Julia Louis-Dreyfus did her homework.
We tried to trip her up by asking her some questions about real U.S. vice presidents, just to see if she’d done any research on the subject to prepare for playing one in her new HBO comedy series “Veep.”
And she was up to the challenge — describing the role of the vice president in terms that would impress a vice presidential historian.
She then impressed us even more when she quoted one vice president’s words of advice to another one. Who’d she quote? The answer: John Nance Garner. Who’s he? Read on and you’ll find out.
We talked to Julia this week in New York, in a small conference room at HBO. Besides schooling us on real-life vice presidential history, she talked about fictional Vice President Selina Meyers, the veep she plays in the HBO series, which premieres this Sunday (April 22) at 10/9c.
Here’s what she had to say:
XfinityTV: What’s so funny about the vice president? Why didn’t you pick, say, the Secretary of the Interior, which is also a funny job?
Julia: I think the position of vice president is particularly fun because it’s a powerful position and yet it’s a power-less position. You’re so close, yet so far — and particularly in American culture, where being No. 1 is so revered. Being No. 2? Not so much!
Did you research vice presidents to prepare to play one? I sort of looked at the relationships between the president and the vice president from administration to administration. The reality is of course that the role of vice president is to preside over the Senate and then step in should the president be unable to govern. Beyond that, you serve at the pleasure of your president.
You sound like an expert on the vice presidency. I’m not.
Who is your favorite vice president? Of all time? Spiro Agnew [vice president under President Richard M. Nixon].
Why? It’s the name Agnew. Start with that. And the fact that he took bribe money in a plastic or paper bag — I think that’s kinda fun! I also like John Nance Garner, who was FDR’s first vice president [1933-41]. In giving vice presidential advice to Lyndon Johnson [vice president under President John F. Kennedy] — because they were both Texans — Garner said, ‘The vice president’s office is worth a bucket of warm piss.’ That’s what he told him.
Did you base the character of Selina on any specific vice presidents? I did not. Selina is completely a fictional character.
In the three episodes of “Veep” that HBO provided for preview, no mention is made of Vice President Meyers’ party affiliation or political views, either leftward or rightward. Did I miss something? No, you didn’t miss it. You’ll never know that. It’s not going to be a show about partisan politics. It’s going to be a show about behavior in politics. So all of the issues and stances she takes, you could make a solid argument that she’s a Republican or a Democrat. It could fly in either party. And that’s very purposeful.
But just to give you a little more information, in terms of her backstory: She has had a pretty successful political life. She was in Congress and then she was a Senator from Maryland whose motto is ‘Manly deeds, womanly words’ — that’s the motto of Maryland, I’m not kidding.
And she was a contender to be the nominee of her party for President during the primary campaign season and then something happened that we allude to a little bit. During that run, she wore a hat that looked bad, and she ate a corn dog inappropriately and all of a sudden she fell from grace and came in third. That’s when she was asked to join the ticket as veep.
I also understand that we’ll never see or meet the President on the show. Is that right? You will never meet the president. The only thing you’ll know [about him] is that he’s a man.
What’s the difference between working for HBO and working with a broadcast network (as in her past sitcoms, “Seinfeld” on NBC and “The New Adventures of Old Christine” on CBS)? Well, first of all, we make less shows. But most importantly, there’s a relaxed atmosphere when it comes to sort of creative license and they are very respectful of the process and they let us do our thing. I don’t mean to suggest that they don’t have an opinion. Yes, we get comments on scripts or cuts of shows and so on, but they’re thoughtful comments and we welcome them.
And, of course, since it’s on HBO, you and the rest of the cast get to say the F-word a lot. If the show dispensed with the profanity, would it be just as accurate a portrayal of the world it’s depicting? I think it could be, but it would be less real. I think what’s great about the profanity, particularly for this show, is it sort of emphasizes or highlights the political mask that these people have to put on. Then when the mask is off, there’s a new person behind the mask and there’s even, to a certain extent, a new language that’s being spoken. And also, I personally like to swear.
I read that you had dinner with Al Gore (vice president under President Bill Clinton) to help you prepare for the role. What did he have to say? Well, I can’t say [specifically] because I like to keep that private. But I didn’t ask him questions about how he came to this decision with the President on x, y, or z or how was this treaty negotiated. I really wanted to know, What is it like when you’re having a conversation with your kid about something private, you know, the way we talk to our children, for instance, and you have three Secret Service guys with you? What’s that like? Are you aware of them? What happens if you make a joke and they laugh or they don’t laugh? What is [the life of a vice president] really like? That kind of crap.
Two women in U.S. history have run (unsuccessfully) for vice president (Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, with Walter Mondale, and Sarah Palin in 2008, with John McCain). Which one of them is most like Selina? No comment.
Well, let me put it another way. Sarah Palin’s candidacy is still fresh in all of our minds. Did the development of “Veep” and the title character, at this particular time, have anything to do with Palin almost becoming vice president? The intention is never to parody Sarah Palin because that’s been done, frankly, so we want to do something else. And also I think that the idea of a parody of a single person is kind of limiting. We’ve created a completely different person.
“Veep” premieres Sunday, April 22, at 10/9c on HBO.