Julia Louis-Dreyfus is pretty clear about her opinion here. She’s not here for her feelings to be spared, if something is bad, yeah, you’d better just tell her. In You Hurt My Feelings, (her second collaboration with director Nicole Holofcener, after the wonderful Enough Said) she plays Beth, a successful author who is having a tough time getting her new book sold to a publisher. She’s being told it’s great – even by her husband, who she trusts the most – so she can’t understand why no one is interested. That is, until she overhears her husband telling the truth about her book (it’s lousy), which sets off a cascade of emotions as the two debate if it’s better to be emotionally supportive and spare her feelings, or just tell the truth. And this is an interesting debate. Especially when the person asking for an opinion is proud of what they’ve produced.
In the movie, Beth’s husband is a therapist. A case could be made, well, what does he know? But in real life, Louis-Dreyfus is married to writer-director Brad Hall, who she met in college and worked at SNL with. As she says, she very much expects an honest answer, because the opposite would be “gutting.” (I tried to come up with a scenario where, maybe, sparing someone’s feelings could be seen as a good thing and she was not having it.)
Speaking of SNL, Louis-Dreyfus has been pretty clear that it wasn’t her favorite experience. It was an odd time in the show’s history, as she was there during the only five years Lorne Michaels wasn’t running the show. But she’s come back to host three times (and has been wonderful all three times). That’s an interesting dynamic she has with SNL now and, ahead, she explains why she wanted to come back and host, for multiple reasons.
Also, soon after Seinfeld, she and Hall collaborated on an NBC show called Watching Ellie, which was pretty ambitious. Premiering in 2002, it was a single-camera show set in real-time, in a time period when comedies didn’t really use single camera like they would only a few years later with The Office. Louis-Dreyfus is still incredibly proud of that show, which didn’t really get a chance. Ahead, she also talks about what her mindset was post-Seinfeld and why she wanted to take a big swing. And why she still feels the note they got from NBC to abandon the format was “pretty shitty.”
This movie, I’ve thought about it a lot, it puts some interesting questions out there about the person you’re with and what you really want to hear from them critically…
In the movie, your character’s husband’s a therapist. But in real life, Brad Hall, he has a similar job that you do. I couldn’t help but think, what is that dynamic like? Has he ever said something like, “You know what, you just didn’t have it this time”?
Well, I definitely rely on his opinion and judgment in many ways. I really respect his point of view, and I always need his thinking on any project that I’m working on. I’m always running material by him, footage by him. I’ll show him an edit because I really value his input and I feel like we’re sort of a team in that sense. So, the notion of him withholding critical information from me would be a devastating thing. More than that, not just withholding, but if he were to completely not tell me the truth about something, I think that would be gutting to me.
Obviously, you two were on SNL together. Did the relationship start with trading ideas and being honest about ideas, and then that just continued and that dynamic just never changed?
We met at Northwestern. We met before SNL and we started dating when I was in college. He was no longer in college, but he had been there, and then he actually started a theater company in Chicago and I joined the theater company. It was a part of a number of shows that we did. That’s sort of when we really started dating at that time, and we’ve been together ever since. So, there you go.
But even back then, I assume you had to be honest with each other about your material to be successful. To this day, it’d be weird if that dynamic changed.
Yeah, we are honest with each other. I mean, we are. I’ll tell him I don’t like something and he will tell me the same, for sure.
And Brad’s directed three episodes of Veep? That’s a situation where people have to be pretty honest with each other, I assume?
Of course, because it’s a level of trust that’s in play and that engenders respect. So yeah, it’s all in play.
I guess I just keep thinking about what the movie is saying because I don’t know the answer. Sometimes I don’t know if I want to hear the truth. I guess deep down I do. But your character hears the truth behind her back, which is particularly hurtful.
Totally. I think he definitely mishandles that in the movie. The character of Don completely mishandles that dynamic and that situation in particular. So, it’s definitely a fuck-up on his part. The fact that she’s hearing him essentially betray her to her brother-in-law in a way that is… I mean, it’s egregious, what he does. And he could have handled that very differently. But I guess because of her neediness, he just couldn’t find a way to do it. But if I’m the ethics police, I might have advised him to change his ways.
Right. And if he’s going to go ahead and say he likes something he doesn’t like for the benefit of someone’s feelings, he should probably stand by that statement no matter who he’s talking to…
Yeah… I guess that’s another way of handling it, which is to keep the lie up. [Laughs] That’s not something I’d recommend.
Well, right. But I feel like telling other people the truth when it can get back… You’re right. Actually, you’re right. My point was wrong.
I mean, he’s not going to get a job working for the CIA with that move, let’s put it that way.
No, he’s not.
He’s not. It’s a boneheaded move! Boneheaded!
Between this and Enough Said, why do you and Nicole Holofcener work so well together? What is the relationship between you two?
Well, we’re very good friends. We’ve known each other a long time. In fact, when we first met, and it was on Enough Said, we both had a feeling like, how is it possible that we’ve never met each other before?
Oh, that’s good.
We really have a shared sensibility. A shared sense of what’s funny and a shared interest in a kind of drama comedy that’s based on human behavior and character. That’s her skill set, of course. That’s where she does her best writing, and I’m drawn to that kind of material. Also, I just like her as a person. We have a good time together. We’re always laughing. And we both have two boys. We’re roughly the same age. I don’t know. I just dig her the most.
Selfishly, I just hope it doesn’t take another ten years for another collaboration.
Oh, believe me. I feel the same. It was hard because we had opportunities to work together, but they didn’t work out schedule-wise because of my schedule and her schedule before. But now, moving forward, I’m very hopeful that we can find a way to do something again and lickety-split. I mean, I’m definitely badgering her about it.
Well, that’s interesting. This is one of the few times, ever, you’re not a lead character on a television show, which takes such a time commitment. Where now you do have the freedom to say, hey, let’s do something soon.
Correct. Yes. Exactly.
What’s that like for you? Now being able to schedule a movie or project, as opposed to before?
First of all, I love working on series. I think it’s incredibly exciting and challenging to work on something long-term like that.
And, obviously, you’ve had a lot of good ones. I even loved Day by Day. I watched that show every week.
[Laughs] Oh! Thank you. Thank you. But that being said, I do in fact love having the freedom sort of being able to bounce around. I mean, I’ve made, I don’t know, like four movies – I’m about to start a fifth – in the last year. I love that as well. Frankly, I’m just happy to be employed.
I’ve always wondered about something, a show you and Brad collaborated on, Watching Ellie. I watched every episode of that show. It was your first big project after Seinfeld. Is there a tendency after something big like Seinfeld to be like, oh, we have to do something completely different? Because it had that really unique aspect of being set in real-time. Which was a big swing. Then that aspect of it went away if I remember correctly.
I definitely wanted to diverge from Seinfeld. And I thought it was a really cool thing to have it be in real-time…
Yeah. It was.
It was single camera and I was playing a musician, which was very appealing to me. So, all of those things kind of separated it from what I’d done before, and that was appealing. I think it was sad for me when NBC came in and decided we had to do a hybrid for the second season.
It became multi-cam, I think, am I remembering that right?
It became a hybrid. We still did single-camera work, but it was also multi-cam. Some of those episodes are still funny, but I think it was a pretty shitty note from NBC, to be honest. But it was the only way we could keep the show going because they didn’t want to do any more single-camera shows. So they said in that moment they didn’t want to do any more single camera…
Yeah, that sure changed a few years later.
Exactly! Yeah. But I stand by that show because I think it was ahead of its time.
It certainly was. Also, you had Steve Carrell. Whatever happened to that guy?
Yeah, exactly! We had Steve Carrell. We had Peter Storemayor. We had Darren Boyd from the UK who is an amazing comic and dramatic actor. Anyway, it was too bad that show ended because I think we were onto something pretty good there. But it doesn’t matter. Whatever, we still had a good time doing it.
I am well aware of your feelings towards your time at Saturday Night Live, but you’ve also come back to host three times. Which is interesting. I didn’t love high school, and if someone there were like, “Hey, you want to come back and teach for a week,” I’d be like, “No.” But you’ve always come back, and done great on the show. So, I find that an interesting dynamic and I’ve always wondered about that.
Well, first of all, the first time that I went back to host, do you know that I was the first former female cast member to ever come back and host the show?
I did know that.
For the first time! That’s, in and of itself, mind-blowing. So, I was happy to sort of crack that particular glass ceiling. I was also happy to go back because I think the show was… it was a particularly good cast. It was being better run than when I was there. So, I think show to show, it was just elevated. But really, primarily, it’s always a good thing to promote whatever it is you’re promoting. It’s always good to be on SNL. Obviously, people go on and promote whatever their project is. But I was looking back with the knowledge that I had that I didn’t have back in 1982. So, I knew what it was I needed to do to be a good host and to get it done well because I had all that experience under my belt. So, that was an opportunity. It was like getting a redo.
Or getting a do-over, to a certain extent. Even though I was a host, I wasn’t a cast member. Still, I understood the dynamics. I understood the schedule on that show, it has not changed since. I mean, they had not changed. It was the same thing. I knew it was a great opportunity and I enjoyed the shit out of it, even though it’s incredibly difficult.
Your era, that’s probably the strangest five-year run in the history of the show, when Lorne was gone. I did a set design magazine piece once and I asked a question about that era and the person I asked said that wasn’t a good time for him and didn’t want to talk about it. So, I get that it wasn’t your favorite time period. But I always love it when you come back and host because you’re so great at it.
Thank you. That’s nice that you say. I appreciate it.
I think I’m out of time. You have to understand, I’ve been doing this a long time, but sometimes, if it’s someone like you, I almost don’t want to do the interview, because if something goes wrong, it would ruin my life…
No, no, no…
Because Seinfeld is on so often, every time I’m flipping through channels I’d be reminded, “Oh, well, I screwed that one up.” I always have to judge the risk and reward when it’s an artist I admire.
Well, first of all, I thank you for the compliment. And second of all, you didn’t fuck anything up.