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Laura Benanti reveals her method for impersonating Melania Trump

Laura Benanti is one of Broadway’s most beloved musical stars, but it’s her uncanny impersonation of Melania Trump that has struck a comic nerve.

The actress reprised her take on Donald Trump’s wife Tuesday on CBS’ “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” poking fun at her interview this week with CNN’s Anderson Cooper about her husband’s “locker-room talk” with former “Access Hollywood” host Billy Bush.

The bit presented a theory for why Trump was willing to forgive her husband’s lewd comments in a leaked tape: An off-screen media handler had been feeding her lines.

"I did not know this, but when American men gather to sport, they always brag about grabbing women by the Billy Bush,” said the fake Melania said, clearly confused.

Benanti first introduced the impression  in July on the late night talk show after Melania Trump was accused of plagiarizing First Lady Michelle Obama for a speech during the Republican National Convention.

We spoke to Benanti by phone about channeling her inner Melania.

How does it feel to see how people are responding to your impersonation?

It’s pretty fantastic. It’s really gratifying. I feel like comedy is important, and I think political satire can be really important.This has been such a garbage fire of an election — to have a moment of levity where we can say this is ridiculous is necessary. And to be able to contribute to that is an honor.

And this all came together by an offhand comment from Colbert, right?

Yes. I was being interviewed on “The Late Show” for “She Loves Me,” [the Broadway revival in which she starred in earlier this year]. Stephen pointed out my physical similarities to Melania.  I didn’t think of it again. But when her speech at the convention happened, they called.  I thought it was bold of them because they had no idea if I could do the accent or handle the comedy. But it worked out, I think.  But then she sort of went into hiding. And I thought that was funny. I even pitched to the “Late Show” producers an idea that Trump’s campaign had been keeping her locked up at an undisclosed location.

Really?

Yeah, and we were actually scheduled to shoot a sketch like that. And then all of a sudden she was scheduled to appear on Anderson Cooper. It really came together. 

After your first appearance, had producers asked to have you on standby as needed?

Not really. I live here. I’m friends with a producer on the show. We just keep in touch. I was really excited about the undisclosed location sketch. But when the Anderson Cooper appearance was announced, we figured out a way to combine them—and in a way that had a good point of view on the interview. It wasn’t just about making fun of her. The sketch had a point of view. 

What struck you about what she said to Anderson?

The biggest thing that I took away from it was how much she looked off to the side. For about three-quarters of the interview, she was not looking at the camera. It made me laugh. And look, she’s very poised  and well-spoken. But when you broke all of it down, it was like: [Billy] Bush is to blame, the women who came forward are to blame. I think compared to Trump, she seems like such an elegant unicorn. I think she is probably his biggest asset in terms of softening him.  Very poised, spoke well. But we really wanted to capture who she is looking at during that interview. I also found it interesting that this all happened nine days later. Like, why did it take nine days for her to respond this way?

What’s the key to playing her?

Physically, my hair and makeup team have helped exponentially. But it’s all in the pout. Her squinty pout .I try not to do a caricature of her. Try to approach like any actor would--like, human. I was going to say a trumped of version of her. But I’ll go with an exaggerated version of her. 

We’ve seen how this election can sometimes alienate fans of celebrities who make no qualms about their leanings. What has been the reaction you’ve received for your impersonation? 

I will tell you, 95% of it is pure love. People being so generous and kind. One person on Twitter threatened to beat me with a baseball bat. Clearly, it must have struck a nerve if people are that impassioned and vitriolic.  

And have you heard from Melania or anyone from the Trump campaign?

No. I doubt I ever will. I hope I don’t. I’m not interested in becoming another victim of his Twitter hatred. But I’m not scared of him.  

Any plans for a third round? And how do you make sure not to cross the line of satire?

I don’t know. Let’s see what happens. I don’t want to bully her.  I don’t want to come after her necessarily. But if she does something else of national importance that gains attention, I will gladly be there to spoof her. But it’s getting tricky. My stomach is getting bigger and bigger. [Benanti and her husband are expecting their first child this winter ]. When I slid off the chair in last night’s sketch, I was in full blown child pose. Stephen was like, ‘That is commitment.”

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yvonne.villarreal@latimes.com

Twitter: @villarrealy

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