Julia Louis-Dreyfus Talks Trump’s Win, Her Muslim Ban Speech, and the Dave Letterman ‘Veep’ Cameo That Never Was
The ‘Veep’ actress and showrunner David Mandel recall the delirious day on set when Trump was elected president. Plus, details on the Dave Letterman cameo that will never be.
When Julia Louis-Dreyfus found out that Donald Trump had won the election, she was on set for Veep. More, she was shooting a scene in which her character Selina Meyer, who had recently lost her own bid to become the first elected female president of the United States, was overseas in the Republic of Georgia monitoring a free election.
“That is the truth,” Louis-Dreyfus says, pursing her lips, bugging her eyes, and jutting her head forward for dramatic, punctuating effect, in that Julia Louis-Dreyfus way. “We were actually in a polling place. With a lot of people in babushkas and things. It’s true.”
Louis-Dreyfus is in Austin, speaking to the The Daily Beast just minutes after the first official trailer for Season 6 of Veep was released and a few hours after she and the rest of the show’s cast participated in a standing-room-only panel at the SXSW festival.
“It was weird,” Mandel says. “Because we weren’t watching on TV like most people, because I think the TV softens it in a way because there’s a lot of chit-chat. Just every couple of minutes it was just like [Hillary Clinton’s] percentages were coming down. Like, ‘90 percent! 71, 55, 49, 29, she has to win Alaska, Ohio…’”
When the show returns, Selina will be adjusting to life outside of the White House, where she will awkwardly test the waters of what, exactly, a former occupier of the Oval Office does once they leave—weathering all the indignities that tend to follow anything Selina Meyer does.
Since Veep launched in 2012, elements of her character’s tunnel-vision pursuit of power and her often inelegant handling of the roadblocks she encounters along the way have drawn comparisons to Clinton.
Never more so than during Season 5, which saw Meyer on the same trajectory Clinton herself was on to become the first woman to be voted into the White House.
Everyone involved in the show has always reacted on a spectrum of coy to dismissive of the comparisons, especially since the episodes are written months before mirroring real-world political events.
When Season 6 was written, it was assumed that Trump had no chance of winning the election. With Clinton supposedly in the White House and Meyer out of the fictional one, comparisons might have finally come to an end. Now, however, they’re stronger than ever: Both women are adapting to life outside the public, political eye.
So once again, people will be asking Louis-Dreyfus to speak as if she truly understands Clinton’s experience, or as if she’s an authority on election politics.
“To be honest with you it’s a tricky needle to thread,” she says. “There’s only so much of this I want to discuss [with people]. I’m not an authority on campaigning. I don’t understand a lot of the, I suppose you could say, nuances of the election. I mean I do understand a lot of it, but a lot of it I don’t. I don’t want to speak like I’m an authority on it. And under certain circumstances I will.”
One of those circumstances was at this year’s SAG Awards, which took place the same weekend that the first draft of the Trump administration’s ban on immigrants from a select group of predominantly Muslim countries took effect, sparking protests at airports around the country.
She won the Best Actress in a Comedy Award, and, as usual, had the audience in stitches with the beginning of her speech. But then her remarks took a more serious and personal turn.
“I want you all to know that I am the daughter of an immigrant,” she said. “My father fled religious persecution in Nazi-occupied France. And I am an American patriot, and I love this country. And because I love this country I am horrified by its blemishes. And this immigrant ban is a blemish and it is un-American.”
Veep, then, has provided her with another tricky needle to thread. Starring in a show about politics invites lots of questions about politics and opportunities to speak her mind. How does she choose when to use those opportunities?
“In terms of real-life politics, that moment at the SAG Awards was just something that kind of happened organically because the immigration ban had come down almost immediately before and it was something that I was deeply offended by and felt as if I couldn’t with a clear conscience not mention, particularly because my father was an immigrant,” she says.
“I wouldn’t have had a press conference about it, but the moment presented itself to me when I so happily won the award as a member of the Screen Actors Guild, a union of which I’m a proud member.”
Her willingness to tread those waters, though, only goes so far: “It’s funny because, people have asked me since doing this show now for many years, would I go into politics. I’m not a politician! In that circumstance I’m a concerned American citizen and a patriot and wanted to say what I did. I’m not somebody who’s going to run for office.”
Still, whether people think she’s playing a satirization of Hillary Clinton or not, she’s aware the show has mined great comedic nuance from the ways culture expects women in power to behave, and the viciousness with which vultures swoop when they don’t conform. Veep has helped show that there are more shades to, as Louis-Dreyfus says, “having ladyballs.”
“That was one of the fun things about ‘Cuntgate,’” Mandel says, prompting Louis-Dreyfus to laugh: “Which I would like you to write out in the article.” They’re referring to a standout episode from Season 5 that has Meyer apoplectic after it was leaked that a member of her staff called her a cunt.
“There’s the bitterness and fury that she feels,” Louis-Dreyfus says. “By the way, it’s particularly ironic because she is one of the biggest woman-haters on the show. She’s not a fan of women, generally speaking, and will tell you that whining and bitching and moaning about your problems isn’t going to get you anywhere. So it’s funny that for somebody who’s so driven and infuriated by the men who get in her way, she herself is the first to kick a woman down.”
Before Louis-Dreyfus and Mandel depart, there’s one last hot-button issue to discuss. In a widely circulated, lengthy interview with New York magazine, David Letterman revealed that he had been offered a cameo role on Veep but turned it down.
“Holy shit—I got so scared,” Letterman said. “I thought about it for 24 hours and then I told them, ‘Here’s what would happen: I’m going to do your show. I’m going to worry about it, I’m going to get sick to my stomach, and I’m going to ruin it. I can’t do that to you.’”
Though Letterman’s cameo really is not happening, Mandel and Louis-Dreyfus light up at the mention of it.
It would have been in season six’s ninth episode. But, Louis-Dreyfus sighs, “We can’t really explain it now.”
“There has never been a cameo in the history of Veep, before me or since I took over,” Mandel says. “Newsmen have never played themselves. We sort of backed into this. I feel like an asshole because it will make sense when you see it.”
He leans over emphatically: “I promise I will talk about it to the end of time.” Louis-Dreyfus nods her briskly: “Because it was really wild.”
“It was wild just talking to him on the phone,” Mandel says. “Those [words in New York] were the exact words that he said to us, but we did get him to think about it for 24 hours. That alone, speaking as somebody who’s always wanted to work there, that was a victory unto itself.”
As I walk out, the pair continues fawning over the interview. Mandel giggles that he kept referring to the president as “Trumpy.” Louis-Dreyfus focuses on Letterman’s desire to come back only to interview Trump.