TORONTO – At the suggestion that she’s the finest comedic actress of her generation, Julia Louis-Dreyfus sighs an expletive.
The grandness of the statement may make Louis-Dreyfus squirm, but it’s worth considering.
Think about her, as Elaine Benes on Seinfeld, swooning over John F. Kennedy Jr. Think about her, as Vice President Selina Meyer on Veep, strategically finishing a 10k race behind a disabled veteran but before a costumed contestant (I’m not going to get beaten by a banana!).
Few comediennes have both her gift for physical comedy (furiously tearing away George Costanza’s toupee) and vocal precision (He took it out). In worlds as varied as the dating banter of Seinfeld and the Beltway politics of Veep, her characters have suffered countless indignities yet always remained feistily combative.
It’s a very joyful way to make a living, Louis-Dreyfus remarked in a recent interview at the Toronto International Film Festival. I kind of crave it, in a way. But it’s fun to make them cry, too.
And with that, she lets out a full-throated laugh – a brilliant, bright cackle that’s ruined dozens of otherwise good takes. (If you haven’t seen it, look up the outtakes from her police station confrontation with Jerry Stiller as Frank Costanza on Seinfeld.)
In Enough Said, now playing in local theaters, Louis-Dreyfus transfers her comedic gifts to the big screen and, finally, gets to exercise her tear-inducing chops.
Enough Said, she joked after the Toronto premiere of the film, her first dramatic work since doing The Cherry Orchard in high school. She fell into sketch comedy as a college student at Northwestern University in Chicago, after which she joined Saturday Night Live. It’s also, somewhat staggeringly, the first lead role in a feature film for the 52-year-old actress.
I’ve spent the bulk of my career doing television and raising two children, who I’m still raising. So the idea of working eight, nine months on a series and then on my break going off to do another project is something I just couldn’t work into my life, says Louis-Dreyfus. So I didn’t, much to my agent’s chagrin.
In Enough Said, written and directed by Nicole Holofcener (Please Give, Lovely and Amazing), Louis-Dreyfus plays a divorced Los Angeles masseuse and mother who begins dating the ex-husband (James Gandolfini) of a new friend (Catherine Keener). It’s a tender, un-formulaic romantic comedy about the distrustful stage of middle age when romantic opportunities seem like inevitable disappointment and children leave for college.
There was plenty to draw on, says Louis-Dreyfus, who – despite a career playing interminably single or divorced women – has been happily married for 25 years to SNL alum Brad Hall, with whom she has two sons. I brought all of it.
I could see how emotional she was, says Holofcener. She showed me pictures of (her sons), she started crying, and I thought, Oh, OK. This is a no-brainer. Obviously she can relate to this part, and obviously her emotions are very accessible and close to the surface.’
After casting Gandolfini, Holofcener realized she had played matchmaker of two TV icons: It’s like Tony Soprano dating Elaine Benes.
The release of the film has been bittersweet for all of those involved, coming just three months after the death of Gandolfini. Louis-Dreyfus was a big admirer of the actor before working with him: I thought he was sort of dreamy, she says.
James was very much like the character, Albert, that he plays in this movie: very dear, thoughtful, self-effacing kind of guy, she says, choking up. It’s lovely for his legacy, and even for his family, to have this performance documented because it shows him as this loving, dear man, which he was.
Like Gandolfini, Louis-Dreyfus could easily have been pigeonholed for her most famous TV role.
The test is always time, says Jerry Seinfeld. When your talent is thin, you get cycled through the machine fast. When your talent is deep, like hers is, you get a much longer ride – which is very obvious to everyone at this point.
It would be hard to overstate the importance of Louis-Dreyfus to Seinfeld. Before casting her, Seinfeld declared to co-creator Larry David: If this deal works out and we get her, we’re going to be very wealthy.
The character of Elaine was added after the pilot, but she quickly asserted herself as one of the boys. In the tradition of Lucille Ball, Louis-Dreyfus never shied away from looking foolish for comedic effect, even sinking to that lowest of lows: flirting with Newman.
Veep, Armando Iannucci’s satire of Washington, D.C., has proved to be the great, foul-mouthed bookend for Louis-Dreyfus’ sitcom life. She won an Emmy last year for her performance and is nominated for it again. Her Selina is perpetually, desperately a step behind the D.C. gossip mill.
She’s vain, she’s frustrated, she’s ambitious, she’s self-centered, ego-maniacal, fundamentally very lonely and behaves desperately as the result of all of the above, says Louis-Dreyfus.
Veep runs only in 10-episode bunches, allowing Louis-Dreyfus more time for film work. Enough Said may be just a beginning.
It’s not like they’re easily plucked from trees, these kinds of really interesting, distinct films with roles for people my age, says Louis-Dreyfus. But I have a feeling I’ll do a few more films, to tell you the truth.