On set at a sprawling mansion in Hidden Valley, Calif., actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus is calm and efficient, dishing out silver-tongued one-liners reminiscent of her iconic characters — Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes and Veep’s Selina Meyer — with a twinkle in her eye. (Case in point, when she sits down for our video interview: “We can answer these questions a couple times, right? In case I fuck them up?”)
One would never guess that Louis-Dreyfus, 57, had recently been in the throes of a breast-cancer diagnosis and treatment (including three rounds of chemotherapy). She bravely revealed her condition on her social-media channels shortly after she took home a record-breaking 11th Emmy Award in 2017: “1 in 8 women get breast cancer,” she wrote. “Today I’m the one.” The post also included a subtle lobby for universal health care. She put Veep’s production on hold for the duration of her treatment, and after Louis-Dreyfus “kicked cancer’s ass,” she transformed her personal trials into an opportunity to do some good.
VIDEO: Julia Louis-Dreyfus Shares The Fashion Trend She Never Wants to See Again (Hint: It’s a Seinfeld Classic)
“Saks Fifth Avenue asked if I wanted to be their Key to the Cure ambassador, and it seemed like a good fit and the timing worked out well,” she says. Over the past 20 years, Saks has raised more than $40 million for various cancer charities by selling designer Ts and donating the proceeds. For 2018, Louis-Dreyfus, Saks, and Carolina Herrera creative director Wes Gordon are combining their efforts to raise money for the AiRS (Alliance in Reconstructive Surgery) Foundation, which provides financial assistance to breast-cancer patients who cannot afford reconstructive surgery.
“There are plenty of women who decide not to get reconstruction, which is fine,” says Louis-Dreyfus. “But if you want it and can’t afford it, that’s heartbreaking to me. The gap between the haves and the have-nots in our country — it’s a very wide divide right now. I’m lucky enough to be in a union where I get fabulous benefits. Not everyone is so lucky.”
Previous Key to the Cure ambassadors have included Jennifer Lopez and Julianne Moore, but Louis-Dreyfus is the first to collaborate (with Gordon) on the design of the T-shirt, which features a bold fuchsia and orange floral graphic and is available online at Saks this month. Though she prioritizes comfort and admittedly lives in Birkenstocks and yoga pants, she is no stranger to fashion, and cuts an elegant figure on the red carpet.
“I don’t pretend that I am a fashion designer, but I did have a notion of what the shirt should be,” says Louis-Dreyfus. “Particularly this year, when the power of women is so crucial, and it’s so vital to keep in place. So I thought the T-shirt should reflect that. I wanted bold colors to make a bold statement, not necessarily something sweet.” The palette dovetails with how she’s feeling at the moment. The past year or so has changed her.
“I do feel different, but I can’t quite articulate how. I’ve come out the other side of this, and I’m still not exactly sure how to define the difference other than to say I’m grateful, of course, but it’s more than that. It’s bigger,” she says.
Following the announcement of her diagnosis, Louis-Dreyfus has continued to be more expressive on social media, even offering regular glimpses into her home life. Her family, including her two grown sons, Charlie and Henry, and her husband of 31 years, writer and producer Brad Hall, has been a tremendous source of strength. On her final day of chemo, her sons sent a video of themselves lip-synching to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” providing proof that humor in the face of adversity is hereditary. And her marriage to Hall, whom she started dating in college even before they co-starred on Saturday Night Live, is mythically functional and happy. Louis-Dreyfus can’t pinpoint the magic, but it’s there.
“I don’t know how to identify that except to say that you have to find someone you respect and trust. I still really like hanging out with him, and he’s been a wonderful father and a wonderful husband,” she says. “He’s a good man. I really admire him as a person.”
It’s hard not to notice that her demeanor, while still quick and mischievous, has a serious undertone. Mostly, Louis-Dreyfus seems like a woman who’s eager to put this chapter behind her.
“I’m not someone who likes looking back. I look forward. That’s how I operate. We’ll finish an episode, and I am just ready for the next thing,” she says. “I’m always just moving on, you know?”
Photographer: Phil Poynter. Styling: Christina Elrich. Hair: Matthew Monzon. Makeup: Karen Kawahara. Manicure: Emi Kudo. Production: Kelsey Stevens Productions.
For more stories like this, pick up the October issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Sept. 14.