Star Julia Louis-Dreyfus says Veep cannot keep up with real life

Julia Louis-Dreyfus says she now understands why politicians do such ridiculous things

Julia Louis-Dreyfus has been nominated for an Emmy 15 times, the most for a comedy actress.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus has been nominated for an Emmy 15 times, the most for a comedy actress.PHOTO: HBO ASIA

Anyone who doubts there is truth in satire need look no further than the political comedy Veep, which serves up insights into how real politics works as it follows the career of Selina Meyer, the bumbling but ambitious Vice President of the United States.

After four years of playing the scandal-prone character - who eventually ascends to the Oval Office but then faces a tough re-election battle - seven-time Emmy-winner Julia Louis-Dreyfus says she now has a better understanding of why politicians do the ridiculous things they do.

And politics is such "an easy comedic tool because it's fraught, it's an ongoing battle, it's filled with people with ambition, and very often their ambition gets in their way, and it has a behind-the- curtain reality to it", she says.

"Dreams are crushed. Dreams are attained and then they're crushed. And all of that is very ripe for comedy."

The 55-year-old believes the series - which often sees Meyer willing to do or say anything in order to cling to power - is even more true-to-life given the current US political climate.

"Originally, when we started doing Veep, we thought of it as satire - and now it feels like a sombre documentary," she deadpans.

Originally, when we started doing Veep, we thought of it as satire - and now it feels like a sombre documentary.

JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS on the current political climate in the United States

No one knows this better, perhaps, than politicians themselves: The cast and writers of Veep, which is based on the award-winning British parliamentary satire The Thick Of It (2005 to 2012), say both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have approached them to say how much they enjoy the series - although each side is convinced it is the other party that is the butt of the jokes.

And sometimes life imitates art, as when Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his senior ministers recently began using one of Meyer's idiotic campaign slogans, "continuity with change", while distancing their government from that of predecessor Tony Abbott.

"Isn't that incredible?" Louis- Dreyfus says, delighted, in an interview with The Straits Times in Los Angeles.

"He's somehow inexplicably using this slogan that was Selina Meyer's, and of course we wrote it to be as banal and hollow and moronic as possible," she says of Turnbull, who has been pilloried for his use of the oxymoronic phrase.

The star, who also executive- produces Veep, says it has not yet needed to draw inspiration from the current race for the White House, where Republican wildcard Donald Trump and others have provided much fodder for American comedians and satirical news programmes such as The Daily Show.

"Our 'ridiculous-ness' factor is strong and firmly in place. So we haven't felt any particular pressure this year because we had a real agenda starting out, and we've created our own alternate universe so it's not reliant on current events. That's actually been a godsend, particularly given today's outrageousness."

Louis-Dreyfus has said she is voting for whoever the eventual Democratic presidential candidate is, but admits she is "thrilled at the prospect that a woman might become president" in real life, referring to former secretary of state Hillary Clinton's position as the Democratic frontrunner.

That said, her character on Veep suggests that gender may be irrelevant when it comes to true political animals. "Selina Meyer is as bad as any man out there, so in that sense it's an equal playing field. She's not that great a role model."

However, if seeing women in power on television helps "people somehow get used to the idea of a woman in power, I'm all for it".

Yet she cautions that the show - which never identifies Meyer's party - does not have a political agenda. "Our agenda is just trying to make a really funny TV show. So we are not activists behind our jokes."

Veep returns for a fifth season in Singapore today on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601 at 10.30am, with a repeat telecast at 10.30pm) after dominating the comedy categories at last year's Emmys, winning the awards for best series, best lead actress for Louis-Dreyfus, best supporting actor for Tony Hale as Meyer's loyal aide, best writing and best casting.

Accolades are not new for this leading lady, of course: She picked up a Golden Globe and her first Emmy playing Elaine on Seinfeld (1989 to 1998), a postmodern comedy of manners that remains one of the most influential sitcoms of all time.

With a grand total of 15 Emmy nominations, the actress has surpassed I Love Lucy star Lucille Ball to become the most- nominated comedy actress in the awards' history. She has two sons aged 23 and 19 with husband Brad Hall, a 59-year-old writer and actor.

Louis-Dreyfus - who cut her teeth with the famous Chicago improvisational-theatre group The Second City and sketch comedy show Saturday Night (1982 to 1985) - is also the only Seinfeld cast member who sustained an illustrious acting career after the show ended.

On how she managed to do this and not become pigeonholed as Elaine, she says: "I guess you just have to be able to envision yourself outside of that box and do it for yourself first, so that you can arm yourself with that mindset when you push forward. Because you sometimes really have to push."

One of the things she has had to push against is a male-dominated industry where women are often discriminated against. Louis- Dreyfus recently revealed that Saturday Night Live was a rather sexist work environment back in the 1980s.

Experiences such as these are why she agreed to appear last year in the Last F**kable Day sketch on the TV show Inside Amy Schumer, which lampooned the ageism actresses face when the industry suddenly decides they are too old to be sexually attractive.

The sketch, which went viral, was sent to Louis-Dreyfus by Nicole Holofcener, who had directed her in the 2013 romantic drama Enough Said with James Gandolfini.

"I read it and it was hilarious. Then (actresses) Tina Fey and Patricia Arquette got on board and it was like, 'Yeah, let's get this done, it's fabulous.'"

Appearing on this or hit shows such as Veep and Seinfeld does not mean the actress is good at predicting whether something will succeed, however.

"'Succeed' is a funny word, particularly in this country, because it usually means commercial success and that's not my area of expertise. But I know what I like and I do know if something has value artistically. That I'm pretty good at. It doesn't mean it's going to be a hit, though."

She attributes part of her own success and longevity as an actress to good old-fashioned luck.

"Well, I worked really hard and it hasn't always been easy and I've had to push back a lot. But I've also been very lucky, frankly. I've had opportunities and got to work with people who were smart. That doesn't happen all the time. And that's been a bit of a miracle."

•Veep returns for a fifth season in Singapore today on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601 at 10.30am, with a repeat telecast at 10.30pm).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 25, 2016, with the headline 'Veep is more real than satire'. Print Edition | Subscribe