Julia Louis-Dreyfus on Laughing at Cancer, Elaine’s Bad Dancing and ‘You Hurt My Feelings’
No one needed an excuse to appreciate what a talent Julia Louis-Dreyfus is. But the world got one anyway when, six years ago, she announced that she had breast cancer, inspiring well-wishes from across the globe and fresh acclaim for a singular career that has included iconic work on Seinfeld, The New Adventures of Old Christine and Veep. She’s been a national treasure for a while, but her diagnosis startled fans, reminding us never to take her for granted. (Thankfully, she’s now cancer-free.) Since then, everything she’s done has been celebrated a little more than it might have been otherwise.
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There’s now a new reason to sing her praises as well. Her Sundance hit You Hurt My Feelings opens May 26th, reuniting her with Enough Said writer-director Nicole Holofcener to tell the story of an author who’s been laboring on a new novel — one she believes her loving husband (Tobias Menzies) thinks is great. But while playfully spying on him in public one day, she learns the awful truth — he doesn’t like it at all — which sends her into a tailspin. Co-starring Michaela Watkins and Arian Moayed, You Hurt My Feelings discusses the half-truths we tell those closest to us in order not to hurt their feelings, but are those lies actually crueler than simply being honest? The film, guided by Louis-Dreyfus’ warm, vulnerable performance, finds poignancy and humor within this debate.
Over Zoom last week, I talked to Louis-Dreyfus about the movie’s underlying ideas and how her cancer scare impacted her life. It was a brief conversation that covered everything from career regrets to the fans who come up and ask her to dance (badly) like Elaine. As is true of her best characters, she’s no-nonsense and smart — and it’s an absolute delight to hear her unleash that distinctive laugh.
You Hurt My Feelings is about the white lies we tell the people we love and the white lies they tell us. Did making the movie change your own feelings about how honest you want to be with people — and how honest you want them to be with you?
No. (Laughs) No, it didn’t. I think, thus far, I’ve sort of straddled the honesty/dishonesty universe pretty skillfully.
How honest do you want people to be in terms of your creative work?
It depends on the circumstances. For example, if there’s this script or an edit of something that I’m working on and it still requires work then, yeah, I want honest feedback about what needs to change or get tweaked. But I’m not asking everybody what they think — I have a handful of people in my life that I go to for their input.
When you were starting out in comedy, were you the same way? You had a small group of people that you trusted?
Has that group changed over time?
Yeah, I’ve met more people, but I think I have a pretty good group of people that I can rely on for their point-of-view. I’ve worked on so many different projects, and you collect friends along the way — a lot of them have a good sense of story and timing, so I really do go to them.
You worked with writer-director Nicole Holofcener before on Enough Said, so you know her style of comedy. After doing Veep for so many years, which has a vicious, profane comedic approach, did it feel strange to do You Hurt My Feelings, which is much more subtle and subdued?
I would say, yes, there is an adjustment, but I felt that adjustment more when I made Enough Said, because I was in the middle of making Veep. Then, I felt like, “Oh, this is a different muscle group, this kind of performance.” I was comfortable with it, but I do remember remarking in my own brain and feeling the difference so profoundly.
What did Holofcener tell you initially about this script? How was it pitched to you?
She and I had lunch together, and she told me about the germ of the idea before she’d actually written it. She told me that she had this notion about a married couple, and he’s not being honest with her about how he feels about her work — he doesn’t actually like it. And I was like, “Oh my god, sign me up!” I had this feeling, actually not dissimilar from when I heard initially from my agent that HBO was developing a show about an unhappy female vice president — I was like, “Bam, I want that.” And I had the same feeling with this film in terms of the germ of it: “Oh, I could immediately grab hold of that.”
You’re a creative person who’s been married to a creative person for a long time — you obviously have experience in terms of what she’s exploring in this movie. I’m wondering if you had any feedback about how this central dynamic plays out in real life.
Initially, the character of the husband was quite different. Nicole and I are pretty collaborative, so she was very happy to get my notes on the script — there were a lot of tweaks made along the way. My experience as a creative person who’s been married for many decades, I brought to this, and happily so. I’m in this.
You Hurt My Feelings is sad and funny at the same time. That’s a tricky comedic tone to pull off. Did you and Holofcener discuss how to thread that needle?
Yeah, we talked about it, because the truth is we both really (love) this kind of genre. I don’t know how to characterize it, but so many things that are funny are very sad, and so many things that are very sad are very funny in real life. I think we both like living in that place and exploring the strange cocktail of emotions.
You’ve had so much success on television, but is there any part of you that wonders what it would have been like to have gone on this parallel tract where you were doing movies like this all the time?
Oh, sure, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Doing a traditional sitcom, which is 22-whatever episodes a year, takes up about nine months of the year, and so the idea of going away for the remaining three months to be on locations, I don’t know how to describe it, but it was just not possible — it’s just not going to happen. If a car’s on fire, you don’t go inside the car. I don’t mean to imply that doing a movie is going inside a burning car. (Laughs) But it’s like, that’s just not an option. And that was fine — these are adjustments you make as a parent with a career. I don’t have any regrets.
But it worked out: You’re now getting the chance to do these kinds of movies.
That is such good fortune, and I am so grateful. I mean, it’s really been exciting to do all these different genres of film that I’ve been working on and that are coming out. That’s been really exciting.
You said earlier that some of the saddest moments can be funny. In 2017, you announced you’d been diagnosed with breast cancer. When was the moment you were able to find the humor in that?
Well, actually, point of fact, when I won the Emmy (for Veep) on a Sunday night, Monday morning my doctor called me and told me I had breast cancer. (Laughs) So the juxtaposition of these two events was hilarious to me. I came into the kitchen and I said to my husband, “Well, you’re not going to believe it — it’s cancer.” And I started howling laughing — and then, of course I started crying, because it was horrifyingly terrifying. It feels like a piano dropping on you. I mean, I have my Emmy dress right there, my high heels — the fucking award was right there. And then, bam.
Cancer patients are sometimes told, “You need to stay positive,” as if that can help your recovery. Did you do that?
I didn’t try to be any one way — I just had to get through it. My point-of-view was I needed to get through the process, I had to get through chemotherapy, I needed to get better, and then I needed to go back to work. I definitely had my eyes on the prize of getting back to work — that was kind of a lifesaver in many ways. Getting back on set and working on material with people that you love and making people laugh, are you kidding me? That’s such joy. To be away from that for that period of time was very hard. So I didn’t try to be positive. It was nose-to-the-grindstone, and I needed to be honest about my feelings.
You’re doing this podcast, Wiser Than Me, where you talk with famous older women about their life experiences. Was that a hard sell? Obviously, you’re incredibly famous, but was it difficult to convince women to open up?
It wasn’t — there seemed to be an appetite for this. I’m quite struck by the nerve that this has hit. I think people want to hear from older women who’ve had experience — I want to hear from older women. That’s how it was born, that’s the genesis of this — I want to hear from them. “Give me the tips. What have you learned? Tell me now.”
Did you get the sense that your guests really haven’t talked much about these things before your podcast?
Well, I’m sure plenty of people have asked them lots of things about life, but perhaps not through this lens. The conceit is “You older woman have the wisdom, so now please impart to us what that is.” It’s a lens through which you can have a conversation, which is very specific.
When people see you on the street, do they ever ask you to do Elaine’s bad dance? Does that ever come up?
Sometimes it does, yeah.
Do you do the dance?
I do not do the dance. I don’t do it.
Is it because you don’t want to feel like a trained monkey in those moments?
Yeah, there’s that. The vast majority of people are incredibly respectful and they don’t cross a line that’s bad.
One of the great things about your career is that you’ve had these iconic roles, but you don’t seem defined by them. You can continue to do different things, like You Hurt My Feelings, where you play a woman who’s not like Elaine or Selina. But what connects everything you do is your laugh — you have this great laugh that’s so you. Have you ever approached a role thinking, “I want to try to do a different laugh because mine is so distinctive”?
I guess I could create a different laugh, but it’s never occurred to me. But now that you’ve mentioned it, I’m going to put that in my back pocket for something down the road. (Laughs)
Yeah, there’s that laugh.