Julia Louis-Dreyfus on coping with grief, refusing to be ignored

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin

“I play a woman whose daughter is terminally ill, who's in complete and utter denial about her daughter's situation, and is actually, in fact, making bad choices, almost unconsciously, in regards to her child,” Julia Louis-Dreyfus says of her role in “Tuesday.” Photo by Kevin Baker. Courtesy of A24.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus became a star when Seinfeld introduced her character Elaine to the world. Then her role as a fictional vice president in the satire Veep earned six Emmys. Now in the new film Tuesday, she takes a bold departure from comedy, playing a mother named Zora who is struggling with the impending death of her terminally ill daughter, Tuesday. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Madeleine Brand: Tell us more about this movie because it is quite unusual because there is a large macaw in the form of death. Death is in the form of a bird.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus: This movie came from the brain of the wonderful director Daina Oniunas-Pusic. This was her conceit. It's an adult fairy tale. It's very magical realism. I play a woman whose daughter is terminally ill, who's in complete and utter denial about her daughter's situation, and is actually, in fact, making bad choices, almost unconsciously, in regards to her child. 

… Death comes to the child in the form of this macaw. And he is monster-like, he shape shifts size-wise. … It's an elevated version of a macaw, and thus really begins this journey as Tuesday negotiates with death, to give her a moment to get her mother on board. And then her mother confronts death. And the journey begins. 

It's a movie that explores the themes of the parent-child bond, grief, loss, death, dying, of course denial, and ultimately acceptance in a very surreal, otherworldly way. … It is outside the box of anything that I've done professionally. And it was therefore a delicious undertaking. And I'm really happy to have been able to sink my teeth into the work of it.”

This filmmaker hadn't done a feature film before. As you say, it is unusual and not in your usual wheelhouse. And so what about it attracted you?

I was really interested in death taking a form. … I've lost people in my life who are very close to me. I think these are ideas that are worth talking about. … Very often, people don't like to talk about these things that can be quite painful. And this is a way in to talking about them. 

Of course, I'm also a mother. And so exploring the idea of the ferocity of the parent-child bond is super interesting to me. I love that. That felt very real to me. 

The script itself was obviously [the] first [thing that] drew me in. … [Daina Oniunas-Pusic] had made a couple of short films, one of which was shortlisted for the Oscars. And in that short film, I was able to see her vision. And then in further conversation with her, I got a sense of her artistic intensity, and her thoughtfulness, her kindness, and her bravery. And she's really trying something different. And I'm all for that.

You say you lost people in the last few years. And did you make this movie a few years ago?

Yes. We filmed it three years ago, in fact. 

Lola Petticrew (left) and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (right) star in “Tuesday,” which explores the parent-child bond, grief, and loss. Photo by Kevin Baker. Courtesy of A24.

I've been listening to episodes of your podcast, Wiser Than Me, which I find delightful. In it, you interview women who are older than you. You frequently ask them about how they handle grief, and what their words of wisdom are regarding grief. I’m wondering: What you have learned from them, and what you have learned yourself going through this process?

The big takeaway … about grief and loss is that you can lose someone very close to you, but the relationship with them doesn't necessarily end. … It just shifts. And I think that that's a comforting idea. And I think it's also true. If you lose someone close to you, they are not erased from your memory. They don't just disappear. And I think that that's an interesting idea. And the movie discusses that as well.

So Zora is trying to not be completely enveloped in her grief and cease living. And then she comes to this realization.

Yes, she comes to this realization that how she lives is how her daughter continues.

Yeah, that's pretty beautiful and profound. What have some of the women you've interviewed on your podcast said to you about grief?

Oh God, I've talked about it with a lot of different people. They've talked about that it can be very isolating, and that a way out, of course, is to connect with others, to not allow the isolation to envelop you. 

I talked about the mystery of loss with Isabel Allende — that was wild. She lost her daughter Paula, and she wrote a book about it. 

I remember talking to Rhea Perlman … and she was talking about putting one foot in front of the other. As simplistic as that sounds, there's something meaningful about that — to consider moving, to walk meditatively. I know now I'm sounding very woo-woo, I realize. But to find a way to stay present, even in loss, is a very good idea. And the key is to move forward with it.

What if it’s just impossible?

You do what you have to do. …  I'm no therapist. I'm no grief counselor, or death doula, or anything like that. But it's interesting to think about ways to manage. But don't you think that ultimately, community and connection is a salve of sorts?

I do. I mean, I've a friend who recently lost her husband. And it's just very, very difficult for her. They grew up together. So they were together for decades. And he died very suddenly. And she doesn't know who she is without him. It just feels, to me … she's not all there in life. And I don't know how long she will be this way. 

Well, just keep connecting with her. You can get her through, I bet. 

Yeah, I know. I think you're right. I mean, it is about connecting and reminding people — yourself and your friends — that this is the business of life. Whereas my mother would say — who's British — “just get on with it.”

That's another idea. Very British. I love it. 

“To find a way to stay present, even in loss, is a very good idea. And the key is to move forward with it,” says Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Photo by Kevin Baker. Courtesy of A24.

You have a pretty full life, and you have lots of acting jobs, and you're probably not hurting for the money. So why did you want to do this podcast?

It was a real, a personal curiosity that I had. I watched the Jane Fonda documentary … and I thought: My god, I had no idea about the scope and the depth of her life, I'd love to talk to her about it. And then I thought: Wait a minute, what about all the other older women? Why aren't we hearing from them? 

… I know in our culture, we're certainly happy to talk to old men, old wise men. … I think women become invisible as they age in our culture, which is a tremendous shame because it's an untapped resource that we could really benefit from. And so that's when I was thinking: Oh, I wish I could find a podcast that was like that. And then I thought: Oh, there isn't one, well, maybe I should do the podcast. And that's how it began. And we just put together a list of people that I thought would be interesting to talk to.

You're 63, is that right? 


And all the women are older. 

Yes. 70 and above. 

What do you want to know from them about being 70 and above?

There are a few general things that I always ask. How old are you? How old do you feel? But really, it's driven by their lives. I might ask Isabel Allende about, obviously, her writing. Or I ask Beverly Johnson — we talk about her groundbreaking role as the first Black woman on the cover of Vogue 50 years ago.

My favorite part, I think, is at the end, when you talk to your mom about the interview that you just did. Such a great window into, well, your mom and also your relationship with her. It seems like a very close relationship with her. 

My mother's 90. And she is very intellectual. She's very curious. She's very with it. … My mother is going to strike up a conversation with anybody who's around, and she will learn a lot about those people. And she will be fascinated by them. I thought: My god, I should share this with her, she'll eat this up. And she’s really enjoyed it. And I feel proud too because I'm proud of my mom. And I'm proud to share what I think is her genuine kindness and joie de vivre that she has with the world. It's nice.

And she's a published poet, I learned.

She is indeed. She has two books of poems that you can get.

Was she always supportive of your career choice?

Yes, I think she was a mom who stayed at home having kids. I think probably the fact that me and my sisters all have been working outside the home … made her a little nervous. … And it's not like she discouraged us from doing it. But I could tell she was a little maybe concerned about it.

Concerned because it was not traditional, concerned because it's a risky choice?

Maybe risky is too strong. But how does one do that? That's a valid question. How does one do that? I’m not saying I regret it at all. I loved having children, and I love working. But I'm not gonna lie. It was a juggling act. There was no doubt about it.

Did you have to give up anything, do you think?

Yes, I did. I gave up a certain kind of film career I probably could have had early on. When we were doing Seinfeld — we’d work for, I don't know what it was, like eight months a year. And then we have these long summer hiatuses. And I had opportunities to do films during that time. I didn't take them because I didn't want to leave home. That kind of thing. I have absolutely zero regrets about any of that.

I feel like a lot of working women, myself included, feel like they could have done more as parents, as moms. I mean, maybe that's our culture. Maybe that's just me. I don't know.

I think I probably could have. … There were little moments that I look back on and wince a bit, but I did the absolute best I could. And my children, my now grown men, are really solid citizens and good people. So I worried too much about it when I was younger, and I worry less about it now.

This is a question that you ask your guests on your podcast: If you could go back and tell your younger self something, what would it be? 

It’s going to be okay, don't worry. Please, please, please wear sunscreen. … Trust your instincts. I think when I was younger, I always had good instincts, but sometimes … I questioned them. And I think that I would tell myself: Don't question your instincts as much as you do.

What about you?

Oh, okay. Um, uh, wow. That's a really good question. I'm not used to answering the questions. I’m used to asking the questions. 

I’m sorry if I put you in a bind.

Relax, it'll be okay — is really great advice for everybody. The other piece of advice, which I think my kids are now living, is that career isn't everything. That you are not your career, and your career isn’t you. I'm 58 years old. So when I was starting my career, it was very much in the era, as it was with you probably, of: You have to go 150% to be taken seriously as a woman, and then you sacrifice a lot. So I think I would not do that. But then maybe I wouldn't be here talking to you. So I don't know.

Do you mind my asking — how old are your kids?

Yeah, 19 and 22. How old are yours? 

Um, 27 and 31. They're outside of the house now. 

I don't know how you feel about this age. But I think as a woman, if you're healthy and financially secure, this is the best age.

No doubt. No doubt. I couldn't agree with you more. Don't you feel as if you're freed up? I'm much more comfortable in my own skin, even if it's not as taut as it used to be. It's weird, right?

It is weird because you don't think that way. And as you said, the rest of the culture ignores us. 

Yeah, but we will not be ignored. 

We're not ignoring each other. And that's okay. 

No, we're not. And we'll make sure we're not ignored.