Tracey Ullman on Her New HBO Show, Creating Impressions of Famous People, and Her History With Blackface

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In the opening scene of HBO’s new series Tracey Ullman’s Show, which debuts tonight at 11 p.m., Ullman’s impersonation of Judi Dench is so spot-on for a second I thought the octogenarian actress was guest starring. Of course it’s Ullman, the Emmy award–winning comedian who launched her American career on Fox in the mid-1980s, and made waves with her HBO series a decade later (Tracey Takes On). Over a 30-year career, Ullman has brought to life dozens of characters, a combination of original personalities and celebrity impersonations, who are so wacky, delightful, and true to life it’s hard to make out that there’s a real Ullman underneath. But here she is, graying hair piled in curls atop her head. Even during an interview at a corporate meeting room at HBO headquarters, she can’t help but jump in and out of character as she talks about her new characters, her history with blackface, and Angela Merkel.

You’re so good at impressions of celebrities and world leaders. And yet when you started your career, you weren’t so interested in doing direct impersonations. Why the change?
I use [impersonations] as a Trojan horse to talk about society. And funny enough, it gives you more attention. It draws focus when you publicize a show. I never thought to do it before. They are also just so much a part of our society — it’s such a celebrity-based culture. I started it in the Showtime show [Tracey Ullman’s State of the Union in 2008] because I was watching those celebrities doing film junkets all the time. I found one of Renée Zellweger that was just too easy in a way. And then someone sort of obscure like Arianna Huffington — I loved her voice so much, like Zsa Zsa Gabor. I wanted to do that. But then there are people I really admire like Angela Merkel. I really wanted to be her.

I think of Angela Merkel as so serious, and yet your take is astute, and playful, and, also, somewhat adoring. How did you see her?
With Angela Merkel, I imagine she’s the only girl in the room, and therefore she thinks she’s incredibly sexy. Or she’s nervous that [breaks into Merkel’s accent] “everyone is finding her really sexy.”

You have that great scene when Merkel is looking at different white jackets that she’ll wear and her aide hands it over to her to be sniffed. And not to spoil the joke, but Angela takes a whiff and exhales “Obama.” That was funny!
That was from, do you remember when George W. Bush went up behind her and gave her a hug? And you saw her whole body go [she stiffens]. It wasn’t because it was him. She just didn’t like being hugged, in that European way. I thought, Oh God, could you imagine Berlusconi coming up behind you? Oh, no! What a nightmare for her.

Political impersonations aside, there’s quite a bit of social commentary throughout the series, particularly among your more original characters. What can storytelling and character development give us that hard jokes don’t?
I think I’ve always made political commentary, but I’m very much a character-based actress. I like to focus on writing and character development. You can’t just go out and make some crass joke, you have to think about it a bit more. And that’s when really good stuff comes.

When I started to write the show a couple years ago, there were lots of stories about the migrants clinging underneath cars coming from Calais. And I did see a piece on the news about this couple that just got back from France and, [breaks into a Birmingham accent] “I was making a sandwich and I looked out and this black fellow just fell out from under the car.” And how they dealt with it just killed me. “We didn’t know whether to take a photograph, put it on Instagram, or call the police.” So the wife said, “So we made him a sandwich.” I loved that they really made a connection with this man. And I thought, that’s a story that’s happening right now that I’d like to talk about. In episode two, we do Allande [a migrant played by Jason Forbes] coming in under Christine and Colin’s car. On the show, they let him stay in her son’s room, who’s fighting in Afghanistan. And it’s funny the way they lock him in the room at the end of the day. I don’t think my comedy is mean-spirited. I really try to show the braveness of people.

How do you go about transforming yourself into these people?
I really, really work at it. Anyone can just do this basic impersonation. It’s about the little movements and knowing where Angela Merkel is from, that she is from the Eastern German bloc originally, and she’s trained in chemistry, that sort of dictates what she’s like. She lived with her parents in an institution for deaf people once. It must affect a young girl. And so yeah, [starts doing the character] you realize some people move differently, that their shoulders don’t move so much, and when she walks, just the bottom of her arms swing.

Sounds like capturing someone’s voice is very important to your characterization.
I always have this thing about people who know the sound of their own voice. There are some people who speak and you know they’re very aware of how they sound. [Breaks into Arianna Huffington.] Like probably Arianna Huffington. Like she knows she sounds like Zsa Zsa Gabor. But someone like Angela Merkel, I don’t think she’s aware of her voice.

How does it work with real people characters?
If I’m impersonating someone on the show that’s from Birmingham it always comes from real people. [Accent] Like the woman, who had the black man under her car. That voice is somebody from Birmingham. My friend’s mother made this tape for me, and it totally informed who it was. She goes, “hello,” and just the brightness in her voice. So it’s things like that: The voice comes, then the movements of the body, and where they’re from, and if they’re people that are shy.

The class system is so prevalent in England. And coming from England, I always figured that any time someone opened their mouth you know where they’re from, where they were educated, what they can aspire to, what you know isn’t going happen for them. You just knew as soon as anyone opened their mouth in England what category they fit into.

Do you think it’s the same here?
Over the years I realized it is. You can change your status here a bit more because of money. It’s not so much about titles and class. It’s different. But yeah, I can hear it here a lot. Years ago, if I wanted to impersonate someone in Brooklyn, there wasn’t something like YouTube. So I’d find myself ringing libraries and talking to real people, not saying who I was or what I wanted to do. So I could just talk to real people, hear them in their natural environment. There’s nothing worse than saying to somebody, I really love your voice, would you tape it. They’d go [accent], “Oh my God, I’m so nerv ... and then they’re another person.” You just gotta get them relaxed.

Over the years you’ve played an Arab cabbie, an Indian pharmacist, and a black airport-security screener. Certainly these were controversial choices then. Looking back they feel even more controversial now.
Yeah, they do!

Why did you decide to go in that direction in the '80s and '90s?
I just did it. Eddie Murphy had played a white woman in a film. It was the '80s. And Jim [Brooks] said, “Let’s have you be a black woman.” [Read more on her decision to do blackface in this 1989 New York Times Magazine story.] And my criteria was — because of what I do and how I like to dress up — why couldn’t I do it? People speak like that, they act like that, they live lives like that. And I never got any complaints. People loved me being the black security guard Shaneesha. And at that time, I used to play a black woman amongst a group of black actors. Adele Givens played Hellora and she was totally comfortable with me doing it and she gave me so many tips. And we had such a fun day. We were just two actresses who were really enjoying what we were doing. Black people liked it more than anything. I don’t know if it’s ’cause I’m English, I didn’t get so much flak.

Do you think it would be the same now?
Maybe not, no. I don’t know. Everyone’s so damn sensitive. You make one comment and look at how people just get dragged down on social media for one thing that’s misinterpreted. But I’ve thought that too! Maybe now you wouldn’t do it. It wouldn’t stop me. I mean, I loved being that cabbie.  He was more sexually aggressive, if anything. I was in a cab where a guy was like that. [Accent] “You like sex?” I remember thinking, Oh God.

Did you get pushback at all for playing those characters?
No! Honestly. I’d tell you. An Asian person was upset about Mrs. Noh Nah Ning. And then I remember having some young person defend me, saying there are no funny Asian characters on television. “Tracey Ullman’s character is like my grandmother; if that’s the only representation I get then, I think it’s great.” They must go mad, Asian people. They’ve got no one representing them. It’s like in England. Sometimes it’s so white male, Oxford/Cambridge shows on the BBC. How would you feel if you were Turkish and lived in Bradford? You must be like, "Shit, there is nothing I can watch!"

I think among the issues that are upsetting to minority groups is, why not give that opportunity to an Asian person?
Exactly! Now there would be many more people doing it. It was like me playing a teenager with gay parents in the late '80s. It was really great because the gay community loved that because there was nobody really represented gay on TV. And now, there so many, thank goodness. But it was a big thing. And GLAAD gave me an award.

We’ve heard comedians like Jerry Seinfeld bemoan political correctness in comedy. Do you think there’s too much of that now?
Yeah, it’s very inhibiting. That’s why I did it then. Everyone is being so PC, it’s exhausting. If it’s done with the right spirit and energy and people like that exist, speak like that, have lives like that, and you’re doing it in the right way, I think there should be no objection to anyone trying anything.

You’ve been in and out of Hollywood now for 30 years and the status of women in comedy, and behind the scenes, has evolved quite a bit. Have you felt a change personally?
For years and years, I didn’t think of it. Looking back, I was usually the only girl at HBO. But I think it has changed, definitely. And it’s terrific. But listen, I’ve always done what I wanted to do, and I’ve always done my own thing. Years ago, if I got asked to do one more women in film conference, or women’s panel — I never do those because sometimes all women together is a nightmare. I think, I wish the guys were here. You get too many of us together and it’s a pain in the ass.

I guess that’s what happens when you get too much of the same group?
Too many men, too many women, too many white people — you gotta mix it up!

This interview has been edited and condensed.