Tracey Talks To The Fresno Bee

April 12, 2009

'Tracey Ullman's State of the Union' begins its second season on Showtime
Sunday, Apr. 12, 2009
by Rick Bentley / The Fresno Bee

HOLLYWOOD -- The grand architecture of the Roosevelt Hotel has been the backdrop for countless Hollywood events, including the first Academy Awards back in 1929.

On this January night, it is serving as the hot spot for a party thrown by the Showtime cable channel. The casts of "The L Word," "United States of Tara" and "The Tudors" drift between trays filled with hors d'oeuvres. The occasional flash from a camera marks the arrival of another party guest.

Even in this celebrity den, it is hard to miss the woman holding court at the center of it all. Her loud laugh and firecracker personality is enough to turn a few heads. Those who are lucky enough to get close to this belle of the ball are privy to words of wisdom and blistering humor from Tracey Ullman.

She's at the event to talk about the second season of her Showtime series "Tracey Ullman's State of the Union." The season opener is at 10 p.m. today.

As she did with the first season, the multi-Emmy-winning Ullman slips into a variety of characters to offer a satirical look at all corners of the United States, a country that has an overflowing cornucopia of comedy material for Ullman.

"I love England. But I love it here, too. You can be who you want to be here and not get held back by your class like I was in England. This is an exciting place to be," Ullman says.

The first season of the cable series opened up a new world to Ullman. She's always played a variety of offbeat characters -- both male and female -- but those characters tended to be everyday people. She spent years trying to avoid celebrity impersonations.

In other words, Ullman explains, she would prefer to impersonate the lesbian friend talked about on the campaign trail by Gov. Sarah Palin than Palin herself.

"I always felt that was 'Saturday Night Live's' domain. And they do it really well."

Ullman finally gave in to the idea of doing more celebrity impersonations as the shape of the Showtime series came together. Along with the everyday people she plays, Ullman says she knew that any look at the United States would have to include celebrities. That's certainly the image that the rest of the world sees.

A whole new stable of celebrity characters -- not all Americans -- are available for Ullman to impersonate in the seven episodes of the season. Look for Laura Bush, Heather Mills- McCartney, J.K. Rowling, Celine Dion and Tom Brokaw. She will mix those celebrity characters with the less famous, such as her characters of Leslie Katz-Coen, publicist for the Dalai Lama, and Padma Perkesh, the Bollywood musical pharmacist.

Ullman certainly is familiar with celebrity. She's been a focus of the American media from "The Tracey Ullman" show in 1987 to her work in such films as "Bullets Over Broadway." And it hasn't escaped her that America's passion for reality television has bred an entire generation of people who are celebrities for no reason.

"It is like the media needed to be fed with celebrities, and the real celebrities are like, 'I'm not going to talk to the media.' So the media created their own celebrities," Ullman says.

Reality television had some interest for Ullman at the start. That's only logical because it was an intense focus on real people being put in unrealistic situations. Many of her characters have followed that comedy flight plan.

Ullman not only can play multiple characters, she seems to have the energy of a crowd at a Red Bull sampling party. The 49-year-old Berkshire, England, native never seems to take a breath as she chats about how she came up with the format of the Showtime series once she decided to become an American citizen.

"After being here for 25 years, I wanted to vote, and I wanted to be a part of it. And I went through the whole procedure of becoming an American. And I felt a psychological barrier was gone. I felt I could really say stuff that we all say and I wasn't going to end up in Guantanamo Bay because there was a sort of an air of McCarthyism at the beginning of this century that was freaking me out a bit," Ullman says.

She changes gears abruptly and adds the series was inspired by a Peter Sellers radio show, "Down Your Way." He would travel across England to talk to different people.

Ullman continues to chat about her interest in Broadway, a tiff she had with Andrew Lloyd Webber over "Starlight Express" and her dual citizenship. Quietly standing next to Ullman is her husband of 25 years, Allan McKeown. He is also the executive producer of the series. The couple had just come back from Paris where they had their anniversary dinner. Even such a romantic moment proves to be fodder for Ullman's wicked sense of comedy.

In a sweet tone she looks at McKeown and rhetorically suggests, "We are just staying together for the syndication, aren't we?"

This season, Ullman does impersonations of Jonah Hill and Seth Rogen for what she can only explain as "some bizarre reason."

A smiling McKeown adds, "I'm never keen to seeing Tracey dressed up like a guy, to be honest. She always tries to kiss me, and it always upsets me."

Family is her top priority. That's why she was willing to take time off to be with her two children. She calls her marriage "great."

"They're the most important things. It takes me seven years to ever come up with a new show. I've had plenty of years just wandering around, doing the shopping, not getting any attention. I don't have to be on all the time. He has to kick me out to go and do stuff," Ullman says, pointing at McKeown.

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