Julia Louis-Dreyfus gets into “Veep” for HBO

Julia Louis-Dreyfus in HBO's "Veep"
Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays a frustrated vice president in HBO's "Veep," airing Sundays beginning April 22.

People are fond of defining the position of vice president as being just one heartbeat away from the most powerful job in the world. But as it turns out, that heartbeat can be so loud and overwhelming that it drowns out many vital attributes of an otherwise solid politician — things like power, poise and, oh-so-often, dignity.

“Let me put it this way, I really don’t think anybody who finds themselves as vice president started their political career thinking, ‘One day I will be vice president,’” says Julia Louis-Dreyfus, explaining the crux of the humor found in her new HBO comedy Veep.

A stellar addition to the ever-growing field of cringe comedy, Veep features the Seinfeld actress portraying Selina Meyer, a former senator who lost her bid for the White House only to end up on the winning ticket as vice president. Though she holds what is in theory the second-most powerful job in the world, her daily routine is filled with people ignoring her, dealing with an incompetent staff, and asking — always in vain — whether the president has called.

Louis-Dreyfus is also a producer on the project, which is the brainchild of Armando Iannucci, whose 2009 comedy In the Loop offered a biting satirical view of how petty personal quirks and squabbles could have profound effects in Washington.

“We put these folks up on pedestals or we look down on them with disdain, but in reality they’re just people like we are who are for the most part trying to do the best they can,” Louis-Dreyfus says.

“So we’re trying to bring a kind of humanity to playing these people and depicting the world of Washington. It’s about political behavior. That’s the universe Armando lives in, in terms of his writing, so really from an acting point of view it doesn’t get better than that because there is so much opportunity to find business for your character.”

In other words, this isn’t The West Wing, where nobility so often ruled the day and everyone was at the top of their game.

“Watching the political process at the moment, your instinct now is to laugh because the alternative is to cry,” Iannucci says. “That’s really where I come from. I think a lot of people are genuinely frustrated because they don’t understand why so many clearly very able people concentrated in one locale can’t sort something out. So actually, it seems to be the right moment to come up with something that starts asking you or showing you how this happens. … I think that portrayal of Washington as a clean and noble heartland just wouldn’t wash with the public. We’ve seen too much now.”

But Veep’s aim is not to forward a political opinion. Party affiliation is never mentioned, and the president is never named or seen. Much of the action comes in watching Selina working with her staff — which includes Anna Chlumsky (My Girl all grown up) as her chief aide, and Arrested Development’s Tony Hale as a hapless gofer — as they shuffle from event to event trying not to screw things up.

They fail as often as they succeed (OK, maybe more), whether it be due to a sympathy card faux pas, or an off-color joke during a speech, leaving Selina scrambling to try to repair her reputation. Then, maybe after all that, she can actually work on policy.

Focusing on such minutiae, which she might have developed a taste for from all those years on Seinfeld, presented Louis-Dreyfus with a “delicious opportunity” as an actress. And it was one she got to relish thanks to an unusually long rehearsal time.

“Listen, the more you rehearse, the more you study for an exam, the better prepared you are for the day,” she says. “I think the proof is in the pudding. It’s unheard of to have the weeks and weeks and weeks of rehearsal that we did, and I think it shows up onscreen. There’s a familiarity with the story and with the characters — and not just for myself, but for all the other actors — that there was a looseness that was supported by a great understanding of the material. We were able to relax, and relaxing is a great key to acting.”

That includes being comfortable enough to make space for “tons of improv,” she says.

Veep is able to show the stark difference between what the public sees, and what goes on behind the scenes in Washington. It’s something Louis-Dreyfus, who grew up in the nation’s capital and attended the same school as the daughter of President Gerald Ford, got to see personally when she visited former politicians — even some vice presidents — while doing her research.

“Everybody sort of plays roles in their lives, be it a politician or be it a waiter at a restaurant taking an order,” she says. “That waiter has a whole life, and that is the case with politicians, and of course politicians have to sell themselves so they have a way of doing that. Many of them are quite skilled at it.”

“But for sure, almost every politician that I know or I met because of this project has a camera face and has a face when they’re talking to me, which by the way is a lot different no doubt than when they’re talking to their family or to their best friend. But it’s interesting to see the difference, and to hear what they say about their role in public life, and it’s also interesting to hear what they don’t say about it. … You can see a fragment of what goes up in front of the camera, what goes up as a public persona, but then there’s always so much more.”

Photo: Credit: Bill Gray/HBO