Tracey Ullman acquired U.S. citizenship 10 years ago, after living in America since the ’80s. But her very sharp new sketch show, fittingly called Tracey Ullman’s Show, sees the comedienne return to her native England for some good-natured (and occasionally brutal) lampooning of British culture and people.
As with her previous shows, Ullman mixes the portrayal of everyday folk with celebrity impersonations. Famous characters here include Camilla Parker-Bowles, Maggie Smith, Angela Merkel, and, in a brilliant conceit, Judi Dench. “Judi’s considered a national treasure,” Ullman tells EW, “so we wondered, ‘What if she was a kleptomaniac menace and vandal? Could she commit heinous crimes and get away with it?'”
While filming the scenes as Dench, people on the street thought Ullman was the real actress. “Everyone kept asking if we were making the next Bond film,” she says, laughing.
Ullman chatted with EW about the launch of her new show, her love for her various characters — and, of course, the upcoming election. Read on for more aboutTracey Ullman’s Show, which premieres Oct. 28 at 11 p.m. ET on HBO.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The obvious first two questions: Why go back to England and why now?
TRACEY ULLMAN: Well, because they asked me. I met up with the two ladies running the BBC and they seemed so amazing to me. Because the last time I worked for the BBC, it was run by these five guys in bowties who were in the war. They really were like, [in elevated British accent] “Best television in the world! Prince Charles loves the goons!” They really were guys like that. I’d done a similar show in the U.S. called State of the Union, and I always thought it would be so great to do this in England, as a trip around the island. I know the voices and the characters so well.
The makeup effects here are really incredible. Seems like you’re really raising the bar on that.
This guy is amazing, the guy who I found to do the makeup. He’s a guy called Florese from Holland. He’s an artist. He’s very Dutch. He sculpts all the faces. He did Judi Dench, and it was so good that I thought I wanted to do a few more. Then he did Angela Merkel.
How many hours are you in the makeup chair?
Oh, a lot. But you know, some people can look at me and they don’t see the rubber or the seams. Some people really fall for it. And some don’t. Years ago, I was dressed completely as a male air steward when my son was 10 months old. I was in full British Airways outfit — mustache, beard, wig, big shoulders. And my 10-month-old son was brought into the studio, and he looked at me and he was like, “Mama!” Because he could see my eyes.
Wow, really? That’s amazing.
Yeah. But I like playing men sometimes. There’s one named Dominic in this new show. No one knew it was me. People have said, “Why did you suddenly put an actor in the middle of the show?” I’m like, “Oh, come on, you know it’s me.” He’s this sort of sad guy in the coffee shop.
Oh, yeah, we all know guys like that.
Yeah, the disenfranchised white guy. There’s a lot of them around now, but they used to never have women competing with them for jobs. My daughter worked for one for awhile and he fascinated us, so I said, “Oh my God, I’ve gotta be your boss.”
A version of this story was originally published in the new issue of Entertainment Weekly. Pick it up on stands now, or buy it here now – and subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.
You made this show before the Brexit vote?
Yeah. I just completed the second season and the Brexit vote happened the day before we started shooting on that. And we’d written a lot of Angela Merkel and so we had to rewrite stuff. But it really worked out in our favor. I’ve been writing ballads for her to sing all year.
I saw you joking about Meryl Streep on Jimmy Kimmel, talking about how you told all the crew on Into the Woods that she was a total diva who could get away with anything. Now you’re toying with this idea with the Judi Dench skits.
Yeah, exactly. When we got into a room, me and the writers, we thought, you know there are national treasures in England and they can get away with anything. And that led us to Dame Judi. She has been very kind about me playing her. She accepted an award recently and she said, “Oh, hello, I’m Tracey Ullman.” And apparently she pretends to steal things in meetings, you know, staying true to her character.
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You know, sometimes when I see Trump’s wife, I think of you.
Oh, God. Which one?
The current one, Melania. Seems like you could do a interesting impression.
Yeah. She’s mysterious, we don’t quite know where she’s from. Well, Eastern Europe. I love the jackets around her shoulders when they’re on the campaign trail. It really says, “Get me outta here! Get to the jet!” Ah, I’ll be back in the States for the election. I’m a citizen — “proud to be an American!” — so I’m coming home to vote. Who knows what’s going to happen. I didn’t see Brexit coming. I can’t look at the political compass anymore. Who knows where it’s going?
Some of us just want to be put in a coma for the next five weeks.
[Laughs] Did you say put in an induced coma? That could probably be a good sketch. Where do you live? You know you can find someone who can do it for you. It might not be covered by insurance but someone could do it. Or does Obamacare cover that?