Tracey Ullman's Comedy Is All in the Teeth
By Eleanor Laurence
Never one to shy away from a good costume, the master of impersonation reveals the secret to embodying characters is a good set of teeth (literally), and a proverbial walk in their shoes.
HBO: How do you know you’ve landed on something special when developing characters?
Tracey Ullman: When I find empathy for them. I don’t think I’m ever cruel to the characters. If I think a person is totally intolerable, I mean, I just couldn’t even bear to play them. I always see the sadness and the poignancy in people.
HBO: What’s your workshop process?
Tracey Ullman: I have to have the confidence to do it. Because sometimes you can dress up, and you can cover yourself up with makeup and clothes, but you just feel like yourself inside. I have to fight my way through all that.
My team are amazing. They give me all the props, and then I just have to lose myself in it. It sounds a bit actor-y, but you have to totally commit to it. And if it’s not right, I trust my team that we’ll all know.
HBO: As someone who does impersonations of both fictional characters and real public figures, what are you most interested in exploring or highlighting about human nature?
Tracey Ullman: There’s nothing I won’t attempt. At the moment, there are so many shows where it’s almost like, “Who can hate Trump the most and the best?” And it’s exhausting me. Liberal indignation is exhausting. And I’m a liberal, but I’m not permanently indignant. It would make me miserable.
If I’m playing Theresa May, the British Prime minister, I don’t want to just see her in the House of Commons [breaks into impersonation] doing that politician voice at question time [ends impersonation]. You have to find stuff where you can just see them being real people. It’s the humanity I love about impersonations. YouTube makes my life easier, mimicking people.
HBO: Your costumes are always fantastic. What are your wardrobe essentials for getting into character?
Tracey Ullman: I sometimes think, “Have I got a wig in my box that’s like that?” Teeth are really important. I have a lot of teeth made.
Tracey Ullman Unfiltered
Comedy is best when it’s based on truth.
When telling a joke, always know the punchline—and make it sound like it’s not a joke.
Human beings are adorable. I can still say that at my age. Sometimes you meet just the dearest, loveliest people… And some are assholes, adorable assholes.
Comedy is best... when it's based on truth.
When telling a joke always... know the punchline — and make it sound like it's not a joke.
Human beings are... adorable. I can still say that at my age. Sometimes you meet just the dearest, loveliest people… And some are assholes, adorable assholes.