If Julia Louis-Dreyfus wins the Emmy for Best Actress in a Comedy this year she will be, quite literally, the funniest woman alive.
It would be her fifth consecutive Emmy win for Veep, tying the record set by Helen Hunt during her Mad About You steamroll from 1996-99. Counting her win for The New Adventures of Old Christine, it would be the most overall wins in the Best Actress category—her sixth victory, besting Candice Bergen and Mary Tyler Moore. And it would, according to awards guru website Gold Derby, tie her for the most wins for playing the same character with Don Knotts (Barney Fife in The Andy Griffith Show) and Ed Asner (Lou Grant in The Mary Tyler Moore and Lou Grant).
And honestly, she deserves it.
Watch her Emmy submission, “Mother,” from the fifth season of Veep and try to argue that she shouldn’t win any award recognizing comedy for it. In the episode, President Selina Meyer learns that her mother is dying while she’s waiting to find out if a voting recount will make her the next president or force her to leave the White House completely.
The hysteria the conflagration of stress causes and the confused priorities Selina feels—devastated about the election, rather indifferent about her mother—provides a comedy tour de force for Louis-Dreyfus. David Mandel, who took over Veep showrunning duties from Armando Iannucci, challenged me earlier this year: “Honestly, Julia Louis-Dreyfus is the only human on Earth who could have played that.”
So, how did she do it? Louis-Dreyfus called us to talk about the unique challenge of that “Mother” of an episode, what it’s like to act in Veep during an election year, and what to expect from Selina in Veep Season Six.
You've chosen “Mother” as your Emmy submission. What is the thought process behind choosing the episode?
Well, I guess one chooses the best example of the work you’ve done, or whatever, that particular season. For me I guess it was “Mother” only because I felt it kind of threaded a needle that might have been difficult—it was difficult—to thread. It was an opportunity to see more of, shall we say, the interior life of Selina. It was important to me that it not become too dramatic. That it stay in a funny place. And I think that we were able to pull it off. It took a lot of time to get just the right tone. But the key was to try to find a way to believe this completely insane behavior.
I had a chance to talk to Dave Mandel earlier in the season about the episode. He said something similar to what you just said, that there were earlier drafts that fell into what he called “quip city” where Selina was maybe too flip about her mother’s death. What’s the challenge in balancing the comedy of her coldness in that moment while also making her human still?
For Selina just to have been flip and seemingly undisturbed or unmoved by her mother’s illness and then passing would not have been believable, because even the most wicked a person out there has to be for a reason. There’s a reason for her to have this bizarre emotional reaction. That is to say, to be so undone by the news coming out of Nevada. So we had to find a way to have moments in which you saw a glimpse the pain inflicted upon her by her own mother. And you saw a little bit of tenderness that she might show to her mother. If we are able achieve both of those tasks I think the comedy gets funnier.
Being brutally honest about how she feels makes it funnier.
Also, I would add that Selina is somebody who is not in touch with her emotional life at all. So when the shit hits the fan for her, both when her mother passes and when she loses the recount, both are monumental moments in her life. We sort of liken it to toothpaste. If you took a pin and made holes in the toothpaste tube and squeezed it, the toothpaste would go shooting out in different directions and you have no control over it. That’s what was happening to her in both instances. Does that makes sense?
So much sense. Along with that: Selina’s insistence on her mother’s nails being painted seemed like a crucial detail, to give a glimpse into the fact that she still has feelings, some humanity.
That was the goal, and that's why we worked that in. You’ll notice that Selina is wearing the same nail color at the end of the show. So there is a very symbolic emotional gesture with that.
Why was it so important to contrast the updates about her mother’s health with the updates from the recount?
There’s the comedy. Right there. You have to believe that it’s both happening at the same time. From a writing point of view and an acting point of view, that was a big challenge. (Laughs) You have to buy that this this would happen. You made to make it completely plausible. Even when Selina’s standing there and she’s trying to find a way to talk to her mother and she tells the doctor she’s ready and then she pulls her team in.
Yep. Her mother was on her deathbed and she pulls her co-workers into the hospital room with her.
This team is her family. To go through this kind of horror without them is inconceivable to Selina. So it just makes perfect sense for her to bring them in. And she’s the president of the United States, so when she summons them in what are they going to say, no? They have to be there. It’s unbelievably awkward. In fact they have no business being there. Except they do for Selina.
Catherine wasn’t even there!
Well, she’s not even thinking about Catherine. She thought Catherine was there. Actually, I’m not even sure she thought Catherine was there. Catherine was not on her radar. And Selina behaves towards Catherine the same way, ostensibly, her mother behaved to her, we can surmise.
To that end, this was a really important episode to give an understanding of how Selina became the way she is. Both as a mother and as a person.
Yeah. Right. There’s a lot of, shall we say, lack of warmth from Selina’s mother to her that Selina turned towards her daughter. “Pillows are not for sleeping.” Who says things like that?
The scene toward the end of the episode when Selina is sitting in the pew and learns the election news right before she has to deliver the eulogy: Dave Mandel told me about that sort of mix of laugh-cry hysteria that you perform, “Honestly, Julia Louis-Dreyfus is the only human on Earth who could have played that.”
That’s a nice thing for him to say. I’m glad I had the chance to do it.
What was playing that particular beat like for you. How do you pull off a moment as wild as that one?
I guess the challenge was to make it real and true. I was really crying. Selina was really crying, you know? She’s crying about it all. She says, “I’ve lost. I’ve lost so much.” Well, she has lost so much. The Nevada news is probably as big a loss perhaps to her as the loss of her mother. Again, it’s the toothpaste tube analogy. It’s all happening at once. And she has been eviscerated by loss and is undone by it. But what people don’t know, and the comedy of course, is that she’s speaking at a funeral and ostensibly she’s talking to the crowd before her about the Nevada recount. But we know that and that’s where the comedy comes in. But it was awfully fun to perform with that Tim McGraw in the background.
Was the Tim McGraw song actually playing when you shot the scene?
Yeah. We did playback of it on a couple of takes, because I wanted to hear it. I thought it would help. And then of course Selina starts swaying to it, which I think is a good beat to end on.
In the coverage of Veep, there’s always the question of what does it say about us that we love Selina even though she might be, as you've said in another interview, a “heinous” person. But what I’ve sort of come around to is that the things she does and the things she says, as much as we might find them bad, we understand how she arrived at that place and might say that.
Completely. And that’s why I love her playing her. I certainly don’t play her as a heinous person. People aren’t just bad people out of nowhere. I’m not even sure she is a bad person. She’s kind of the toddler that never grew up, developmentally, I think, from an ego point of view. So it’s kind of fun to explore all of that. I have complete empathy for her. (Laughs) I really do! I feel for her. And I love playing her. It’s the role of a lifetime, that’s for sure.
Does doing the show in an election season feel any different than in any other years?
Um…no. To be honest. Because we’ve created this alternate universe on the show. We don’t identify our party. We’re not parodying anyone specifically. Politics and this election are very much on the brain for everybody, so we’re all watching it and there’s certainly a lot of stuff out there from which we can be inspired one way or another. But we’re not parodying anything so I would say it’s just good fodder out there for us.
To say the least.
But it doesn’t feel different because we understand that we shot Season Five well before a lot of this stuff right now has heated up, and we will go into shooting Season Six as we get really close to Election Day. Regardless, we’re watching everything. We’re watching CSPAN. We’re watching CNN. We’re watching Fox. We’re watching all of it. If there are any good tidbits we might pull this, that, or the other and make it our own. But we’re not parodying anything specifically.
This season ends on another bold ellipsis.
We really blew it up, didn’t we?
What does it feel like to be on the show called Veep where you’re able to, in one season, make it so that she’s not vice president anymore and then in this last season make it so she’s not going to be in the White House at all? What can we expect from a Selina who’s not in a place of power?
Well, we’ve blown up our premise a couple of times. We did it at the end of Season Three, where we painted ourselves into a corner and all of a sudden she became president. And we did it again this year. But I’m all for it, because politicians are politicians, period. That’s not a monkey that you can train back with ease. I think there’s a lot more story to be told with this woman and all of our characters. The blood that courses through their veins is political blood. They can’t get away from it. So the post-presidential life for Selina, there’s going to be a lot to explore. And she’s still young by political standards. There’s a lot to be told, and that’s what we’re working on now.