Tracey Talks Pittsburgh!

March 28, 2008

Tuned In: New citizen Ullman finds the humor in American obsessions
Friday, March 28, 2008

British comic actress Tracey Ullman is known by Americans for her ability to conjure up just about any accent one can imagine on Fox's "Tracey Ullman Show" in the '80s and HBO's "Tracey Takes On" in the '90s. So when you call her house and someone with a foreign accent answers and asks to take a message, you can't help wonder if it's actually Ullman.

When Ullman calls back a few minutes later, offering apologies for being on the phone with her TV-producer husband in India, I mention that I wondered if it was her earlier. Ullman laughs and tells Blanca, who took the message that I called, "He thought I was doing a character!"

Blanca, who's from Guatemala and has worked for Ullman for 22 years, can be heard laughing in the background.

"I have done that, really, when I don't want to talk to somebody," she said. "In England, we'd pretend we were an Indian pharmacist or something."

Perhaps then it's no coincidence that "Tracey Ullman's State of the Union," premiering at 10 p.m. Sunday on Showtime, features an American pharmacist of Indian ancestry who breaks into Bollywood-style song-and-dance numbers.

"We're obsessed with India and Bollywood," Ullman said. Her husband has been in India filming a British comedy series about call centers. "And there are so many Indian pharmacists in America. [On 'State of the Union'] it's a nice way to talk about drug interactions."

Ullman points to the drug ads on "60 Minutes" with their dire warnings as an example of one American obsession in her new series. She's emboldened after becoming an American in 2006. The British native now holds dual citizenship.

"After the last election, it was a real cathartic moment. I thought I'd like to get my say," Ullman said. "As you get older, you get more involved in politics. I've been here a long time, I had my children here and a lovely career here, and I just thought I wanted to join."

She found the citizenship process inspiring.

"I was in Downtown Los Angeles waving my American flag with 2,000 people who sound like Blanca," she recalled. "They showed us a film during the induction ceremony and played 'I'm Proud to be an American,' and there were clips of the moon landing and wheat fields and monster trucks."

That inspired "State of the Union." Each episode purports to show a day in the life of America, whether it's the travails of a movie star being interviewed (Ullman plays Helen Mirren and Judi Dench, among others) or the work of airport security agent Chanel Monticello.

Ullman joined forces with Showtime this go around, saying she liked the buzz the network has from its critical and cult hits, including "Weeds," "Californication" and "This American Life."

"I'd gotten into a cycle with HBO of doing specials instead of series," she said. "Showtime was enthusiastic about this idea, and HBO was in a state of flux last year and wasn't the easiest place to get a decision made."

Ullman shot five episodes in two weeks, playing David Beckham in one spurt of filming or Jamaican caregiver Marion Churchill in another.

Don't like one character? No worries. You won't have to wait long before another one arrives on screen. No sketch in "State of the Union" runs more than two minutes. Ullman said she wanted to make the sketches "more concise" and with a YouTube mentality.

"I think the length of the pieces we get sent on the Web are just great," she said. "People have no attention to focus on things. It's terrible nowadays. If you're going to do a 14-minute sketch, it has to be absorbing and flow and carry people along and make them want to watch it. Sometimes I watch sketches on shows and think, this should have been over ages ago. I get the joke, I get the joke!"

Although Ullman has yet to tackle a yinzer accent for a character, she did visit Pittsburgh to discuss a movie role with George Romero. Their collaboration never came to pass.

"Pittsburgh seems so intrinsically American," she said. "There's a sense of old industry there. It's a very regal sort of place. I was just visiting [Romero] and his daughter, and he had this solid old house that reminded me of England. Living in California, it's like living on a [movie] set. The houses feel so temporary!"

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