Tracey Ullman

Posted on 20. Apr, 2009 by in Film/TV, Profiles


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Tracey Ullman

words by Jason Dean, photo by Robert Todd Williamson, hair and makeup by Sally Crave

In case you haven’t noticed, we live in a country where reality just ain’t real enough anymore. The human experience has become so pedestrian that the TV gods create punched-up, staged versions of Type A personality train wrecks: a dysfunctional race of stupor-humans competing for airtime every night. With all the fakery masquerading as realism these days, it’s ironic and refreshing that Tracey Ullman – with her colorful palette of mind-blowing impersonations – captures modern American culture in a way the imposters can’t. 

Ullman, whose career in American television blossomed in the late ‘80s with The Tracey Ullman Show, furthers her reputation as a comic savant with an uncanny ability to create characters that are alternately touching and hilarious. Ullman returns in April for the second season of her Showtime series, Tracey Ullman’s State of the Union. I met up with the British comedienne on a recent afternoon at her Santa Monica office; she was genuine, warm, and entertaining as we discussed what makes her current show such an insightful commentary on society. But we also talked about her extensive career as an entertainer, her creative process, politics, shopping, and of course, reality television.

Each episode of State of the Union covers an entire day and bounces from character to character in short, attention-deficit-friendly bits. One calculated decision was adding celebrities to the mix. “I really enjoy playing real people,” Ullman says. Having personalities like Renee Zellweger, Cameron Diaz, David Beckham, and Arianna Huffington in the “cast” helped generate additional publicity for the show as well. “People want to see people they know. And [celebrities] are part of the fabric of America.” 

Infusing the “commoners” she portrays with amusing quirks has always been a staple of Ullman’s work. “It’s the actress side of me that wants to go a little bit deeper,” she says. “I never wanted to be Cinderella. I wanted to be one of the ugly sisters.” At an early age, Ullman was already exploring the world of tragicomedy. “I used to imagine I was in a documentary and talk for hours in my mirror as a kid, smoke cigarettes, and just talk about my life being terrible. My husband beats me up and he’s in prison now…. I would create these worlds.” 

Ullman’s father, a Polish immigrant, died when she was just 6-years-old. She remembers putting on shows for her mother and dancing to the Beatles. “That’s how we cheered ourselves up,” she says. “We’d put music on and have a laugh and imitate the neighbors. I had a very funny South London family.” 

When she was 16, Ullman got her first job, as a dancer in Berlin. “It was an extraordinary experience, 24 strangers and me,” she recalls. Late at night after a show, she would entertain the troupe with her impersonations. “They said, ‘You shouldn’t be a dancer. You’re funny! Why don’t you go work for Benny Hill?’” 

Such was the extent of sketch comedy options for women in England at the time. America was teeming with talented comediennes, including Gilda Radner, Lily Tomlin, and Carol Burnett. The choice was clear: Either dress up as a Little Bo Peep bimbo and get chased around by a creepy letch, or traverse the pond for more promising opportunities. She remembers thinking, “If you’re a bit quirky, a little bit different, you’ve got to chart your own path and write your
own stuff.” 

Before making it to America, Ullman established herself as a versatile performer, achieving success on the BBC, in theatre, and as a pop singer. “There was nothing I wouldn’t try,” she says. With a sound that Melody Maker likened to “Minnie Mouse meets the Supremes,” Ullman scored an international hit in 1983 with a cover of Kirsty MacColl’s “They Don’t Know”. Her tongue-in-cheek, retro girl-group guise earned her an appearance on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson

“Here I was, 20-years-old, on this show with these crusty old people, and I’d never sang live in my life,” she recounts. “I thought I’d be singing into my hairbrush, havin’ a laugh, and they said, ‘No, there’s this guy, Doc Severinsen, and he’s gonna play your song.’ It was like getting your great-grandparents to play your song. It was embarrassing.” Ullman was able to redeem herself on subsequent, non-singing, return visits to the show. 

During its three-year run, The Tracey Ullman Show won three Emmy Awards, but it also achieved notoriety for spawning The Simpsons, which ran as short vignettes before and after commercial breaks. Ullman returned to television in 1996 with the HBO series, Tracey Takes On…,where she offered further proof that her range is not limited by age, race, gender, or body type. Her dedicated staff of prosthetics, hair, and make-up people continue to be invaluable enablers for Ullman’s metamorphoses. Sally, her make-up artist – who I met briefly after the photo shoot – has been with her since the BBC days. 

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Tracey Ullman as Tony Sirico from The Sopranos

Ullman believes the process of doing a show should be fun, or at least not wrought with stress. That’s partly why she prefers doing television to movies. “Sometimes I feel that big movies are so indulgent. They take forever to get done,” she explains. “Everyone’s fussing and making cappuccinos. I just want to get some spontaneity and fun in front of the camera.” On the set, Ullman stays in character even when cameras aren’t rolling. “It sounds wanky and actress-y, but the crew love it,” she says. Occasionally, a character won’t gel until the day a scene is being shot. “It scares the life out of me,” she admits, “but those are the most exciting.” 

One of my favorites from the first season, I tell Ullman, is Dina Lohan. “She’s an amalgamation of a lot of mothers that seem to live vicariously through their kids,” says Ullman. “She’s glamorous and it’s quite fun to be her.” Still, the actress finds humanity in even the most vapid subjects. “There’s always something endearing about the characters. I can see why they live like that. I don’t do [impressions] because I hate people,” she continues. “I’ve never found any of my characters totally unpleasant.”  

The key to staying fresh, Ullman believes, is to not hit things on the nose. “People say I should do Sarah Palin. Well, Tina Fey [does] her and it’s genius. During the campaign, Sarah Palin kept talking about her lesbian friend from Juneau; she didn’t agree with her lifestyle but she was her friend. I’d like to do a character on her. It’s like, how can you be friends with someone who disapproves of who you are?” 

Reality television, Ullman notes, sums up everything that is false, inauthentic, and manufactured about how people interact with each other. “The whole reality thing started up as such a wonderful experiment,” she says. “It was so pure at first, then it got so corrupted and manipulated and written and produced.” Ullman’s response is to exaggerate her point with satire. She’s writing a bit about a reality-show producer who has to deal with people attempting to be spontaneous. “Then I’d be the character who’d go, ‘No, we don’t want you to fuck someone in the Jacuzzi today. Do it tomorrow though, that’d be great.’” 

Because the financial crisis is front-and-center in the public’s consciousness, Ullman hints that the new season will deal with “this one big, extreme anxiety attack the nation is suffering.” Bernie Madoff, meet Tracey Ullman. “It’s a whole different feel this year,” she says. “It’s almost outrageous to talk about celebrities, the whole thing about being rich and showing any obvious consumption. It’s a shared experience. I like that people aren’t embarrassed to say they don’t go shopping anymore. Shopping was like a sport in the last few years, pretending to have all this money they didn’t have. That’s how our economy works. It’s kind of sad, isn’t it?” 

Ullman’s husband of 25 years, Allan McKeown, serves as executive producer on State of the Union. The two enjoy a solid working relationship together. “He has my best interests at heart,” she explains. “When I’m happy, he’s happy.” Her daughter is grown up and living in England, and her son is active in school theater and pals around with Rob Reiner’s son. “I get the pleasure of them in my kitchen most weekends,” says Ullman. 

“It’s a privilege to be able to make TV shows and have a laugh,” she continues. “It’s what I did as a kid. And as I get older, the characters can get older.” Clearly, Ullman’s relationship with herself has not been strained by the countless personalities that have mingled with her psyche. “I’m very happy being myself and who I am at the end of the day,” she says. But there is one area in her life in which Ullman freely admits duality. She became an American citizen in 2006 and is effusive in her excitement over the recent election. “I love America. I’m proud I’m American. I’m English and I’m American, and that’s bloody great.”

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3 Responses to “Tracey Ullman”

  1. Clifford Wicks

    20. Apr, 2009

    Really? Tracey Ullman thinks you can only be friends with people who live lifestyles you agree with? I bet Sarah Palin does have a gay firend and I bet her friend sees their friendship trancending any disagreement about lifestyles. Disappointing and narrow minded comment from Tracey Ullman, and a deliberate misrepresentation of what Sarah Palin actually said. Another bigoted celebrity takes a shot at Palin. What a surprise!

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  2. Mark Shamoon

    08. May, 2009

    Great interview. She’s right on about reality TV. I remember when that stuff was pure and good… OK, I don’t know remember that, but I agree that in theory that should be the best TV out there, cause it’s real life. I guess it’s like socialism, better in theory.

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  3. Carriestar44

    25. Jun, 2009

    I agree, the interview was pretty solid, it had some good insight, it’s good to see Tracey back in action for another season. Have you guys seen her recent stuff from her new DVD, she does a pretty good impersonation of the Queen of England and sneaks in a few jabs at the rolling stones, here it is if your interested . And in response to the first post, Sarah Palin is a pretty easy target rofl

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