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Julia Louis-Dreyfus recalls the first laugh she got — and the ER trip that followed

Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays a writer whose husband hates the novel she's working on in <em>You Hurt My Feelings.</em>
Jeong Park
Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays a writer whose husband hates the novel she's working on in You Hurt My Feelings.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus still remembers the first time she made someone laugh: She was about 3 years old and stuck raisins up her nose, eliciting a chuckle from her mom — until she inhaled the raisins and had to go to the hospital.

"I remember the emergency room part particularly well," Louis-Dreyfus says. "But I got the laugh, so there's that!"

Louis-Dreyfus has spent most of her adult life making people laugh. She's best known for playing Elaine on the hit comedy series Seinfeld, but her credits also include SNL, The New Adventures of Old Christine and the HBO series Veep. Along the way, she's won 11 Emmy awards.

In the new movie, You Hurt My Feelings, Louis-Dreyfus plays a writer whose world is turned upside down when she learns that her husband hates the novel she's working on — despite his reassurances to the contrary.

"The film is kind of a meditation on the truths and and slightly not-truths that we tell our loved ones," she says. "And I also think another idea that comes out of the film is: Are you your work? Who are you minus your work? Is your worth completely tied to the work that you do? That's an interesting thing to consider."

Interview highlights

On her acceptance speech for Mark Twain Prize for American Humor

I felt such pressure. I thought I was going to die. Nobody was happier than me once I'd finished that speech. If you watch it on YouTube, there's a lectern there and I have my hand on it almost the entire time because I was so nervous that I thought it would fall over. It's a huge room. I think there was like 2,500 people in there or something. And I was exceptionally aware of the company that I was in, i.e. prior recipients. And if they're giving you a prize for humor, you better kill it. I definitely felt the pressure.

On going public with her breast cancer diagnosis in 2017

It would have never ever been my intention to go public with my illness, but because we were in the middle of making [Veep] and I had hundreds of people relying on me, I had to talk about it publicly, because we had to shut down for a number of months. I'm more private than that ... it's not something I would have normally mentioned. But the nice thing about it, about being public ... is that a lot of people reached out to me as a result of my saying that I was enduring this and I was able, therefore, to reach out and help others with their cancer struggles. And that has been very meaningful to me.

On playing Selina Meyer on Veep, and finding comedy in her character's internalized misogyny and dismissal of feminism

I understood the idea and I understood why it was so funny. It's very difficult to be ambitious and to be a woman, and particularly in politics, I think that is the case. And so how does one reconcile all of that? It's tricky. And in this case, in a much earlier episode in another season, somebody was pitching to Selina Meyer a speech in which the first line was, "As a woman, I feel," and she's reading this speech and she says, "Well, first of all, as a woman, I'm never starting a sentence with 'as a woman.' " ... She doesn't want to identify as a female because she sees herself being female as a second-class citizenship, that she doesn't get the same opportunity if she sort of leans in to being a woman. And you could make an argument that that's true. So I think that to me, it was a very funny idea to be a woman who is trapped. That's what she is.

On co-starring with James Gandolfini in Enough Said shortly before his death

I really am so lucky to have had the chance to work with him. I think this role that he played in Enough Said was very close to who he was as a human being. He was a very tender, sensitive guy, not at all a Tony Soprano-type. But I would say that it was that sort of sensitivity and even vulnerability that he had as a human being [that] made the role, his portrayal of Albert in this film Enough Said, so sublime. But also, I really think it's what helped define the role of Tony Soprano. He brought many layers to Tony Soprano. ... I think that's why that character stands the test of time. But he was a lovely human being. I think he was one of the great American actors. I really do. He was naturally, natural on film, very authentic, and sometimes he lacked confidence, which I always found surprising.

On her new podcast, Wiser than Me

It was born out of a sort of a desire that I had. I had watched the Jane Fonda documentary on HBO, and I was really quite struck by the enormity and the scope of Jane Fonda's life. And I thought, we're not hearing enough from older women. Why are we not documenting these older women who have had so much life experience? And I sort of thought about that a lot and I thought, I want to talk to older women and get their wisdom, get their sort of tips from the frontlines of life. And so this idea was born, and that's exactly what I'm doing. I'm talking to older women. And the conversation is really through the lens of, "Tell us what you know, please." I'm finding it very inspiring, myself. I'm enjoying it.

Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Dave Davies
Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.