Julia Louis-Dreyfus has created iconic characters on “Seinfeld” and “Veep,” and with her overall deal with Apple, she’s poised for her next chapter. That future may or may not include more appearances as the Marvel villain Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine on Disney Plus’ “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” — something she can barely talk about, since Marvel is so secretive. This is pretty much all she can say: “I’ve always wanted to play a contessa, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe made it happen.”
But during an in-depth interview over Zoom for Variety’s Power of Women issue, there was plenty Louis-Dreyfus was able to discuss, including how she misses playing “Veep’s” Selina Meyer, her search for her next projects, why she got so involved in the 2020 election — and how cancer changed her priorities.
How have these past 13 months been for you?
I got really involved in the political campaign, the presidential election and all down ballot elections. And it became a kind of full-time, part-time job. I was doing a lot for multiple candidates in swing states, and to fight voter suppression. And it was intense, but it was gratifying, ultimately, because the outcome was good. Although I’m more aware than ever that we have our work cut out for us moving forward. And I’m in a development deal over at Apple, so I’ve been searching for material and have been working on that.
Your Apple deal was announced in January of 2020, right before everything shut down. When you have a deal like that, how do you even begin to figure out where you want to start?
It’s daunting, I’m not going to lie — I’ve never done anything quite like this. I’m always on the lookout for good material, I know many writers, things are pitched to me. But I’ve never sort of hung a shingle out before. So it was a lot of reading material, meeting people over Zoom, which we’ve all gotten quite used to. Great ideas are not low hanging fruit. I’m like one of those pigs that searches for truffles.
So do you have a production company now?
I guess I do! And I’ve got a couple of things that are in the pipeline. I’m still looking for more. But yeah, the timing of this was pretty incredible in terms of having the time to really just read and read and read, and that’s what I’ve been doing. Additionally, I should say I’m also reading a lot of fiction at this time. I found it to be unbelievably comforting. Not with an end toward developing it, just for pure pleasure. I took it upon myself to read all of Elizabeth Strout’s work at the beginning of the pandemic, and that was a great tonic and comfort.
How are you finding a balance between projects for you to act in and things you want to produce?
What I’m finding is that I’m more drawn to finding things for me to actually be in, although I don’t rule out other material that I’m not in, or I’m in just in a very small capacity as an actor. But first and foremost, I’m an actor, and I really like to perform so that’s what I’m trying to sniff out.
Are there projects you’ve always wanted to do, and this is a way of doing them?
It’s certainly an opportunity to look for some dramatic work, which I’ve been doing. I definitely relish the idea of delving more into drama. I don’t rule out doing more comedy, of course — I love it. But it’s not the only thing I do.
I assume “Veep” was an incredibly demanding job, not only because you were the lead actor, but because you were a producer also. When you haven’t been working for a while, do you yearn to get back to it? Or is it nice to be home?
Interesting question, because I’m usually kind of dying to get back to it. But this go ‘round, I think I’ve been so frightened by this pandemic, truth be told, that going back to work, I’m finding a little bit like I’m feeling homesick already thinking about it. I have to go on location; I’m a little worried about that.
I’m talking to my friends who have been doing work with COVID protocols in place — what’s that experience like? That’s very challenging, at least in my anecdotal discovering, because so much of the work when you’re doing a show, a movie, whatever, happens between takes and during the hang of the work, the goofing around of the work.
But I like being home. I’ve definitely gotten quite used to being at home.
Did you pick up any hobbies during the pandemic? Were you, like, a sourdough person?
I tried that? And I can’t say that I love the making of bread. I like to eat bread, but the making of it, no. But I will tell you that I got the New York Times cooking app, and Lord Jesus do I love this app. And my recipe box — I’m looking at it now. I have 300 recipes or thereabouts saved. And I’ve made a shit ton of these recipes. So that’s been a fun thing to do.
So many people have watched “Veep” and “Seinfeld” in the past year to laugh and get some relief. Were you aware of that?
I hear that people are — certainly with “Seinfeld” there’s a lot of nostalgia about it, and it’s held its currency as a funny show. And “Veep” — there were so many parallels to what happened within “Veep” to what happened in the last four years, it’s quite uncanny. Actually, we did a whole fundraiser about it, including the “count every vote / stop the count” back and forth that they were doing in Georgia, which we had an episode about many years back. I mean, just incredible.
In terms of your focus on politics, was getting rid of Trump what kicked you into high gear?
I’ve always been politically active. But this past election frightened me. And so, I felt as a patriot I had to do my duty and use whatever tools I had for what I consider to be good. A lot was at stake in this last election, but we mustn’t rest on our laurels here, because a lot is going to be at stake in ’22 and ’24. The Republican Party, in my view, has lost their minds. And this is not even the party of Reagan anymore. It’s something different, and it scares me.
I never met her unfortunately. I mean, the original cast had an aura around them, and still do in my view. I was in high school when “SNL” first came on the scene, and I really felt like — well, in fact, I was its audience. I’d stay up late; I couldn’t wait for Saturday night. I’d stay up late, watch it in real time. But it was so irreverent, and there was nothing like it on television as the voice of the youth.
I adored her, and I had a picture of her up in my room. And I loved her goofiness and her willingness to look like a horse’s ass. That, to me, was very admirable. For real.
I was in treatment for cancer when you announced that you had cancer. It’s just the most personal thing you can say, but you also tied it to universal healthcare in this way that I appreciated so much. The response to that must have been overwhelming.
What was overwhelming was to get a cancer diagnosis. One of the many complicating aspects of this was we were about to start shooting “Veep,” and so it’s like 250 people working in some capacity on the show. I realized I couldn’t just hibernate and take care of myself and lay low and be private. Which, by the way, frankly, if I hadn’t been in production, I would have done that. Because I am a private person. And I was terrified. But by circumstance, I was forced to make it a public thing.
But then, even though it went against who I am to a certain extent, it reaped certain rewards. It elevated the dialogue about universal health care, which I think can always be pushed to the front-burner.
Also, I started to meet people and talk to people, and people reached out to me, to either to help me with the various machinations of going through cancer treatment. Or asking me for help, because they were about to go through X, Y or Z, and they had questions. And I found all of that to be incredibly comforting in a way that I had not anticipated. So I was glad for that, you know? I was glad for that.
There is such a community that you find. That was my experience, anyway. And you need people around you to tell you what to do, you know?
Completely. And that was certainly the case for me. I needed advocates with an “s.” For all sorts of reasons, but also, you’re kind of on autopilot. I don’t know if that was your experience. But it was like, “OK, we’re gonna get this taken care of!” And it was just a laser focus on trying to get better. But it was also hard to keep things in mind: What did they just say?
I don’t know if this is the case for you, but I can’t remember a lot of it!
Totally. And chemo — I mean, it’s indescribably awful. You know it’s going to be the worst thing — and then you’re like, “Oh! It’s the WORST THING.”
It’s awful. It’s medieval. I suppose one day they won’t have it, and they’ll do something else. But I’m grateful for it. I’m not going to knock it completely. Right?
It kills you just enough to save your life.
It kills you with love at the core.
In a New Yorker profile, you talked about how it changed your perspective on things. I find that the more distant I am from it, the more I have to remind myself, “At least you’re not dying!”
Me too. But doesn’t it make sense to say: “Let’s not think about that anymore. I’m putting that away. It’s done, it’s dealt with, and now I’m moving forward with my life as if it hasn’t happened.” And to a certain extent, I think that’s a coping tool mechanism that works. Sort of! Until certain things rear up and bite you in the ass because you weren’t thinking about it.
For example, I have to say that when it first really became clear that this was a pandemic, back in the early days when we were wiping down groceries and all of that, I had no sense of arrogance whatsoever about this thing. When you’re face to face with your mortality in the way that cancer takes you there — the pandemic, I found, to be strangely the same. I was like, “Oh boy. I could see this getting me. And I can’t let it get me.”
So it’s two masks; it’s every protocol you can think of. I had friends who got it. And I’m afraid to say a number of people who got it, died from it. I was not blasé about it at all. I had an immediate serious reaction to it. I think cancer was one of the reasons.
I’m so sorry about that. Does what you’ve been through have an effect on your choices work-wise?
I’m not really thinking about my work like that. I’m just thinking about projects in terms of their actual meat on the bones of them. With the life-is-short thing, I’m thinking about how I want to spend my next couple of decades — hopefully more than a couple — here in this earth, and what am I going to do with my life? I’m really thinking about where I want to spend time, and being near to my kids — and traveling.
I don’t think I realized until I started doing research for this that you were 21 when you were on “Saturday Night Live.” When you’re 21, you feel like you can do anything. But looking back, are you, like, “I was 21?!?”
I was such a baby. But you’re right, I didn’t think of myself as such. I did know I didn’t have a lot of experience coming to “SNL.” It’s not like I went there with a bag of tricks that I could reach into. I mean, I was really green, and had very little understanding of how that show worked or how show business worked in general, you know? In retrospect, it was a great learning experience.
You did the season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” that was kind of a “Seinfeld” reunion. But do you ever have an urge to revisit any of your past characters?
You know who I miss? I miss playing Selina Meyer. My God, I loved this group of people that we worked with. It was the most lovely group of actors, writers, crew — everybody. And I know actors go around and they say, “Oh, it’s such a wonderful set” — and, of course, very often it is. But I’m telling you, for me it was elevated. And very loving. When the show first began, we were all on location together, and everybody had family elsewhere, and so we sort of all clung to one another. We became a very close-knit group.
The other reason is, just playing that character who was so out of her fucking mind and so undeveloped for me was — it was just freeing! Everything was about her ego, with not a care in the world for another human being. It was great fun to sort of tap into sort of what I think of as a two-year old’s level of development. I found that to be very exciting.”
It must have been fun to say just the filthiest, meanest things.
It was great fun. And you know, the parallels between politics and show business are very, very much there. So there was a lot to tap into, too, as a middle-aged woman who’s in show business, and middle-aged woman who’s in politics.
Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you want to say?
Is the focus about women and power?
This time it’s about women in comedy, and it’s Michaela Cole and Mindy Kaling and you — different people on the cover. Usually, there’s a fun lunch.
Right, but not this year. Do they do a men in power issue?
That’s my point. I look forward to the day when they don’t have to do this particular issue. Wouldn’t that be nice?
This interview has been edited and condensed.