Julia Louis-Dreyfus dishes about Elaine Benes’s dating habits.
*From the March 30, 1998 issue of New York Magazine.
We had something once, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and I. I’m sure we did. If only for a brief late-afternoon interlude – I mean interview – in Los Angeles in December 1991. The story was about a cult-favorite sitcom called Seinfeld and the actress’s role as Elaine Benes, the title character’s frisky if self-absorbed ex-girlfriend. Our chat was strictly business. Anyway, we were both married. But there was that spark in her pale green eyes that spoke of … a connection. I’m sure it did.
Interviews are a lot like dates, you know – fear, anticipation, attempts at seduction. (Although if there’s no chemistry on a date, at least you don’t have to write it up and turn it in.) So for six years, I’ve wondered what would happen if fate assigned us – Julia and me – another Q&A.
Since our first brief fling, I’ve watched longingly from afar as Louis-Dreyfus turned Elaine into the hilarious patron saint of single, neurotic Upper West Side women. Now Louis-Dreyfus is facing the traumatic breakup of a relationship, as Seinfeld closes in on its bigger-than-the-Super Bowl final episode. At 37, she’ll soon be professionally single again in an industry where women are considered over-the-hill at 26. Finally, the chance for a second encounter arrives.
Selecting the proper place for our rendezvous is crucial. How can she resist the Bel-Air Hotel, site of the most romantic restaurant in town? Julia arrives first. Perfect – she’s been seated in a lush banquette beside the crackling fireplace. She looks gorgeous, a smoldering sprite in a black leather Calvin Klein jacket; the famous tendrils of her dark chestnut hair frame her face. I stroll up, blood racing, flash my best smile, and suavely say how great it is to see her again.
“We’ve met before?” she says. “For what?”
Well, of course you’re not expected to keep track of the hundreds of reporters who sought you out when Seinfeld exploded. But I was there before the pack of suitors; there was that day when we joked, we laughed … remember?
“Hmmm. What was the story about?” She sounds as if she’s trying to remember the Pleistocene Era. “For New York Magazine?”
My adrenaline is cratering. And what’s this moisture on my forehead? Comedians have a name for it – flop sweat. Okay, okay, forget the pretensions about soulful bonding; I’ll charm her with brilliant questions. I remember Julia telling me years ago that single women in New York always feel the need to defend themselves. How does that feeling shape Elaine?
Julia is silent for what feels like forever. “Defend themselves?” she says with a mystified shrug, then shakes her head. “I don’t have any way of knowing, really.”
I haven’t felt this sickening wave of panic, disappointment, and humiliation since – jeez, since the last time I had a bad blind date.
In those days, eight or ten margaritas would have gotten me through the mortifying night. A drunken stupor isn’t exactly an option here; luckily, Louis-Dreyfus is smart enough to turn even feeble straight lines into funny anecdotes.
As Elaine, Louis-Dreyfus has dated one of the most bizarre collections of single maledom ever to flicker through prime time. Nothing in her own brief dating life – Louis-Dreyfus fell in love with comedy writer-producer Brad Hall when she was 20 and married him six years later – comes close to such Elaine paramours as the Wiz, a guy so obsessed with his role in TV commercials that he pranced around off-duty in a red velvet crown; or the deranged NBC executive who was so infatuated by a glimpse of Elaine’s cleavage that he joined Greenpeace to prove his worth. The most peculiar real-life dating experience Louis-Dreyfus can recall leaves her feeling embarrassed. “I had a date with a guy once, and he was so dull,” she says. “He took me out to dinner, and I couldn’t wait to get out. So I changed my watch under the table, as he was talking. Then I sort of glanced at my watch and went, ‘Oh, my God! I had no idea it was so late! I gotta go, man. Thanks a million!’ That was very bad behavior on my part. And it was only sort of clever, because I’m sure it wasn’t long before he realized what time it really was.” But by then she’d escaped.
Elaine, according to Louis-Dreyfus, would benefit from a bit more of that kind of discretion. “I think Elaine would go out with anyone if they showed interest in her. She’s nuts. The woman’s nuts,” Louis-Dreyfus says. “Yeah, I’m sure it’s a self-esteem problem. I mean, she’s hanging out with these three guys, in that ratty apartment – where’s the self-esteem there? Elaine should be looking for an analyst, is what she should be looking for.”
Grateful as Louis-Dreyfus is to have played a fantastically popular, deftly written, ballsy character, she has a surprising amount of disdain for Elaine. Real Upper West Side single women talk about how Elaine gives them emotional comfort, helping them to see the humor in their lives, but Louis-Dreyfus finds Elaine frightening.
“If you hear a man say he’s looking for an Elaine-type woman,” Louis-Dreyfus says, “run in the opposite direction of that man. I am not kidding. Run! That man is a moron. I don’t think she’s made it cool to be single and neurotic. People don’t look up to these characters. Of course Seinfeld is funny. But beyond that, single viewers can say ‘That is bad! These people are not where I want to be! I will laugh at them!’ It’s kind of like watching Jerry Springer.”
Of the dozens of dates Elaine has had in eight Seinfeld seasons, Louis-Dreyfus thinks there’s only one true marriage prospect. “It would have to be David Puddy,” she says, mentioning the handsome car salesman. “We laugh about this on the set. Elaine and David are so dissimilar. He’s so stupid, and she is so amazed at how stupid he is, and he’s so clearly irritated by how neurotic she is, that it must be explosive sexually, because that could be the only reasonable explanation for the two of them being together.”
Elaine rarely goes very long without a serious relationship, which generates some disbelief from real-life singles. “This revolving door of dates is very helpful in the comedy department,” Louis-Dreyfus says. “If the show were real, I don’t think it would be that funny. If Elaine were sitting around, really concerned because she wants to have kids, she’d like to have a stable life – then it’s time to turn the channel: What have they got on CBS?”
What Louis-Dreyfus sees happening to her thirtysomething gal pals is more in the black-humor department. “All of my friends who are single have moved out of New York. They didn’t like it,” she says. “They tell me there’s not a lot of good men out there in the world. The men in their thirties and forties who are single are so depressing! Uhhhh! It’s like going to the Barneys sale. You know, good prices, but what about the merchandise?”
When Louis-Dreyfus tries to play matchmaker, hilarity ensues. “It’s been a huge bomb,” she says. “I don’t have a gift for it. And I get too nervous. I can’t give an example without hurting people’s feelings, but recently there was a situation where I was there when two of my friends met, who I’d set up. I could see it wasn’t going well, and I wanted to step in and sort of referee: ‘You uncross your arms, and you walk over, and you say this, and why aren’t you laughing? That was funny!’ “ She winces at the memory.
Portraying the most celebrated single woman on TV, Louis-Dreyfus has become a repository for dating-disaster stories. “A friend of mine was set up with this guy, and they met somewhere for a drink,” she says. “It didn’t take off. So she went home and he went home.” Pause. “And they live in the same apartment building – right across the hall from each other! They didn’t even know. They didn’t even discuss where they lived; they just saw each other getting out of the car in the parking lot. She said it was … awkward.” So has her friend adjusted her schedule in order to avoid the guy? “No,” Louis-Dreyfus says. “She’s moved.”
Though married and the mother of two small boys, Louis-Dreyfus did have some recent experience with an issue that’s a bitter irritant to single women her age: men in their thirties and forties who refuse to date women in their thirties and forties. Jerry Seinfeld, then 39, took up with Shoshanna Lonstein, then 17. Louis-Dreyfus is emphatic in support of Seinfeld. “No, it didn’t make me cringe,” she says. “When he was in that relationship, it was a happy one for him. And she’s a terribly nice person, so I was in favor of it. Come on – who cares? There wasn’t anything wrong with it. I thought it was great. Anyway, they’re not dating anymore, if that gives other people any happiness.”
Louis-Dreyfus in some ways sounds relieved that Seinfeld is breaking up; maybe she won’t be chased down midtown streets by rabid fans anymore. But when she talks about not seeing Jerry, Michael Richards, and Jason Alexander every day, her voice takes on the tone of a woman who sees the end of a magical relationship on the horizon. Her head tells her it’s time to move on, but her heart isn’t so sure anything will ever match the intimacy of this partnership again. “Jerry, Michael, Jason, me, we have a certain shorthand, the way we work, and I think we respect one another. So it’s a very even playing field, and it’s a very joyful playing field, and it makes the making-funny thing really gratifying. That’s really rare, really rare. When all the elements come together …” Her words drift off. “You never know. I hope in ten years I’ll be enjoying other creative experiences that are equally satisfying. But the reality is, these things don’t come around a lot.”
She’s turning down work for now. She certainly doesn’t need the money. “I’m gonna just take a lot of naps,” Louis-Dreyfus says. “And relax for a long period of time, and enjoy stepping back. Then I don’t know what my next move is gonna be. My desire is not to sort of sully the success of this show. I will not be doing any selling on the Home Shopping Network. That’s a safe bet.”
The rest of her future is hazy. Louis-Dreyfus got good reviews in Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry, but otherwise her movie career (Father’s Day; National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation) has been spotty. In television, for every Kirstie Alley who follows up a sitcom success with a second hit, there’s a barful of Shelley Longs.
Right now, however, Julia Louis-Dreyfus doesn’t have time to linger in the afterglow of our reunion. She waves good-bye and promises she’ll call.
They always do.