Never enough

Ju­lia Louis-drey­fus talks about her new film, the deeply felt loss of her co-star James Gan­dolfini and how her Se­in­feld role rewrote the rules on how women be­have on TV.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - MOVIES - By Ryan Gil­Bey

The sweet, six­tysome­thing cou­ple in pas­tel leisurewear are cu­ri­ous about the room next to theirs in this Santa Monica beach­front ho­tel. There have been a lot of com­ings and go­ings all day. “So much ac­tiv­ity!” the woman chuck­les to me while her hus­band ap­proaches the stu­dio pub­li­cist who is loi­ter­ing along­side us in the hall­way. “So - who ya got in there?” he asks con­spir­a­to­ri­ally. “Ju­lia LouisDrey­fus,” the pub­li­cist smiles.

They take a sin­gle def­er­en­tial step back­wards. They might not have seen Louis-Drey­fus as Selina Meyer, the vice-pres­i­dent grap­pling with her own po­lit­i­cal im­po­tence in Ar­mando Ian­nucci’s profane sit­com Veep, for which she has won a brace of Emmy bookends.

And her new film, the warm, wise ro­man­tic com­edy Enough Said, has only just opened. But don’t un­der­es­ti­mate the en­dur­ing voodoo power of her nine years on the most mas­ter­ful and abra­sive sit­com ever made: Se­in­feld. For many mil­lions of peo­ple, she will for ever be Elaine Benes, the most achingly des­per­ate of the Se­in­feld quar­tet.

“What’s she like?” the wife asks. “She’s lovely,” the pub­li­cist con­firms, to ap­pre­cia­tive coo­ing. I smile too, re­call­ing some of the lines that Louis-Drey­fus de­liv­ers in the new se­ries of Veep: “Jolly Green Jizz-Face ...” “Why don’t you put on your run­ning shoes and get to the f*****g point?” “I’d rather set fire to my own vulva ...” Lovely in­deed.

Enough Said is gen­tler than Veep, but no less prob­ing in its own way. Louis-Drey­fus plays Eva, a mas­sage ther­a­pist and sin­gle mother brac­ing her­self for her daugh­ter’s move to univer­sity. In her dis­com­bob­u­lated state, she slides into a ten­ta­tive ro­mance with a hulk­ing TV ar­chiv­ist (the late James Gan­dolfini).

The movie feels rooted in the epipha­nies of mid­dle age. “Well, it’s about the fear of fail­ure,” ex­plains Louis-Drey­fus in her suite. She lounges on the mush­room-coloured sofa, prop­ping her­self up on one el­bow in a loose white blouse patterned with flow­ers. “I sup­pose that kind of fear could be an is­sue at any age. But it’s per­ti­nent to this woman at this mo­ment. She’s fac­ing this pos­si­ble vast land­scape of lone­li­ness and it’s so paralysing that it fu­els some bad de­ci­sion­mak­ing.”

In Se­in­feld’s fourth se­ries, Elaine was de­scribed as “a pretty woman, you know - kinda short, big wall of hair, face like a fry­ing pan.” Now, at 52, Louis-Drey­fus is still crisply pretty, but her hair is straight and dark, rather than high and frizzy. And I don’t spot in her ex­pres­sion that dev­as­tat­ing sour­ness with which Elaine could drop a man at 40 paces.

But it takes a while to get used to her habit of stop­ping dead when she has fin­ished a thought, with none of the space-fill­ing blather to which some of us are prone. Her comic style is pre­cise and low-fat. So, too, is her con­ver­sa­tion.

Enough Said would have been ad­mired when­ever it was re­leased, but com­ing in the wake of Gan­dolfini’s death makes it es­pe­cially poignant. His per­for­mance is im­mensely del­i­cate.

“That’s what he was like,” she says, sit­ting for­ward. “I liked him im­me­di­ately and I think he felt the same way. He’s an amaz­ing ac­tor. He re­ally is a gen­tle gi­ant.” Her use of the present tense is strik­ing. “I re­ally wish he was sit­ting here next to me and we could talk to you to­gether about the movie. It’s a tragedy that he isn’t.”

She breaks eye con­tact and stares at the car­pet, her voice wa­ver­ing. “The film is some­thing to cel­e­brate. I just feel over­come with grat­i­tude that I got to work with him.”

When she joined Se­in­feld for its sec­ond episode in 1990, she had un­der her belt an un­happy three­year spell on the sketch show Satur­day Night Live, where her hus­band was also in the cast.

“I was not get­ting a lot of air time on SNL. I was young and in­ex­pe­ri­enced and went in with no idea of how to nav­i­gate that universe, which was not very fe­male-friendly.”

In her fi­nal year, Se­in­feld’s fu­ture co-cre­ator Larry David joined the writ­ing staff, only to quit af­ter fail­ing to get a sin­gle sketch on air dur­ing his ten­ure. “We were both mis­er­able and we bonded over that. That’s where Larry lives: in dis­com­fort. It’s where most com­edy comes from. Dis­com­fort is a very un­der­rated feel­ing.”

I won­der if she re­alised at the time how rad­i­cal a cre­ation Elaine was. It seems in­cred­i­ble now that a woman in a prime-time 1990s net­work sit­com was per­mit­ted to be as funny and ve­nal as her male co-stars. Elaine broke ev­ery taboo. She was anti-re­li­gion, proabor­tion and an ap­palling dancer. Sex­u­ally she was un­apolo­get­i­cally rav­en­ous, even undis­cern­ing. She en­joyed her promis­cu­ity so that the women in Sex And The City and Girls could later do like­wise.

For Louis-Drey­fus, the most sig­nif­i­cant ad­vance oc­curred dur­ing The Con­test, an episode in which the main char­ac­ters at­tempt to ab­stain from self-abuse.

“That was ground­break­ing. Guys talk­ing about mas­tur­ba­tion was ac­cept­able. But when a woman en­ters that di­a­logue, it’s a whole dif­fer­ent mat­ter. I felt lucky to be a part of that. To me, it was the show that was rad­i­cal rather than Elaine. It was an anti-sit­com sit­com.”

Si­mon Black­well, a writer and pro­ducer on Veep, says LouisDrey­fus is a con­nois­seur of com­edy. “She cares about it, as a craft,” he tells me. “She’s great on the me­chan­ics of com­edy, the nuts and bolts of how it works. That stuff fas­ci­nates her - how an ex­tra beat of time can nail a joke or kill it. Why that word should go in that place in the sen­tence, or when you need to break the sen­tence. Matt Walsh, who plays Mike in Veep, says she can find the ex­tra jokes on the way to the joke, and that’s true. It’s al­most an aca­demic in­ter­est, or like a mu­si­cian know­ing the­ory.”

Louis-Drey­fus spent a decade or so af­ter Se­in­feld try­ing on dif­fer­ent sit­coms for size. But it was Veep, cur­rently pre­par­ing for a third se­ries, that pro­vided her with the first part force­ful and com­plex enough to ri­val Elaine.

As Selina, she strides pur­pose­fully, arms pump­ing in front of her like pis­tons; she dishes out in­sults and in­vec­tive the way other peo­ple pass around breath-mints. I ex­press con­cern that Selina hasn’t yet en­joyed enough mo­ments of tri­umph: how much hu­mil­i­a­tion can one char­ac­ter take? “Ab­so­lutely,” she says. “And that’s com­ing. Tri­umph is great be­cause where do you go from there? Down. That’s good for com­edy.”

”She’s such a joy to write for,” says Black­well. “You can give Ju­lia any­thing to do and she’ll nail it. It’s like this comedic five-oc­tave range. She’s a great, great phys­i­cal co­me­dian but she can also bring it down to this laser-surgery level.

I re­mem­ber when we did episode two of sea­son one of Veep and there’s a scene where Selina is told the pres­i­dent is hav­ing chest pains and she has to get to the White House sit­u­a­tion room - she thinks she’s about to be­come pres­i­dent. Her line was ‘I’m so sorry’ and the stage di­rec­tion in brack­ets was ‘try­ing not to smile’. And it’s one of the fun­ni­est things I’ve ever seen – she plays so many emo­tions with just her eyes, it’s as­ton­ish­ing.”

The fluid, im­pro­visatory style of work­ing on Veep pro­vides part of the ap­peal for her. “You’re never quite sure what you’re go­ing for but you just have to go for it any­way,” she says. But the in­ter­ven­ing decades be­tween Se­in­feld and Veep haven’t sti­fled her fa­mous ten­dency to corpse dur­ing film­ing. There was even an en­tire Se­in­feld episode ( The Pez Dis­penser) de­voted to Elaine’s in­abil­ity to sup­press her laugh­ter.

“It still hap­pens,” she chuck­les. Very soon that chuckle builds to a laugh, and from there to a mildly dis­con­cert­ing hyuk-hyuk-hyuk.

She’s crack­ing up over the idea of crack­ing up. “If I get tired, I’m a goner,” she says even­tu­ally. “But it’s also a good sign. It means I’m en­joy­ing the movie or TV show I’m mak­ing. I’m its great­est fan!”

This sets her off again. “That is gonna look re­ally bad in print. You re­ally gotta spin it right, man, be­cause oth­er­wise it’s gonna make me sound like such an ass­hole.” – Guardian News & Me­dia

Enough Said opens in cine­mas na­tion­wide to­day.

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