A phone call from 40 years ago still breaks Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ heart. It came in the early ’80s, when her father, Gérard Louis-Dreyfus, rang to deliver a harsh review of his daughter’s inaugural season on “Saturday Night Live.”
Louis-Dreyfus wanted the approval of the noted Franco-American entrepreneur. She’d dropped out of Northwestern at 21, after she was scouted by “SNL” on the Chicago improv stages of Second City and the Practical Theatre Company. She had never set foot on the set of a television show, let alone appeared on a live program that she would join as its youngest-ever player at the time, working alongside fellow future greats like Eddie Murphy and Jim Belushi. “I had no understanding about performing in this new medium,” she says.
Louis-Dreyfus declines to name the sketch (“I’m not telling you which one,” she deadpans, “because you’ll look it up”), but does say she’ll never forget the feedback. “I remember him saying something really negative to me. He didn’t handle it properly, and he wasn’t gentle. His complaint was that I was too big, too broad. I was devastated by that,” she says.
Sitting on a high floor in a building in West L.A., watching rain batter the 405 freeway, Louis-Dreyfus extracts this difficult memory in the same way she pulls apart the protein bar in front of her — with precision. With both hands, she cracks the snack with force into five pieces, then eats them one by one. Asked if she ever told her father that she agreed with his assessment, she says, “No, he was such a narcissist, I didn’t even consider that.” Suddenly, a wicked chuckle wells up from the bottom of her feet, just like the one we’ve witnessed on-screen for many years. “And I say that with love in my heart.”
Louis-Dreyfus does not fumble her sentences or search for words. She is as well spoken and polished as a politician and yet she seems truthful, genuine. The harder she is pushed and prodded on sensitive issues — her cancer diagnosis, the high-wire act of comedy and political correctness — the more confidently she volleys back with assured and concise responses. Maybe this is the reflex of a person who’s done hundreds of interviews, but more likely it’s just proof of how deeply she knows herself.
It’s easy to relate to Louis-Dreyfus’ hurt feelings after her father’s tough words. Everyone longs for the support of family and friends. But do we want to hear the truth? That question is at the heart of Louis-Dreyfus’ new film, “You Hurt My Feelings,” an examination of the limits of brutal honesty that is set to premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Directed by indie stalwart Nicole Holofcener, the film follows Beth, a writer whose memoir about the verbal abuse she suffered at the hands of her father was relatively well received. Now, in the process of trying to sell her first novel, she overhears her husband talking trash about her work — words that conflict with the blind encouragement and praise he’s offered her for years.
The occasion of “You Hurt My Feelings” is a long-awaited reunion for Louis-Dreyfus and Holofcener, who collaborated a decade ago on “Enough Said,” with the late James Gandolfini. That film — a love story — allowed Louis-Dreyfus, best known for her broadly comic roles, to flex some dramatic muscle as a massage therapist who becomes involved with a fellow divorcé. Holofcener, a master of creating sharp characters whose intelligence is clouded by anxiety and obsession, and Louis-Dreyfus, an actor who has never shied away from mining humor from neurosis, proved a blissful match. The film earned Louis-Dreyfus some of the best reviews of her career. “Enough Said” also came as a sort of promise to her fans that she might dive into a medium she’d largely avoided: the movies.
In “You Hurt My Feelings,” Louis-Dreyfus’ character struggles with a lack of confidence in herself and then, after the betrayal, her marriage. Her husband, Don (Tobias Menzies), isn’t exactly setting the world on fire as a therapist. But before his overheard criticism of her work, their lives were filled with quiet, co-dependent harmony. They’re the couple who eat from the same bowl and consult one another on the smallest of decisions, to the horror of their only child (Owen Teague). Her sister (Michaela Watkins) skillfully helps Beth work through the pain, maybe because she has her own flailing-artist husband in Mark (“Succession” breakout Arian Moayed), a perpetually rejected actor always on the verge of getting a real job. The members of the ensemble are all on a trajectory colliding with an awful truth but fight against it to preserve happiness and dignity.
The irony of casting Louis-Dreyfus in this part is that, at 62, she has never been more professionally emboldened or secure in her work and life.
That’s reflected in the array of films she will appear in over the next two years. After “You Hurt My Feelings,” there’s “Tuesday” (a trippy, adult-skewing fairy tale about a mother and a daughter) from A24, as well as the Jonah Hill rom-com “You People” from Kenya Barris and Netflix that’s coming Jan. 27.
Then, of course, there’s her gig in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Louis-Dreyfus wiggles with excitement as she discusses her character, the nefarious Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine. “There’s so much secrecy around it,” she half-whispers with glee. “When I first started shooting, I had to go to set wearing a black cloak with a hood and keep my head down so nobody could see it was me walking onto the soundstage.” While the character has been teased in multiple Marvel projects, she’ll have her biggest showing to date in the upcoming “Thunderbolts,” which begins shooting in June. Louis-Dreyfus’ giddiness is understandable, given the curveball Marvel represents at this point in her career.
Holofcener is not surprised that Louis-Dreyfus is out there with such a mix of art-house and blockbuster fare. “She’s pretty much right for most things,” the director says. “Don’t tell her I said this, but she can do funny and sad at the same time. I knew she had it in her to do the drama in ‘You Hurt My Feelings’ — to really fall apart.”
David Mandel, a writer in the “Seinfeld” room and latter-day showrunner on “Veep,” agrees that Louis-Dreyfus’ comedy is unusually nuanced. “There are 1,000 layers to Julia,” he says. “At any given time, she’s playing 30 or 40 things in a scene, which allows her to be likable and unlikable, incompetent and very skilled. Especially during ‘Veep,’ we dug into the psyche of Selina Meyer and took her to some very dark places. She was able to play that tragedy while being fucking hilarious.”
Like her character in “You Hurt My Feelings,” Louis-Dreyfus relies on her husband, Brad Hall, to whom she’s been married for 36 years, for advice on potential jobs. When asked if he’s ever told her not to take a part, she says, “Yeah, and I didn’t do it.” She now shares in this creative trust with her two sons — actor Charlie Hall (“The Sex Lives of College Girls”) and actor-musician Henry Hall. She paints a sweet picture of the family unit roaming Santa Barbara, where they live, spending their days haunting a local gastropub and nights in her kitchen, running lines.
When asked if she saw the recent New York magazine cover declaring 2022 the year of the “nepo baby” (defined as a celebrity child who followed their parents into the business), she raises an eyebrow. “I heard my son was in it,” she says, referencing Charlie’s inclusion in the package. “Yeah. I didn’t read it.” The eyebrow comes back down.
Brad Hall was also a new cast member on “SNL” when Louis-Dreyfus joined the show in 1982. The couple dated for five years and married in 1987. Of course, he was still at her side when she pulled off a second cultural phenomenon after “Seinfeld” with “Veep.” The smash HBO show ran for seven seasons beginning in 2012 and brought career highs as well as a health crisis. In 2017, Louis-Dreyfus was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“We had to shut down for close to a year while I went through my process,” Louis-Dreyfus says. “Nobody has ever been happier to go back to work. It confirmed for me the critical importance of my friendships with the people with whom I work and, of course, the love of my family and friends. It distilled down what was most important to me in my life.” Louis-Dreyfus’ cancer is now in remission.
Even as she faced personal challenges, Louis-Dreyfus was receiving an unprecedented level of professional success. She has taken home 11 Emmy awards as an actor and producer, a Peabody and the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. The office in her Los Angeles home holds a trophy case that groans under the weight of all the statues. Clearly, she’s had plenty of validation, and with or without paternal support, she says she knows when something she has made is good. “It feels a bit like all the machinery clicks in place. Nothing is ever perfect, but you know it when you get as close as you can,” she says.
“Veep” also earned her the admiration and fear of an entire generation of D.C. policy wonks with its frequently savage look at the overly ambitious, backstabbing and deliriously profane power brokers and hangers-on who populate Capitol Hill. One of those fans, Vice President Kamala Harris, finally had a chance to tell Louis-Dreyfus in person how accurately “Veep” nails Beltway life. “It was incredible,” the actor recalls. “Her husband, the first gentleman, and she told me they love ‘Veep,’ and that it’s more like D.C. than anyone would care to admit.”
What was funny to one generation seems tone-deaf or cruel to another. Asked about Mindy Kaling’s recent comments that “The Office,” the satire about corporate workplaces, would be too politically incorrect to air today, Louis-Dreyfus says, “It’s tricky. I’m in favor of sensitivity. When people complain about being too politically correct, I start to question what their motives are. I believe in irony and satire — there must be a place for it for a culture to survive — but I also believe in being sensitive and kind at the same time.”
Louis-Dreyfus says she’s been pitched on playing Selina Meyer again, but thinks Americans need “multiple years of normalcy in Washington before we could revisit something.” Proving her point, she bristles when asked if a reboot of “Veep,” with its signature merciless satire, would tackle something like the Jan. 6 insurrection. “I don’t know how we could,” she says, her wheels spinning so hard to find a joke that she brings her hand to her forehead. “I don’t know how to make that funny, especially when people lost their lives.”
Louis-Dreyfus has been famous in a zeitgeist-dictating kind of way for generations, but movies were never really her thing. In the early ’90s, when “Seinfeld” was topping Nielsen ratings charts, the star market was dramatically different; appearing in feature films was the apex of success for an actor. TV stardom was meant as a bridge to movies in those days, and God forbid an actor backslide onto the small screen — it meant full-blown career crisis. Louis-Dreyfus remembers the pressure, from agents and advisers, to get on the big screen.
“There was a push for that. The issue for me was, I started having my kids during ‘Seinfeld,’ so I really didn’t do movies. I passed on a lot of projects because we were filming 22 episodes a year,” Louis-Dreyfus says. “You’d have these few months off, and I couldn’t bear the idea of going back to work. It was not comfortable for me, emotionally. To be a mother of kids who also works outside the home is quite the undertaking.”
Aside from a small role as a bad-tempered yuppie in 1989’s “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” the films Louis-Dreyfus booked during the “Seinfeld” era all had outstanding filmmaker pedigrees yet struggled at the box office. Projects like “North,” Rob Reiner’s film about a boy who travels the world in search of the perfect parents, vivisected in a review by Roger Ebert; “Fathers’ Day,” a comedy with Robin Williams and Billy Crystal that failed to gross more than a quarter of its reported $85 million budget; and Woody Allen’s “Deconstructing Harry.” Months after “Seinfeld” ended in the summer of 1998, Louis-Dreyfus earned a bona fide hit with a voice role in Pixar’s “A Bug’s Life,” which grossed more than $360 million worldwide.
Twenty-five years later, that kind of success is all but guaranteed for Marvel’s “Thunderbolts.” Louis-Dreyfus was recruited to the MCU the way most A-listers are — over a casual meeting with Marvel chief creative officer Kevin Feige and co-president Louis D’Esposito.
“I said, ‘If anything comes up, let me know,’” Louis-Dreyfus remembers. Only days later, she had the role of the Contessa, a mysterious woman with a knack for gathering power and enlisting superheroes to do her bidding. The Contessa was trotted out briefly in “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” “Black Widow” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” In “Thunderbolts,” an antihero team will form under her orders, comic watchers have speculated. The film will pair Louis-Dreyfus with MCU mainstays Florence Pugh and Sebastian Stan, as well as Marvel newbies like Wyatt Russell.
“I did this to see if I can get some respect from these people in my family,” Louis-Dreyfus says, again invoking the Santa Barbara crew. She delights in finding ways to make the comic book character her own, like successfully lobbying to change the Contessa’s streak of white hair to purple. “I thought purple would make it a little more of this world today. And I didn’t want her to look too much like Cruella,” she says.
In another unexpected move, Louis-Dreyfus has lobbied to kick some ass. “I pitched it; I told them I really want to fight. I haven’t seen the script yet — we’ll see if that happens,” she says. But she changes her tune when she thinks about the possible physical demands of a Marvel role: “Ugh. I guess I’d better get in shape.”
Many in the industry are excited to return to Park City in January for the après-ski vibes of Sundance. But in addition to ongoing paranoia about COVID, the independent film market has been hammered by pandemic shutdowns, safety costs, rising inflation and audiences who have eschewed theaters for at-home streaming. 2022 was also a notable annus horribilis in terms of box office for the prestige films of awards season, from “Babylon” to “The Fabelmans.”
One of the reasons Louis-Dreyfus made “You Hurt My Feelings,” and will continue to pursue projects like it, is that certain types of movies need protectors, she says. “I believe in small stories about really big things.”
When asked to name a few such films, the politician in Louis-Dreyfus evaporates. She’s all wistful memories and emotion as she tries to find the perfect example. “A movie I watch periodically, and I adore, is ‘A Room With a View,’” she says of the Merchant Ivory classic. “Every time I watch it, it slays me. Everyone in my family laughs at me because it’s my go-to.”
Then suddenly she’s re-creating the tearjerking penultimate scene when Helena Bonham Carter is confronted about whether or not she loves Julian Sands.
“Of course, I do! What did you all think,” Louis-Dreyfus says, imitating Bonham Carter. The tiny performance on a high floor on a rainy day in L.A. is good. In fact, Louis-Dreyfus knows it’s good.