She might not know it, but Julia Louis-Dreyfus may be one of the best criers in Hollywood. "I've never heard that in my entire life until now," she tells me, slightly flummoxed, when I ask if anyone's ever told her that. But go as far back as her years playing Elaine on Seinfeld, and you'll see what I mean. Take the scene where she tearfully breaks the news over the phone that her boss won't give her a day off for an impromptu trip to Atlantic City. The tented brows, the quivering lip, the cracking voice and shallow breathes: anyone who's ever spent a single, solitary teenage moment grounded while their friends went out will recognize themselves instantly. Go through her resume of hit comedies—from Seinfeld, The New Adventures of Old Christine, and Veep (all of which earned her a total of eight acting Emmys) to her most recent collaboration with indie director Nicole Holofcener, You Hurt My Feelings—and watch Dreyfus expertly dig for what she says is that kernel of truth at the center of each comedic performance.

That's part of why writer-director Daina O. Pusic tapped Dreyfus for her feature film debut Tuesday, which opens in theaters nationwide this weekend. The A24 film is a gutsy magic-realist meditation on grief, autonomy, and sacrifice: Death in the form of macaw-like creature (voiced and acted on set before CGI by Arinzé Kene) comes for a terminally ill girl (Lola Petticrew). Her mother, Zora, played by Louis-Dreyfus, doesn't take it lying down.

"I started off making a drama about grief, but as I got into the nitty gritty of the actual scenes, it took on more of a comedic shape," says Pusic. For Zora, she needed an actor who could play to that bit of comedy tucked into the drama tucked into the fantastical. She needed, she says, "someone with the courage, the gumption to go so far out of their comfort zone and trust a first-time director."

Louis-Dreyfus, at 63, is finally enjoying being outside her comfort zone. To that end, she launched a podcast last year, Wiser Than Me, in which she interviews older icons from Gloria Steinem to Carol Burnett to Vera Wang to extract whatever advice they've gleamed as fellow journeywomen. Here, Louis-Dreyfus talks about taking risks at this point in her career and what lessons she's drawn from her own experiences with motherhood, cancer, and even the odd professional failure. "It's show business," she says, "Welcome to it."

How did this strange, beautiful movie find you?

A24 sent me the script, I read it and was, of course, completely intrigued—and somewhat baffled too. I mean, you can imagine? But the themes of the movie were right up my alley. I felt a desire to meet with this genius, Daina [O. Pusic], who wrote it, because I wanted to get a sense of her intention and a sense of her. We met and we talked at great, great length, and I fell in love with her. I felt a sense that I could trust her.

What was it about her that made you feel that trust?

Well, I could see that she was a tender-hearted person, that she was collaborative, that she was careful. And that's what's important to me. She had a really well-organized, thought-through plan for this film. Every second of this film was storyboarded to within an inch of itself. That's critical. I mean, you might think that it's pretty basic, but believe it or not, not all directors do that. So she was just very in control of her idea, which was good because the idea was so outrageous and outside the box. She had wrangled it to a certain extent.

Other than your recent cameos in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you've only done a handful of feature films: Downhill, and two with director Nicole Holofcener, Enough Said and You Hurt My Feelings. They're all very grounded. Did this feel like a risk for you?

Huge risk. Particularly if the animation didn't work. You know, I can control my performance—although you never know what happens in the edit; a bad edit can really f*** you up—but the animation was a top concern for me because if that wasn't exactly correct in this movie, it would become another thing altogether.

How was it to act opposite a CGI macaw that would magically grow to the size of a room or shrink to the size of your thumb from scene to scene?

An actor named Arinzé Kene played [Death] and he was on set with us. He was in all of those scenes, so we were able to play against a human being. You can't even believe his physicality, what he did with his body, what he did with his voice. That's his voice in the movie, by the way, that is not, like, AI generated. What he did with his body and his facial expressions and just the way he brought emotional life to the character, he made it all very relatable.

And then in terms of his changing size, there was a lot of technical stuff on set that helped facilitate that. For example, when he was tiny, if we're shooting in the bedroom set, he might be in the kitchen set and they'd be filming him in there and relaying it to an iPhone perched at the edge of the bed so that he's tiny on the screen and we're looking at him that way. And when he was huge, he would just be perched on a ladder. So he was always morphing and changing, but he was always doing it with us on set. That was a constant.

There's a surprising amount of physical work involved in a movie like this to bring the magical elements to life. Does having a comedy background help?

It's a huge benefit to have a background doing a lot of comic work. But the truth is that both comedy and drama are very, very, very related to one another. If you're doing comedy, it's born out of a truthful place. It has to have a kernel of truth to it. Even if it's crazy broad, it has to have a truth to it. And that applies to drama as well. I know it sounds simplistic, but I stand by it.

When we meet your character, Zora, she's struggling with her daughter's illness in a way that manifests in basically avoiding her. It's an emotionally messy and very real portrait of a parent as a fallible person. Did your own experience of motherhood inform how you empathized with the character?

Without question, without everything about being a mother to this, that was hugely useful to me and I understood it gave me a real, I'm not suggesting that I would necessarily react like that but it gave me a a very pretty profound understanding of why Zora is behaving the way she is.

When you were battling cancer, did you ever experience people's discomfort or awkwardness or reticence in a similar way?

Oh, huh. Let me just think about. That's very interesting. Well, I'll tell you what I did experience. The people I'm most close to, upon whom I rely, my family and my friends, they all behaved frankly perfectly. I was very well taken care of. You do have moments where people don't quite know what to do, or they do the wrong thing, but not to the extent that Zora does. But one thing that I can relate to is the feeling of taking care of other people when you're sick. Because when someone's sick, it can make people feel uncomfortable. And as someone who was sick, I was sometimes aware of my desire to put them at ease.

That reflects the character of Zora's daughter Tuesday, who ends up carrying that emotional responsibility with her mom? We see her trying to take it in stride. Do you think that you took it in stride as well?

No, it was a conflict for me. I found myself doing it, and it took a lot of energy to do. And I didn't want to use the energy on that. I'm a people pleaser, so I had to push back against it, and maybe even sometimes—I don't want say be rude but...be rude! Maybe. A little.

You're known for a career of popular, critically acclaimed, long-running TV series: Seinfeld, The New Adventures of Old Christine, and Veep. But I wanted to ask you about how you bounced back from a failure: Watching Ellie, your first show after Seinfeld, which was also your first time producing.

It was very difficult for me that the show didn't work. I still love that show and I defy you to watch it and tell me you don't think it's good. I think it was a little bit ahead of its time. It had a superior cast and a great concept. I loved everything about it. So when it didn't work, that was a blow, no doubt. And it was hard for me to recover; it took me some time to recover emotionally. Because it's a personal endeavor. You work on these things and you put your heart and soul into the and then—you know, it's show business. Welcome to it. But speaking for myself, I feel very anchored to what I think is true and good in life. That is to say that my, I am not defined by my work. I have a life outside of these jobs that is meaningful and sustaining.

Last year, you launched you podcast, Wiser Than Me, in which you interview well-known women in their 70s, 80s, and 90s. What have you learned?

Well, it's really hard in case you didn't know! It's a lot of hard work but it's also been a very personal experience for me. It was born out of a desire of my own desire to talk to older women and garner their wisdom, so I meet each one of these conversations loaded with a shit-ton of information and research about each person I'm talking to so that I don't miss an opportunity to really dig into what they know. It's been very buoying. It's given me a lot of newfound confidence.

Interviews with people at that point in their careers are often the most interesting because that's when they're at their most candid. They've reached their don't-give-a-fuck age.

That's the thing, exactly. Particularly as a woman, you're culturally expected to behave a certain way within certain parameters. And a lot of those parameters are b*******. You don't realize that when you're younger, but I think as you get older, if you're lucky, you come to realize that those parameters should not and do not apply to you. Then you will begin to free yourself from them. And then, like you said, you think, I don't give a f*** anymore. This is how I feel. This is what I know. And this is how I'm going to live.

Do you think you've reached a DGAF point in your life?

I'm on the way there. Not quite there yet, but I'm on the way.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

2024-06-14T17:54:26Z dg43tfdfdgfd