Comic actress has been drawing laughs since '80s
Few comic actresses working primarily in television can boast the kind of career Julia Louis-Dreyfus has had, with success on long-running comedy shows in three decades.
But Louis-Dreyfus says she has never thought of her work on “Saturday Night Live” in the 1980s, “Seinfeld” in the ’90s and “The New Adventures of Old Christine” in the ’00s in terms that put her in such rare company as Lucille Ball and Mary Tyler Moore.
I think of myself as a working actor who’s been lucky enough to land gigs that worked out,” says the two-time Emmy winner, who is being honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Instead, she simply aspired to be an actress, and her career trajectory veered toward comedy almost by accident.
It just sort of happened that way,” she says. “Although, God knows I’d kill for a laugh.”
Louis-Dreyfus says her acting idols were women who took risks. “I’ve always admired women who are not afraid of making themselves look bad or foolish to get a laugh,” she says, citing (in addition to Ball and Moore) Madeline Kahn, Teri Garr, Valerie Harper and Cloris Leachman as inspirations.
Acting led the New York-born Louis-Dreyfus to Chicago’s Northwestern U., where she met her future husband — writer and fellow actor Brad Hall — acted in plays and performed with Hall in the comedy group Practical Theater Company.
All the shows that we did there were funny, and it was sort of from there that I was plucked to go to New York to do ‘Saturday Night Live,’?” she says.
Louis-Dreyfus was 21 and the youngest female cast member ever hired for the famous NBC sketch comedy series — a mark recently matched by current cast member Abby Elliott — and was not fully prepared for the experience.
While it was sort of a dream come true, I didn’t know what I was doing,” she says. “I didn’t go in with a bag a of characters. I didn’t write. I didn’t make alliances with writers.”
Likening the learning experience to graduate school, Louis-Dreyfus says she left the show with concrete career goals in mind. “The main one being that if it isn’t fun and I don’t think it’s funny, then it’s not worth doing,” she says. “And that was a gigantic lesson for me in a lot of ways.”
After a stint playing a wisecracking neighbor on NBC’s “Day by Day,” Louis-Dreyfus landed her signature role of Elaine Benes on “Seinfeld.” The now-classic series started slowly, but by its third season had broken into hit territory, with Elaine introducing such phrases into the lexicon as “spongeworthy” — terms that would have made the characters played by Moore or Ball blush with embarrassment.
Louis-Dreyfus won an Emmy and was nominated six times for supporting actress in a comedy series. But she says the show’s impact was largely invisible from the inside, and she didn’t fully appreciate it until near the end.
When we shot the final episode, and they had to put up these walls in front of the stage so that people couldn’t see what characters were coming onto the stage itself, I was like, ‘I can’t believe anyone gives this much of a crap,’?” she says. “The reach of the work that you do doesn’t necessarily occur to you as you’re doing it, because you’re just in the middle of the work.”
After a four-year break, Louis-Dreyfus and husband Hall teamed up for “Watching Ellie,” a high-concept sitcom that struggled through two seasons before NBC axed it.
It was the traditional multicamera sitcom “The New Adventures of Old Christine” that disproved the so-called “Seinfeld” curse. Louis-Dreyfus won her second Emmy for the show, which just finished its fifth season and is awaiting word from CBS on a sixth.
Louis-Dreyfus says she doesn’t know exactly why “Christine” has thrived when “Ellie,” of which she remains very proud, did not. “I wish I knew the exact formula for doing this,” she says. “I don’t, really, other than to just sort of follow my own instincts.”
Those instincts are a part of all her long-running characters — even when she is in the unusual position of playing herself on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
You have to be able to tap into something that’s available to you, easily accessible to you to play a character, certainly for a long run, because when you’re churning out show after show, you don’t have the luxury of weeks of rehearsals to work things out,” she says.
Looking past “Christine,” Louis-Dreyfus says her primary goal is to continue to work on material that’s exciting. “If that means television, great; if it means theater, fantastic; if it means film, great,” she says. “All of it is good with me, as long as the material is exciting.”