This article originally appeared in the June 1996 issue of playboy magazine.
She thought the earth had moved. “Did you feel that? Was it just me?” Sitting in an office in Los Angeles, sipping coffee, Julia Louis-Dreyfus simply wanted reassurance that another earthquake wasn’t in the offing. It wasn’t. The thing that has moved—to the top of the ratings—is the hit sitcom Seinfeld, on which she co-stars as the bounteously coiffed, attractively dysfunctional Elaine Benes. Louis-Dreyfus often says that Elaine should get better friends, but, as the show moves into its final season, it’s clear that Jerry, George and Kramer have served her well.
Contributing Editor David Rensin met with Louis-Dreyfus early one morning after she had dropped off her son, Henry, at preschool (his dad, and her husband, is producer-actor Brad Hall). Says Rensin, “The only question she refused to answer was my first, about the situation in Bosnia. ‘I’m an actress, not a politician,’ she said, wanting to make absolutely sure I knew who I was talking to. Point noted, I moved on.”
Did you have to think about taking the Seinfeld job?
A deal at Warner Bros. to do my own series fell apart a few days before I was offered Seinfeld. I wanted to do the show, so mostly I thought, How am I going to make this deal work? It was about making the money right. What convinced me was the writing. They sent me four scripts. In one, called “Male Unbonding,” Jerry and Elaine are in his apartment and he says, “Do you want to go out to eat?” She says, “Yeah.” So then he says, “Where do you want to go?” She says, “I don’t care, I’m not hungry.” And Elaine is eating M&Ms. Actually, the part about the M&Ms wasn’t in the script. I added that. But the lines alone sold me.
You’ve often said that Elaine should get herself some new friends. Has she ever sought help? What exactly is her dysfunction?
Let’s face it, if she’d had fairly functional, emotionally sound relationships growing up, she wouldn’t be on this show. She’s had bad role models. We’ve never seen her mother, but something must be awry. Her dad has been on the show once. He was played by Lawrence Tierney, who is the gangster dad in Reservoir Dogs. That gives you an idea of what he’s like: a tough bruiser who’s intimidating, gruff and mean. Elaine doesn’t get along with him and he doesn’t get along with anyone. He’s a writer. And that would account for her hanging out with these other bad role models: Jerry, George and Kramer. Elaine saw a psychiatrist for a while. They had an affair. That didn’t work out either.
Has Seinfeld narrowed or widened the communication gap between the sexes?
Narrowed it. Many sexual topics, including masturbation, are broached humorously on this show, and they haven’t been elsewhere on television. But let’s not kid ourselves—a TV show isn’t going to make a difference when it comes to communication between the sexes. In fact, none of these characters communicates particularly well. These people never really listen to one another. That’s one of the things I love about the writing on our show. Each character has his own agenda and no one feigns concern about anyone else’s. They’re there for one another, but they usually let one another down. Still, hope springs eternal.
What makes a guy sponge-worthy? Describe Elaine’s ideal man.
In the episode where Elaine decides to use some of her hoarded contraceptive sponges, the guy makes a promise to do something about his sideburns. That’s what pushes it over the edge and into the sponge-worthy zone. I remember the interview process as a long one: His apartment and bathroom are clean, he is a healthy person. Money and job security are a good start. A sense of humor is good. Masculine hands help. Men also should know the right moves and be able to have a good time. All of these matter. One can’t just jump into the sack anymore. Also, hairy backs are a turnoff. I realize testosterone has its place, but no body sweaters. The ideal guy? For Elaine that’s probably impossible. Maybe someone with patience. And money. Maybe just money, which, for her, can pretty much substitute for anything.
Jerry and Elaine used to be an item. What was the attraction for her?
His humor. The rest of his personality led to their breakup.
Distinguish between a woman who is really interesting and one who is just too much work.
Well, there is a kind of woman who uses her hands like this [hands open, fingers together, thumbs out], and when I see that, alarms go off. There’s nothing soulful about that gesture. It’s complete neurotic dysfunction. Usually she has long red nails, a sign that you should run in the opposite direction. Oddly enough, that gesture often accompanies a happy personality. Very perky. Very nuts.
You have said that your best features are your hair and your feet. How can you deny the smoldering ectoplasmic topography in between?
Did you just make that up? Shame on you. Smoldering what? Are you talking about my skin? Wait, I’m blushing! How can I possibly respond to that question? You want me to say that I love every feature of myself? I don’t. It’s ironic that my hair is making me all this money right now, because I spent so many years trying to do something else with it. I do like my feet, though I should say that I’m a size eight now and I used to be a seven and a half. Maybe I like my feet a little less than I used to. I know there’s just more of them, but there was enough before. This growth spurt happened when I was pregnant.
You are the Clairol Nice 'n Easy gal. What in life is not so nice and easy?
Getting up, making coffee, making breakfast, getting dressed, getting my son dressed, making sure he eats, making his lunch, getting him out the door and getting myself out, too.
What was it that prompted you to choose that sexy, cut-to-the-navel dress for last year’s Emmys? Was an image change in order?
Everybody says my image has changed. Why? I do my hair a little differently, then I wear that dress to the Emmys. The attention it got was hilarious. This was not a long, thought-out thing for me. I went to Armani and tried on a lot of dresses. I liked that one. Boom—next thing you know, my image has changed. Sure, I had never worn anything like that before, but I just figured, What the hell? It’s very much like when I was little and played dress-up. In fact, it’s exactly the same. It’s not real life. You’re walking along in this gown, people are taking pictures, you’re on a red carpet. Come on.
If you want to have a life, should you get rid of your television set?
That’s kind of a ridiculous notion. What’s keeping the people who want to have a life from turning off the TV? Television is great entertainment if you limit yourself. It’s like everything else in life. If you think you’re watching too much TV, here’s an idea: Turn it off. Open a book, go for a walk, clean the house.
A TV show isn’t going to make a difference when it comes to communication between the sexes.
Which housecleaning jobs do you reserve for yourself?
Doing the laundry is relaxing. First you separate. You have your whites, your dark colors, medium colors. Then you have your different bleaches and detergents: Clorox 2, Lemon-Fresh Clorox, Borax, Tide—powder and liquid. You have your Woolite. Then you choose cold, warm or hot water; gentle cycle or regular cycle. Then, of course, you have to figure out what goes into the drier. I end up with maybe six piles of laundry on the floor. It’s an all-day thing, but it’s broken up. You pop into the laundry room, do a load, clean the kitchen or make a bed, then pop back in again. One thing I don’t like to do is iron. Shirtsleeves can be daunting.
What was the last complete meal you cooked yourself? What was the last thing you cooked for your husband, Brad, that didn’t go over well?
I used to cook a lot, but I don’t anymore. The last time my parents came to visit I made a real meal, chicken Marbella. It’s in the Silver Palate Cookbook and it’s absolutely divine. You marinate the chicken overnight. Then you cook it with prunes, bay leaves, wine and brown sugar. It was actually rather impressive. Not so impressive was the crème brûlée I once cooked for Brad. It was supposed to be plain crème brûlée. It came out more like scrambled eggs.
Years ago, you won a Miss Congeniality award at tennis camp. What award would you win today?
At tennis camp? If I went back to tennis camp, I guarantee you I’d get Miss Congeniality again. I could also win for Best Plucked Eyebrows [shows us two perfect eyebrows], see? I use a Tweezerman tweezer—what a plug they’re getting—that’s wonderful. It gets right in there and gets that hair out. It’s so sharp and pinchy.
People always ask you if you are really like your Seinfeld character. How much does that annoy you?
A lot. What’s the upside of this question? If I’m not like my character, people are disappointed. If I am, they say I can’t act. So I try to come up with a humorous retort: We look alike. We have the same hair. We dress similarly. We weigh about the same. We’re about the same height. The cast recently gave Jerry a plaque to wear around his neck that reads in Character on one side and out of Character on the other. We’re never sure which side should be showing.
Imagine for us a past life, unless you have a real one you’d like to tell us about.
I can’t even imagine this life. Past lives are just fun fantasies. I think that’s pretty much where it stops. But who knows? I go to my share of psychics. I believe these people. I love to watch them work their craft, so to speak. Once, I even called a 900-line psychic. I just wanted to hear the lie myself. And then it got depressing, so I hung up. It was grotesque. But it’s always fascinating when they say something that’s correct or that comes true. That has happened to me a couple of times. Of course, I don’t base my life decisions on these psychics—who, by the way, work out of their homes, not neon-sign storefronts.
Tell us about Elaine’s favorite pajamas and slippers. Yours, too.
Elaine doesn’t have pajamas. She wears long, loose nighties. Her slippers are thick crew socks. No traction-pad bottoms, though. She takes a risk on hardwood floors. My favorite pajamas are silk. I’ve never tried them in conjunction with silk sheets, though. I’m not sure what would happen. Could be fun. I wear boiled-wool clogs as slippers. They have cork bottoms. So they are slipper-like but function around the house as shoes.
What annoying pet names do you have for Brad, and vice versa? What names are acceptable?
I don’t like to be called “Dear.” He doesn’t because he knows better. He may have done it once, but I’m sure I nipped it in the bud. It sounds incredibly condescending. I don’t think Brad would dislike anything I called him, unless it were “you idiot” or something like that. Bakery terms are OK. Muffin. Cupcake. Pumpkin. Also, Sweetie, Lovey, Darling, Bee, Beanie, Bunny.
What sort of gifts have you exchanged with the cast members?
One year I gave Jerry and [Seinfeld co-creator] Larry David electric toothbrushes because they’re fanatic about their teeth. They walk around with floss and picks, so I figured I might as well add to their collections. Also, electric toothbrushes get your teeth much cleaner. I have one and I prefer it. That same year I gave Michael and Jason answering machines. That was after we’d finished the first 13 episodes and weren’t sure if we were coming back. The machines were for their dressing rooms and I regarded it as a hopeful gesture. More recently, Jerry gave me a leather coat for my birthday. Jason gave me some nice wine. Michael has given me Barbara Stanwyck tapes. But for future reference, the jewelry well is deep. I can own an infinite amount. I never have enough earrings.
Larry David isn’t returning next season. Imagine the show without him. What’s your greatest fear?
Failure [laughs]. I just hope it goes smoothly. I really want to go out happily. I’m optimistic. I wouldn’t have agreed to come back if I thought we couldn’t pull it off. But let me say it now: no ninth season. Next year I will finally feel like a high school senior, and that’s exciting.
What would you like to do today and not put off until tomorrow?
I’d like to pluck my eyebrows some more.