In the history of TV, has anybody been better at originating memorable characters than Julia Louis-Dreyfus? She's the only actor to win Emmys for three different comedic roles: spirited urbanite Elaine Benes on Seinfeld, sardonic single mom Christine Campbell on The New Adventures of Old Christine, and wildly ambitious yet constantly frustrated Vice President Selina Meyer on Veep (the third season of which gets underway April 6 on HBO). She also earned raves and a Golden Globe nomination for her role as a befuddled divorcée in last year's indie-movie sleeper Enough Said, and she currently stars in the short film Picture Paris, directed by husband Brad Hall (available on iTunes and Amazon). So it might surprise you that the actress's first rule of reinvention is: Don't even think about it. "I never go about a new project as if I'm trying to redefine myself," she says. "I just like to work, and I'm excited by material I find challenging and—if it's a comedy—exceptionally funny" Still, Louis-Dreyfus has gleaned some lessons over a career marked by such impressive professional flexibility.
To stay creative, find people who can push you. "I love to work with different collaborators," says Louis-Dreyfus. "Sometimes you just have to trust your instincts. Fortunately for me, that's worked out. With [Veep writer-creator] Armando Ianucci and [Enough Said writer-director] Nicole Holofcener, both have very strong senses of humor, strong voices that aren't derivative of other artists. Both of these people approach their work with earnestness and kindness and have no airs about them. There's no bullshit attached."
Louis-Dreyfus has never worried about living up to her best-known role. "People have asked about Elaine, 'Do you feel burdened by the fact that you played this iconic character?' My answer is, 'Uh, it was an iconic character. Where's the downside?' It has opened doors. It's up to me to prove I can work outside of that character. Sometimes that's a formidable brick wall to push against, but I'm happy to push hard."
Louis-Dreyfus used her post-Seinfeld clout to secure producing roles on Old Christine and Veep. "It's been crucial, from a creative point of view, to become a producer. I know a lot about producing television and films, so my experience has value. I need to go into a project with that kind of responsibility and authority. It's a more expansive way of collaborating. And I am a control freak. A nice control freak."
Veep's Selena is often unlikable, which might have scared off a lesser actor. "I never worried about people being put off by my character's hard edges. I love to have the creative latitude we have at HBO. It's a great gift, so once I got it, I was just rolling around in it."
Being married to SNL costar Brad Hall for 26 years and having two kids together "is the most crucial element of my life," she says. "It's been what's kept my instincts intact. If I didn't have a grounded family, I don't know where I'd be. I'd be hiding under a couch somewhere."
If you simply try to please your show's viewers, you're unlikely to create great work (or actually please viewers). "Trying to figure that out is like a dog chasing its tail," she says. "If you start to think about, 'Who's going to like this? Why are they going to like it? Are they going to hate it?' you're going to die on the vine. It's the road to nowhere."
The actor talks about lessons, memories, and surprising reactions.
"After that point, I wasn't going to do anything unless it was fun. SNL was a really hard place to work when I was there. Also I was incredibly inexperienced and naive. But that was a good lesson: No job is worth it unless it's really a good time."
"I loved working in an ensemble led by the very strong voices of Larry [David] and Jerry [Seinfeld]. It was an exceptionally happy endeavor. Somehow, if it made us laugh, it was in the show. It was instinct, and that was a great thing."
"It was ahead of its time. Nobody was doing that kind of single-camera work and [filming in] real time. A few years later it would have had a longer life. I'm proud that we pushed the envelope. It was a really good show with a superb cast."
"I'm sorry to report that I've gotten feedback from actual politicians that it's exceptionally realistic. I guess they're responding to the very human, fairly raw, somewhat wicked, and very incompetent face we put on the world of politics."
A version of this article appeared in the May 2014 issue of Fast Company magazine.