Julia Louis-Dreyfus Is Still Taking Big Swings

After a record-breaking comedy run, Louis-Dreyfus is ready to tread fresh ground: “Usually if I'm intrigued with something and I get a kind of nervous energy about it, I know that means I have to do it.”

Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Zora in Tuesday, an A24 movie.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus is, by her own admission, “a bit of a workaholic,” though you can add that to the list of things she’s working on. “I do have complicated feelings about work,” she says. “My business is very often all or nothing. When you do a project you are working between 12 and 14 hours a day, sometimes six days a week… Then you finish and it’s over. There are times when I think, whoa, I am doing way too much, I got to chill out. But it's like being in the circus. We’re going from town to town looking for the next gig.”

Louis-Dreyfus probably doesn’t have to look too hard. At 63 years old, she has more Primetime Emmys and Screen Actors Guild Awards than any other performer. Her work on Seinfeld, Veep, and The New Adventures of Old Christine means her legacy is sewn up, though that presents a challenge of its own. What’s a workaholic to do? For Louis-Dreyfus, the solution has been changing lanes — less comedy, more drama, with a Marvel project thrown in for good measure.

“I've been lucky to get a lot of jobs that have been comedic — not all of them — but primarily they've been comedic,” she says of her pivot. “To have the opportunity to show that I can take on other kinds of genres is something that I really relish and want very much to do.”

Her new movie, Tuesday, is a sincere and surreal account of the relationship between a mother (Louis-Dreyfus) and a teenage daughter (Lola Petticrew) who is terminally ill. The daughter is visited by a talking bird who represents Death. He’s ready to take her and she’s ready to go, but Mom won’t go down without a fight. It’s an unusual movie — heartily weird, inescapably sad — but that’s all part of the appeal. “Usually if I'm intrigued with something and I get a kind of nervous energy about it, I know that means I have to do it,” she says.

When you read the script for Tuesday and saw there was a bird talking to a terminally ill teenager, was any part of you apprehensive about how it would come together on screen?

I was quite nervous. It was a big leap of faith because it was a new area for me to explore as an actor. There’s always that question at the back of your mind, can I do it? Can I nail it? I didn't know Daina [O. Pusić], this was her first feature-length directorial debut, but I met her a number of times after reading this beautiful script that she wrote, and I just felt safer and safer with her.

And despite all Tuesday’s surreal and strange elements, it feels at its heart like a movie about motherhood. How did that play out with you and Lola on set?

Yes, one of the themes that drew me to this film was the ferocity of the parental bond to a child, alongside the themes of loss and grief and denial and death and how all of these areas intersect with one another. I think that Lola and I both understood quite well the dynamic between mother and child and that she was playing somebody who was obviously desperately ill, but very much in the parenting position to her mother.

I remember the moment in my late 20s when it felt like something shifted and I realized that I would sometimes be parenting my parents.

Yes. It feels sort of uncharted, and yet I think most people do in fact have that experience if they're lucky enough. To be able to have a parent for a long enough time so that you become the caregiver is, while being difficult and sometimes heartbreaking, also a gift and a joy.

I agree. I had to fly back to the U.K. a few weeks ago because my dad was in hospital, and I came away feeling emotionally exhausted but also quite fulfilled in a weird way.

Yes, isn’t it extraordinary? I had the same experience with my dad. It is completely depleting, and yet at the same time, strengthening. You feel stronger for it, don't you think?

Definitely. I loved the way Tuesday captures how humor is an important coping mechanism in those situations. Did you think hard about how to get those bits to land?

Yeah, I did. It couldn't be too much. The tone just had to be struck exactly right given the nature of the subject of the film itself. So, I wouldn't say it was raucous. It was a challenge to thread that needle.

I laughed out loud when your character literally eats Death. She’s doing anything she can to keep her daughter alive, but it feels like she actually wants to do that with her child too — to keep her inside, right there. Is that something you’ve ever wrestled with as a parent?

The thing about being a parent is that it is all about separating — the journey is learning to separate. You have this human being inside your body, if you've actually given physical birth, and then you give birth, and then this child starts to crawl away from you, and then this child walks and then this child goes to school, and on and on it goes until eventually, if the cycle goes in the correct order, you leave. It's funny, I was just saying to somebody the other day, I remember very vividly after giving birth and having almost a feeling of mourning for my pregnancy, a feeling like, oh, I missed that movement inside my body.

That’s interesting.

I know. It's wild. Isn't it funny to be having these conversations around this movie? This is exactly one of the main reasons I did this film, because I think there's so much to talk about.

I agree. In the movie, your character has lots of secrets: her employment situation, the barren upstairs of her house. Do you enjoy having a secret life or are you an open book with the people that you love?

I think it's both. I wouldn't say I have a secret life, but I'm very close with my family and my friends. Even though I'm out there publicly, I am in fact a private person and really need my privacy. I don't like to be by myself all the time, but I do have to have time to myself, and by myself.

I like having a few secret hobbies. Sometimes it's nice to not have to externalize why you're doing something.

Yeah. That's why book reading is so nice, isn't it?

Lola Petticrew as Tuesday and Arinzé Kene as Death in Tuesday.
Director Daina O. Pusić used special effects to create Death, but actor Arinzé Kene was on set for filming scenes.
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What kind of stuff do you like reading?

I'm a fiction reader. Well, I say I'm a fiction reader, but I've recently read a few autobiographies. The last work of fiction that I read was the new Abraham Verghese's book, The Covenant of Water.

Do you have any guilty viewing habits?

There are certain reality TV shows that relax me to the core to watch. I just look forward to them so much. It’s like having a cocktail.

Which shows in particular?

They are two shows that I simply love to watch. One of them is The Amazing Race. And the other is Survivor. Do you ever watch?

My comfort viewing is more re-watching a sitcom I’ve seen 100 times.

Oh, really? That's interesting. No, that's not the case for me, I think maybe because it's my business. To watch any kind of comedy… I'm not saying it doesn't make me laugh, either my stuff or somebody else's, but I'm watching the work as opposed to just letting this sort of wash over me.

On a different note, I was very struck by the lack of men in Tuesday.

Good, isn’t it?

It's so good. The men are just wiggling across their road with their legs missing. Did you have a conversation about that? Was it intentional?

No, I didn't have a conversation about it at all, and I'm not sure it was intentional. Also, there’s an actor, Arinzé Kene, playing Death. He's a man, and he was on set with us, so he was our token male. Obviously there were other men there, but he was marvelous and an extraordinary actor. And in fact, that was his actual voice. They did nothing to his voice. Can you believe that?

That is incredible. It sounds like it's being choked out of him.

Correct. But that's him.

Were you working with any green screens or tennis balls?

It was practical. Arinzé was on set with us and the animators animated over him.

Is that very different from what it's like working on a Marvel project?

The Marvel movie that I just finished doing was also practical. They really have turned their back on the green screen and effects, at least for the movie that I made, and there's a lot of practical stunts and practical locations and so on. So in both cases, it was the real thing.

Was that important to you?

Well, I mean, it's always more fun to actually do it, right? Just purely from an acting point of view, it is more fun to have it actually happening.

While we’re on the topic of your Marvel movie, do you have any intel on what that new asterisk in Thunderbolts means?

Well, if I did know why and I told you, I would be shot. So I don’t say a thing.

One of the other rumors is that your kind of character is going to be like a Nick Fury-type character. Does that ring true to you?

I think I shouldn't say. I don't want to say a thing. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.

The pressure of the secrets on those movies sounds so overwhelming.

It is quite overwhelming. I live in fear of doing something wrong. Even when you get a script, you have to sign an NDA. You're surrounded by NDAs.

Well, we can wrap up on more familiar ground. Your character in Tuesday is obsessed with cheese, and your character in Seinfeld had a passion for the big salad. Are you more of an Elaine or a Zora in that way?

I am somewhere in between. How about a salad with cheese on it?

This Q&A has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Images by Kevin Baker / Courtesy of A24.