We're used to seeing Julia-Louis Dreyfus humiliate herself for our amusement: That painfully bad, grand-mal wedding dance on Seinfeld, or the sheer volume of scenes involving her suffering the slings and arrows of Beltway media types on HBO's Veep. The 52-year-old comedian has no problem going to unflattering places for a laugh; as Nicole Holfcener's Enough Said demonstrates, however, she's equally comfortable playing things closer to the heart. As a divorced massage therapist who finds love once more in the arms of James Gandolfini (in his final role) Louis-Dreyfus brings a sense of pathos to this woman experiencing a second chance at romance—when she's not trying to let on that she knows some secrets about her new potential paramour. Time Out talked to the Artist Formerly Known as Elaine at the Toronto Film Festival, where she chatted about cringe-comedy, her separated-at-birth bond with the film's director and working with the late, great Gandolfini.
Time Out: How would you describe Eva?
Julia Louis-Dreyfus: She’s a woman who’s facing all these changes—her daughter leaving for college, this sense of being romantically stuck in a rut—that are wreaking an emotional havoc on her to an extent she’s not even aware of. Then she meets somebody who likes her—and she proceeds to do this horrible, horrible thing. Of course she does, right? [Laughs] She’s got a little problem with relationship boundaries.
Time Out: And somebody doing some horrible, horrible thing made her easily relatable, I take it?
Julia Louis-Dreyfus: Naturally! [Laughs] No, I mean, I understood the character from the get-go. I’m not saying that I would do what she did in the same situation…I hope I would act better than that. But really, that’s what drew me in initially: This is not some over-the-top role; this was someone who seemed like the kind of person you’d actually meet in L.A. She’s a masseuse who takes care of everybody but who can’t take care of herself. The idea that, yeah, I know who she is…that came really quick.
Time Out: Were you a fan of Nicole Holofcener’s work?
Julia Louis-Dreyfus: A big fan! I was a huge admirer of her movies. I mean, is anyone besides Nicole even making these kinds of movies any more? The kind where people who are over 30 talk about bad decisions and life struggles and failures? And do it in a way that’s funny?
Time Out: Certainly not as consistently as she is. Those kinds of things have largely moved to TV now.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus: Right! There are these very real, raw, dialogue-driven moments in her films that I don’t really see onscreen anymore. So yes, I’d wanted to work with her for a while. When we finally met, we immediately hit it off. We’re sister soul mates! [Laughs] We both had this reaction of, Wait, why hadn’t we met before now? Why did it take this long?
Time Out: Your comic sensibilities seem really similar.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus: They are, but it’s more than that: We live in the same town, we’re roughly the same age, we each have kids that are the same age…seriously, why haven’t we been doing this for ages? And we were pretty much in cahoots with how we pictured Eva, though I felt it was important that, at one point or another, you see this character at least try to do the right thing in terms of this mess she’s in. It wasn’t really there in the beginning, but I really did think that you needed to see that she wants to avoid total catastrophe, even if she doesn’t. Nicole eventually came around to that notion as well.
Time Out: Eva is the embodiment of that maxim about good intentions.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus: She walks down a well-paved road, for sure. [Laughs]
Time Out: You seem to have a knack for playing characters that can seem unlikable and self-centered. I mean, you were on a show that pushed the idea of how unlikable someone could be and still be funny…
Julia Louis-Dreyfus: “No learning, no hugging.” Yup.
Time Out: Yet you manage to find both comedy and a sympathetic center in these flawed people, wouldn’t you say?
Julia Louis-Dreyfus: It’s easier with this role, because Eva is a much nicer person than some of the other characters I’ve played. The nicest people can make mistakes. I’m counting myself in there: I’d like to think I’m a good person—and I screw up all the time. [Laughs] So I see where she's coming from. I find a lot of things funny, but I love it when I get to play humiliation and awkwardness. That really is just the best when you’re a comedian.
Time Out: Elaine, (Veep’s) Selina Meyer, Eva: They all seem to suffer through extraordinary moments of social embarrassment. So that’s your niche, huh?
Julia Louis-Dreyfus: Shame and humiliation are my comic bread and butter.
Time Out: You and James Gandolfini have a great chemistry here. What was it like working with him?
Julia Louis-Dreyfus: He is such—was such—a gifted actor that it was easy to do long, conversation-driven scenes with him. I mean, I love doing those kinds of scenes anyway, and a lot of work always goes into making two people talking onscreen seem natural. With Jim, though, it really did feel natural; he was incapable of being a liar when he was acting. I know that sounds a little weird to say, right? [Laughs] But there was a genuineness to the way he played those moments with me that you really felt like you right there. The man was a generous actor, 100 percent. It was a joy to work with him.
Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear