One of the ways Julia Louis-Dreyfus prepared for her role as Vice President Selina Meyer in the new HBO comedy “Veep” was to study how to answer questions in a public setting by not really answering them.
She watched a lot of C-SPAN.
“Some politicians are better at it than others,” she said. “It’s a performance. Particularly these days. People don’t really answer questions. In this culture of sound bites and 24-hour news … people are careful about how they speak.”
Out of the public eye, the fictional vice president feels free to speak. A lot. The central theme of the comedy, created by Armando Iannucci and debuting Sunday at 10 p.m., is letting people within the Washington power structure say what they’re really thinking, in all its cynical glory.
In one episode, Meyer is encouraged to circulate at a reception, only to find that most of the people had already left — one of the many little indignities a vice president faces every day.
“How do I mingle with so few people?” shecomplains to her staff. “Did Simon mingle with Garfunkel?”
Louis-Dreyfus has a strong track record with the last characters she has chosen to portray on television, winning Emmys as Elaine in “Seinfeld” and the “old” Christine in “The New Adventures of Old Christine.” That alone makes Selina Meyer worthy of notice.
The actress grew up in the Washington area, familiar with the political power structure, and sought out the script when she heard about the Meyer role. She thought it would be fascinating to play a character so close to power yet ultimately powerless. The show’s tag line, on all the posters, is, “the buck stops somewhere near here.”
“I love my character,” she said. “I love her narcissism, I love her rage, I love her ambition and I love the fact that she’s a political animal.”
“Veep” is essentially a non-political show about a political world, a workplace comedy where the work is supposedly looking out for the nation’s interests. You never learn Meyer’s political party. You’ll never see the president, although a running gag whenever Meyer returns to the office is asking the receptionist, “Did the president call?”
The show revels, maybe a bit too much, in the freedoms afforded by pay cable, with plenty of salty language and situations. Safe to say no episode of “The West Wing” ended with the vice president stricken with diarrhea and carried out of a frozen yogurt shop to her limousine.
Everything is a political calculation. When Meyer considers getting a dog, an aide says, “maybe we should get a rescue dog. It will play great.” Meyer mulls whether to contact the National Weather Service to remove “Selina” from next year’s list of hurricane names. Even the frozen yogurt flavor is debated.
Louis-Dreyfus spoke with three vice presidents to research her role, along with aides and journalists. She declines to say if anything specific in the show comes froma real vice presidential experience.
“I don’t want anyone to think it’s a parody of a specific person,” she said, “and I also want to keep the lines of communication open.
“No kidding,” she said. “I went to these people with questions, not about policy or decisions. My questions were much more personal and humanistic: What is it like to have this coterie of Secret Service with you at all times? Do you at a certain point not notice them anymore? Do they laugh at your jokes? If you’re having a private conversation with somebody in your family and the Secret Service is there, does that factor in your conversation, their presence? Stuff like that.”
She’s made a single, eight-episode season of “Veep,” and hopes to make several more.
“Do you like to laugh?” she said. “Because you might get a chuckle out of it. You’ll see Washington portrayed in a way that it’s never been portrayed before. I know there’s nothing else like this on television anymore. It’s fun. It’s fresh.”