Try to imagine Dame Judi Dench — all elegant wardrobe and perfect platinum pixie — gleefully jamming rolls of bathroom tissue down a hotel commode. Or German Chancellor Angela Merkel as a gossipy, singing “total hottie frau.” Or Dame Maggie Smith auditioning for a sci-fi spectacle (“I believe there is a special name for Star Trek fans: Idiots.”). If you’re having some trouble — or even if you aren’t — let Tracey Ullman do the job for you.
The 56-year-old Brit, who became a sensation in the late 80s on Fox’s Emmy-showered The Tracey Ullman Show, returns to HBO tonight as the network debuts her latest BBC series Tracey Ullman’s Show.
The wickedly funny, six-episode homage to her homeland and the quirks of modern life sees Ullman embodying the afore-mentioned famous ladies, plus Ullman Show favorite Kay, a handful of new (but soon to be classic) original characters and more. And yes, there will be singing.
We talked with Ullman about the new series, what she likes best about being someone else for a bit, the perils of Facebook, the upside of aging and more.
Channel Guide Magazine‘s Interview with Tracey Ullman
Channel Guide Magazine: I was such a fan of The Tracey Ullman Show — and especially of Kay, who is not only back, but back in England, to boot. Tell me about the decision to return to this format, which is how the American audience fell in love with you in the first place.
Tracey Ullman: I guess it’s just what I love to do. I love being eclectic and doing all these characters — and the BBC asked me to do something after all these years. That’s my strength and that’s what I love to do. Every seven years or so, it seems, I take stock of the world and what’s happening and who’s around and who I want to be — and I think I’ll always do it. When I’m eighty, I’ll just impersonate the eighty-year-olds around me or something.
I enjoy it, because I can tell a story that way. If I found one character I loved doing all the time, that would be great. But I never have.
A lot of sketch-comedy shows can be so sophomoric and silly — and oftentimes cruel. Is it also good fun and good work to make a sketch-comedy show for grown-ups that is about grown-ups and can make social commentary, but still in a really fun way?
I’m glad you think that! Yes. I don’t do it in a mean-spirited way. If I do impersonate someone — a real live person — I guess I put my story behind them. Like imagining Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, is somebody that everyone thinks is really a bit sexy. Think about it — “Sexy Merkel.” It just appealed to me to do that. And I’ve always loved doing that. I guess that’s why I did my HBO show, with Tracey Takes On, all those years. I tell stories, and I’m a character actress. I’m not a stand-up comedienne. I don’t come at it from that angle and I’ve never done anything like that. I’m a character actress and I just get to do these things but it’s with great affection.
On that subject, can you talk to me a little bit about your process of creating the original characters — the indomitable Kay and, now, Karen, Pam, Haley, Dominic and the others? Do you start with the human beings first or who that person is and what you want to say in their segment? Because there is some great social commentary in there.
Right. Dominic is one of that sort of disenfranchised kind of middle age white guys that are working at a coffee shop, creating apps. I see them all the time when I go into coffee shops. You just think — there’s so many people that used to work for somebody and now you’re supposed to be able to work for yourself. They’re a little bit scared of women because, maybe, his woman just broke up with him
My daughter was working for somebody very like him and I just wanted to be that character, you know? That’s very 2016 to me. But it’s an odd character. In the makeup, nobody knows it’s me. People say, “Why is that guy suddenly in the middle of the show?!” He just kills me. I love throwing in things like that, and it’s such a challenge to play men. It’s interesting how people react to him. They kind of are irritated by him and embarrassed for him and I like it when it feels like that. My director, Dominic Brigestocke said, “He has lost his way.” He kept saying about this character — “He has lost his way.”
I was filming that character on a day when, like, ball boys were fainting at Wimbledon, like the hottest English summer day ever, you know? Like, “Global warming! The world’s coming to an end!” And I had three layers of rubber on my head, and was thinking, “Why do I do this?”
Kay is somebody I’ve done for many years, as you realize, because I did her on the original show in America and Americans used to like her. She’s obviously a virgin who’s lived with her mom, who’s taught by her mom. There was a woman that was this character. She just broke my heart. She would always dress very plainly and have pics of cats at her desk. I remember and she did speak like that, “Hello! Good morning!” She used to work at a bank that I banked at when I was like twenty years old and she’s always killed me. She wore her little polyester pants and her pen around her neck. People have gotten the empathy behind it and the poignancy and the sadness. She’s like a classic sort of character for me. And my daughter loves me being that character. She said, “That is you, Mom.” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “Part of your personality is Kay.” So I decided to do her again.
And I brought in a brilliant woman to be Mother this time. You love to laugh at her; I love this woman. She’s called Joan Linder and she was in the same year at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts as Joan Collins. That’s what Joan Collins really should look like. [Laughs] She’s great, this actress. She shows up and she says, “Would you like me to take my teeth out?” We’re like, “Yes. Brilliant.”
To that end — what Joan Collins should really look like — I love what you have said in earlier interviews about English actresses being much calmer about the aging process than most American actresses are. Since I am at that point in my life where I am fully aware that I look my age and that it’s time to just go with it, may I thank you for the role models?
Yeah, me too! I’ve got the gray hair and stuff — but I’ve never had looks to lose. I mean, there’s some people in the business, their face is their fortune and it must be very alarming to get old. I guess I’m getting old with dignity. I think a little bit more in Europe and England —especially in France — my goodness, they’re not so conscious of it or trying to look thirty-seven forever. They’ll go with it. Jessica Tandy was a fabulous example of somebody who got old fantastically. Judi got a tattoo on her arm for her eighty-first and it looks so cool. There’s things you can do. It’s like [fashion icon] Iris Apfel, that New Yorker with the big glasses. I like that sort of style! As you get older, you can wear the huge earrings and glasses and the whole Diana Vreeland look, if you like that. You can have much more fun with getting old.
Tell me a bit little more about choosing the famous faces that you impersonate — your flawless Judi Dench, Maggie’s audition tapes, Duchess Camilla Prince as George’s babysitter. Do you choose people you think you can solidly impersonate, or is it, again, what you want to do and say with their segment? A little bit of both?
If I can do the voice. I mean, it just occurred to me that George must get taken to the different grandmothers, you know? We just imagined that Camilla — like, “Do you want to drown a kitten in a barrel or put your hand up a horse’s uterus?” She’s, like, the most fun grandmother. You can do anything. That made us laugh. I write that character with a wonderful writer called Georgia Pritchett, who writes for Veep. A few of the writers actually write on Veep in America, and then they come and write with me. We just have so much fun doing that.
In Episode 3, I play Carol Middleton, Kate Middleton’s mother. The kids go between Carol Middleton and Camilla. She has a totally different approach. It just made me laugh. If I can do the voice, I’ve got this genius prosthetic make up artist this time, called Floris Schuller. He’s a guy from Holland and he just has done some exquisite work, especially with Judi and Angela Merkel. He’s such a talent and the make up is so light and easy to work in. He makes it very easy for me.
When you see yourself so completely disguised, do you ever have the urge to just go to a pub or wander down the street and see what happens?
You know, I have done that! I have done test makeups late at night and then driven home as those people. I’d come home and annoy my husband as those characters and he’d go, “Stop it! Go to bed. I’ve had enough, now!”
I came home as [Tracey Takes On favorite] Ruby Romaine — the old make up artist who was, like, an alcoholic — once. I did the test makeup on her and I drove home and I just drove him crazy. I thought, “Imagine the police stop me or something and I’ve got my makeup on!” Once we were on location, and I went shopping as Kay. I wandered off and I went into boutiques and I forgot I was Kay. Of course, nobody even looked at me or asked me if I wanted help. I was just this big, pear-shaped woman in polyester pants. They just looked right through me. I could have been just invisible.
The show also does a spectacular — and hilarious — job of skewering our dependence on technology and the impact of social media. The “Silver Surfers” segment is a doozy!
Yeah. I mean, that’s very much 2016. People are on their phones and Twitter and stuff like that. It just exhausts me. I’m quite reclusive. I don’t do any of that. Who wants to hear about me? I mean, for God’s sake. I’m terrible with it.
We also do this thing called “Facebook Funeral,” where this vicar has forgotten all her notes so she just looks up someone on her phone and, like, on LinkedIn, and just reads out from that at the funeral. But you can imagine something like that happening, you know? It gets so impersonal! People posting pictures of their lunch. Who cares?
Joan [Linder] is in that sketch, too. When she goes, “I like to incite racial violence!” you think, “Old people are the same; they just have different forms of communication.” That was a good sketch. The guy that says, “I want to send pictures of my penis around the world!” — he used to be on a famous kids’ show when I was younger. To get Derek Griffiths to talk about his penis has been a bit of a coup in England, because he was always on kids’ shows. He’s a very funny guy.
I went on Facebook once, for like five minutes, because Mabel, my daughter, made me do it. Within five minutes, a girl I couldn’t stand at school had found me and was doing the same thing as she’d done at school years ago — “Do you want to be my friend?!” I thought, “Oh, my God, get me off this!”
Am I correct that you are working on a new set of episodes?
Yes! We just shot a load of stuff all summer! We’re just editing it now. That was great fun. The show went out here last winter and it was really a very heartening response because I hadn’t been on the BBC for so long and my profile anywhere was so non-existent, really. It went down really well and so we got another season. I feel really just fortunate to be and privileged to be doing it, still. I’m getting to say what I want to say and do all this experimentation and all these different characters. It’s what I’ve always done — but I’m thrilled I’m still doing it!
Tracey Ullman’s Show airs Fridays at 11/10CT on HBO.