Julia Louis-Dreyfus: How to stay funny
IT'S NATURAL to feel a false sense of familiarity when interviewing actors as recognisable as Julia Louis-Dreyfus, simply because of the countless hours they have spent entertaining us in our living rooms.
Even more so if they've been a reliable source of laughter for decades, as Louis-Dreyfus has, starting with Seinfeld (1989-1998), then The New Adventures Of Old Christine (2006-2010) and, most recently,Veep (2012-2019), which has won her more Emmy and Screen Actor Guild awards than any other actor.
But the perennially funny star is now shifting gears with upcoming dramedy Downhill, in which she stars opposite Will Ferrell, about a family vacation gone awry on the slopes of the Austrian Alps.
So taken was Louis-Dreyfus with the Swedish hit, Force Majeure, from which the film is adapted, that she also took on the role of producer.
"I think that the original film is a work of art, and I found it so intriguing and so compelling to retell through an American lens," she raves.
Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Way, Way Back), who co-wrote the script with Jesse Armstrong (Succession), the movie shines a light on the precariousness of married life and the tiny cracks within that affect even the most solid relationships
"[It's a story of] the relationship between a husband and wife and how that unravels over a period of five days," says Louis-Dreyfus of the marriage-in-crisis element, "where chaos ensues and bad decisions are made on the heels of that.
"Plus set to the fish-out-of-water scenario of this American family in Europe, which helps heighten that unravelling and their internal conflict, was interesting to me.
"And while I hate the word 'dramedy,' we are tackling both genres of drama and comedy. It's very funny, but set in a bleak storyline."
Adding humour to that bleak storyline, Aussie actress Miranda Otto turns in a hilarious, if not over-the-top performance as a sexually uninhibited, heavily-accented European whose job could be loosely referred to as hotel "concierge".
Were there any shenanigans or mishaps during the shoot in Ischgl, Austria?
Louis-Dreyfus pauses to think.
"Okay, so I will go naked in the sauna, but in Austria I walked in and there were two naked men there," she says, laughing loudly. "I just went, 'Boop!', turned around, and out I went! I am not comfortable in that situation, but no disrespect to anyone who is."
Now 59, she has been married to comedian Brad Hall since 1987 (whom she met at Northwestern University), and they share two sons: Henry, 27, and Charles, 22.
Regarded as a trailblazer for many comediennes, Louis-Dreyfus was the youngest-ever female performer hired by Saturday Night Live, at 21, though executives at the male-centric show asked her to straighten her hair so as to appear "more attractive".
After a three-year run, she left SNL to appear in various movies, including Hannah and her Sisters (1986) and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989), before landing the role that would change her life in 1989 - Seinfeld's Elaine Benes, whom she played for nine seasons.
Of finding the funny in decidedly unfunny situations, she notes: "Conflict makes me laugh, and stories with an underdog, stories of great adversity always get me where I live."
As such a celebrated comedienne, do people expect her to always be "on"?
"My friends and family, of course, know that I'm not somebody who goes around making big jokes all the time, and yes, finding the funny in any situation is usually where I go, where I live, where my brain works," she agrees. "So there's a lot to be derived from finding humour in any situation, particularly if it's not a funny situation, frankly. That's helped me get through a lot of things in my life."
For once, she's not joking. Her father died in 2016 and two years later, her sister also passed away, aged only 44, following an accidental drug overdose.
Then in 2017, the day after she received a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for Veep, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She is now in remission, and no longer receiving treatment for the disease.
"I have my energy back," she says, knocking on wood. "Things are clearer to me now. Working on Veep, and now Downhill, it gives me a lot of joy, just in the making of it. I did cherish it before, but now I'm keenly aware of mortality, as I'm sure many people are. You realise after something like this, that whatever your goals and desires, you should really just go for it."
She also enjoys her quiet time.
"It's a necessity, solo time," she says. "It is for me. It doesn't mean that I seek it out all the time, but I like quiet. Sometimes I drive in the car with no radio, no nothing, and I actually do that more often than not. I am just in thought, or I hike lost in thought. I think it's an opportunity to regroup, regenerate, and to kind of fuel up, in a way."
Next up is her role in Onward, the new Pixar animated film in which she voices the role of Laurel Lightfoot, an elf and mother to characters played by Chris Pratt and Tom Holland. She is also currently working on future television projects with Apple TV.
"I'm really excited about developing material with Apple over the next few years," she nods, and corrects me. "I don't call it 'TV'. I like to call it 'Computer'."
Meanwhile, she has finally bid farewell to Selina Meyer, her alter ego on Veep, having realised with the benefit of a bit of hindsight that the needy, venal, hilariously foul-mouthed politician as "the role of a lifetime".
"Shooting the last season of Veep was very emotional, and frankly, I was caught off guard by the emotion of it, not because I didn't think I'd be emotional but because I was pretty undone by it," she says, shrugging her shoulders.
"I'm not bulls---ing when I say that we've all had such an amazing ride together. I have an enormous amount of love for all these people with whom I work. There was a lot we lived through as a big group - people had babies on the show, people had family members pass away, and people got ill, myself included."
Downhill opens on Thursday. Veep is available on demand on Foxtel.