Thursday, April 3, 2008

Tracey Ullman: My breakfast with the woman of a thousand characters

Tracey Ullman: My breakfast with the woman of a thousand characters



Cynthia Littleton is deputy editor, news development at Variety and a veteran television reporter.




She was, in a word, lovely. Funny, warm, utterly charming and altogether genuine in her willingness to listen to an unabashed fan do pale imitations of her dead-on impersonations of famous names and everyday folks.

There's nothing quite as nice as meeting someone you've long admired and having that person exceed your expectations for how cool you hoped he or she would be off screen. That, in a nutshell, describes my breakfast with Tracey Ullman a few weeks ago at the Polo Lounge. Even the weather cooperated and allowed us to sit outside on the patio while chatting about her Showtime series "Tracey Ullman's State of the Union," why she took the Lee Greenwood oath and how she happened to grow into her particular comedy niche.

"Suddenly I thought after the last (presidential) election I'd really like to vote," Ullman said of her decision to become a U.S. citizen in December 2006 (she's a dual citizen of the U.S. and Britain). "You just know, somehow. A moment comes when you want to take that next step of becoming an America. So I started studying up."

She did very well on the exam, thank you, and the civics-lesson CD she was handed in preparation for her quiz gave her plenty of material to riff on for a show on her adopted homeland. (And she now does a great heartfelt rendition of Lee Greenwood's ballad "God Bless the U.S.A.") She's wrapped it all up in a mockumentary format spoofing the earnest PBS-style "Day in the Life of America" docus, with a dash of the vintage British radio program "Down Your Way" for good measure.

"I found the (citizenship) induction ceremony just amazing. There were 5,000 people downtown, and everyone's waving their flags, and they play that Lee Greenwood song to a film...that shows you wheat fields, monster trucks, the moon landing" and of course a big picture of a smiling President Bush, Ullman chuckles.

"I think it's given me a new voice. It's got me fired up more of what I want to say... I've got more confidence that now they won't take away my green card away if I say things like that," she says.

In fact, Ullman is not abjectly political in "State of the Union," which begins its five-seg run on Sunday. She's an equal opportunity satirist, poking fun at pop culture more than partisan politics through a string of quick-cut vignettes of Ullman's stock company of a thousand or so characters -- from celebs including David Beckham ("I felt I had the right to be David Beckham -- he's from the same place as my husband"), Traceyullman_helenmirren Arianna Huffington, Laurie David, Tony Sirico, Helen Mirren, Campbell Brown, Cameron Diaz and Renee Zellweger to archtypes like airport security screener workers, Indian pharmacists and Malawi's biggest pop star on a mission of mercy in Appalachia.

"I look at some of the sketches i did for (HBO series) "Tracey Takes On," and some of those sketches were like 14 minutes," she said, between bites of her poached egg and toast. "I wanted to do this show in a more economical way, to save my energy....So I just to do 90-second pieces. It's my stab at a YouTube mentality and attention span.

Ullman shot the five segs in two weeks, with the aid for writer and novelist Bruce Wagner, a longtime friend; Gail Parent, her frequent collaborator; helmer Troy Miller and her husband, producer Allan McKeown. Also contributing to Ullman's various transformations, as she has since the days of "The Tracey Ullman Show" on Fox, is costumer Jane Ruhm, who Ullman praises for her tireless pursuit of just the right sartorial touches for her characters.

"Bruce was a great element in this show. He's like me -- very eclectic. We're always interested in tons of things everywhere. We had a great time writing it," Ullman says. "We really wanted to put in the show the fear (that drives) the media. The music they put to the news is just hilarious, and the graphics. Here's Campbell Brown, giving you your nightly dose of terror."

"State of the Union" takes Ullman into the new frontier of impersonating boldface names, by name.

"That was a step up," Ullman joked. "It made it all seem more dangerous, and daring. And modern."

Ullman's upbringing gave her a broad perspective on character types, the storied British class system, and its comedic potential. Her father was a Polish immigrant who was a very successful lawyer and interpreter; her mother was a seamstress who hailed from a large working-class clan in South London. But the family's lifestyle changed significantly after her father died when Ullman was six.

Her mother's extended family was a gaggle of "really, really funny people" who encouraged Tracey to act on her instincts to play the fool, sing and dance and of course, do impersonations. She later earned a grant to attend a performing arts school in London. (I'm very grateful to British taxpayers," she sez). There weren't too female comedy role models for her in

Britain in those days. Yanks like Lily Tomlin, Carol Burnett and Gilda Radner became her idols.

At school "there were kids there who had done Barbie commercials, and kids who had been in 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.' ... Every one (of the girls) was blonde and pretty. I was the plain one. I thought, is this what you have to do to be in show business. Be blonde and pretty? I was the plain one. ... But I just used to carry on and do my little improvisation, my voices.

I loved to dance and I could sing a bit."

After her initial schooling, she had no interest in going the Royal Shakespeare route and developing her inner Vanessa Redgrave. She made her first splash on stage in London the improv comedy "Four in a Million," and then segued into television where she met her husband, who was already a prominent producer. (Ullman and McKeown are pictured below at the 2005 Emmy Awards.)

"I used to see his name on every show that I thought was good," Ullman says. "My life really began when I met Allan. He gave me the confidence to want to come here. He makes me laugh more than anybody else in the world."

McKeown's business acumen has been key to allowing the couple to thrive as indie producers, arranging their own financing for "Takes On" and now "State of the Union," and retaining ownership of the negatives. Ullman plans to make the rounds at the Mip TV confab in Cannes next month to hawk "State of the Union."

"We're a real mom and pop outfit," she says with justifiable satisfaction. "We love doing things small. I got really, really lucky in having that base with Allan. He just loves the business side, and he loves making deals."

(McKeown's also maintained a busy career as a TV and stage producer on the other side of the Atlantic. While Ullman's been prepping for the launch of "State of the Union," McKeown's been in Mumbai overseeing the production of a comedy series for ITV, "Mumbai Calling," set in the cities that have cropped up in India around tech-support call centers. "It's really good" and has potential as a U.S. import, Ullman assures.)

In addition to television shows, the Ullman-McKeown partnership has produced two children. Mabel, who was often referenced by her mom in her closing audience chat bits on "The Tracey Ullman Show," is now 22 and pursuing her graduate degree in politics in London. She has little interest in Hollywood or performing, though she does do a killer impression of former United Nation's chief Kofi Annan, Ullman notes with a mother's pride.

"She'll end up being the dictator of a small South American country or something," Ullman sez. "She thinks there needs to be more women in politics."

Her 16-year-old son Johnny is "a lovely bloke," a red-white-and-blue American who's a natural musician and actor, Ullman says.

Listening to Ullman talk about her kids, her husband, her love for Los Angeles and its crazy personality, you get the feeling that she may be the most content 48-year-old actress in Hollywood, or at least Beverly Hills on that particular morning. She's got no worries about her career options in the future, because she's always had to carve out her own opportunities and forge her own way.

"No one ever offers me a job," Ullman says. "I have to instigate it. I get an idea of what I want to do. I get the team together, get Allan to work out the numbers and we do it."
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