Julia Louis-Dreyfus would like to talk about death


How old do you feel?

It’s one of the first questions Julia Louis-Dreyfus asks her guests — all women of a certain age, more often than not older than 70 — on her podcast “Wiser Than Me.” The answers come in all over the place, often a decade or three younger than what’s on their birth certificates. (Or five. Debbie Allen feels 25.) Sometimes the answer is conditional. In her head, Patti Smith believes she’s somewhere between 9 and 11; practically, she feels every one of her 77 years. And occasionally, the guest offers a blunter reply. “Eighty-two,” Fran Lebowitz answers. “Some days, maybe 92.” (She was 72 at the time.)

How old do you feel, Julia? We’re sitting on the patio of a Pacific Palisades restaurant, not far from her home, sharing a bottle of mineral water, throwing caution to the wind and adding a wedge of lime for fun. The restaurant is part of one of Rick Caruso’s manicured outdoor malls — the website calls it “bespoke,” the kind of L.A. place where you could easily spot someone who rates as a celebrity these days. At one point during our conversation, Louis-Dreyfus pauses, noticing a paparazzo across the way. He lingers for a moment, and then moves on. “Probably Kim Kardashian is getting an ice cream,” she guesses.

“Anyway … how old do you feel,” she asks me, turning the question around.

Hey, I asked you first.

“I feel like I’m 35 — a very experienced 35,” Louis-Dreyfus, 63, says.

Why did you land on that age?

“I feel like I’m really interested in trying new things and doing new things,” she answers. “I just feel, uh …” She stops, searching for the right thought. “l feel ready for action.”

Lately, Louis-Dreyfus’ actions have taken her on a different path, one that diverges from the comedic roles that won her 11 Emmys for the network sitcoms “Seinfeld” and “The New Adventures of the Old Christine,” as well as HBO’s profane political satire “Veep.” Last year, she reunited with filmmaker Nicole Holofcener for “You Hurt My Feelings,” playing a writer devastated to learn that her beloved husband was masking his dislike of her belabored novel. Now, opening next week, comes “Tuesday,” a deeply felt dark comedy about a single mother bargaining with Death to spare her teenage daughter.

Both “Tuesday,” the filmmaking debut of Croatian-born Daina O. Pusić, and “You Hurt My Feelings” come from A24, the indie studio whose logo on a movie instantly turns it into cinematic chic.

“I’m absolutely part of the cult, 100%,” Louis-Dreyfus says, citing Jonathan Glazer’s provocative, Oscar-winning Holocaust film “The Zone of Interest” as a particular favorite. (“I saw it a year ago and I’m still thinking about it,” she says.)

“The kinds of films I like to see, they’re making them,” Louis-Dreyfus continues. “I drink their Kool-Aid.”

“We’ve all been big fans of Julia’s for forever,” says A24’s head of film, Noah Sacco. “Seeing her embrace a more dramatic role like this with such grace was incredible to behold. We’d want her to be a part of just about anything we do.”

For her part, Louis-Dreyfus seems a little surprised that they’re all that into her. Even with its grown-up exploration of aching midlife insecurities and bruised egos, “You Hurt My Feelings” was still very much a comedy, right in Louis-Dreyfus’ wheelhouse. “Tuesday,” on the other hand, asks her to shuttle between fear, regret, anger and grief. Her character, Zora, tries, at first, to pretend that everything is normal and her terminally ill daughter will somehow be OK. But then Death visits — literally, in the form of a talking macaw — and Zora must confront the end of everything she holds dear.

“They took a real leap of faith with me,” Louis-Dreyfus says. “It’s outside of what I’ve done. But it’s exactly what I want to be doing. And it’s exactly the thing I knew I could do if I had the opportunity. And to have the chance to do it is a wonderful f— thing.”

“She has such incredible range,” Pusić tells me over a Zoom call later. “You know the comedy is going to be pitch-perfect, but then you ask her to do nuanced drama or deep emotional tragedy or, in my case, these absurd situations, and she just does everything with such utter conviction.”

“But it’s her gumption that’s inspirational to me,” Pusić continues, “just the courage of someone of that caliber to put themselves in such unfamiliar territory and go forward with such boldness and energy.”

The territory might be strange, but Louis-Dreyfus has been mulling mortality for awhile. Her father, Gérard Louis-Dreyfus, died in 2016. The following year, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. In 2018, her half-sister, Emma, died from a seizure while camping in the Sierra Nevada. She was 44.

So it makes perfect sense that Louis-Dreyfus invariably asks her podcast’s guests about navigating endings. How do you move forward after someone you love dies? How do you cope? How do you keep that loved one present in your life?

“Tuesday,” of course, is about endings, too. Only her character, Zora, can’t let go and has no desire to live without her daughter.

“Death is not a subject that people delve into a lot, maybe because it’s uncomfortable,” Louis-Dreyfus says. “But it happens to everybody. Not just your own ending, of course, but if you’re lucky enough to have lived long enough, you’re going to be exposed to loss. And that’s worth talking about.”

Death, voiced by Arinzé Kene with an expressive weariness, advises Zora: “How you live it is how she lives.”

“That makes me cry, just hearing it again,” Louis-Dreyfus says when I repeat the line to her. “Time is the great processor, you know? And the relationships, they continue. They’re still there. That’s true for me, anyway.”

I’ve interviewed Louis-Dreyfus four times over the years and she’s not been one to lean into emotion. So when her voice catches talking about that moment in “Tuesday,” I flash back to a few recent lump-in-the-throat moments in her podcast, like the time she was a “basket case” interviewing Bonnie Raitt, describing her music as “holy.”

“Things hit you a little differently as you get older,” she says.

And that can leave you feeling like you’re on unstable ground. Louis-Dreyfus shot “Tuesday” in London, away from home, away from her family, and she remembers feeling scared when she had to go to the place where Zora contemplated her daughter’s death.

“As a parent, you go, ‘Nope, not going to think about that, no thanks,’” she says. “So it was upsetting.”

Louis-Dreyfus and her husband of almost 37 years, Brad Hall, have two sons, Henry, 31, and Charlie, 27. Did they ever have any close calls with the boys?

“No, thank God, touch wood,” Louis-Dreyfus replies. Saying that, she looks around for something wooden to knock. We’re seated in a booth; the table is wrought iron. I offer the side of my head, but that’s not cutting it. The search grows frantic. “There’s no f— wood here,” she says. Finally, Louis-Dreyfus lifts up the table and finds a base plate made of wood and she raps her knuckles against it.

“You wouldn’t happen to be superstitious, would you?”

“Hey, it works,” she says, laughing. “Or so I tell myself.”

I’m remembering the time, which Louis-Dreyfus described on her podcast, when she and a dear friend went hiking in Los Leones Canyon with their kids and the two youngest boys, Charlie, then 3, and his buddy, disappeared. The moms screamed out their names. No answer. Fifteen, 20 minutes pass. Nothing. Just as they were about to call the police, they heard giggling and the boys emerged from behind a big rock.

“Now that was scary,” Louis-Dreyfus says. “I just remember thinking, ‘How am I going to call Brad to tell him that I’ve lost our 3-year-old?’ ” She laughs.

“Yeah, that’s a conversation …” I start.

”… that you do not want to have,” Louis-Dreyfus says, finishing the thought.

“Having the boys has been the most wonderful rooting system for my life,” she continues. “It helped crystallize my priorities. Most parents would say exactly that. It has been my focus. And in this world of entertainment, where things can be fleeting and fickle and uncontrollable, it’s nice to know what really matters.”

Remembering the last time we spoke five years ago, I tell her I notice just a slight shift in the way she frames her approach to life. Louis-Dreyfus has always been an indefatigable optimist. But she comes across a little more relaxed. And curious. Insatiably curious. So many of her “Wiser Than Me” podcast conversations feel like attempts to work through issues, personal and universal, and better understand the way we negotiate the fourth quarter of life.

“I feel a little more relaxed than I did five years ago,” Louis-Dreyfus says. “Don’t ask me why, but I do. I don’t know why.”

Well, let’s think about that for a minute.

“I hope that I’m a little more present than I was when I was younger when I was moving, moving, moving,” she says. “I’m still doing that because I’m sort of a workaholic, but I remind myself more frequently to take a deep breath, take stock and recognize the moment I’m in. Maybe that’s something that comes with age.”

When I ask Pusić how old Louis-Dreyfus feels to her, she answers: “I’d put her age as somewhere between 21 and 150. She has this wisdom and command, but also a curiosity that she can learn more.”

Louis-Dreyfus bursts out laughing when I relay this.

“Great. I’m glad I came off like that,” she says. “I fooled her real good.”

“But age has opened up rooms that I’ve never been in before because I can take my experience and apply it,” she adds. “I couldn’t have made ‘Tuesday’ five years ago. Same with the podcast. I am curious, but it’s a more informed curiosity, if that makes any sense. The more you learn, the more you understand that you don’t know anything. And that’s opportunity.”





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