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'Cancer brought everything in my life into very sharp focus'

As her new film is released, acclaimed actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus tells Donal Lynch she has endured plenty of ups and downs in her life, especially in recent years

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Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

It feels perfectly, improbably fitting to be taking a phone call from Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the middle of a skiing holiday in Austria. Her new film - Downhill - is set in the snowy mountains near Ischgl - and it perfectly captures the feeling that the dangers of winter sports are a stress test like no other for a relationship.

In my case it's my boyfriend teaching me how to ski - while he displays superhuman patience, I drag him backwards down an alp with me, cursing all the way. In Julia's case it was Will Ferrell, who, as her on-screen husband, temporarily abandons her character as an avalanche threatens to engulf the balcony where they sit with their children.

"(A winter holiday) looks so relaxing but the danger, the snow, it all adds to the stress," she says. "The crisis is so disturbing to her in and of itself but much worse is that he gaslights her after the fact," she explains.

"He tries to tell her it didn't happen the way she perceived. She's worried about his instincts and the fact that he denies it. There is a lack of truth telling, a rewriting of history, and that's more disturbing to her than the original danger."

Downhill is a re-make of a 2014 Swedish film, Force Majeure, which takes its name from a contractual clause which frees both parties from liability in the event of unexpected disasters. Like the original, this American re-imagining - directed by Nat Foxon and Jim Nash - leavens its portrayal of a couple on the brink of break-up with moments of comedy and has at its heart the same moral dilemma.

What begins as kind of trial of the husband for putting himself first, eventually becomes a more nuanced examination of the universality of instinctively self-interested behaviour in a moment of crisis; given a split second to react, the wife later behaves selfishly herself.

Louis-Dreyfus says that, while she has never dealt with any avalanches in real life, the central conflict of the film still brought her back. "I've been married for 32 years and thus far in my marriage I've never wondered about my husband's allegiance. But I definitely have had boyfriends where I wondered that. I think when you don't feel on a firm footing, so to speak, everything can seem like a metaphor."

The film was a passion project for Louis-Dreyfus and represents a further foray into drama for a woman who has become something of a comedy icon. Her brilliant portrayal of a fictional scheming American vice president in Veep has won her six Emmy awards and the series has been hailed by current Democratic front runner, Pete Buttigieg, as "more realistic than most Americans would care to imagine". (She says she still hasn't decided if she would vote for him yet).

As Elaine on Seinfeld she all but stole the show and gave depth and nuance to a character, who was a condition for it being commissioned in the first place - NBC worried it would appear sexist without a leading female character (Seinfeld itself wasn't sexist, she insists, but rather a "very equal opportunity situation for all genders to behave badly".)

She was the first woman ever to host Saturday Night Live; a fitting honour for a performer who, in 2016, was named one of the most influential people in the world by Time.

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Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

That year also marked the beginning of a rough period in her life. Her father died in September 2016. The following year, doctors diagnosed her with stage II breast cancer; she underwent six rounds of chemotherapy and a double mastectomy.

Then, just as Veep was ending its final season, her 44-year-old half sister died of an accidental drug overdose.

The cancer changed her perspective on life, she says. "At the risk of sounding cliched, everything came into sharp focus in my life in terms of my priorities. Of course you already know that the people in your life are the most important thing but just living every day to the fullest became more important to me.

"At the beginning it was like 'let's beat this thing' but as time went on I became, I don't know, just very aware of mortality, I was grateful to just still be alive." She says that while doctors treat the physical illness, the psychological affects of cancer tend to be underestimated. "It really does a number on your mental health, I certainly found that," she says.

"It's very destabilising in many ways - its an ongoing onslaught and that takes it's own toll. I took up meditation and I went to therapy. That was very important in terms of getting through it all."

Humour was also a cornerstone of Louis-Dreyfus' strategy for getting through the illness - her cancer treatment is now behind her and she has recovered - and her wit was apparent from her earliest days, growing up in Washington DC, where her mother moved after she and Julia's father divorced. "When I was very little, I was about three-years-old, I put two razors up my nose to make my mom laugh and they had to take me to the emergency room in the hospital and that was tough but the upside was that I had made someone laugh. That's my earliest memory of knowing I had that ability." She went to college in Chicago (it was here that she met her husband and future SNL comedian Brad Hall) and became immersed in the Windy City's theatre scene. It was this that brought her into contact with the legendary improv group, Second City, whose alumni would include Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey and Bill Murray.

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Shown (L-R)  Michael Richards, Jason Alexander, Julia Louis Dreyfus and Jerry Seinfeld.

Shown (L-R) Michael Richards, Jason Alexander, Julia Louis Dreyfus and Jerry Seinfeld.

Shown (L-R) Michael Richards, Jason Alexander, Julia Louis Dreyfus and Jerry Seinfeld.

"I have no idea how I had the confidence to do that," she recalls. "I'd heard that they were having auditions and I thought, hell with it I'm going to go along. Maybe I wasn't thinking too deeply or clearly about it, I just did it. There was no big masterplan. I had been doing theatre in Chicago so I was very familiar with the theatre scene there already. I thought I'll give this a shot."

It was her performance with another group - The Practical Theatre Company - which led to her being invited to join the cast of Saturday Night Live. She looks back on that period with mixed feelings.

"I look back on it fondly but it was also a difficult time. It was very sexist, there was a lot of drugs. It was a steep learning curve, in how to do live television, which was always nerve-wracking.

"Later I was the first female cast member ever to come back to host. It wasn't foreign to me because, while it had changed, it was still very much the same kind of schedule. I loved it because it was kind of like being able to go back in time and re-do things, which was super exciting."

Her run on SNL put her in the running for Seinfeld - which she describes as "life changing" - but the generation-defining success of the series cast a long shadow and she struggled for a while afterward.

It was The New Adventures Of Old Christine - a sitcom about a divorced mother - which kick-started her career again and set her way again. A few years ago, in the midst of her Veep success, she starred in an Amy Schumer skit entitled 'Last F******* Day' in which she, Patricia Arquette and Tina Fey 'educate' Schumer on how male movie producers dismiss older women.

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Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

Given that she will next year turn 60, and seems to be going from strength to strength, I wonder if her continued success is a two fingers to these same men.

"Yes it is, why not? I'm still here, still working hard, and those people haven't held me back. Things are going well, and for that I am very grateful."

Downhill is in cinemas nationwide now

Belfast Telegraph