Exactly what’s so funny about being a heartbeat away from the presidency that Julia Louis-Dreyfus would want to star in a sitcom about it?
“It is a very powerful position, and yet at the same time, I don't think there's a politician out there that you would say that they aspire to be Vice President,” says Louis-Dreyfus, whose new series “Veep” debuts April 22 on HBO. “It's a paradox in that sense.”
“Veep” takes a fly-on-the-wall look at the little absurdities and indignities that are routinely heaped on the Vice President of the United States, a political role that, as the actress suggests, is somehow simultaneously essential and superfluous. The mockumentary-style sitcom was created by Scottish satirist Armando Iannucci – best known for his admired BBC comedy “The Thick of It,” which peered into the British government from a similarly off-kilter perspective – and stars Louis-Drefus as accomplished former senator Selina Meyer, a woman who gets a the rude awakening when she takes on the number two political position in America.
“For me, there was something in that role of Vice President that had comic potential and not the comedy that you would initially think about,” explains Iannucci. “I know that the Vice President's role is often seen as like a standing joke. People attach figures like Dan Quayle to it, but actually, that role has changed radically. I mean, Dick Cheney was a very powerful politician as Vice President. Al Gore had a whole set of agreements with Bill Clinton prior to becoming Vice President.
“What makes it, for me, so potentially funny is you're so near and yet so far,” Iannucci says. “You're so close to power, and yet you're removed from it. And your identity is entirely at the whim of the President. If the President likes you, he'll give you power. If he doesn't like you, he'll take it away from you. So there's that: the fact that you're not in control of your own destiny.”
Louis-Dreyfus says she was drawn in by the fact that Selina didn’t begin her public service as an ineffective politician, but now suffers from the nebulous policy-making status of the V.P.
“She was a senator from Maryland, and she ran in her party's race in the primary for the Presidential nomination, and she came in third, so she's a political challenger and aspirer in a big way,” says the actress. “She's somebody to contend with, and she was somewhat powerful in the Senate and had been a congresswoman prior to that.”
Still, she gets caught up in the pageantry and role-playing inherent to the V.P. position, which often undermines any real agenda for change. “I remember Armando said that in Washington there are so many good people doing the wrong things for the right reasons and the right things for the wrong reasons. And this sort of speaks to that middle area.”
While Selina does have genuine issues she wants to tackle, says Louis-Dreyfus, “she has to make some compromises to get that on board and stumbles along the way. She doesn't have a phony set of ideals, but she wants to stay alive as a political animal.”
Iannucci says “Veep"’s political world is one that hasn’t really been explored on film and in television before. “I always felt that there are two types of ways in which Washington has been portrayed before, which is the very noble – everyone is very good at their job, and it's for the highest ends – or else it's a very cynical, corrupt, rather sinister world,” he says. “I actually believe the truth is somewhere in between. It's fundamentally a lot of people trying to get on with a job. Some of them are good at it, and some of them are bad at it, some of them are very ambitious, and the worst ones are the ones who are bad at it but who think they're good at it – they're the most dangerous ones.”
The fact that the Vice President is a woman was not an attempt to craft a parody of any specific female at the top levels of the Beltway. “We weren't looking to do a take on Sarah Palin or Hillary Clinton or anybody like that,” says Iannucci. “It's very much her own woman. She's Selina Meyer. This is who she is. Let's watch and see how she copes with this new role…I thought ‘female Vice President’ simply because I didn't want people to say, ‘Oh, it's a take on Cheney" or ‘This is Joe Biden.’ And I also want it to feel like we're speculating on where politics might go. I think it's now perfectly natural to assume that in the next five or ten years, there will be a female Vice President, maybe even President. Other than that, I didn't want it to be about her being a woman.”
“Now, having said that, being a woman in politics is very different,” Iannucci adds. “The press constantly speculates on what you're wearing, how much your hair and makeup costs, and all that, which I think female politicians find irksome. So there is that. But fundamentally, no, it wasn't a female take on politics, really. And also I just love working with comedy actresses. I just find it's a different sort of comedy. It's a comedy I enjoy, and I just felt like it was the right way to go.”
Louis-Dreyfus says her curiosity was piqued by the fact that the Vice President is also a mother. “That I was very interested to hear,” she says. “What is that like raising children under those circumstances, and the kind of privacy and the moments you might have with your child or children in which other people people are privy to it. All of a sudden very private moments are kind of public with chiefs of staff and Secret Service, and yet one must have those private moments anyway. So how does that work? And that was particularly interesting to me since we're playing Selina as a mom.”
Even though the scenarios are played for laughs, research turned out to be as essential for “Veep” as it was for more serious minded shows like “The West Wing,” and Louis-Dreyfus' status as a bona fide Hollywood star, thanks to her long-running stints on the legendary “Seinfeld” and her subsequent sitcom “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” gained her access to the corridors of power.
“I was fortunate enough to meet with a couple Vice Presidents, so it was pretty nifty.” she reveals. “Not only was it interesting to hear what they had to say, but, of course, how they said it and also what they didn't say…The thing that I was most interested to hear about was what did it feel like to live at the Vice Presidential residence? What was the reality of that? Because it's not like living at the White House. It's a smaller building – it's surprisingly small – and what happens if you have to get up and go to the bathroom in the middle of the night? Where do the Secret Service go? And what was the most sort of, I don't know, humiliating thing you were ever asked to do or – things like that. I was not interested in the grandeur of it, because you can kind of figure out what that is. I was interested in the real nitty‑gritty of that. And also what was not said. Certain questions were not answered very directly.”
That said, the show’s intended to provided easy entry for viewers unstudied in the ins and outs of Washington, D.C. “You don’t need to have a degree in political science to watch the show,” Iannucci promises. “We very much wanted to make something that appealed to the general viewer, which is why we don't really know which party Selina is in. We never mention the party…We're not a documentary. We're not out to expose a great scandal. I just want it to be right, and I want it to be accurate. So I want to know the dull stuff: What time do people get into the office in the morning? What time do they go home?”
Louis-Dreyfus says that to date, her own involvement in politics has been limited, but somewhat active. “I mean, I’ve never run for office or anything like that,” she chuckles. “I spend some of my celebrity capital to bring attention to issues that are important to me, and then hopefully the spotlight goes to the issue, and not to me. For me, it would be environmental issues, specifically.”
And she insists that while she, like many Americans, does cast a jaundiced eye at many things she sees happening in politics, she clings to a belief that the system can, indeed, work.
“I guess I’m a little bit cynical, but I choose to be more hopeful than cynical because otherwise I’d collapse into a crying heap,” she explains. “So I would like to be hopeful. But it’s tough out there right now.”