Tracey Ullman on Playing British 'National Treasures,' Powerful Women

We caught up with the legendary comedian to discuss Dame Judi Dench, Angela Merkel, dressing up as male characters – and why Trump isn't funny.

Tracey Ullman has been creating characters ­– and a string of successful shows, including Tracey Takes On… (HBO, 1996-99) and Tracey Ullman's State of the Union (Showtime, 2008-10) – for decades. But it was only recently that she's really embraced impersonating celebrities and politicians. For the second season of Tracey Ullman's Show, which originally aired on the BBC and is now available on HBO, she's back with her impressions of a rascally Dame Judi Dench (and her frenemy Dame Maggie Smith), a sexy singing Angela Merkel, and a version of Jerry Hall that will make you squirm. While some see these characterizations as straight-up mockery, Ullman says it's actually just her own "spin" done with kindness.

"You've got to not make fun of it, but find the humor and humanity in it, otherwise we'll go mad," she explains. "A sense of humor is a saving grace, to bring a kindness and respect into things is really important. You can't just react by being brutal with things; that's not going to help us."

The 57-year-old actress and comedian recently spoke to Rolling Stone while sitting in a Space Age-looking elliptical room in HBO's New York City corporate headquarters, looking cozy with her knees curled up close to her chest. But when inspiration struck, she was quick to hop up and start doing a voice or a character – traipsing around the room to explain how Merkel's hand gestures have to be just-so – because that's just Tracey.

You said in 2008, after you had become an American citizen, that the United States was finally able to laugh at itself more. Of course Obama was president then, and people have said that Trump has no sense of humor, or that people have lost their sense of humor. Do you still think that's true when it comes to what you are doing or what you experience?
I think I meant it in the sense more that there was more political satire. I mean I came here in Reagan's era. I grew up with Spitting Image being on in England at that time, a really political satirical show with puppets. We used to have the "President's Brain Is Missing..." for Reagan. And they tried to stop that show in America. We have always turned to satire with Private Eye and go back to Beyond the Fringe, and that's what the week was. It was never mainstream here, at least not on that level. It was May and Nichols in the Village in the Sixties doing that stuff. Yet now it's like, we've laughed so much we're crying. It's getting a bit overwhelming. I don't know how you make jokes about Trump every day on all these shows – because it's not funny. I don't find it funny. I find it, I just don't find it funny. 

To make light of it seems silly. I didn't like Sean Spicer appearing at the Emmys. I didn't find that funny. And with some people it's like, "What? Can we now take selfies with the guy like a Beanie Baby?" He's like the cute thing this week or something. I didn't think it was cute. I thought this is weird. This is too soon, you know. With his soft touch all these people going [impersonating American celebrity], "Oh, you can be one of us now. It's like you had a failed pilot and now it's like funny. Can I get a selfie with you?" I mean, we are going to be like that in a few years when Trump has finally finished. He comes to the Emmys, and half the room will go [impersonating American celebrity], "Can we get a selfie with you?" Like, what means anything anymore? You know? What's respectful? What's dignified? So that was weird to me. 

When I first came to America, nobody celebrated the loser. You didn't talk about being a loser in America. It's like, now, there are so many shows about neurotic people who feel they failed in society, which is so different from when I first came here. [American voice]: "I'm a nobody, I'm an idiot; I can't even create an app." There was never that attitude. I'm not saying it's not a positive thing; I think in that sense you're able to observe yourself as Americans with more nuance. Maybe too much. It's a bit too depressing sometimes. I want to see more shows like Cheers again, or people unifying. I look at those episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond at 10 in the morning and I go, "Do you remember that world when Dorris Roberts came across and this plot was about Ray leaving without his wife?" I like those, that sort of America, too. I would like to see more writing about the family, not so much angst.

You're bi-national, entrenched in both cultures, but with this series, you continue to show us more of a European angle, and I wondered why that was.
It's a time in my life where I am spending more time in England because my husband [producer John McKeown] died four years ago, which was... I had been married 30 years, and he was English too, so it was a different period in my life. My goodness. I wanted to be close to my daughter, who was born in America, and lives in England. My son lives here [in the States]. We love both places. We are very fortunate to be dual citizens. And there is a new commissioner at the BBC, Charlotte Moore, who is extraordinary. And I just connected with her. She's wonderful and another lady, Myfanwy Moore, who is head of comedy. So that was a huge difference because, when I was there as a young girl, it was like five men with bowties who all served in the war. It was so male then.

And I thought that what a fabulous thing – that these two ladies are running the BBC at this moment and they said, "What would you like to do?" And I said, "You know I'm American, but I'm British as well. So it has to be a show that incorporates different cultures and different ideas." So I rediscovered England in a sense.

We're back to England in a time of great recuperation… with Merkel, with Theresa May, with politics generally, and I get older and I am more political. I’m more interested in talking about social issues within sketches. And Brexit has just been, that’s been extraordinary and a very unnerving and difficult period of time. It's going to take a long time, but it has given me Theresa May [going into her Theresa May impression], who is "strong and stable wanting the best deal for Britain and we need strong and stable leadership." You go, "You're hysterical!" She's in a panic; it's terrible. And then, you know, so I wouldn't do it if I was in America doing an American-based show, I think Saturday Night Live has just been a salvation the last couple years. It comes and goes, Saturday Night Live, but boy do we need it. I think Kate McKinnon is doing a fantastic job with her Hillary Clinton. And they're such talented performers, and it's different than what I do. I'm trying to interpret people more.

Speaking of SNL: You've had a long history of portraying men as well as women, and this year, having Kate do Jeff Sessions and Melissa McCarthy do Sean Spicer, it caused this uproar for some reason. Like, "How dare these women portray men!" And I wondered what you thought about that. What does it mean when a woman decides to satirize a man?
I think it went down really well for Melissa McCarthy and it's, like, it was just brilliant. Jeff Sessions was a, some of them are easy, I have done men. I have done ethnic people. I realized in the Nineties that I regularly did black characters, African-American characters, in my show and I don't know if it’s because I am English or...I mean I saw Eddie Murphy be a white girl in a movie in the Eighties, and I said, "I want to be black." So I did it, and it worked really well. And black people were enthusiastic about it.

You've portrayed some extraordinary black characters. Do people ever get offended?
Well, they get offended. My criteria has been: That exists; they look like that; they sound like that and do things like that. It's like total immersion, like Peter Sellers, and he was my master and inspiration. And Eddie Murphy, so that was different. I wouldn't stop myself doing anything actually. It's all, it's done in the right spirit, the right action, and it's truthful. I don't do anything mean. I never do any character because I hate them, it's not like that. 

With all this stuff going with Weinstein, and you mentioned working for yourself and having women in control in TV and movies, what do you think about how people are reacting or what's going on and that sort of thing?
Well, you know, it goes on in the military, it goes on in politics, it's just more visible for all of us, because everyone is obsessed with entertainment and stuff. I'm older, and that's one of the nice things about getting older as a woman, you don't get whistled at and you don't... I had guys hit on me and [do] inappropriate stuff in my twenties, I remember it really well. I'd just shake it off... I was married when I was 23, but it's horrible, and it makes you feel powerless. And it's a game – yeah, of course that guy's nice to me, of course the head of that company has been nice to me, because I'm me. What are they like to the 22-year-old in the mail room? Shitty. It's discovering that, and being brave enough to talk about it in so many different business and places. There must be women I know with casting directors that take it from young actors. "Want the part? Shag me darling."

It goes all ways, it's true.
Yeah, so it's that, and it's feeling powerless, but, when it happened to me with a few guys looking back, I just put up with it. I managed to get through it because I was always the funny girl, or the cheeky girl or the girl with more confidence, but you do that to somebody with no confidence, and it's really painful. They had to do it because of Bill O'Reilly or Roger Ailes on the right, and now it's on the left, and it'll be this week's news, what's going to be going on next week? The news cycle is so fast now, things are changing, and you can't discuss anything for anything more than 36 hours, 36 minutes sometimes, we're contradicting ourselves...it's exhausting.

Is there anyone you still haven't done that you want to impersonate? I know you said you didn't used to do impersonations... 
I didn't. I don't really impersonate them, I just try to interpret them, really. There's people I'd like to be or represent, but it's not pertinent to the news. Now I've [done] this year with BBC...because everything's happening so quickly, and we did a thing about Angela Merkel and then it goes out six months later, it's not going to be pertinent anymore. We decided to do a show this year, which I'm currently doing, where we film some stuff up front, and then we, before the show goes out, go in and do 10 minutes of topical stuff – which is as close as all to Saturday Night Live as anyone in England gets at the moment. So if Corbin or Theresa May, or something extraordinary happens, we can go in and do a piece about that. Who knows what might come up, you know, who I can try to be or... I don't necessarily have to be that person, I could be in connection with them. Like our thing with Melania Trump being, you know –

A robot.
Those Westworld robots, and I thought, Maybe the Russians put her in to function. Put her into his sphere in the Nineties. [Russian accent]: "She's like the space station, she's old." But they've kept her on, and she keeps malfunctioning and they go and fix her – that's our weird take on that. So I wouldn't attempt being Melania, because that's really hard to look like her. She's very beautiful, actually. It's like me being Jerry Hall in this series, it's really hard.

Once again you're portraying Angela Merkel, one of the most powerful women in the world, and you seem to get such delight in that. What did you want to bring to it this time? One of the episodes has you Skyping with Trump, but really wanting to talk with Macron again. So tell me a little more about the whole Angela angle.
Yeah, Anthony Atamanuik is Trump, you know, who does [The President Show on Comedy Central]. He very kindly Skyped with me. We filmed him and then I, he sat with me as Theresa May and that was fun. So I loved talking to him. He's so improvisational, and I had a good time doing that. I mean, who would know Merkel would be somebody that people respond to so well. I have done these shows forever now; I just keep doing different incarnations of them. I didn't used to do impersonations of people – it was just original characters – then you had to, if you wanted to sort of do a cross-section of society, you throw in well-known people and we had these lovely ideas for Judi Dench. You know, "national treasures" and shoplift and um, and then I wanted to be Merkel.

I'm really interested by her, and she really is the most powerful woman in the world. She certainly was a couple years ago, but to find a little twist on her, to imagine she really thinks she's actually incredibly sexy and that she's wearing [Merkel accent] the warm beige and that she has a friend. Because you always see her in a room with men. You know, it was always her and the guys and what it used to be you know, bloody Berlusconi and people.

So I was always fascinated by her and people really like that I do her. And I had a lovely guy come up to me in a restaurant the other day and he said [German accent], "I want to thank you for making a positive character in a comedy in England of a German." Yeah, I guess we were doing it. It was a lot of corny BBC shows 20 years ago, with called Allo, Allo!, [German accent] and there would be the Nazi kind of, you know so I said thats really great. 

Yeah, so he thinks it's positive.
Yeah, and I got a letter from the Reichstag saying that, yeah, they think it's very positive and she likes it. 

You still seem to love what you're doing so much and have so much energy and passion for it. I'm just curious, how do you keep that going?
I like working for myself. I like doing TV, the immediacy of it. I just like being in a room full of comedy writers and people who are really thinking about the world and are curious and have ideas and interpreting, and people connect [to] them and enjoy them.

I do, I get a great kick out of doing it. I did it with my husband all those years, and this is the first show I did without him – it was hard. But it's great fun dressing up and really being totally within someone else's personality. It's something that not a lot of people experience apart from Halloween; but everyday for me is Halloween. To be black people, to be gay people, to be men, to be poor people, to be fat – it's really interesting what I do. It's what I liked doing as a child, and I've continued to do it all my life. To still be doing it at 57, you think, Oh, am I too old to do this? Of course you're not too old! Because, you know, I could do this when I'm 70 – to interpret society around me.