first impressions

Laura Benanti on Doing a Perfect Melania Trump Impression

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
The Late Show with Stephen Colbert airing live, Monday July 19, 2016 in New York. Photo: Scott Kowalchyk/CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Laura Benanti, with her uncanny resemblance and musical-theater-trained ear, was definitely the right person to do a Melania Trump impression, and the night after the potential future First Lady plagiarized part of her speech at the RNC from the current First Lady was the right time for a Melania send-up. There was just one problem: Benanti wasn’t in the right place to make it happen. On Monday, she had driven with her family to Delaware for vacation. Lucky for the American public, however, when The Late Show called Tuesday morning and asked if she wanted to do the impression on the show that night, Benanti knew it was too perfect an opportunity to pass up and hopped on the soonest train. The rest, as you’ve surely seen on the internet today, is history. Vulture spoke with Benanti, who is back on vacation, about how it came to be, how she nailed Melania’s accent, and whether she’d reprise the role on Saturday Night Live if asked.

What were you thinking when you first saw her speech?
My immediate reaction was I hope I get to do something with it!

And then how did you find yourself on the Late Show doing it?
In March, I had been a guest on the show to promote She Loves Me, a musical I was starring in on Broadway, and Stephen pointed out my similarities to Melania. He put a picture up of her and then I did her squinty pout. Then we had joked, “Wouldn’t it be funny if I came back as Melania!” But that was that.

Monday morning, I had driven with my family down to Delaware, for my grandma’s 92nd birthday, and then Tuesday morning I got a call from Vinnie Favale who is a producer on the show and one of my biggest supporters asking if I would come do a sketch for Melania, so I traveled hours back.

Had you worked on the voice before then?
Oh, no. Monday night was the first night I really heard her talk. It’s not like she’s done a whole lot of talking. So on the train back to New York, I studied her voice and studied her movements, much to the confusion of the man sitting next to me on the train.

You were just rewatching the video over and over again?
Over and over again and like zooming in on her mouth to see how her mouth moved. It was all very creepy.

What did you notice about her?
The first thing I wanted to do was master the accent. And then obviously she has that sort of squint and a very pouty mouth. Also it sounded to me like she was a person who’s not used to giving speeches. Even though there was a microphone, she was shouting. I thought that was funny in and of itself. I just tried to embody that all in a plausible way and obviously make it comedic.

Can you walk me through the timetable from when you showed up to the show?
I got to rehearsal around 6, we ran through the sketch once, they made some trims, and then we did it. There wasn’t a lot of back and forth. It was a live show, so it all moved really, really quickly. At 9 in the morning I was on vacation and at 11:30 at night I was Melania Trump.

What were your thoughts when you saw the script?
I had no notes. It was brilliant to begin with and, as with all comedy sketches, you just pick out the meatiest, funniest bits to make it as tight as possible, and that’s what they did. I didn’t improv anything, but the impression of her was mine — the way that I moved and all of that stuff.

You mentioned the movements, when you did the turn and look back, was that you or was that in the script?
Yeah. I hadn’t even done that in rehearsal. The multiple kisses on the cheeks, too, that kind of just happened. That’s why I love being in front of a live audience, because they light a fire under me at least. They teach you what they want to see, and if you’re attuned to them, they’re like the partner in the scene.


How was the audience? 
From the minute I walked out, they were like, “Yes, please!” They were such a receptive audience and Stephen was standing just to my right, so I could feel his positive energy and how excited he was. It was genuinely fun. It’s like playing with your friends but your friends are geniuses.

What was the reaction when you got offstage?
Everybody was pretty thrilled. Everybody could feel how successful it was and then I went on Twitter and it was like, you know, a pretty big deal [laughs].

Do you have a favorite moment or line?
The Fresh Prince of Bel Air stuff was hilarious and the “I’m lovin’ it” really, really made me laugh. It was really ingenious to have the ”live from New York, it’s Saturday…” at the end.

Yeah, it was like an SNL cold open and that’s how they all end. I feel like on Twitter I saw a lot of people say that you should play her on SNL. 
I would love to do it on there. Of course. My allegiance is to Colbert and their show because this is their thing, but if they were to feel comfortable with that, I would do it in a heartbeat. I love that show. Especially right now, that cast is brilliant.

When you were starting out, was Saturday Night Live on your radar, either as something you wanted to do or that your team mentioned?
It was never an idea floated to me, but it was always a dream of mine. They tend to really funnel from UCB and Second City and a lot of improv troupes. I’ve never been part of an improv troupe and I haven’t really had time since I’ve been doing Broadway and TV. It was never something that I was able to commit to, so I wasn’t really even sure how I would go about auditioning for SNL. But, look, if someone was like, “Do you want to be on SNL?” I would be like, “Yeah, I do.”

A lot of impressionists tend to be good singers and vice versa. Do you think there’s something similar in the skills necessary for both?
Yeah, it’s just like in the way that musical people tend to be good with language. If you can hear music, you can hear the musicality of the way someone speaks. It’s easier to nail down the way that they talk. So much of it is listening, just like in acting. If you’re listening, you pick up the nuance of why a person behaves the way that they behave. 

It’s hard to just do an impression cold, were you doing it leading up to getting onstage?
Yeah, I was really Daniel Day-Lewis-ing it. For 20 minutes before I went on, I was talking like her. Because I wanted it to feel like second nature, just in case anything were to happen where I would need to improv. Like, if I couldn’t read the teleprompter or something, I wanted to not worry, Oh, am I doing the dialect properly.

Do you have any other impressions that you do or want to do?
I don’t have any impression I’ve worked up but I think I’m going to start.

That first moment after they put the makeup on, what was it like looking in the mirror with that face?
I don’t wear makeup in real life but when I glam myself up for regular red carpet, I certainly don’t do it necessarily the way Melania does. But I could see the resemblance. When my makeup artist did it for me to the tee, it was pretty creepy. My husband was there and he kept being like, “This is really creeping me out.” It’s all in the squint. It’s the squint and the pout combined with the makeup. It changes my face for sure.

It’s interesting you say a squint and a pout. I talked to Darrell Hammond a couple weeks ago about doing Trump and a squint and a pout is key to doing him. I wonder if she picked up squinting and pouting from talking to him all the time. 
Her pout might not be God-given. It’s an enhanced pout. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Half of the actresses in Hollywood have that too. But maybe she observed him and thought, Alright, well that’s what you do.

That’s how you be American.
Yeah, perhaps.

Last question, regardless of where, would you like to keep on doing her?
I would. I would love to do it on Colbert because I really love those guys. And they certainly started this whole thing. I would love to do it on SNL because that’s an incredible show with incredible actors. And I’m open to doing it other shows as well.

You can do a one-person show, like when Will Ferrell did Bush. 
Somebody else said that to me, yeah. That would be hilarious. Yeah, she could just be giving fashion advice.

I guess if he ends up winning, the silver lining will be you’ll have a long back-up comedy career.
Yeah … hopefully not.

Not worth it.
Yeah. I believe in myself without that having to happen.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Laura Benanti on Doing a Perfect Melania Trump