Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Much-Needed Return of Tracey Ullman

Last month, at the Television Critics Association (TCA) convention in Beverly Hills, I caught up with Tracey Ullman at the Starz network's party to promote its upcoming miniseries of Howard's End, in which Tracey plays Aunt Juley.  But we critics were even more eager to quiz Tracey about the new season of her self-titled BBC sketch comedy series, whose second season of six episodes debuts here in the U.S. on HBO this coming Sunday, October 20. 

Chatting with Tracey is a particular treat, because you never know which voice might pop out of her mouth to answer your question.  In between laughs, a few fellow critics and I managed to conduct the interview below, with news of this upcoming season.

Must Hear TV:   I'd love to talk with you about everything from your early album, "You Broke My Heart in Seventeen Places," onward -- but let's talk about the HBO show.  Has Judi Dench or Angela Merkel or any of the other real-life people you impersonate gotten back to you about your impression?

Tracey Ullman:  They both have, in a funny way.  Judi Dench really likes it.  She said it was great, and she has a great sense of humor.  So I sent her a present.  I sent a vase, because I do a whole thing where she smashes things.  She did say that “It’s been a bit tricky for her going into shops, because people think, ‘I’m watching you!’”  But she’s had a wonderful sense of humor about it.

And then I was on some BBC show, and they decided to contact the Reichstag and ask Angela Merkel what she thought.  For a TV show to do that -- it's like if your girlfriend says, “I asked, and he really likes you.”  You don’t do that!  So I was on the show, and they brought out this letter with an eagle on it.  It looked very official, from the Reichstag.  Jerry Springer presented me with a letter from the Reichstag saying, “The Chancellor is not here right now, but she would like to say to the brilliant Tracey Ullman…”  so Angela Merkel likes it.

MHTV:  Have you inspired Judi to a real-life life of crime?

TU:  I sent her a vase and a shawl, and she wrote back “I’ve already smashed it.”  She’s been really kind.  I sort of used her brilliance to do something on my show, and it’s very nice of her.

MHTV:  How did you get hooked up with Anthony Atamanuik, who does the Trump character?  How did that come about?

TU:  Well I saw him during the election, and I thought he was the best Trump.  I love Alec Baldwin, who’s amazing, but I love Anthony’s take on it.  We wanted to have Angela and Theresa May talking to Trump.  He has this set, and he’s always dressed as Trump.  He’s never not Trump at the moment!  So he was fantastic.  I’m doing more shows from London…

MHTV:  Earlier, you said three more?

TU:  Yes, I’m doing 3 more before Christmas [to be called Tracey Breaks the News.]  And I’m going to have all sorts of people talking to Trump.  We’ll put bits on his show, and bits of mine.  I love it.

MHTV:  What is this moment like for you, as someone who does this political satire, when the real politics are so insane themselves?

TU:  Really weird.  But it’s exciting.  It’s what people want to talk about.  It’s what people want to see.  Being Theresa May recently was difficult, because she’d had a terrible election.  We had a terrible, tragic fire in England, the Grenfell Tower, and she couldn’t have been having a worse time.  And yet, we filmed a piece about her and there was some empathy within it.  It just kind of worked.  And the makeup is stunning.  I had this Dutch guy who is a sculptor normally, and he does these amazing makeups on me.  But I like doing this.  I’m trying to do my own Saturday Night Live in England.  I’d like to do everybody.  It’s a great time to comment about it all.  I did sort of Melania Trump as a Russian robot, like her Westworld kind of thing.  They bring her in for a service, because she’s malfunctioning, and won’t hold Donald’s hand.  So that was in the show recently.  And that was fun.  I got a girl who looked like Melania.  I can’t look like Melania Trump, because she’s gorgeous.  But we had our little take on that.

MHTV:  How much time is there between filming in the UK and its airing on TV there?

TU:  Now we’re doing it like 48 hours, some of it.  And we’re going to do it that way with these three shows.  I like live shows.

MHTV:  What can we expect new this season?  New characters?

TU:  I’m really fascinated with Brigitte Macron.  I love Trump saying, “Your wife is so physically fit!”  I was so shocked!  But yeah, it’s the same age difference as you and Melania, right?  So that’s one thing.

MHTV:  Did I hear that we'll meet Jerry Hall?

TU:  That’s going to be in this season of the HBO show, yes.  Jerry Hall and Rupert.  Ben Miller is amazing as Rupert.  We haven’t heard from them in season 1.  That’s season 2 that will be on HBO, and goes out after Bill Maher in October.

MHTV:  What season are you in in the UK now?

TU:  I’m doing sort of a more topical show, with season 3 just starting. 

MHTV:  Do you wish that episodes could get on sooner here in the U.S.?

TU:  Maybe they will, if we’re doing a more topical show.  I’ve got people talking to me from America to get it on quicker here.

MHTV:  We need your voice right now in this political climate.

TU:  Things change.  SNL, thank God for SNL!  And Melissa McCarthy.  But things change so quickly.  Sean Spicer is gone.  It’s so immediate.  I mean, I hear Priebus has been fired, and I would have been sitting here today saying, “So you decided to go with the Mooch!”  I don’t know – some days it’s not funny, and some days, it’s like what are you going to do?!  Brexit ain’t funny!

MHTV:  Of all your characters throughout all your shows, who are your favorites?

TU:  I used to do a character years ago called Ruby Romaine.  I’m staying [in Los Angeles] at a hotel here now because I don’t live here anymore, and I’m on Romaine Street.  And I just remember being her, like an old, faded, alcoholic chainsmoker.  I used to love being her more than anything.  And they still have those kind of Hollywood ladies -- there’s very few of them, but you still see them, with cotton candy hair, and the cigarette.  She’d love Trump.  “He’s wonderful.  I gotta tell you, that guy’s gonna get it done.”

MHTV:  How did you get to be such a good observer of Americans?  That’s such an American archetype, Ruby Romaine.  You’re such a keen observer of the British that we learn from you, but how do you know the Americans so well?

TU:  When I came to America – I got married here in ’83.  I’ve lived here for 30 years now.  And I didn’t do anything for two years.  I had a baby, and I just studied America.  I didn’t come here and live here for just three weeks.  I really learned about the culture.  James L. Brooks, who I did my TV show with, used to send me to the American Museum of Broadcasting [now the Paley Center for Media] in New York, saying go there every day and learn.  And I did that for a year.  So I kind of immersed myself in the culture.  And by the time it came to do something, I think I was a participant.  I knew about everything a bit more.  I didn’t just visit.

MHTV:  When you reflect on your career, what accomplishment are you most proud of?

TU:  That I’m still working.  My next job.  That I’m still doing it, and I’ve instigated my own staff.  I know I’ve been doing it a long time, and I notice that there’s a lady [Samantha Bee] finally in the comedy/variety show category at the Emmys again.  And then someone is saying the last time anyone was in it was me, like 20 years ago.  So I guess I didn’t think about being a gal early in my career, but I do now.  I’m still doing it, and I love it. BBC is great, HBO is great, and I'm lucky.  It’s great to be given the opportunity to do it.

And then as we thanked Tracey for the interview, she turned to me with this:

"You remember my son, Buddy?  He's a great kid, but don't give him any liquor or ammunition." -- Ruby Romaine 

I charmed Tracey Ullman into taking this photo booth shot with me, by quoting a line from aged makeup artist Ruby Romaine, as she found herself on a porn set:  "I didn't need a beaver brush when I worked for Mr. Minnelli!" 

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