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Julia Louis-Dreyfus: Second banana once more

Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tony Hale in HBO's Veep.

Bill Gray / HBO

It's a mild, midweek morning at a luxury hotel in Pasadena, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus has a lot of people with whom to meet and schmooze. These people are from Poland, Brazil, Japan, Taiwan, Italy, Britain and Canada. It's the kind of morning a politician might have. And that, in a way, is why Louis-Dreyfus is here – she plays the U.S. vice-president in Veep, a new HBO comedy. The series, which premieres Sunday at 10 p.m., will have no doubt a vast audience around the world because everybody, it seems, is tickled by the idea of mocking the big-shot players of Washington.

Louis-Dreyfus is relaxed and charming. In between interviews, she asks a woman reporter from Poland about HBO service there. She's obviously good at this, intrigued, and all polite curiosity. A good politician.

"I'm excited and nervous about this show," Dreyfus told me. For me, it's the role of a lifetime, and it speaks to something that really interests me as a person and as an actor – that is: You've made it, but at the same time, you haven't quite made it."

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What she means is that Veep has a lot of fun with her character's peculiar status. This VP, played by the actress still seen nightly in syndication as Elaine on Seinfeld, is Selina Meyer, a former senator who ended up as vice-president after a own failed run for her party's presidential nomination; and who discovers, daily, that she's more a puppet than a powerful politician. She's got a great job title and precious little power.

In this U.S. election year, there's been a lot of TV material about politics: Game Change, HBO's movie about the McCain/Palin campaign in 2008; and the ABC drama Scandal, to name just two. But Louis-Dreyfus is anxious to make it clear that Veep is not about a particular person or party. "It's not a parody in any way. It's not about Sarah Palin or anyone like that. A parody would be too narrow in focus. This show creates its own political universe."

That universe was dreamed up by British writer-producer Armando Iannucci, who created the famously savage TV satire of British politics, The Thick Of It and the equally caustic feature film In the Loop. Veep is much more gentle fare that The Thick of It, which roasted MPs and ministers as timid fools enthralled by gloriously foulmouthed spin doctor Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi).

Yes, there's swearing. And a guy from the president's office keeps turning up to tell the VP's staff how irrelevant they are. But he's no Malcolm Tucker. It's all very breezy.

We still get the idea that most of politics is banal gamesmanship, but Selina Meyer is much more endearing that anyone in Iannucci's British creations. "We are Washington-focused, and I interviewed people on Capitol Hill to prepare for this," Louis-Dreyfus says. "What surprised me was how dedicated they are, not cynical at all. They are dedicated to this strange way of life, which means long and demanding days every day, seven days a week. I couldn't do that. I couldn't sleep with a BlackBerry on my pillow."

Asked if she changed, personally or politically, thanks to the Veep experience, Louis-Dreyfus laughs. It's more a chuckle than a full-out guffaw. She sounds rueful. "Look, I try to bring as much of myself to a part as possible. I do actually think about the role all day long when I'm working. And Selina is a very, very good role.

Adds the Hollywood survivor, who is 51, "It's not easy to age in this town. You want a long career – every actor does – but you tend to forget the aging part. Selina is a part for someone my age, and playing a powerful person does have an effect on you. But the effect went away when I got off the plane and went home. It didn't change me."

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Down the hall from where Louis-Dreyfus sits like a politician pitching a new business deal, Iannucci is also talking up Veep. A soft-spoken Scot, and dressed like a dapper university prof, he looks the least likely showbiz type in the L.A. area on this day.

First, he wants to praise HBO. He acknowledges that a failed ABC adaptation of The Thick of It in 2007 left him uneasy about American TV. But, he says, "With HBO and this show, I knew there would be no constraints. It's been beautiful all the way."

Like Louis-Dreyfus, he says he researched by talking to politicians and their staffers in Washington. "But a lot of research about the vice-president came from a big biography of [Lyndon B. Johnson]that I read. What I learned from that book and hanging around offices in Washington was really a matter of getting the details right. The vice-president's office was very happy to let us in. What I saw and what was the real material, was the sight of people in crowded offices, without enough work space, perched in chairs with a laptop trying to run the world."

Like his star, he denies that Veep is satirizing a real politician or party. "We never see the president," he points out. "We never say what party Selina belongs to. And we wanted a female vice-president because no one could claim it was based on someone who had been the VP. The comedy material is all about the power, though, the fact that Selina doesn't have much power unless the president gives it to her."

The truth of this is evident in an early episode. VP Meyer wants to increase her profile, with a green-jobs initiative. To get support, she visits a powerful female senator, someone who was just like Selina before Selina became VP. She enters the senator's office and sits on the couch, expecting an intimate, intense chat. It takes a half-minute before the vice-president realizes the senator can't be bothered to get up from her desk, let alone take her eyes off her e-mail; Selina just isn't worth her time.

"I like showing the messiness and smallness of it all," Iannucci says. "People in Washington are in this bubble of self-importance while everyone they meet is also self-important, and meanwhile the rest of the world just goes about its business."

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Iannucci says he has no plans for Veep beyond the first season. But, he says, as he looks toward the ceiling, as if an idea had just occurred to him, "American politics can be very depressing and also very funny if you're looking for material."

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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