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Jonathan Skow

With her TV success, Julia Louis-Dreyfus has made enough money and achieved enough fame to be able to do a lot of things — for instance, take chances at more TV success and try to save the planet.

So what do you do when you’ve had megasuccess, when you’re already rich and famous and your place in TV history is secure? Most actors in that position — and there have been plenty of them over the years — would likely do some guest-star spots on other shows, maybe direct, and, well, simply give up on the idea of securing another starring role in a sitcom.

But not Julia Louis-Dreyfus. After the amazing success of Seinfeld, she has continued to push for another hit, one that she’s finally found with CBS’s The New Adventures of Old Christine. Along the way, she’s also used the “currency” of her fame to work for what she believes in — saving the environment. Sure, sure, you’re thinking. What celebrity isn’t working for the environment today? Everything and everyone is claiming to be green now, it seems. But for Louis-Dreyfus, this is no fad cause, and it’s not something she’s just talking about. It’s a cause she lives, even when the cameras are off.

Case in point: She is speaking with me from the passenger seat of her black Toyota Prius in California. “I get 43 miles to the gallon. What’s not to love?!” Louis-Dreyfus says. “In California, you can drive in the carpool lane if you have the hybrid sticker, which I do, and that sometimes is a tremendous asset, because traffic in California is absolutely revolting.” At the wheel is her husband of 20 years, Brad Hall. A writer and a producer on such shows as Brooklyn Bridge and Frasier, and most recently, the movie Must Love Dogs, he met Louis-Dreyfus when they both attended Northwestern University, where they worked on comedy productions together, including several that satirized environmental negligence. He also starred alongside Louis-Dreyfus during her three-year run on Saturday Night Live. And today, Hall — a longtime environmental advocate who grew up surfing in Santa Barbara and who speaks proudly of his “deep hippie roots” — is on the board of directors of the Environmental Media Association. That group, founded in 1989, tries to use “the power of celebrity” to boost environmental awareness.

Laugh Track

From Saturday Night Live to Seinfeld to breaking the Seinfeld curse, Julia Louis-Dreyfus has continued to find ways to make TV audiences happy.

For as long as she can remember, Julia Louis-Dreyfus has been going for the laugh. When she was three, she stuck two raisins up her nose, attempting to coax a chuckle from her mother and grandmother. “They giggled,” she says. “Then my mom said, ‘Take them out.’ But I sucked them up my nose, and we had to go to the emergency room.” In fifth grade, she was supposed to faint in a school play. It wasn’t supposed to be funny, but it was. She recalls, “I thought, ‘I got a laugh. And it felt good.’ ”

She’s gotten that good feeling — and those laughs — a lot in the years that have passed since then. For her onstage performances, the real laughs started at Northwestern University in Chicago. There, she met her future husband, Brad Hall, who was cofounder of the Practical Theater, a group whose comedic productions drew Louis-Dreyfus’s attention. Hall did too. “He had strawberry-blond Jesus hair and a beard, and I thought he was pretty cute,” she says.

While in college, Louis-Dreyfus also joined Second City, the famed Chicago comedy troupe and the breeding ground for future Saturday Night Live stars. She was still an undergraduate in 1982 when she got the call to move to New York as an SNL cast member, a job that lasted for almost three years.

Seinfeld, in 1990, was the next big stop — the biggest stop, in fact. In her eight years on that show, Louis-Dreyfus won an Emmy, a Golden Globe, four Screen Actors Guild Awards, and five American Comedy Awards. And she got cursed too. All the major stars of Seinfeld met with failure in their initial outings without Jerry by their side, leading the TV press to decide there was such a thing as the Seinfeld curse. And they mentioned the curse a lot when Louis- Dreyfus’s first major post-Seinfeld outing, a 2002 NBC series called Watching Ellie, was canceled after less than two full seasons.

The curse came up in reviews again when The New Adventures of Old Christine debuted on CBS in March 2006. But this time, the curse was broken. In her new show’s first year, Louis-Dreyfus won an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. What’s just as important is that the show is still on the air, now entering its third season, and that CBS seems solidly behind it. That may be even more the case this year, given that, because of the writer’s strike, Old Christine is one of the few scripted shows airing new episodes at midseason. So what do audiences like about Old Christine? Unquestionably, part of the draw is that Christine is not unlike Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes — clueless, angry, and wacky, but in a weirdly appealing way. “Christine is a bit of a mess, kind of a dope, but she has good intentions,” says Louis-Dreyfus.

The funniest thing about Christine? The character is very unlike Louis-Dreyfus. Consider: Christine is a terrible environmentalist. “She tries to be environmentally correct, but she is constantly making mistakes,” Louis-Dreyfus says. “She is not necessarily as informed as she should be.”

That’s a mistake Louis-Dreyfus would never make in her own life. But when you’re going for a laugh, you’ll do just about anything. And, after all, playing a misguided environmentalist is a lot easier than sticking raisins up your nose.

“It sounds trite, but in a consumer-based society, this can be an incredibly effective form of activism,” Louis-Dreyfus told the environmental news site Grist.org. “When Leo DiCaprio or Cameron Diaz is seen driving a hybrid car to the Oscars, it has far-reaching influence. It helps shake off the idea that environmentalism is a hippiecrunchy-granola fringe movement.”

And that is exactly what Julia Louis-Dreyfus is also trying to do with her fame. Her journey from comedienne to crusading environmentalist was gradual, marked by a series of turning points that came as her celebrity increased. Now she serves on the boards of several environmental organizations, offering them her fame and practical ideas. But as important to her as what she does is how she is perceived by the public. She hopes to be a living example of how to integrate being green into practically every aspect of life. “Julia practices what she preaches,” says Mark Gold, president of Heal the Bay, an organization founded in 1985 to stop the dumping of sewage in Santa Monica Bay and whose board Louis- Dreyfus serves on. “She was one of the first people driving an electric car, one of the first people in the celebrity arena who built a green home. She’s made the environment her cause. It is really how she lives her life.”

As the saying goes, it’s not easy being green. That’s especially true when you’re rich and famous. The scrutiny focused on celebrities is — perhaps justifiably — more intense. But that hasn’t stopped Louis-Dreyfus from working hard for both the planet and her career, and, really, that’s not so surprising. She was also determined to connect with audiences again — as a character not named Elaine. Determination is a streak that runs deep in her family. The eldest of five sisters, she comes from “a long line of sarcastic women,” she has said. Her grandmother, in particular, “was very beautiful, sarcastic, and a big drinker,” Louis-Dreyfus tells me. “She was very chic, knew how to dress well, and was incredibly funny. There was sort of a real kind of dark sense of humor that ran through my mother’s side, and I think a lot of it had to do [with the fact] that there was a lot of tragedy.” For example, her grandmother, Grace, once had a sister and a best friend die in the same week. When a friend called to ask if she could come over to keep her company, Grace replied, “You’d better not. They’re dropping like flies around here.”

Her father’s side is equally fascinating: William Louis-Dreyfus is a Frenchman, and his Louis Dreyfus Corporation has helped him rank among the world’s richest people. Forbes recently estimated his net worth at $3.4 billion.

Her parents divorced when she was just a year old. Her mother eventually married L.T. Bowles, dean of George Washington University’s medical school. He took the family along on his travels to help establish hospitals in developing countries for Project Hope. By the time she was seven, she and her sisters had lived in Tunisia, Colombia, and Sri Lanka, where they went without private schools and sometimes even without indoor plumbing. “This is all when I was in elementary school,” she recalls. “It certainly raised my awareness of the world outside myself and of the world outside the United States. It was an eye-opener.”

Of course, few things open your eyes or change your perspective more than having children of your own does. “There is something about having children that definitely changes your perspective on your universe,” Louis-Dreyfus says. “Ever since having kids [Henry in 1992 and Charles in 1997], I have felt a calling to work to defend the environment to a certain extent. I live in Southern California, in Los Angeles, a large city, but part of that is surrounded by the natural world. When you are seeing the ocean every day, you are reminded of the things you need to do to protect your surroundings, your environment.”

The beach provided another one of the turning points that have inspired Louis-Dreyfus’s environmentalism. She’d take walks on the beach with Henry when he was young. But often the water looked too polluted for Henry to dip his feet in. “The idea of living at the ocean’s edge and having a beach that’s unswimmable — it just doesn’t make any sense to me,” she says. “That certainly helped motivate me. Obviously, some bad decisions are being made, and they have to stop.”

Her response was to get more active in local environmental efforts. But how could she help save an ocean? Well, the power of celebrity helps. But so, too, does behind-the-scenes work, like the kind she’s done for Heal the Bay. “When we hired a development director, she helped interview candidates for the job,” says Gold. “She doesn’t set any sort of stereotype for a celebrity board member. She’s not one of these people who are just lending their name to the cause. She lends her time and expertise, and she’s very creative and has lots of ideas. So we’ll call her up for advice and ideas, and she’s been great on all of that. She’s also come to a lot of beach cleanups, getting interviewed by TV news and simply and eloquently explaining to people why we shouldn’t leave the beaches a mess.”

The result? Santa Monica’s beaches are much cleaner during the summer months than they were 10 years ago. “Back in 1985, we had a dead zone in the middle of Santa Monica Bay that was practically devoid of marine life,” Gold says. “There’s been a 90 percent reduction in sewage solids going into the bay — and because of that, the dead zone is gone.”

There was another turning point in Louis-Dreyfus’s path to environmental activism. It came when she met Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at a dinner party about a decade ago and he told the guests that the average American’s greatest assets were clean air, water, and safe food.

Today, riding along in her hybrid car, she tells me what that night taught her. “I needed to kick it into high gear. And I have done so.” Heal the Bay was the first environmental organization Louis-Dreyfus joined, and more have followed. She’s now also on the honorary board of directors of the Santa Barbara–based Heal the Ocean and a member of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an international environmental action organization. “I sort of give them my money,” Louis-Dreyfus says, “and I use my celebrity to raise awareness of the good work that they do and to hopefully maybe even inspire other people to sort of join this fight.” She’s also involved in at least a dozen different environmental initiatives, including raising millions of dollars for the Environmental Media Association, the Trust for Public Land, and the Waterkeeper Alliance. “

She’s involved as a supporter and spokesperson and helps us get our message out to her rather large audience about the importance of taking better care of our natural resources,” says Daniel Hinerfeld of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “And I know she practices what she preaches, because I run into her occasionally at our local organic market.”

All that work on behalf of green groups is commendable, of course, but Louis- Dreyfus says that going green is also meaningful when it starts at home — and at work. That’s why her goal for Old Christine this season is “to make our set the greenest set on the Warner Bros. lot.”

She has some experience in making places green. She’s worked hard to make her second home in California as environmentally friendly as possible. That’s right: her second home. Louis-Dreyfus admits there is an irony in having two houses, but she calls herself “an environmentalist with an affluent life.” She says, “When we were in a position to buy a second home, we realized that it was, of course, a ridiculous luxury, and so what we should do is reduce our carbon footprint. That is exactly what we did with our second home.”

The home is a 3,000-square-foot 1930s bungalow turned contemporary Zen showcase on the beach and is used for weekend retreats from the Spanish-style home she, Hall, and the children share in Los Angeles. Initially, with the second home, they had simply planned to add a couple of bedrooms for the boys. But then Louis-Dreyfus and Hall met Santa Monica–based architect David Hertz, who specializes in ecologically aware architecture. With Hertz, they transformed the entire house into a model of ecological efficiency.

Its features include solar panels that supply electricity and hot water, plus a thermal chimney, which pulls hot air out through the roof and draws ocean breezes in through the windows. The home was remodeled using ecologically certified harvested woods and recycled-newspaper insulation. And the requisite hot tub is chemical-free. In all, the home consumes half the electricity an average home of the same size does, yet it cost only about 15 percent more to build than a comparable home. Louis-Dreyfus expects to recoup those costs in nine years, thanks to lower utility bills and Southern California’s energy rebates. Oh, and there are also two Toyota Priuses and a biodiesel truck in the garage. These lifestyle decisions not only reduce the family’s carbon footprint, they also give Louis-Dreyfus a way to feel “less guilty” about the effect she and her family are having on the environment.

“I’m a consumer,” she told Grist.org. “I love the creature comforts. Brad, on the other hand, would live in a tent if he could. I’m not the type to ride a bike to work every day, but I’ll buy a hybrid-engine car. I’m not the type to cut back on hot showers, but there’s no harm in hot water when it’s warmed by the sun.”

Okay, but if you’re not a TV star with the ability to build a second, greener home or to buy three energy-efficient cars, how would Louis-Dreyfus advise you to go green? She says you should just start with small decisions. “It is just a question of making certain decisions that are green decisions,” she says. “It’s not like you have to work really hard at being able to make those choices. When you go to Staples to buy the paper for your printer or your fax machine, you can either pick up regular pile paper or you can go and pick up the postconsumer recycled paper sitting right next to it. It looks the same, it feels the same, and you just made an environmental choice. Those choices are everywhere for people to make — and without losing anything in making the choice. You’re gaining because you are making an environmentally correct choice.”