BALTIMORE — The good staffers of Vice President Selina Meyer’s office had been trying to put out a fire all afternoon when their slightly discombobulated leader, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, turned up on the set of HBO’s Veep.
Before she stepped into character, however, Louis-Dreyfus had a question.
“Did you talk to the actors about the script changes?” she said to the show’s creator and all-around head coach, Armando Iannucci, as he sat behind a monitor watching takes. He nodded. “Good,” she smiled, then stepped in front of the camera, where in the next scene her character took hold of a developing crisis — and made it much worse.
During a 30-year television career, Louis-Dreyfus has played some rich parts. But she’s never juggled skills likes she has in Veep — physical and verbal comedy, broad humor and political satire, and, maybe most important, acting and producing.
When the half-hour comedy debuted its second season Sunday, it marked not only the beginning of the next phase of droll British humor on U.S. airwaves but the latest chapter for Louis-Dreyfus. As someone who’s “not only the quarterback but the one who can call the audibles,” in the words of castmate Reid Scott, Louis-Dreyfus, 52, will often improv new material, guide cast members, and offer suggestions to writers.
“It does feel like I can do more than I’ve done before,” said the actress, who won an Emmy for her performance in 2012, during a break between scenes. “This is a comedic gold mine. Selina has ambition, and that ambition is thwarted. That allows for a lot of opportunities.”
The performers are making the most of them. Over its eight-episode first season, audiences were introduced not only to the manic, self-absorbed Selina but to her dueling senior staffers, Amy and Dan (Anna Chlumsky and Scott), longtime sad-sack press hack Mike (Matthew Walsh), and sycophantic, Purell-equipped assistant Gary (Tony Hale).
At its essence, the show examines a simple comedic premise: What happens when people wear the vestments of power without possessing any of the real thing?
It does this by combining some diverse sensibilities. Behind the show are a group of Iannucci-led egghead British writers (the kind who are proud of coining a word for the Oxford English Dictionary, as scribe Tony Roche did), veteran Hollywood producers and actors, and even the political pundit Frank Rich, who serves as a producer and adviser.
The new season continues the series’ tradition of a skewed-eyed view of Beltway life — a press release must be, as a character says in one early episode, the “Gettysburg Address of tightrope-walking, say-nothing” hogwash — only this time with a lot more plot turns.
Selina is given a whiff of power, particularly in the area of foreign affairs. It’s just enough influence to make us — and her — realize how little she has (think diplomatic missions to Helsinki, Finland).
“Getting a little bit of power is always funnier than not having any at all,” Iannucci said dryly.
Louis-Dreyfus, who signed on the year after her hit CBS sitcom The New Adventures of Old Christine ended its run in 2010, has assembled more than a bit of clout herself.
It’s rare for an actor to have three bona fide TV hits. It’s rarer still for a principal member of the Seinfeld cast, all of whom besides Dreyfus have failed to carry a new series.
To do that, she calls upon some familiar strengths. There is the physical aspect, the “get out” pushes Louis-Dreyfus made famous on Seinfeld, now upped to 11. On Veep, the actress is often pointing her finger, running barefoot through the Old Executive Office Building or playing a contentious Bert and Ernie game with smug string bean Jonah (Timothy Simons), unwelcome messenger from the White House.
“Maybe it’s because I’m short and I’ve had to push my way through a lot in life,” she said, possibly only half-joking. Louis-Dreyfus is 5-foot-3, though her slight frame and, these days, de-poofed hair gives her an even smaller appearance. She projects the air of a woman who’s more contained than the exuberant characters she tends to play, though there is often a joke playing on her lips, waiting for the right moment to get out.
Iannucci added, “She’s not afraid to look awkward, which is a lot rarer in actors than you’d think.”
A mother to two boys, ages 15 and 20, Louis-Dreyfus can’t believe the awful mother Selina can be sometimes. But she doesn’t think Veep is trying to make a grand feminist statement.
She does, however, hear the echoes of the Washington world in Hollywood.
“There’s always that fear in both politics and show business that, no matter how successful you are, there’s someone younger and more famous who’ll get the job. I mean, I’ve felt that,” she said. “This is a show that’s not as much about politicians as it is about the behavior of people who are in politics.”
Then she added, “That sounds like some nonsense Selina would say, doesn’t it?”