Or rather Death, who in Julia’s new movie, Tuesday, is personified as a shapechanging parrot, specifically a macaw. The macaw roams the earth, ending the lives of those whose time has come with a formal wave of the wing. Julia plays the single mother of a terminally ill teenager. Death is, she will find, a difficult bird to do away with. The film is as strange as it sounds, yet very moving too.

Tuesday is the first feature by the Croatian director Daina O Pusić. “This was all her invention, and that’s what appealed to me so much about it. It’s so fantastical,” Julia says. “It was outside anything I’ve ever done before.” By which she partly means that it is not a comedy but a magic-realist drama. “The jobs I’ve gotten in my life have tended to be more comedic, but this was a delightful opportunity.”

The actor with the most Emmys in history – presently seated across from me in thick-rimmed glasses, a black Barbour, a stripy jumper and a carved opal Irene Neuwirth necklace – is in a time of transition. At least that’s how it looks from the outside. Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes in the 1990s, Veep’s Selina Meyer in the 2010s: these were pivotal parts in TV shows that not only were funny but redefined what funny meant. Now, other priorities seem to be coming to the fore.

It’s not only Tuesday, or the fact that she appears in Marvel films sometimes as SHIELD agent Valentina Allegra de Fontaine. At the time we speak, Julia is recording the second series of Wiser Than Me, the hit podcast in which she talks at length to famous women older than herself, mining them for the kind of advice that can be offered only by those speaking from an elevated vantage point, experience-wise. “I think somebody who’s had a lengthy life, male or female, they’ve got a lot to share, but women particularly because they’re not really listened to in the same way as older men are,” she says.

There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments to be found within, but mostly the podcast is informed by Julia’s earnest interest in the wisdom of others. The author Fran Lebowitz, 73, observes that complaining is great because “it’s honest”. The fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, 77, asserts that instead of asking “How old are you?” people should ask “How long have you lived?” After Wiser Than Me spent just shy of a month at number one in Apple Podcasts’ US chart, it was named 2023’s Show of the Year.

In Jane Fonda’s episode, the actor suggests that life, much like a film, follows a three-act structure. “Can you define what the third act is?” Julia asks. Fonda, who was 85 when they spoke, says it’s nothing complicated, just basic arithmetic. “I was on a ranch in New Mexico and I realised that I’m about to be 59, and holy shit, in a year I’m going to be 60. For some reason, for me, figuring I’m probably not going to live past 90, next year is the beginning of my last act – first 30 years, second 30 years, last 30 years. And you know, you’re an actor, you know how important third acts are. They can make sense out of the first two, right?”

Julia is 63, so by Fonda’s logic hasn’t she just entered her own third act? Is that why she seems to be in a time of change? “I don’t think of it as such,” Julia says. “I feel really young. I would think I’m in my second act, and maybe not break it down into three. Maybe I’d break it down into, I don’t know what, six acts? And then where am I? I don’t know. It’s a long play, let’s put it that way.” Well, OK. But a question Julia likes to ask all her guests is “How old do you feel?” So how old does she feel? “I feel like I’m your age, maybe a little younger even. I feel like I’m in my early 40s.” She flashes the smile and sips her ginger-and-mint tea.

Julia was born in Manhattan in 1961. Her parents separated when she was one. Her first memory is of shopping for a pink pillow in the department store Bonwit Teller. She lived with her mother in an apartment on the corner of East 96th Street and Park Avenue. The smell of the linoleum on the stairs infuses her memories, along with a certain sense of sadness. Her maternal grandfather committed suicide not long after her parents broke up.

Her mother, Judith, a poet, had French Huguenot ancestry. Her father, Gérard, was a French-born businessman and chairman of a subsidiary of Louis Dreyfus Company, a multibillion-dollar merchant firm founded by Julia’s great-great-grandfather in 1851. (During the Second World War, the family being Jewish, the Vichy government confiscated the company’s assets. Julia’s grandfather fought with the French Resistance.) Her parents both remarried, and although she lived primarily with her mother, she spent a lot of time going back and forth. “That was a struggle; that was hard,” she says. Her stepfather, Tom Bowles, was the dean of the George Washington University medical school. Through his humanitarian work, the family, including Julia and two younger sisters, Lauren and Amy, spent long stints in Colombia, Sri Lanka and Tunisia.

Julia was photographed in Manhattan, a mere 4.6 miles from the apartment in which she grew up. Look at her now, wearing a vintage Christian Dior coat from Anouschka Paris over a yellow silk top and matching skirt by VERSACE, with brown satin shoes by PRADA and sunglasses by DOLCE & GABBANA. Tights by WOLFORD.

Asked if she remembers the moment she first wanted to be a performer, Julia describes the urge as having been fundamental to her sense of herself, even in early childhood. “I was constantly doing it – constantly trying to make people laugh and performing. I remember even at our preschool, there was designated nap time in the morning and I would stand on my blanket and dance, hoping that people were watching.”

The family moved to Washington, DC, when Julia was eight. At high school, Julia became the head of the International Thespian Society. “I was doing as many plays as I possibly could, but it was always extracurricular, so it was trying to get homework done so I could get to rehearsal. That was the only thing I was really interested in doing.”

She went on to study theatre at Northwestern University in Chicago, where she joined improv groups. One was the famous Mee-Ow Show, for which, in a skit from 1980, she played a non-English-speaking French passenger on a Paris-to-New York flight (the guy next to her tells her that “Fondle these, you worm, you” is English for bonjour). Another was the Practical Theatre Company, founded by, among other people, Brad Hall, who she began to date.

During a video call, Hall recalls Julia’s arrival in the company. “It was three guys who had worked together a lot and had a shorthand way of working that was really not conducive to, certainly, a new girl coming in. I think that we were incredibly impolite. Eventually, in the middle of the rehearsal period, she said, ‘Hey, that’s enough. That’s enough of this.’ She really put her foot down and said, ‘We’re not going to work this way. I’m an equal partner here, and let’s get it together.’ She stood up for herself in a way that was extremely appealing to me. That was my introduction to Julia, which was as a really funny, really appealing performer but also somebody who had a lot of shtick.”

Their work reached the attention of executives at the totemic NBC show Saturday Night Live, who in 1982 hired the four of them. At 21, this made Julia, who duly dropped out of Northwestern and moved to New York, the youngest ever cast member, though the achievement came with downsides. Her lack of experience meant she didn’t have the tools to grapple with the show’s internal politics and was left feeling sidelined and that her ideas weren’t taken seriously in what was still a distinctly male-run environment. This was the era of Eddie Murphy, of Jim Belushi. She struggled to make it work. “Oh my God, so much politics,” she says. “It was such a dog-eat-dog place.” She left the show in 1985, and she and Hall moved to Los Angeles, where she was cast in the sitcom Day by Day, about a married couple who quit successful careers to run a childcare centre out of their home.

So here’s another of Julia’s Wiser Than Me questions: If she could visit her 21-year-old self, what would she tell her? “Follow your instincts,” she says. In what way? “I questioned them. I wasn’t sure-footed. I guess if I thought something was funny and I was told, ‘I’m not sure’ – actually, I think I was right.” But would she advise her past self to say yes to the Saturday Night Live gig despite knowing how they would treat her? After carefully considering the question for quite a while, she replies, “I don’t have a regret. No. I would be foolish to have a regret. It opened up a lot of things for me. It wasn’t very much fun, for the most part, but I learned a great deal. I certainly learned what I didn’t want to do. That’s kind of significant.”

In fact, it was at Saturday Night Live, and through the medium of complaining about a lack of screen time and general traction, that she befriended a similarly disgruntled comedian called Larry David, who would later ask her to audition for a show he was creating with the comedian Jerry Seinfeld: “a show about nothing”, as Seinfeld would famously be known. The pilot, which aired on 5 July 1989, was an all-guys show, but the network gave it the green light on the condition that they introduced a female character. When Julia read for the part of Elaine Benes, it was Larry and Jerry in the room, the latter enjoying a bowl of cereal. After she was given the role, it was far from clear that Seinfeld would be anything other than a niche product involving the elaborate, self-inflicted pickles of four friends in Manhattan. It wasn’t like anything else out there.

But after a slow start, Seinfeld became the most popular TV show in America. Its ninth and final series ended on 14 May 1998 with an episode watched by more than 76 million people in America alone. New generations are still discovering it. Julia’s sons, Henry, 31, and Charlie, 26 – both born during the Elaine era and now working as a musician and an actor respectively – give her a chance to relive the show almost as a regular audience member. “Henry was watching some episode, I don’t remember which, and I came in because he was laughing, and I started watching and I was laughing,” Julia says. “It’s funny. It’s so funny.”

Saturday Night Live wasn’t very much fun, but I certainly learned what I didn’t want to do.”

How does she feel about Elaine now? “I’m very proud of how fucked up she was. I like how she was a mess just like the other people in the cast. That’s something I feel a certain amount of pride about, from a ‘strong female’ point of view. She was a woman, but gender was not the issue. We weren’t selling gender, and I liked that, and I feel pride about that.”

Elaine was succeeded in 2006 by Christine, the titular single mother in The New Adventures of Old Christine, which gets talked about less than Seinfeld and Veep yet ran for five seasons amid a quiet torrent of critical acclaim. “I loved that show, and we didn’t really get the kudos that we should have gotten,” she says. “I won a fucking Emmy for it.” From 2012 to 2019 she played Selina Meyer, the haplessly ruthless vice president in Veep, Armando Iannucci’s hit Beltway satire. Launched during the Obama era, the show arguably prefigured a society-wide loss of faith with respect to the abilities and motivations of the political class. The scheming staffers and clammy hangers-on who surround Meyer could not be more different to the idealistic policy wonks of, for example, Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, which ran from 1999 to 2006.

In a Zoom between scriptwriting sessions for a stage adaptation of Dr Strangelove, Armando Iannucci remembers their first meeting at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles. “I assumed she’d arrive with an entourage,” he says. “But she didn’t, and we had a cup of tea, and I think we went on for about three hours. We didn’t need to go through the process of ‘What would you bring to the character?’ We would just make each other laugh, and the ideas started tumbling out.”

Immediately it was clear that Julia was the perfect candidate to realise “the exquisite comic potential” of the vice presidency. “She’s smart but happy to look dumb. She’s beautiful but happy to look a mess. She’s very friendly but happy to play unpopular,” Iannucci says. “She has this almost back catalogue of classic sitcom and comedy appearances and experience behind her, so that when we are looking at a situation, even a simple thing like ‘She gets up from her chair but doesn’t quite do it elegantly,’ she’ll already have three different ways in which it could play, and they’re all funny.”

Julia channelled these characters for huge chunks of her life. Does she carry them with her? Are their personalities still in there somewhere? “I don’t know if I carry them, but it’s been a blessing to have the opportunity to play a single character over a long period of time. If you watch the first couple of episodes of Veep and Seinfeld and then catapult and watch some episodes from later seasons, you’ll see a marked change in terms of tone, pace. That’s because everybody’s been working together for a long time. You found a new groove that you didn’t have in the beginning.”

Julia may be the most award-winning actor in American TV history, but has she ever completed Wordle in one? “No, I have not, goddammit.” Here, she scores in a vintage polka-dot coat by CHANEL and a vintage polka-dot pussy-bow blouse by SAINT LAURENT, both from Anouschka Paris.

“For Old Christine we didn’t get the kudos we should have. I won a fucking Emmy for it.”

Alongside the TV work came a steady string of movie roles. She has a small part in Woody Allen’s 1986 film, Hannah and Her Sisters. She’s the voice of the ant princess in the 1998 Pixar movie, A Bug’s Life. To this day there are people who stop Julia on the street, she says, who are mostly excited about her role in 1989’s National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

If Seinfeld and Veep showcased a knack for conjuring laughs out of the shifting sands of blundering self-absorption, recent films have seen Julia apply a certain complex tenderness to the characters she chooses to portray. In a video call, Daina O Pusić tells me she’s always been a fan of Julia’s. “But I don’t think I really understood all the nuances and complexities of her and this stronger, darker side, the edges of her, how this playfulness comes about. Humour doesn’t necessarily always come from joy of the time it comes from worry and anxiety and being overly observant of everything around you.”

Zora, Julia’s character in Tuesday, is one of several single mothers she has played. Motherhood and middle-aged love – more prevalent in the world itself than in the storylines of Hollywood cinema – are recurring themes in her recent films. There’s the divorced masseuse dating James Gandolfini’s slovenly TV archivist in 2013’s Enough Said. There’s the appalled mother of two whose husband (Will Ferrell) panics and abandons the family during a faux avalanche in 2020’s Downhill.

Nicole Holofcener, Enough Said’s director and writer, went on to cast Julia in last year’s smart comedy You Hurt My Feelings, this time as a happily married author, devastated when she overhears her husband trashing the manuscript he’d claimed to love. “She’s a goofball, and I love that about her,” Holofcener says by phone from LA. “Yet when the scene requires emotion in the acting, she slips right into it.”

Back in the Bahamas, the shark in Julia’s worryingly close vicinity was a bull shark, the species reputedly responsible for the 1916 Jersey Shore attacks on which Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws (and thus Steven Spielberg’s film) was based. Brad Hall remembers how, after Julia and one of the scientists had clambered back on board, the captain came face to face with the shark. “He completely panicked. He lost his fins,he lost his mask. He was mortified.And then the shark just very calmly went back under the boat, and that big old shadow went out again.” Close calls like that loom large in the memory; Julia talked about the incident on her episode of David Letterman’s Netflix series, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, last year. “There was a ladder, and I was just hell-bent on that ladder and getting to the ladder, and I was focused on the ladder,” she tells the veteran host. “And I didn’t look around me or anything. I was just, ‘I’m getting to the ladder.’”

In fact, she’s recalling the story not for its own sake but as a metaphor for the mindset required to get through six rounds of breast cancer treatment. She received her diagnosis in 2017, the morning after a night in which she’d accepted a sixth Emmy for Veep, breaking the record for the most wins by one actor for the same role. She had dedicated that Emmy to her father, who had died the previous year. And now this.

“It was just, like, keep my eyes, keep my focus, on getting out of this as opposed to anything else, and really work hard on that concentrated effort. Which is what I did,” she tells me. There was further to go this time. “It’s a much longer swim. Yeah, it is. It’s a longer swim, for sure.”

The following year, Julia’s half-sister Emma – one of two daughters her father had with his second wife – died from a seizure during a camping trip. Would Julia have found the Tuesday script interesting 20 years ago? Would it have grabbed her like this prior to so many close encounters with mortality? “It was certainly more interesting to me now, given my life experience, but 20 years ago I was still a parent, so the idea of doing whatever you can for your child – that I understood fully. But in those 20 years since, I’ve lost people in my life, and so it has more resonance. I don’t know how else to say it. I mean, if we’re lucky – and this is going to sound odd, but – we get through losses. We pass through losses in our life and carry on. And that’s happened to me. It doesn’t make me special, it’s just, that’s what happens in life.”

“I think somebody who’s had a lengthy life, they’ve got a lot to share, women particularly.”

Between recording the second series of the podcast – guests include the tennis player Billie Jean King, the blues singer Bonnie Raitt and the model and actor Beverly Johnson, the first Black woman to appear on the cover of American Vogue, in 1974 – and filming the Marvel movie Thunderbolts, Julia is very busy indeed, at least until summer. But not, as it stands, with comedy. It’s not that she’s against the idea; it’s just not the way things are going right now. “I don’t really care about genre,” she says. “It’s really about a story that’s unusual.” She alludes to a return to the stage, “maybe a theatre piece, maybe not.” Would she be interested in directing? “Yeah, I suppose maybe if it was the right thing. But first and foremost, I really do love performing. But I also like having control over a project.”

The political cynicism of Veep isn’t reflected in Julia’s own activism. She has an anxious eye on the coming elections and their implications for women’s rights, the environment and, as she puts it, democracy itself. “I’m using whatever platforms I have to message about the urgency of various local elections, which have as much impact in a lot of ways as federal elections.” The once-prolific tweeter has abandoned the platform now known as X amid increasing toxicity. “My account’s still up there, but I haven’t really used it. I’m really on Instagram and Threads. I rather like Threads.”

On the other side of a meticulous hedge, someone with an acoustic guitar is performing a melancholic Neil Young song at a non-intrusive volume. Last night, a SpaceX rocket released several satellites into orbit directly above Santa Barbara. I happened to see it: a glowing arc and a luminous speck scudding across the sky. Julia heard the sonic boom but didn’t know what it was until afterwards. “We were watching TV, and I was like, ‘What the fuck is that?’ and we went running outside. We put it together then.”

It can be hard to imagine someone so famous just relaxing in front of the TV. Does she have a routine when she’s at home? Regular things she does every day? “I hike, or I swim, or I take a sort of a, shall we say, interval training type of actual workout class. I really try to do that almost every day. And I really enjoy my morning. It’s so mundane – I have my lemon water. I have my coffee. I do the crossword. I’m sharing my Wordle scores with Carol Burnett.”

To share one’s Wordle scores with the one-time host of The Carol Burnett Show: even in mundanity we find glamour. Burnett is 90 years old. She’s a recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, just like Julia. They met lately in a hotel in LA to record the 10th and final interview for the first series of Wiser Than Me.

Each of her interviewees has a different take on age, of course, but is there some overarching lesson Julia has learned from speaking to all of them? What’s the hard kernel at the centre of all that wisdom she’s accumulated? Her answer is less about some secret trick that dawns on people in their 70s or 80s than about an acceptance of, and even excitement for, the process of becoming old. “When I was talking to [the writer] Isabel Allende,” Julia says, “she was speaking so glowingly about being in her 80s, and I remember saying to her at some point, ‘God, I can’t wait to be your age. You’re making it sound so delicious.’ So I’m looking forward to that. I mean, I don’t want to race towards it, because I want to be present, of course. But I am going to say that I’m not fearful of ageing. I really welcome it.”

Leopard-print coat by DOLCE & GABBANA, black cotton-blend Colorado bodysuit and tights by WOLFORD.