USA Today: Tracey Ullman creates a more humorous 'Union'

March 27, 2008

Tracey Ullman creates a more humorous 'Union'
By Bill Keveney, USA TODAY
Tracey Ullman's State of the Union reflects a basic tenet of the star's adopted land: Keep it moving.

The England native, a longtime U.S. resident and recently minted citizen, knows something about American attention spans. She portrays 15 characters in just the first half-hour of her new Showtime sketch comedy series (Sunday, 10 p.m. ET/PT).

"It's like a YouTube-mentality show. I don't think anyone's got the focus at the moment for 14-minute sketches, so I decided to make it fast and furious," says Ullman, who has displayed her impersonation skills on Fox's Tracey Ullman Show and HBO's Tracey Takes On …. "It's never boring. If you don't like this bit, you'll like the next bit."

With each of Union's five episodes set up as a day in the life of the country, Ullman appears as dozens of people, both real —Sopranos star Tony Sirico, Huffington Post co-founder Arianna Huffington, Suzanne Somers — and her own creations. The latter reflect the nation's diversity, from an unexcitable Nebraska woman to a Jamaican caregiver in New York to an Indian pharmacist who breaks out into Bollywood musical numbers.

Ullman had 10 shooting days for the series, so makeup time for the dozens of characters had to be kept to a minimum.

"I know sometimes I'm not 100% convincing, but it's an energy, a confidence to playing" each character, she says. "There's one little thing we'll find that will imbue me with a sense of being that person. Renee Zellweger: I just put these eyelashes on and tried to think of Lamb Chop from Shari Lewis."

She particularly likes her unglamorous characters, such as a crass woman who has a thing for marrying death row killers. "I love being her. I got to have bad hair, cheap clothes, bad teeth, smoke cigarettes. I got to cry," she says.

Ullman, who has lived in the USA for 25 years, earned her citizenship in 2006. "I've had a wonderful experience in America. I've had a lovely career here. And after the last election, I wanted to vote. I wanted to join in."

As an American, she felt she had more freedom for "commenting on us." She takes some sharp swipes at American obsessions, such as prescription drugs, anti-aging regimens and celebrities, and "the daily dose of fear" delivered in the news.

In Union, narrated by Peter Strauss, Ullman also touches on the burden U.S. soldiers face. One of her characters is a sergeant who visits her son while on a three-hour furlough from Iraq.

Celebrities get poked, too. Environmentalist Laurie David appears in a fuel-guzzling private jet ("She's putting vegetable oil in her jet," Ullman jokes brightly); Malawi's biggest star does a reverse-Angelina Jolie by adopting an Ozark Mountains boy; and a blogging-obsessed Huffington sleeps with her laptop.

Ullman says Huffington, whom she knows, "will take it in good faith" when she has a writing break and can watch the show. "She's always blogging," she says in the commentator's Greek lilt.

As for all her characters, "I don't make fun of people. I'm really fascinated by people. Within the show, I'm not mean-spirited," she says.

"I just want to laugh. I don't take myself too seriously."

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