Tracey Ullman has, for more than 30 years across multiple shows and specials, made her mark portraying a vast and ever-growing array of people on both sides of the pond. On her current show, Tracey Ullman’s Show (a co-production between BBC One and HBO whose third season debuts stateside Friday on HBO at midnight), Ullman regularly injects celebrities and politicians into the mix. How has Ullman perfected her craft over the years? By studying people, being empathetic, and finding a unique way to interpret them — a method that some of her peers can’t (or won’t) match while trying to keep pace with a rapid and chaotic news cycle.
Uproxx recently spoke with the uproarious and refreshingly unguarded Ullman, touching on that process and that news cycle, her creative philosophy, and the state of political comedy in America at a time when everyone and anyone seems to be a practitioner. We also discussed social media — specifically, Ullman makes a rock solid case for avoiding it altogether in favor of knitting and hanging with dogs.
Any changes in the approach to the way you do the show this season?
Yeah, I think we just made it more topical, and because we filmed it with the BBC and then we would go out on a Friday night… we were sort of making sure we did material up to Wednesday and Thursday so we could keep the shows topical. That was exciting, it was sort of like throwing all the newspapers on the table and saying “Quick! Quick! What can we do?” and then getting Theresa May makeup on or getting wonderful Anthony Atamanuik to call me from New York as Donald Trump. It was more spontaneous and exciting. I like that element of it. Because things happen so bloody fast, there’s no… the news cycle is like three minutes now, it seems. It’s crazy. So we just made them more topical.
How do you choose a character and learn them?
I think I’m trying to interpret a person. It’s not just a surface impersonation or getting a few facial ticks; I think I try to imagine what they’re like. I think I’m very empathetic and I see the sadness or the poignancy or the difficulty that people have, you know? I think Theresa May, for instance, the British Prime Minister, has an unenviable task right now, you know? The boys have all messed it up, all the public schoolboys, and she’s left with this Brexit thing, you know? She comes over to America and Trump holds her hand and that’s all anyone talks about, but yeah, I do feel some empathy for her, and being trapped inside Downing Street. She’s such a Dickensian-looking character to me, and her… the way her voice suddenly cracks a little bit… and they tell her what to say, but it’s like, it’s a bit of humanity missing. But I do like being her. I love being Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor. I’ve done her for like three years now, on the show. I don’t think I’m anything like Angela Merkel, the way I’m portraying her. Who knows, but she’s kind of a mystery woman so I can sort of be my version of Angela Merkel and I hope she approves.
Have you gotten feedback from any of the people you’ve portrayed?
Judy Dench loves that I play her as a shoplifting rebel, you know. [Someone] who scratches cars and is terribly naughty. She loves it. I never hear from the royal family because who would, you know?
They never write. They never call.
Damehood is not on the horizon for me. That’s fine! No, I just, play lots of characters I create and see in society. I just try to cover the gamut of society and the world, you know? I know I’m ambitious, but it’s just always something happening, something interesting.