Tracey Takes Charge : Ullman’s at Home Behind the Scenes and in Front of the Camera
The setting is a swank old Pasadena mansion, where comic Tracey Ullman has come for a news conference to promote her new half-hour, almost one-woman series on HBO, “Tracey Takes On . . . .” Sitting on an embroidered Victorian couch, a crackling fire nearby, the British-born actress swiftly transforms the ever-so-proper mood of the place into a den of hilarity.
She impersonates co-star Julie Kavner trying to impersonate Ullman--a screechy babble. “Julie Kavner does a terrible [impression]. . . . She pretends she’s doing me,” Ullman says, with an expression of superiority.
She imitates 9-year-old daughter Mabel, the elder of her two children, with a sort of upper-crust accent, cautioning her mother not to bring any of her characters along on a school field trip. “Mommy, I know it makes you happy, but don’t do your voices.”
But she’s funniest as one of her own creations--Mrs. Noh Nang Ning, a doughnut shop owner, modeled after a doughnut shop owner Ullman met in Los Angeles while “Takes On” was being written.
“I’d just sit and get a cup of coffee and watch her. . . . Some guy there was trying to sell her shelving, and she was just very skeptical.” She goes into character. “Ummm-ummmm! . . . I don’t know you put that on the waaalll.’ ”
Does the shop owner know she’s on TV? “No. Like she’s ever going to watch this show?” replies Ullman as Ullman, bringing down the house.
Ullman is a woman of many parts and multiple characters--17, to be exact, in the 10 episodes of “Takes On"--as she tackles such weighty matters as romance, law, fame and death. At 36, with five Emmys, Ullman is creator and executive producer of the series with her businessman husband, Allan McKeown, as well as the head writer and occasional editor. This social satirist sings and dances too.
It is another take on Ullman one gets at her offices at Takes On Productions in Santa Monica. While still funny and jumping out of her chair just to show you how she plays her roles, she shows she’s a much more serious and ambitious personality.
She says that after doing “Tracey Ullman Takes On New York” for HBO in 1993, the premise of a multiperson cast taking on a single subject each week clicked. McKeown, 12 years her senior and chairman of SelecTV, an independent TV production and cable company, helped raise money for “Takes On”; the couple own the rights to it.
She says she also began to believe in her own abilities and realize that she did not necessarily need the support of someone like James L. Brooks, the writer-director who had been “such an amazing mentor.” He essentially launched her in America with “The Tracey Ullman Show” on Fox. Thomas Schlamme directed the “Takes On” series.
“Last year, I was 35 years old, and I thought, ‘It’s time to do it myself really,’ ” Ullman explains. “I thought, ‘I know the premise, I know what I want to do. . . .’ I sat at the head of the table and made myself a boss.”
Her premise is her “broad spectrum of characters"--old and young, male and female, American, British, an Australian, a cabby from the Mideast--who in sketches and monologues deal with the week’s topic.
Some of the Ullman 17--including Fern Rosenthal, transplanted from Long Island, N.Y., to Boca Raton, Fla.; magazine publisher Janie Pillsworth, whom she notes is an amalgamation of those famed British editors such as Tina Brown and Anna Wintour; and her longest-running personage, “spinster” Kay Clark, now working as a bank teller in Van Nuys--are familiar from “Takes On New York,” HBO’s “A Class Act” and Fox’s “The Tracey Ullman Show.”
Now come a dozen newcomers, including Mrs. Noh Nang Ning, Chic--a macho Middle Eastern cab driver, everyone’s worst nightmare of a cabby, who drives 90 mph, 18 hours a day--and Los Angeles lawyer Sydney Kross, whom TV critics are assuming is Erik Menendez lawyer Leslie Abramson.
“She has a fascinating look,” Ullman says of Abramson, “and I thought it was time to do a lawyer, especially with the O.J. Simpson trial. It would have been passe to play an agent.”
Does Abramson know? “I think she’ll recognize herself physically but not her personality. . . . I’ve got some things physically which [aren’t her]. I’ve [had] some teeth [made] that look like sharks’. I had the glasses, the suit, but then I put these teeth in, and it made me move my mouth in a certain way. And I filed my nails square. Women in L.A. have these square white nails, reeeelly square. . . .”
Ullman has been at her game a long time. She began miming as a child after her father, a Polish emigre to England--he was at Dunkirk during World War II as a member of the Free Polish Army--died of a heart valve operation when she was 6. She recalls “trying to cheer everyone up, and I felt I could by being funny. It was just a great relief for my mother to see me perform on her window ledge. . . . British people love laughing at themselves.”
She received a scholarship to stage school at age 12, retelling the heart-rending moment when she stepped forward at an audition for “ ‘Flower Drum Song’ or something” and the director was actually pointing to “the little blond girl next to me. It was always about cute little blonds,” notes the dark-haired Ullman. “So I laughed at myself even more to cover the pain.” By 16, she was dancing in “Gigi” in Berlin.
Back in England, she joined a popular dance troupe and had a hit album. Her breakthrough came at the innovative Royal Court Theatre, creating the role of a bizarre club singer that won her the London critics’ award for the most promising new actress in 1981.
A year later, McKeown saw her in a popular BBC soap and told himself, according to Ullman, “ ‘I’m going to marry that girl.’ ” It was his idea to bring her to the United States.
Now Ullman and McKeown await word on whether HBO will pick up the series for a second season. Ullman, who has been on Broadway and in the Woody Allen movie “Bullets Over Broadway,” already is brimming with new ideas--taking her characters to Washington, perhaps to Las Vegas.
“I’ve given myself the confidence to know how to write, direct and instigate my own projects. Whereas I was always waiting around for someone to say, ‘Would you like to be in my film?'--that may still happen and that’s great--but I know I can do it myself, and it’s an enormous relief.”
* “Tracey Ullman Takes On. . . .” airs Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.