New York Times: A Power Lunch, Times Two


By Philip Galanes

Talk about a high-concept lunch date: bring Nancy Pelosi, who from 2007 until 2011 was the first woman to serve as speaker of the House (she is now the minority leader), together with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the actress who plays the vice president (and as-yet-unannounced presidential candidate) on the HBO comedy “Veep,” whose third season begins Sunday. Of course, Ms. Louis-Dreyfus has real-life rank, too, having won four Emmy Awards for her work on three television comedies: “Seinfeld” and “The New Adventures of Old Christine” as well as “Veep.”

Over lunch at A.O.C. restaurant in Los Angeles, Ms. Pelosi (in a pistachio jacket and trousers) and Ms. Louis-Dreyfus (in an embroidered black cardigan and slim skirt) shared plates of roasted vegetables, cheeses and charcuterie, and renewed an acquaintance that had begun a month earlier at the White House state dinner for the French president, François Hollande. After some initial debate about whether Ms. Pelosi should be addressed as “Madam Leader” (“No, please. If Julia is Julia, then I’m Nancy”), the two spoke with The New York Times about political wardrobes, powerful women and empty nests.

PHILIP GALANES: Let’s get straight to an important question …

NANCY PELOSI: What do we want for lunch? That’s seriously important.

PG: No, I want to know what you think of Julia’s wig and power suits on “Veep.” Does she nail D.C. dressing?

NP: She sets the pace — because she’s young and beautiful and strikes that balance between what’s glamorous and what’s appropriate for a vice president.

PG: Are you halfway to character, Julia, when you pull on that blown-out wig and dresses?

JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS: I am. It’s a wonderful wig, but very constricting, and I wear it for 16 hours a day. And the dresses are constricting, and the heels are high. So there’s a pinched-in-ness that’s specific to the character. She’s restricted as a person, so it’s just right.

PG: You wear a uniform, too, Nancy: trim, immaculate suits. Do you ever get sick of them?

NP: I have a few uniforms — depending on whether I’m going to a college campus or meeting a head of state. But clean and easy works best for me. Many of my colleagues dress really beautifully, with matching this and that …

JLD: What are you saying? Look at yourself! You’re so chic.

PG: Your husband gave a great quote that the only advice he gives you is what to wear.

JLD: He shops for you, is what I heard. Is that true?

NP: It’s more a question of encouragement. He’ll say, “I think your wardrobe needs some freshening up.” Or “Your clothes are looking a little frayed around the edges.” But he doesn’t shop for me.

PG: Julia, I read that you watched a lot of C-Span when you were preparing for “Veep.” Did you study Nancy?

JLD: I certainly watched Nancy, among others. But I’m not parodying any one person.

PG: Did you lift any gestures from real life?

JLD: There is this one — a fist with the thumb on top. I call it a “thist.” It’s for making a point, but less aggressive than pointing. Do you know it?

NP: Of course. But I usually just point.

JLD: You do?

NP: I don’t mean to, but it just happens. And that’s the picture they use.

JLD: But I like that. It shows passion and strength.

PG: O.K., $64,000 question.

JLD: Uh-oh.

PG: Do you watch “Veep”? Do you like it?

NP: I’ve seen it a number of times. I don’t have a lot of time for TV, but I think it’s a riot. And I’m a big fan of Julia. Just the stamina it takes to do that role. But it’s a caricature, do you agree

JLD: I do.

NP: When people ask: Is politics like that? I say: It’s a caricature. But that’s what TV is.

JLD: There are lots of parallels between show business and politics. Now, we’re just making entertainment, and people in government are trying to change the world. But staying alive politically or in show business, you need to present an image of yourself that works.

NP: We’re both in the attraction business. Politicians are trying to attract people to issues. But there’s nothing like the celebrity that Julia brings to an issue because people pay attention to her. She gives people hope that things can change.

PG: So, when Julia tweets about climate change — an issue you both care about — you think people are more likely to listen?

NP: Absolutely. And it’s a generous use of celebrity.

JLD: I think of it as spending celebrity, as Norman Lear once said. Celebrity is a kind of capital. You have to use it wisely, and you can overspend it easily. So I use it carefully, when I can, for just the right thing.

PG: Why do you think shows about Washington politics are so popular right now? “Veep,” “Scandal,” “House of Cards” …

JLD: Well, politics has become more contentious than ever. Maybe people need to see that played out, comedically or dramatically, as a sort of a cultural catharsis. That sounds lofty. But there are such extreme points of view these days, and dialogue doesn’t seem to be happening.

NP: Not since President Obama was elected. We [Democrats] actually worked well with President Bush. We disagreed with him on a number of issues — the Iraq War, privatizing Social Security — but we still got things done. Now the level of obstruction is stunning. But let me say something else about these shows: Women have emerged so much. The prospect of a woman president, a woman speaker, more women in Congress — still not enough, don’t get me wrong. But that also makes your show …

JLD: Right, but you’re a brilliant leader. And I’m playing somebody who’s ineffective and frustrated. The difference between her public and private image is vast, and that’s where the comedy lies. It wouldn’t be very funny if I was playing somebody like Nancy Pelosi, who’s achievements are extraordinary and whose point of view is firm.

PG: That’s true of “Veep.” But the political figures on the other shows are nasty power-mongers, and half of them are sleeping together.

NP: Well, those are just clichés about power. And while I can’t take a test on those other shows, you know one thing they would never do [on a show] about a man?

JLD: Tell me.

NP: The empty nest.

PG: Which leads me to an interesting factoid, Nancy. You had five kids in six years, and …

NP: True, I have four daughters and one son. The day we brought our youngest daughter home from the hospital, my oldest daughter turned 6.

JLD:Which makes you a superhero.

PG: And you waited until you were 46 to run for Congress. Do you wish you’d jumped in earlier?

NP: No, I talk to women about this all the time. Your schedule is the one that’s right for you.

PG: So, in 1987, when you won your first congressional race and went to D.C., were you also having pangs of sadness that four of your five kids had flown the coop?

NP: I have a very specific answer: Three of my children were at Georgetown when I went to Washington.

JLD: So, that’s why you ran for Congress!

NP: I could never have done it otherwise. I could never have left home. But when they went away to college, they basically said: “Mother, you’re in Congress; we’re in college. Why don’t you forget we’re in the same city?” They didn’t want me, but I was still hoping to see them.

PG: Kids are monsters.

JLD: No, that’s appropriate.

NP: When I first ran for Congress, I went to my daughter Alexandra, who was going to be a senior in high school, and said: “I have a chance to run. I may not win, but I’d be gone three nights a week. So, if you want me to stay, I’ll be happy to.” And do you know what she said to me? “Mother, get a life!”

JLD: It’s so interesting to hear you say that because I have a teenage son who is 16 and who I’m going to take to get his learner’s permit after our interview today …

NP: Oh, that’s big.

JLD: And then I have to go on location to shoot “Veep,” and it’s a source of great anxiety for me that he doesn’t seem to care that much.

NP: When I went to Congress, I was right where you are now.

PG: And Julia’s older son left for college a few years ago, right? Was it as hard in real life as you made it look in the movie “Enough Said”?

JLD: It was hard for sure …

PG: When your character in that film takes her daughter to the airport, the sniffles echoed through the theater.

JLD: It was a momentous occasion in our family when our eldest left for college. We were intellectually prepared for it, but not emotionally. It was a big whack to the brain. And by the way, he’s graduating in May.

NP: It goes by fast.

JLD: As parents, we don’t completely understand that we are raising these creatures to leave us. They have to. But you don’t get that until it happens.

PG: When you got to Washington, did you feel as if people underestimated you — like “There’s Congressman Mom,” or had you already established yourself in the Democratic Party?

NP: Women are always underestimated, but it changes a bit once you get the gavel. You know that story women always tell: We’re at a table and a woman makes a suggestion, and nobody responds. Then a man makes the same suggestion a few minutes later, and they all say: “Isn’t that a great idea!”

JLD: (Laughing) It’s true.

NP: Well, the reason they say it’s better when a man says it is that they weren’t listening to the woman. That’s the bigger problem. But it’s starting to change. Now they know to listen to women senators and leaders in Congress.

JLD: When you first went to Congress, how many other women were there?

NP: There were 23 women, 12 Democrats and 11 Republicans. Now there are 63 Democrats and 19 Republicans. So, we’ve multiplied our number by five, and the Republicans have added eight. But we need a lot more. And I have a way to do that by reducing the role of money in politics.

JLD: Boy, I love that idea.

NP: I can remember, in the beginning, going to these huge congressional dinners, and there would be two tiny tables of women. Then as we started getting more numbers, the men were like, “What’s going on here?” And when I ran for leadership, it was worse. The men said, “Who said she could run?”

JLD: Did anybody actually say that?

NP: Yeah, “Who said she can run?” They said to me: “Why don’t you just tell us the things you want changed, and we’ll do them.” I thought: I don’t think so!

PG: Here’s something you have in common: People think they’ve got you pegged, but you exceed the peg every time. Nancy was supposed to be this ultraliberal dilettante, but you whip the votes better than anyone, and …

NP: Yeah, they said I was a dilettante, but most people didn’t know what that meant, so it didn’t matter. They said, “Does that mean you’re a debutante?” I said, “No, it doesn’t.”

PG: And, Julia, you’re the comic actress who knocked it out of the park in your first dramatic starring role [“Enough Said”]. Do you ever feel hemmed in?

JLD: I know what you mean by being boxed into a category, but I don’t feel hemmed in. It sometimes means that I have to push harder against a perception, but I’m happy to push. If there’s a project that speaks to me, I will work hard to nail it.

NP: That comes through.

PG: There’s another aspect, too. As a gay guy, for instance, I often act differently in a room full of straight men — to make them more comfortable. As women, do you do things to make men more comfortable with your power?

JLD: No, they’re just going to have to get used to it. Wait! Nancy’s standing up. I like this!

NP: [She flips her chair around and straddles it, like Sally Bowles in “Cabaret.”] Sometimes I go into a room and do this.

JLD: I’m going to steal that, Nancy! I’m going to get a pantsuit. Because you definitely have to have pants for that move. But I love the body language. I’m all over it!

NP: You have to remember, generationally, I come to this as a confident mother of five, chairman of the [California Democratic] Party. But when I came to Congress to be sworn in, my colleagues said: “Don’t talk. Just say ‘yes’ when they say, ‘Do you solemnly swear?’ ” So after I was sworn in, the speaker said, “Does the fine lady, our newest member, wish to address the House?” Everybody said, “Don’t.” But I went to the podium, and I acknowledged my father, who had been a member of Congress, my family and constituents, and I said, “I told my constituents when I came here, I was coming to fight against H.I.V. and AIDS.” Period, end of speech. So I sit down and look over to all these people, thinking: That was short, right? They’re going: “Ugh!”

PG: That was bold in 1987.

NP: Given what was going on in our district [in San Francisco], I knew I had a big mission with H.I.V./AIDS. But what was even bigger than the scientific challenges was the attitude, the discrimination.

JLD: But when you got the response you got, was there a moment when you thought: Uh-oh?

NP: Not at all. It was the easiest thing in the world. I thought: “Good thing I’m here. We have important work to do.” So, in a way, talking about AIDS trumped being a woman.

PG: That makes me think of you on “Seinfeld,” Julia. You were famously just one of the guys. Did you have to elbow your way into that dynamic, or was that always the conception?

JLD: I don’t know that there was any conception. They just wanted to make a funny show. And they wrote for me exceptionally well. An amazing character. There were times when I had to ask for more material, and I got it. But I never thought about the fact that I was a woman. I never thought of it as a handicap.

PG: Nancy, do you think your dad, a former congressman and mayor of Baltimore, would be shocked at the level of success you’ve had?

NP: Well, he came to my swearing-in [as a congresswoman in 1987] and died three months later. And George Bush, to his credit, made a beautiful speech [in 2007, when Ms. Pelosi was sworn in as speaker of the House]. He said: Thomas D’Alesandro, the congressman from Maryland was here, he worked with this president and that president, and he heard all kinds of things in this chamber, but never would he have imagined that his daughter would be speaker of the House.

JLD: Oh, that’s so touching.

PG: Another achievement in common: You both married young and stayed married. Was that a lucky break, or are you good at compromise?

JLD: I married the right guy for me, and that was lucky. But my marriage and my family have been a priority. That may sound stupid. Many people would say exactly that. But I worked very, very hard to keep us intact. And it’s been my pleasure, because it’s the only way I could have survived in this business — with my family unit in place.

PG: Was it a challenge, on set, balancing work and family?

JLD: It goes beyond that. This is a town of smoke and mirrors, and it’s easy to believe your own — I don’t know what to call it — brand. But you have to get beyond that.

NP: I think Julia said it perfectly. A successful marriage is a decision. You decide it’s going to work. You can’t always be there, but you have to be there enough. And you have to make sure you are where you’re needed most. Sometimes it’s here, sometimes it’s there; sometimes it’s a tie and you have to prioritize. But it’s always a decision. My husband and I met in college. We couldn’t have thought of every possible thing back then. But here we are. We just had our 50th wedding anniversary. It’s worked.

JLD: Oh, congratulations!

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