'It was a lifesaver': Julia Louis-Dreyfus on how 'Veep' helped her through cancer battle

Patrick Ryan

NEW YORK – After seven seasons of vulgar insults and razor-sharp satire, Julia Louis-Drefyus and Tony Hale have become a lot like the incompetent politicos they play on "Veep."  

"I still carry her purse," jokes Hale, whose Gary Walsh is the unflappably loyal personal aide to abrasive ex-president Selina Meyer (Louis-Dreyfus), who's back in the running for POTUS when the series returns for a seven-episode final season Sunday (10:30 EDT/PDT). 

"I swear more now," Louis-Dreyfus says. "I'm very comfortable with the worst of the words in a way that I never was before. It's gone to a different level." 

Gary (Tony Hale, left) is right by Selina's (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) side as she hits the presidential campaign trail in "Veep" Season 7.

When "Veep" picks up, Selina and her team of sardonic idiots are in the throes of her presidential campaign, which finds her running against smarmy former White House aide Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons) and on-and-off-again flame Tom James (Hugh Laurie). The timely comedy continues to spoof the ineptitude of modern politicians: Selina attempts to capitalize on a mass shooting to boost her campaign, and Jonah becomes the face of the fictionalized #NotMe movement, involving women coming forward to say they didn't sleep with him. 

But even with new speed bumps on Selina's road back to the White House, executive producer David Mandel admits the show is running out of gas, which sparked the decision to end it on a creative high. 

"We're constantly trying to throw challenges at the character, but at some point, the challenges didn't necessarily seem new," Mandel says. "This whole season, in general, was a real opportunity to address how much politics has changed in the last two years. Old episodes of 'Veep' look quaint now. I mean, we did an episode where she tweeted and it was a whole to-do, and now that just seems like, 'Is this from the 1800s?' "

Julia Louis-Dreyfus won her sixth acting Emmy for "Veep" the day before she announced she had breast cancer in 2017.

The choice to make this season of "Veep" the last was also affected by Louis-Dreyfus' breast cancer diagnosis, which she announced in 2017, a day after winning her sixth consecutive lead actress Emmy for the show. (She won two other Emmys for her work in "Seinfeld" and "The New Adventures of Old Christine.")

She shared a note on social media explaining how one in eight women get breast cancer, urging lawmakers to "make universal healthcare a reality." 

"To be honest, I'm a very private person, so it wouldn't have occurred to me to have gone public with any of this," says Louis-Dreyfus, 58, who revealed she was cancer-free last October. "But my hand was kind of forced by virtue of the fact that we were about to start production, and I had 150 or 200 people waiting to get going on this show. So I thought, 'OK, let's make a virtue, if you can, of such a horrible moment.'

"And I will say that as bone-chillingly terrifying as it is to get this news that you have cancer – I mean, just even saying that is so scary – but when I consider if somebody gets that news and they don't have the means to cover their healthcare, what the hell is that? That is scarier," she says. "So I'm a firm believer in universal health care. I don't think anybody should be denied it. I think it's a fundamental right, just like drinking clean water is." 

When "Veep" premiered on HBO in 2012, "there wasn't another character like this on television," Julia Louis-Dreyfus says of selfish politician Selina Meyer.

Production on Season 7 was delayed by a year as Louis-Dreyfus sought treatment. During that time, she would come in for script readings every few weeks (usually the day before chemotherapy), but couldn't hug or touch her co-stars. 

"I can't speak for her, but she had a rough chemo," Mandel says. "We'd do a read and come back three weeks later to do another, and she'd be that much more emaciated and gaunt. If anybody coughed, we banned them from the building like three days before, God forbid we got her sick."

Anna Chlumsky, left, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus at the New York premiere of "Veep."

Anna Chlumsky, who plays Selina's high-strung adviser Amy Brookheimer, remembers crying when she read an email to the cast about Louis-Dreyfus' diagnosis, "but none of us really talked about it. It was just, 'Take care of Julia,' " she says. "It helped that we already were a family, so we were able to just react the way a family would react." 

For Louis-Dreyfus, the ability to come in to work and laugh with her friends proved to be some of the best medicine as she healed. 

"It was a very strong reminder of this light that was there at the end of this crazy dark tunnel through which I was traveling," Louis-Dreyfus says. "It was a tonic to know that was waiting on the other side. And it was such a wonderful way to make a living. Don't tell HBO this, but they wouldn't have even had to pay me to do this – I would have done this for free. I just I loved every second of it. So in many ways, it was a lifesaver."