Julia Louis-Dreyfus sits behind the Oval Office desk, alone, staring at the emptiness power has wrought. She’s in the middle of her last scene on “Veep,” after her eternal also-ran Selina Meyer has finally ascended to the presidency. The former V.P. sacrificed incalculable personal and moral parts of herself to get here, and Louis-Dreyfus has just been asked to think about that toll for the next take.
“She has lost a lot. Maybe the price was too high?” her showrunner and director David Mandel whispers to her, before walking back to video village where hundreds have gathered to watch the iconic actor’s final moments in-character.
Louis-Dreyfus starts again — her co-stars Andy Daly and Rhea Seehorn enter, deal Selina some aggravating news, and flee, as Selina mutters, “The level of incompetence in this office is just…”
She trails off. That line, added a few takes prior, harkens back to Selina’s time as Vice President, when she complained endlessly about her second-rate staff for the second-rate position, and this is the moment: the price Mandel asked her to remember. Louis-Dreyfus lets her face go limp; her eyes fixate on a point beyond that room; she’s lost in an ocean of regret, all by herself, and a decade of agony flashes across her face.
Then the phone rings, and Louis-Dreyfus pulls herself out of it, ad-libbing a phone call with the Palestinian prime minister. Back in video village, Mandel pumps his fist slowly and silently to himself, signaling that they’ve got it. The sound cleared, the video looked good, and Louis-Dreyfus expressed seven years of personal anguish in about seven seconds of silent screen time. “Veep” has its final piece — it’s over.
…except it wasn’t. That scene isn’t the scene that aired in May, when the “Veep” series finale hit HBO. Those moments were captured a little bit later, during another take — no one has ever seen the scene described above, at least no one outside of set or the “Veep” edit bay.
That kind of withholding feels almost criminal when you’re talking about one of history’s greatest actors, and yet it happens all the time, every season, each episode, for seven seasons of shooting Julia Louis-Dreyfus. It’s an unavoidable consequence of production, and while there are plenty of missed lines and awkward approaches that shouldn’t see the light of day, the precise level of craftsmanship Louis-Dreyfus showed on that last day of shooting speaks to nearly a decade of impeccable work. Those unused takes aren’t useless — they’re part of the process, part of her towering range, and one more reason to give her another Emmy.
What? The Emmys? Yes, it’s that time again, where the TV Academy doles out trophies for artistic accomplishment, and one of the most difficult hurdles the Emmys have to clear, each and every year, is the boredom surrounding repeat winners. Unlike the Oscars, the TV Academy can reward the same show, performer, and creative talent for each new season, which is instrumental to the serialized medium, but can get annoying for viewers at home who want surprises, fresh faces, and new speeches. Why, oh why, do we need to see the same people accept the same trophy for two, three, four years in a row?
With Julia Louis-Dreyfus, 2019 would mark her seventh Emmy win in eight years. She took a year off last season, as “Veep” wasn’t eligible, but still — seven years! That’s almost a two-term presidency for an actor whose character barely lasted half that time in higher office. And with such an impressive slew of opposing nominees in her final year of eligibility — Phoebe Waller-Bridge! Natasha Lyonne! Rachel Brosnahan, the 2018 champ! — is it really crucial Louis-Dreyfus gets recognized one more time?
Casey Bloys, HBO’s president of programming, put it simply and perhaps best.
“No. 1, and obviously I’m biased, but I think she deserves it,” Bloys told IndieWire. “I think she’s in a class by herself as a comedic actress, so I’d like to see it happen. I think she’s extraordinary.”
David Mandel, her showrunner of the last three seasons (and an Emmy nominee this year for writing “Veep’s” series finale), had a few good reasons to honor this year’s turn specifically:
“Look, you can’t separate these things,” Mandel said. “My head was instantly thrown back to [her] cancer diagnosis, and I hate to say that. She might be upset that that’s where my head went, but that’s where my head went — I can’t not [think of that]. It’s not like she should get it because of cancer — that’s the craziest thing in the world. It’s just amazing that she did what she did in a way that a 100 percent healthy person couldn’t have done it.”
“I had the pleasure of working with her for so many years,” he continued, “when you add up three years of ‘Seinfeld,’ a season of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm,’ and now three seasons of this, and yet I’m constantly stunned. No matter how I think she’s going to play a scene, she just plays it in a different way or just finds that other spot.”
All of this is true. Most of it is undeniable, especially Bloys’ superlatives that have been proven by her already historic Emmys run. But the real kicker lies in one of Mandel’s briefer arguments; one still biased and seemingly personal, yet still oh so relevant to the voting body.
“I also have the advantage of watching the tapes, watching her in the edit room, and I see it all — not only what you see in the show, but I get to see the three or four takes that any other actor would’ve killed to deliver, and I’m not using those because there’s a better one,” he said.
I got to see just a bit of that, too, during “Veep’s” last day of shooting. Invited to set while a very emotional cast and crew closed out eight years of working relationships, I saw a lot of tears, hugs, and farewell speeches. Hugh Laurie handed out wrap gifts during the last crew lunch. Bloys brought his kids to set and paid for food trucks to feed everyone an early dinner. Tony Hale kept checking on me, worrying he didn’t give me enough quotes or that the cast’s “emotional insanity” was overwhelming.
Insanity is a strong word, but Louis-Dreyfus certainly felt every goodbye that day. She was rushed off to makeup after she started crying during the first rehearsals, and her teary farewells as they called “series wrap” on each cast member set the tone for a draining final day.
And yet she tore through each scene on the call sheet as though spurred on by the heightened intensity. Her first two scenes were polar opposites of each other: Selina saying goodbye to her chief of staff, Ben Cafferty (Kevin Dunn) plays into the real world’s lurking sadness, but Selina eviscerating Michelle York (Rhea Seehorn) is hysterical, teeth-gnashing carnage. The scene was rehearsed, touched up in the writers’ room, and shot, with Louis-Dreyfus making the final call on which insults landed best. Then she dug in for take after annihilating take of slights like “TGI Friday hostess on Proactive” and “drowning your ‘Little Mermaid’ back tat in a pile of his own jizz” and “gash of least resistance,” pulling the slew of derogatory commentary together with soul-destroying specificity, wrapped up in a convincing argument. Takedowns like this are a trademark of the foul-mouthed comedy, led by its commander-in-filth.
“We got full-on Selina,” Mandel said at the time. “That was the monster unleashed.”
Watching such impressive stamina paired with immaculate precision is stunning in and of itself, but Louis-Dreyfus still topped herself in the day’s waning moments, channeling everything that came before her last scene — the devastating goodbyes and the fire-spewing vitriol — for a final stand. It was time for her last scene.
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This bts photo of me and my dear friend @mrtonyhale was taken in our Oval Office set, only minutes after we finished the last scene of the last episode of the last season of @veephbo. It may well be one of my absolute favorite photos ever taken on set. There’s a lot here, down to the ❤️ on his sweater. Boy, did we have fun. #veep
After nine takes in the Oval Office, including the one above, Mandel let Louis-Dreyfus sit there for a few moments. He consulted with his fellow producers, and then went back onto set, with one final pow-wow with his creative partner. “We got it. That’s my feeling,” he told her. “So [on this one], take it right to the edge.”
Louis-Dreyfus, looking at him as though he was asking her to run a marathon one more time, said, “Oh, that’ll be fun.”
And yet she dialed it all back up again, only with more this time. The slight stutter when she starts but can’t finish the word ‘staggering.’ The way she pulls her chin back, as though trying to swallow the painful memories rushing up from that line. Her slow exhale of breath. The flex in her jaw as she stares off into the distance, about to let all her repressed emotions burst forth, and the relief that floods her eyes instead as the phone beeps and she’s pulled away from the past and back to her job.
Selina Meyer survived on the speed of her profession. Pulled between impossible political choice after impossible political choice, she had to immediately forget the past in order to keep pushing toward the future. She lost her moral compass long before we met her (if she ever had one), but there were always hints at its remnants. Here, in the Oval Office, finally reaching the end of her journey, we get to see Selina reckon with those memories as a repeated complaint and moment of peace brings them rushing back.
That Louis-Dreyfus could dig up those emotions, sift through them with such precision, and bring them to a cohesive resonance in such a short amount of time, at the most pivotal moment of the series, and during her literal last moments in-character, well, it’s an astonishing accomplishment.
Mandel nods. One of the producers sitting next to him pats him on the shoulder, and they agree — that’s the one. “All right, let’s reset,” Mandel says. They’re going again, for coverage, and again Louis-Dreyfus is alone on the set. It’s impossible to know what she’s thinking about, but the weight of the scene, of the character, of the series is clear.
Then, as everyone gets back into position, Hale stands up from behind me, walks past everyone in the crowd, onto the set, behind the desk, and hugs her. It’s a beautiful, private moment that feels like it’s between Gary and Selina as well as Hale and Louis-Dreyfus; two people who created something special onscreen and shared something remarkable off of it.
Louis-Dreyfus isn’t alone. After the next take, the staged Oval Office was flooded with people celebrating the end. There’s an incredible amount of love for her in that moment, on that set, and in the TV Academy. But she deserves to standalone as TV’s elite performer — now, for “Veep,” and forever.
Final-round Emmy voting is open from Thursday, Aug. 15 through Thursday, Aug. 29 at 10 p.m. PT. Winners for the 71st Primetime Emmys Creative Arts Awards will be announced the weekend of Sept. 14 and 15, with the Primetime Emmys ceremony broadcast live on Fox on Sunday, Sept. 22.