INTERVIEW : Voice No. 1,001 : Her TV show is history, but Tracey Ullman has found another offbeat American misfit to play, this time on Broadway
There’s, like, a problem with the photographers. There’s, like, too many of them. But Tracey Ullman doesn’t seem to mind. She sits in her dressing room at the Plymouth Theater and smiles. Smiles for the first one. Then smiles all over again for the second one.
A few shots outside? You know, first show on Broadway, get the marquee in. There’s even some tourists waiting for autographs, a few frat boys from Long Island. Hey, get them in the shot. Smile Tracey, the shoot for Vanity Fair took, like, nine hours.
“Christ, does everybody in this country talk like a Valley girl?” asks Ullman back in her dressing room a few minutes later. Splashing some boiling water into a mug of Marks & Spencer tea like a good English girl, Ullman does a devastating imitation of one of the photographers before lapsing back into her Cockney, itself an imitation. “God, I mean they’re everywhere.”
One might say the same thing about Ullman--a gifted if peripatetic mimic, comedian or actress depending on the current demands on her talents. Check the resume. It’s good in two countries. She’s done singing and dancing. She did a record album. She did theater. She did television. She did film.
Then Britain’s beloved “Our Trace” came to America. Television all over again. Then film again. Last summer she even did Shakespeare. Now she’s doing Broadway. A one-woman show, “The Big Love,” starring the petite, brown-haired 31-year-old Ullman as Florence Aadland, a blowzy, blond, 45-year-old Texan whose teen-age daughter, Beverly, was Errol Flynn’s last nymphet. What is Ullman trying to prove? That the woman of thousand voices is a cat with nine lives?
“I’ve always been a misfit,” says Ullman about her unpigeonholeable career. “I’ve always had to create my own markets and I’ve always been at a juncture in my career. I just want to do good work.” She pauses. “As opposed to what, bad work? But I can’t take the easy option. I just can’t.” She pauses again. “I don’t think you can get more famous than this,” she says without a trace of irony in her voice.
Like other iconoclastic comic performers such as Robin Williams, Lily Tomlin and Whoopi Goldberg, Ullman is finding the transition from singular brillance to regular work something of a challenge. As James Brooks, writer and producer of “The Tracey Ullman Show,” described his former star, “Tracey is damn near unique. Who do we relate her talents to? On the show, we kept comparing her to Peter Sellers until we just got sick of it.”
Four years ago, it looked like Ullman had hit it on the Fox Network, where she dazzled a small but devoted following with her tour-de-force portrayals of female misfits: Francesca, a precocious 14-year-old whose father was a homosexual; Kay, the repressed English secretary still living with Mum; Carol, the black New York subway rider; Ginny, the fortysomething divorced wife of a Beverly Hills proctologist; Summer Storm, a heavy-metal rocker, among many others.
It was an eerily accurate rogues gallery that earned its rubber-voiced star three Emmy awards but never a mass audience. The show became a victim of its own cult status and rotating time slot. Its ratings, while improved, suffered in comparison to Fox’s other break-the-mold shows, “The Simpsons,” “Married . . . With Children” and “In Living Color.” Last year, Ullman pulled the plug after Fox dawdled over her contract renewal, leaving her twisting in the breeze to the point at which “her dignity was eroded,” says Brooks. “They didn’t have the enthusiasm that Tracey needed.”
Lawrence Kasdan had been one Hollywood director who liked what he saw. He tapped Ullman, who had played a small role with Meryl Streep in the British film “Plenty,” to star with Kevin Kline in his 1990 comedy “I Love You to Death.” Critics smiled benignly. “She’s fine,” said Los Angeles Times critic Shelia Benson about Ullman’s portrayal of Rosalie, a mousy Tacoma housewife who acquires murderous motives. Buoyed by that foray, Ullman trouped to New York to play opposite Morgan Freeman in “The Taming of the Shrew” in Central Park. Again, critics were pleasantly surprised. “While Ms. Ullman’s Kate could use a few more notes,” wrote The New York Times’ Frank Rich, “her fierce presence and sardonic comic attack usually rivet the attention.”
But neither of those projects exhausted Ullman’s multiple talents. After the demise of her television show, the actress entertained script offers but few were to her liking. “I’m not a film snob. I like television. But there is something about film that really pisses me off, just a lot of middle-range mush,” she says.
Now, she’s having a go at the female impersonation business again in “The Big Love,” her one-woman show that opens on Broadway tonight. Ullman hopes to play through the summer and take it to Los Angeles early next year. It is a role most like the ones she played on her show--part acting, part parody, part disappearing act--that requires Ullman to don several prosthetic makeup devices and a tricky Texas-by-way-of-Los-Angeles accent. Perfect Ullman material. Or is it? After 15 years in the business, even Ullman can’t tell you want she really wants.
Where does she see herself in a year? “Uhm. I’d quite like to do a little film of this show,” she says refering to the possible taping of “The Big Love” by HBO, one of the show’s producers.
Well, what about five years?
“Uhm. Something like this. Choosing off-the-wall projects. Not that this is off the wall, but just working really.”
During a backstage interview a week shy of her Broadway debut, it is obvious that for all of Ullman’s skills and credentials, good roles, particularly for a woman who can’t--won’t--trade on her looks, are hard to find. She seems intent on not fitting in, this self-described professional misfit--not in the ‘60s, when she was an ugly-duckling daughter of a Polish immigrant living in middle-class London suburbia, not now in the United States. This seasoned performer who misses her TV show can’t find any movie roles she likes and is taking a spin on the Great White Way almost for a lack of alternatives. Here in her dressing room, with her lank brown hair, crushed velvet midi-dress and dangle earrings, Ullman looks more like a teen-ager playing dress-up than aspiring Broadway star and expectant mother. (Her second child is due in September.)
“I know I’m only 31, but I feel as if I’m 40,” she says with a sigh. “I’ve been working forever. . . . Yeah, I miss the (TV) show, but in a way it’s great to miss it. I certainly didn’t want to finish it by saying it got really bad in the end. I could have done a (stage) show of all the Tracey Ullman characters, but there is no point to doing them anymore--Kay, Francesca, Summer Storm. They’re great but they’re gone. I would rather go and do other things.”
Like “The Big Love.”
Adapted from Aadland’s 1961 memoir of her daughter Beverly’s two-year affair with Flynn, “The Big Love” has been written and directed by Jay Presson Allen. An Oscar-nominated screenwriter and playwright, Allen last year created “Tru” on Broadway, a one-man show starring Robert Morse as the late author Truman Capote. That production, which is now playing in Los Angeles, resurrected Morse from has-been status and earned him a Tony award. Ullman, who was shopping for a future vehicle, saw that production last summer when she was playing Shakespeare-in-the-Park. Impressed by Morse’s uncannily accurate portrayal of Capote, Ullman went backstage and expressed an interest in doing just such a show. “He was doing exactly what I wanted to do,” says Ullman. “Just to disappear into a character, to be totally disguised.”
It didn’t take long before Ullman’s phone rang. Allen had been scouting for an actress for “The Big Love” ever since she and her husband, producer Lewis Allen, had acquired the rights to Aadland’s book in 1985. “We were struck dead in our tracks” by Ullman’s interest, says Jay Allen. “We had never considered Tracey because of the age difference,” says Allen. “She’s only 31 and she has to play a 45-year-old woman. It was an astonishing idea and we all said, ‘Let’s go.’ ”
For Ullman, the opportunity to play Aadland, a former cocktail waitress with an artificial leg and a drinking problem, “is what I never get to do in film,” says the actress. “I got terribly spoiled by my television show and good film roles only come up occasionally. This is what I love to do.”
Something of a pulp classic ever since novelist William Styron ballyhooed the tell-all biography as a work of “wild comic genius” in a rave review he wrote for Esquire, “The Big Love” is tale of glamour and vulgarity, myth and reality told by a voyeuristic Hollywood hanger-on in a decidedly colloquial tone. As Aadland began her book, “There’s one thing I want to make clear right off, my baby was a virgin the day she met Errol Flynn.”
“She reminds me of the book ‘Day of the Locust,’ ” says Ullman about Aadland, who died an impoverished alcoholic in the late 1960s. “Those periphery show-biz people, the ones who once did a scene in a movie with Paul Newman where he tipped them to go get his coat or something. I feel like I’m making a social document about a woman who never had much of a chance.”
As she did on her television show, Ullman plays Aadland by physically disappearing into the role. “We have to do this every day,” she says, flipping through a stack of Polaroids detailing the extensive make-up process which requires a wig, a false chin, a turkey-waddle neck piece and a pair of fake lips. “It’s horrible,” says Ullman, “because of my skin. But the lips are really wonderful. They give me the character.” Indeed, when Ullman takes the stage toting a wine bottle and looking like Lucille Ball from the wrong side of the tracks, the actress is all but unrecognizable.
As for the accent, a hard-edged Western-Southern twang, Ullman spent hours listening to the tapes that Aadland had recorded for writer Tedd Thomey, her book’s collaborator. “It isn’t just the accent,” says Ullman, letting her signature Cockney dissolve into Aadland’s metallic slur. “She doesn’t talk the way people talk anymore. You know, ‘the top, top people who drive swank limousines.’ ” It is an imitation that Allen says is remarkably close to Aadland’s in both its cadence and rhythm, one that Ullman describes as “‘as good as I can get it. Not that many British people can do American accents convincingly. Peter Sellers was my hero. You listen to him in ‘Dr. Strangelove’ and it’s just extraordinary.’
At times in performance, Ullman seems to be standing to one side of her character, commenting on Aadland even as she is playing her, an approach more akin to impersonation than acting. Is Ullman ridiculing Aadland? “It’s more that I understand a woman like this,” says Ullman. “A woman who hasn’t really had much of a chance--didn’t have much of a husband, was married at 14, became an alcoholic who lost custody of her daughter and blamed it all on preordination. Sure, here are massive amounts of denial,” says the actress with a knowing smile. “When I’m up there I really feel as if I am this woman.”
Uncovering the source of Ullman’s particular skills requires the usual parsing out of raw talent from personal history. Like many a comedian--Ullman prefers the lable “character actress"--her theatricality has its roots wrapped tightly around anger. Much of it is derived from Britain’s perennial class system, which from the beginning shunted Ullman to the side.
“I grew up with Jilly and Tamsin driving Volvos,” says Ullman slipping into the Queen’s English. “But I wasn’t one of them . . . I always felt more comfortable with Cockney and working-class people. My heroes were the Beatles and people like Michael Caine.”
Her father died when Ullman was 6 and the family’s comfortable income disappeared, taking with it any dreams of attending drama school that Ullman may have cherished. As a child she spent hours studying herself in a mirror, smoking cigarettes and pretending, even then, to be the lower-class women she found so fascinating on television.
From the beginning she defined herself as an outsider. Not able to attend Britain’s prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) because of a lack of funds, Ullman enrolled in a stage school for the performing arts. There she became a jack-of-all-trades--singing dancing, acting. But she dropped out at age 16. “My mother didn’t have the money,” she says, adding, “There were no examples of girls like myself becoming successful actresses. To be an actress in England was a serious, upper-middle class girl’s profession. I just thought I would never be accepted unless I pretended to become somebody I wasn’t.”
She adopted her Cockney accent and took to the road. Her first professional job was as a chorus girl in a road show of “Gigi” in Berlin. Later, she did regional theater work in Britain, eventually playing featured roles in West End musicals, including “The Rocky Horror Show.” Her break came in playing a born-again club singer in an improvisational comedy, “Four in a Million” at London’s Royal Court Threatre, a role that won her the London Theater Critics Award as most promising new actress in 1981.
“The Royal Court is the great exception to British theaters,” says Ullman, lapsing into Grand Dame tones. “They don’t have that ‘My liege, prithee’ attitude. I would do anything to help keep that theater alive.”
Her tenure at the Royal Court led to Ullman’s featured roles on several British sitcoms. She also pursued a sideline career as a singer, releasing a gold album, a video and four Top 10 singles in Britain. By the time she was barely 20, the British tabloids had embraced the popular Ullman as “Our Trace.” But even that sinecure was derived from pop culture rather than high art--a distinction that still rankles.
“I’m so down to earth,” says Ullman. “I didn’t want to go to RADA. I just wanted to go out and learn from life and make some money. I didn’t study the classics or read Virginia Woolf. Now I’m in my thirties, I’m learning and I played Kate in ‘Taming of the Shrew’ with a lot more spirit and realism than those bloody people.”
Coming to the U.S. was a more or less smooth trip with one bumpy stopover before she landed at Fox. Ullman’s then-agent, Lou Coulson, had circulated tapes of her British shows to Hollywood executives. Universal was the first one to bite, drawing up what would be a very short-lived contract for a CBS sitcom “I Love New York,” starring Ullman and produced by her husband, Alan McKeown, a successful 44-year-old British television executive. But Ullman, who has a reputation as hard-working but demanding, disliked the scripts and the deal fell apart rapidly.
Ullman, who had acquired a new agent, Martha Luttrell, was sent to Brooks, who was under contract at Fox at the time. He assembled a creative team and, for four years, turned out a half-hour sitcom. “You have to start with the fact that she is an artist,” says Brooks. “It was experimental television and that was both liberating and a burden. Is Tracey easy to work with? No. But she is one of the most talented people I ever met.”
Today Ullman lives “a very reclusive life” in the Pacific Palisades with her 4-year old daughter Mabel and McKeown, “who hates the class system as much as I do,” says Ullman. Her one sister has emigrated from Britain to Los Angeles and Ullman keeps up with Streep, but otherwise, Ullman prefers to stay at home, listening to public radio to keep her ear attuned to the nuances of American accents and trying on voices with Mabel, who is already an able mimic.
If Ullman seems to have buried the hatchet about past slights incurred at the hands of Britain’s class system, she nonetheless persists in retaining her place as outsider by living as an expatriate in Los Angeles, her eclectic choice of roles and an overt love of vulgarity. As Brooks said, “When we got down and dirty that’s when Tracey loved it the most.”
Whenever Ullman says she starts feeling too much like a successful Los Angeles matron, she “turns up at pre-school wearing an old leather biker jacket and some really spiky black boots like some punk rocker listening to Sid Vicious singing ‘My Way’ in the car.”
“I like being the odd one out in L.A.,” she adds, sounding like the London misfit she once was. “Because if you conform, you become something you hate. I love being the odd one out. It’s not about ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ It’s about really becoming someone else.”