Article: United States of Tracey

April 30, 2009

United States of Tracey

Alex Strachan, Canwest News Service
Published: Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Tracey Ullman as Celine Dion in Tracey Ullman's State of the Union.

Tracey Ullman purely hates dramatic re-enactments. And that's odd -- in an offhand, almost ironic way -- because Ullman is a world-recognized performer who has made her career mimicking other people. A character actress, as she describes herself.

In Tracey Ullman's State of the Union's second season, which bowed earlier this month on The Movie Network and Movie Central, Ullman takes on Celine Dion, Heather Mills-(not)-McCartney, Jodie Foster, J.K. Rowling, Silda Spitzer (yes, Silda Spitzer!) and Tom Brokaw.

Dion, Mills-(not)-McCartney and J.K. Rowling join a character repertoire that, last season, included Dina Lohan, mom to You Know Who, Renee Zellweger and Tony Sirico-as-Paulie Walnuts, from The Sopranos.

And then there are the Ullman originals: Leslie Katz-Cohen, publicist for the Dalai Lama -- because, let's face it, every religious leader needs a pushy publicist -- Wendy Trenton, world-champion hog caller; Jillian Smart, an over-attentive and hyper-aggressive soccer mom; and Padma Perkesh, Bollywood musical pharmacist and slumcat millionaire.

Ullman's State of the Union tends toward short, scattershot sketches -- no more than 90 seconds, Ullman has vowed this season. The pace is swift, with celebrity impersonations and Everyman/woman characterizations racing by at a dizzying clip, like an ADD-afflicted outing of Entertainment Tonight or Access Hollywood.

Off-screen, Ullman's taste in TV leans toward historical documentaries. And not those history programs with loud, weepy music and crummy historical re-enactments, either, but the full Ken Burns.

"I've learned so much about America from Ken Burns' documentaries," Ullman explained. "The Civil War -- I feel like I've had a university education about all this. I love Ken Burns. But he can't keep doing the fiddle. It's like everyone's doing it now. Enough with the fiddle."

Ullman ascribes her longevity in part not to impersonating celebrities -- other comediennes do that, and better than she does, she insists -- but coming up with peripheral characters that perhaps nobody else has thought of.

"I'm not Rich Little," Ullman explained. "That's not what I do. I don't want to be Sarah Palin. I think Tina Fey just nailed that; it was pure genius. I want to be that lesbian that Sarah Palin kept talking about. You know, the one where she kept saying, 'She's my best friend and I've known her for years.' Where is this woman? In Juneau? What does she look like? That's what I do -- match it up, somehow. I try to be a little off-centre."

Ullman has impersonated a red-carpet parade of recognizable celebrities in her time, but these days, when she tackles a celebrity, she prefers one a little bit in left field. Like -- Seth Rogen.

"I wanted to be Jonah Hill and Seth Rogen, for some bizarre reason," Ullman said. "They were good fun, though. My poor 17-year-old son has to see me doing this stuff."

Another off-kilter impersonation? Len Goodman.

"(State of the Union writer) Bruce Wagner was, like, 'Who is Len Goodman?' And I said, 'It's a really big reality show, So You Think You Can Dance with a Celebrity, or something like that.' He just kills me. I love being Len Goodman."

Ullman finds personal inspiration not so much in other comedians as the great character actresses -- Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith, Meryl Streep.

"I don't class myself as a comedienne," Ullman said. "I've never done standup. I couldn't tell jokes in front of a crowd to save my life. I always wanted to be a character actress, and do it until I'm 95. I keep going back to Peter Sellers, again and again -- a genius."

"I really enjoy what I do. I love that I can get enthusiastic and come back and do something, and have it be relevant, and have people enjoy it. I'm in it for the long run."

Ullman and her producer-husband Allan McKeown recently celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary -- the old-fashioned way, with a trip to Paris.

Yes, it was tempting to pretend to be Carla Bruni at times, but somehow Ullman found the strength to resist.

"Silver wedding anniversary," Ullman said. "Our marriage is on the rocks, but we're staying together for the syndicated reruns."

"It's true," McKeown said, sadly.

Tracey Ullman's State of the Union airs Mondays on The Movie Network at 9 ET and Movie Central at 9:30 MT/8:30 PT.

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