It’s the Toronto film festival and Julia Louis-Dreyfus is looking superhip, dressed head to toe in chic black and sporting thick-rimmed cool-girl glasses. The look is a million miles from the appallingly dressed Elaine Benes, the Seinfeld character who made her a household face. But you can’t help thinking of Elaine when Louis-Dreyfus has the sort of encounter she probably gets all the time, as she’s buttonholed in a hotel corridor by a journalist who acts as if he’s bumped into an old friend. “Julia. Louise [sic]. Dreyfus. How are you?” he wheedles, before delivering a eulogy to her talents. She handles it with good grace, but you can spot the mischief lurking in her eyes and imagine her feeling tempted to respond with a classic Elaineism: “Are you kidding?!” It’s like the starting point for a Seinfeld episode, in which the gang rail for 22 minutes against inappropriate familiarity in total strangers.
Louis-Dreyfus describes awkward encounters as her version of humour heaven: “Wincey, shameful moments in human behaviour make me laugh really hard,” she says with a throaty chortle. For much of the film she is in Toronto to promote, Enough Said, you can observe her deploying all the comic weapons in her arsenal. Eva, a fiftysomething masseuse somewhat trudging her way through life, is a compendium of the traits we have come to expect from Louis-Dreyfus females: the deadpan wit, neurotic foibles and middle-class fixations that distinguish both Seinfeld’s Elaine and Veep’s Selina Meyer.
The actress has been such a fixture on the comedy landscape since Seinfeld debuted in 1990, it’s something of a miracle that Enough Said marks her first big-screen lead. Still, what a gem to hold out for: the fifth film from the writer-director Nicole Holofcener is a funny, tender, pin-sharp comedy-drama that examines middle age and empty-nest syndrome within the framework of an odd-couple romance.
Louis-Dreyfus isn’t the only TV titan on screen. Enough Said arrives with the bittersweet distinction of being one of James Gandolfini’s last roles, and the first to surface since he died prematurely in June, aged 51. He plays Albert, a sweet, weary, slightly pathetic bear of a man for whom Eva falls before realising he’s the ex-husband of a new client (Catherine Keener). Louis-Dreyfus has long wanted to work with Holofcener, who has been tagged the female-centric Woody Allen for her witty, urbane, often personal relationship comedies. “Nicole’s work is about understanding flawed people with kind eyes, and I love that,” she says.
For directors and writers, working with Louis-Dreyfus must feel like being a violinist granted temporary possession of a Stradivarius. She is one of that breed of smart funnywomen whose humour is born of not being afraid to make fools of themselves. It’s a rich bloodline that includes her personal heroines Lucille Ball, Teri Garr and Madeline Kahn and, more recently, Tina Fey and her good friend Amy Poehler. “I like women who don’t operate out of fear, who just go for it,” she says. “I like ballsy women and all of those women” — that deep, throaty chuckle erupts — “they have balls, frankly.”
As does Louis-Dreyfus, a relentless improviser who brought her skills to bear “a ton” on Holofcener’s collaborative set. She is hesitant to single out which funny bits she fed in, but does cite the film’s poignant final scene, where she and Gandolfini helped Holofcener solve a thorny dilemma: how to conclude the story. When it was over, they fell into each other’s arms: “We knew we’d nailed it.”
Their scenes together are warm, funny and tender. Louis-Dreyfus describes Gandolfini variously as “a gentle giant”, “caring” and “endearing” — closer in real life, she found, to Albert than to any of his other characters (which, to be honest, is reassuring to hear). Gandolfini was also, according to both director and star, a bundle of raw nerves and anxiety on the set, jokingly telling Holofcener she should have hired George Clooney. “He felt undeserving,” Louis-Dreyfus recalls. “He kept saying, ‘Why am I playing this part? I don’t play the guy who gets the girl.’ ” But his insecurities, she says, “only made him that much more fall-in-lovable”.
She pauses, her throat catching slightly. “I just adored him... I think there was a part of Jim that wasn’t very comfortable being an actor. He was a little bit embarrassed all the time, yet his performance in this movie is the most believable and honest. So go figure. And, I’m not kidding, it was really attractive.”
In the wake of Gandolfini’s fatal heart attack in Rome, Holofcener admits she has felt like a big, bad meanie for incorporating fat jokes at his expense. Louis-Dreyfus doesn’t share her guilt. “I hope this doesn’t sound unkind, but he was on board for this,” she says. “And as long as he was comfortable, I was comfortable. If I had ever felt he had a feeling of shame about it, I would have been miserable. I think he comes off beautifully.”
Louis-Dreyfus also comes off beautifully, showing off top-quality dramatic chops to go with her abilities as a comedy Exocet. Yet if the production team hadn’t been willing to shoot in LA, where she lives, she wouldn’t have done it. Married for 26 years to Brad Hall, whom she met at college and starred with in Saturday Night Live, she squeezed small roles into her Seinfeld hiatuses (including Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry). But after her sons, Henry and Charlie, arrived, she wasn’t willing to sacrifice domestic bliss, turning down masses of movie work before Enough Said. “I have never felt like, ‘Oh my God, I wish I’d done that’, because that’s like saying, ‘God, I wish I hadn’t been home.’”
She empathises fully with Eva’s dread at her daughter’s impending departure for university, jesting that when her own house finally becomes an empty nest, she plans a jet-set existence of wall-to-wall film shoots. “Location, location, location! My husband and I can go anywhere we want, then. But I still have a couple of years at home with Charlie, thank Christ.”
While she has Seinfeld to thank for fame and fortune (although she’s also the daughter of a billionaire French-born industrialist, Gérard Louis-Dreyfus), she must be a tiny bit pleased that Vice-President Meyer has shifted the focus away from Elaine. Louis-Dreyfus has been a perpetual rubbisher of the so-called “curse of Seinfeld”, the inability of the cast to follow up their show’s colossal success. Yet the theory did gain early credence thanks to her immediate post-Seinfeld failure with Watching Ellie, created by her husband and canned after two seasons. “Tremendously sad,” she admits.
If The Old Adventures of New Christine, a sitcom that ran in America for five years, revitalised a career running on fumes, Veep has delivered the turbocharge, recently landing Louis-Dreyfus her fourth Emmy for best actress. Her sons attended the ceremony, wearing cufflinks that the incumbent veep, Joe Biden, presented to her (she posted a photo on Instagram) after the pair had lunch together this spring in the West Wing — “a dream come true” for this diehard Obama supporter, although meeting Biden’s staff was a tad bizarre. “Somebody came up to me and said, ‘I’m the Dan Egan of the office’, which I found sort of staggering,” she marvels, referring to Selina’s unlikeably ambitious deputy director of communications.
That speaks volumes about the spreading reach of Armando Iannucci’s nervy satire of executive power (or, in Meyer’s case, powerlessness), which adores pinning America’s dysfunctional political system to the mat. Part of the show’s ingenuity is that, for all her clumsy screw-ups, Meyer is never reduced to Palinisms. Louis-Dreyfus, currently in the midst of shooting season three, knows who she’d rather have sitting in the White House: “I can’t think of a single circumstance under which Sarah Palin would be a better president than Selina Meyer.”
Spending her adulthood portraying comically adept women and being surrounded by piercingly funny brains must have rubbed off on her, I suggest. Does she feel more hilarious now than she did 30 years ago, when she arrived on the scene as a 21-year-old tenderfoot on Saturday Night Live?
“I don’t know,” she says. “I just am who I am. I like to laugh. For me, that’s always been a deal-breaker.” In its review of Enough Said, The New York Times described Louis-Dreyfus as “reliably hilarious”. It’s a fair description, even if it reads like a backhanded compliment.
That throaty chuckle again. “‘Reliably hilarious’? God, that sounds so... Hey, listen, I’ll take it. I’ll take any compliment! Just call me Old Reliable.”