New Inquirer InterviewOnly in Hollywood
The many funny states of Tracey Ullman
By Ruben V. Nepales
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 02:48:00 05/30/2009
Filed Under: Television, Celebrities
LOS ANGELES—A recent interview with Tracey Ullman about “State of the Union,” her latest hit TV series in which she impersonates famous people and regular folks as she parodies life in America, was like watching a private show. The British comedienne, who lives in the US, launched into samples of her hysterical portrayals of such celebrities as actress Renée Zellweger, political pundit Arianna Huffington and former First Lady Laura Bush.
With her husband, producer Allan McKeown sitting in the room, the mother of two offered a glimpse of the private Tracey as she acknowledged her hubby’s presence. Excerpts of our interview:
What kind of feedback do you get from people you impersonate, like Renée Zellweger and Mrs. Laura Bush?
I hear that Renée Zellweger was on David Letterman’s show, where she said that I looked like her twin brother in drag (laughter). So I took that to mean she found it funny and seemed to take it in a very good spirit. I haven’t heard from Mrs. Bush. I’d love to (laughter). Arianna Huffington loves it. I just pepper my show with impersonations of famous folks so I get to do real people too.
Is there anybody you wouldn’t touch?
No, there’s nobody I wouldn’t attempt if I thought I had a good take on that person. Sometimes, we’ll suggest a character, then I’ll just say, “But, that person is in such distress, or what would the joke be?” You don’t want to just hammer it home and be incredibly cruel. You want to find some hope in things. There isn’t a mean-spirited quality to the comedy I do—there has never been. I really love people—and I like impersonating them. Sometimes, it has gotten a bit cruel or gone across the line, but I’ve never had any major complaints.
Who did you start impersonating when you were a child?
Mireille Mathieu (a French singer) used to make me laugh. I couldn’t speak French, but I used to be fascinated by her hair clinging to her lip gloss. I would pretend to be her as I wore my mother’s nightdress on the windowsill. I also did Julie Andrews: “But Captain, they’re just children. Doe a deer a female deer.”
I also used to impersonate a dear lady who lived opposite us, Annie Cox, who lost her fiancé in the First World War. She always had something just hanging on her nose. This little English spinster was always cold and she would take our dogs for a walk. She broke my heart.”
Can you say something about the JK Rowling episode? You even had Laura Bush talking about getting George W. to read the “Harry Potter” books.
He’s on the third one now, “The Goblet of Fire.” He’s just having trouble with the words (laughter) and I’m walking him through them. I noticed there was a lot of litigation about the “Harry Potter” image within America, so we decided to put on a five-city litigation tour. JK Rowling is a bit of a bitch in it, but I liked her look—and there’s a sadness to her. When she talks, she’s obviously someone who didn’t think she’d ever be famous—like when she accepted this thing at Harvard. I like the way she has come up.
I looked like her at some point—the sad eyes. I put that in the show, that she wrote in a coffee shop, and that she was a single mom. It just seemed right that someone like Renée Zellweger would want to be this inspirational, wizard woman in a movie. We’d be watching someone making a movie of JK Rowling, like she’d be going to the middle of the country and finding people doing Quidditch rides. She’d be saying, “That’s interfering with my legacy.”
Was there a time in your life when you stopped in your tracks and forgot about being funny?
I didn’t think much was funny right after 9/11. That was a tough time.
How have your children benefited or adjusted from growing up in England and the States? And, how is your own experience shuttling between the two countries?
You’re never satisfied with one place anymore. It’s weird—I love England and I love the States. When I’m here, it’s just so easy. Imagine Europe now, they’re getting out the umbrellas and sweaters. There’s all that history—and the churches to visit. When I’m there, they don’t gift wrap so, I think, ‘I’ve got to get back to the States!’ “You don’t gift wrap? What’s the matter with you?” (Laughter) You’re never happy.
My daughter is very pro-British. She went to university there. She works for the General Secretary of the Labor Party in England. We’re very proud of her. It is her dream job. Mabel wants to rule the world. But she has an American identity, too. I also have a European and American sensibility. But, sometimes I feel 75 percent more American. Our son, Johnny was born here. He’s now in high school here, but he still has an incredible English accent. It’s amazing!
Your husband is in the room, but can you talk about him anyway?
My husband Allan and I have been together for 25 years. My life didn’t begin until I met him. I love him so much. He let me do what I wanted to do. He made me come to America. He’s brave, curious and bold. He was always looking to do something bigger. I didn’t work with my husband initially on a production level when I first came here, but I’m so glad I do now. It’s like shorthand between us. He’s the funniest person in our family. He may look a bit shy now.
Allan: You have to be careful when you work with this woman.
You’re turning 50 this year. What are your thoughts on aging?
There’s real fear of aging in this country, which I don’t share. It seems to be an American nightmare, especially for women. There’s nothing worse than a woman trying to look like she did when she was 32 when she is 58. It’s like, “Have some dignity, guys—just go with it!” Yes, I do have a big birthday coming this year.
I based my career from the very beginning on people like Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Margaret Rutherford. I keep thinking Maggie and Judi are going to eventually not want those parts and I’m going to move up and take them (laughter). So, hopefully, I’ll be working in my 70s and 80s. You know, character actresses. I never had looks to lose. I could keep going—Meryl Streep and me.
As a kid, how did you celebrate your birthday, which was in the middle of winter?
I have the sh*ttest birthday—the 30th of December! Can you imagine what that was like when I was a kid in England? It was the day before New Year’s Eve. It was horrific! My sister’s birthday is on the fourth of July. It was all about strawberries and dancing in the garden in summer dresses. Mine was like, “Don’t talk about it. It’s her birthday.” It was pitch-dark (laughter). Every one wrapped presents for me that they didn’t want from Christmas. It was a terrible time to have a birthday (laughter)!
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