For her first big post-Veep role, Julia Louis-Dreyfus is taking some big risks: Her new film, Downhill, is a remake of the beloved Swedish award-winner Force Majeure – cue the usual gripes about unnecessary do-overs – and in it she plays a character completely unlike the sharp-tongued and brutally self-centered politician she’s been portraying on HBO for the best part of the last decade. Yet, it’s a risk that’s paying off. Reviews out of Sundance for Downhill have singled out Louis-Dreyfus as one of the Alps-set dramedy’s biggest assets, lauding her performance as Billie, a mom of two idling by in a stale marriage until an almost-tragedy on a ski trip forces open some of the growing fissures in her relationship. When the avalanche came rushing down the mountain, did her hubby Pete (Will Ferrell) really just grab his cell phone and run to save himself?
Ahead of the movie’s release, Rotten Tomatoes got on the phone with Louis-Dreyfus to talk about her five favorite films, and, like many who have sat down for this column before, she started with a caveat: “First of all I just want to say from the onset that I object to five favorites,” Louis-Dreyfus told us. “I wish that this was like 10 or 15, because there are so many beautiful films that have kind of changed my life. So then maybe another time we do it again and I’ll give you the other five. How about that?” Still, when pressed, Louis-Dreyfus managed to narrow it down to five films, all classics, which have stuck with her for their masterful use of tone, their sweeping romance, and for being “so f–king funny.”
I’m an absolute lover of The Wizard of Oz. I adore that film from start to finish. It never gets old. I think it has a beautiful, tender tone of both real drama and huge comedy, and I adore it. I don’t remember the first time [I saw it]; it’s part of my brain. I mean, I saw that film along with The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins. I still watch it every couple of years, and it brings me great joy every single time. I love Bert Lahr [as the Cowardly Lion], and his performance really gets me where I live. When they go to meet the Wizard and he’s doing his big speech and he says, “I just want you guys to do one thing….” – I’m butchering this! – and he goes, “Talk me out of it,” because he didn’t want to go in… I adore that moment in the film, as well as countless others.
The next one would be Life Is Beautiful. I could barely speak after seeing that film. I was so moved by it. And again, actually, come to think of it, it’s a very dramatic and comedic film all at once. It’s a true mash-up. The drama of it, though, is the driver, and it’s done so skillfully, and it is so heartbreaking. And the relationship between father and son is so moving and the lengths to which the father will go to try and protect his son under the absolute worst of circumstances is so valiant and catastrophic, really.
Were you at the Oscars when Roberto Benigni won Best Foreign Language Film and Best Actor?
No, I wasn’t. But I do remember that moment when he leapt up onto the chairs. Do you remember that?
Yes! I thought he might’ve been climbing over you to get to the stage.
Oh, I wish. I would have done anything to have witnessed that.
That to me is the most romantic film of all time, and it makes me cry whenever I watch it. I think that I can credit that film for my hairstyle on Seinfeld back in the day, because I thought Helena Bonham Carter was so exquisite – because she was. And those costumes and that love story, which was so restrained, which made it feel so much more romantic. It’s a very moving story about the love between two people, and I just adored it. And Daniel Day-Lewis gave the most remarkably comedic performance. If you go back and watch that film, which I encourage you to do because it truly holds up – I watched it recently and I was bawling my eyes out – but Daniel Day-Lewis is so f–king funny.
Next up is going to be Hoosiers. Did you ever see it?
No, it’s one of my blind spots. And I grew up in Australia where I don’t think it’s as big a thing culturally as it is here.
OK, but guess what? It doesn’t matter that you’re Australian. You need to watch it, because you’ll be completely sucked in. First of all, it’s Gene Hackman. Need I say more? Gene Hackman is the best American actor living today, in my view. And it is a sports story, but it’s so much more. It’s about an underdog team and beating the odds. It’s about teamwork. And I am a basketball fan, but I will tell you that before I was a basketball fan, I was a fan of Hoosiers. That’s why I’m saying I think you should watch it, because you’ll really, really enjoy it.
Dennis Hopper kills it. It’s heartbreaking, his performance. And there’s a scene at the beginning of Hoosiers — it’s going to sound crazy, but Gene Hackman is driving and he’s drinking from a takeaway cup of coffee, and the way he’s drinking the coffee is so real and so authentic. He just gives an accurate… such appreciation for every gesture… every movement of that man.
Jack Nicholson is extraordinary in it, but that is an ensemble movie where everyone carries the story. And it’s a movie about social injustice and inequity and the disenfranchised, and it will kill you. It will sway you with its sadness, but in a way that is appropriate, and there is a glimmer of hope at the end, I would say.
And, I mean, Louise Fletcher in that film is so…
Forget about it. What a performance is that. Oh, my God in heaven.
Joel Meares for Rotten Tomatoes: Downhill is a remake of a movie a lot of people have seen and love, but it’s got a very different perspective from the original. I’m wondering why you felt it was important to see this story through the lens of an American family and an American mother?
Well, of course I’m a massive fan of the original, which I think is a work of art. But when I heard that Ruben [Östlund, director of Force Majeure] was eager to have it adapted, I wanted to sink my teeth into it, because I thought that an American point of view on this story would be a really interesting way to retell the bones. The DNA of the original is absolutely there, but it would be a new way to retell this story that explores many themes of relationships.
The fact that it’s an American family in a foreign country, I think that gives a new level to the storytelling. And we did want to open up the world for the character of the wife, because we thought that would be an interesting way to tell the story, and to make sure that she was an active participant, I would say, in the bad behavior. Because there are moments in this film where she really makes some bad decisions on the heels of the big bad decision that her husband has made. The sort of unraveling of the sweater of this story, we wanted to tell from both points of view and to show good people – fundamentally good people – doing bad things, and how do they recover from that, and can they recover from that?
The other thing I should say is it’s a story, a movie, about truth-telling and taking responsibility for your actions, even when they’re not good actions. And I think that is a particularly apt theme for today’s climate.
Something else that’s striking about the film is that it’s a movie with a decent budget, with two big stars, being released by a major studio, that’s about relationships and human interaction. We don’t see a lot of that in the blockbuster age. Was it important for you to be a part of that kind of project?
Totally. Are you kidding? I mean, these are movies that I like to see. I think this movie is food for thought. I think it gives you something to really, really talk about afterwards. Lots of things to sort of take apart.
Downhill is in theaters February 14, 2020
Thumbnail images by Miramax, Cinemcom, Orion courtesy Everett Collection