IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Tracey Ullman Talks 'Into the Woods' and Her Legendary Career

Sunday, 21 December 2014 22:05 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Tracey Ullman Talks 'Into the Woods' and Her Legendary Career

Tracey Ullman is an Emmy-winning actress, legendary comedian, and former pop star! So it only makes sense that she would now combine all of her talents for the new film Into the Woods, which is based on the beloved Stephen Sondheim musical of the same name and opens in theaters on Christmas Day. 

Ullman began her career in the ‘80s as a successful pop singer with such hits as “Breakaway” and “The Don’t Know.” But she made a name for herself as a comedian on the groundbreaking and Emmy Award-winning Fox TV series The Tracey Ullman Show, which was also the birthplace of The Simpsons. She went on to star in two more sketch comedy series, HBO’s Tracey Takes On…, and Showtime’s Tracey Ullman’s State of the Union. She has also appeared in several movies from acclaimed filmmakers like Lawrence Kasdan’s I Love You to Death, Robert Zemeckis Death Becomes Her, Mel BrooksRobin Hood: Men in Tights, James L. BrooksI’ll Do Anything, Woody Allens Bullets over Broadway, Everyone Says I Love You, and Small Time Crooks, Robert Altman’s Pret-a-Porter, John Water’s A Dirty Shame, and Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride

Into the Woods revolves around a witch that tasks a childless baker and his wife with procuring magical items from classic fairy tales to reverse the curse put on their family tree. Ullman plays Jack’s Mother, a poor woman that’s child sells their last cow for magic beans. The film was directed by Academy Award-nominee Rob Marshall (Chicago), and also stars Academy Award-nominees Emily Blunt (Arthur Newman), Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect), and Johnny Depp (The Lone Ranger), as well as James Corden (Begin Again), Chris Pine (Star Trek Into Darkness), Christine Baranski (The Birdcage), and Academy Award-winner Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady). 

I recently had the absolute honor of speaking with Tracey Ullman about her work on Into the Woods and her legendary career. The iconic comedic actress discussed her new film, returning to music, singing in the car with Meryl Streep, being familiar with the source material, having Stephen Sondheim give the production his blessings, director Rob Marshall, the legendary filmmakers she has worked with throughout her career, which young female comedians are her favorite, and how she feels about having discovered The Simpsons.

Here is what Tracey Ullman had to say about Into the Woods and her legendary career:

IAR: To begin with, everyone knows you as a brilliant comedian and accomplished actress but you are also a former pop star. Was it fun for you to appear in Into the Woods and have an opportunity to combine all of your talents into one film?

Tracey Ullman: Yes. I loved being in the movie. It’s a wonderful cast with a lot of my friends. I am not a Broadway singer, a great singer, or a trained singer. I’m not like Anna Kendrick and her singing career. But one day Meryl said, “Oh, Tracey had a pop song once.” Anna said, “Oh, really?” I said, “Yeah. I did years ago.” I have done a bit of everything really. I did love singing. It was a beautifully written song that I had a hit with called “They Don’t Know,” which was written by the late and great Kirsty MacColl. I love singing. I think the people singing are incredible in this movie. Who knew Chris Pine could sing so well? Emily Blunt had only ever sung at a friend’s wedding. She was so shy about it, and she has a beautiful voice. You really need actors to sing Sondheim. You do not necessarily need to have all of these fantastically trained voices.

I agree with you that the cast is great. Especially that new actress … what was her name? Meryl Streep? She’s pretty good. I think she’s going to have a big career. 

Ullman: Who, the living legend? I call her the belter. We can go do it on the road for a while. We should start at the Cerritos Civic Center for one week only. Whenever Meryl and I get together we sing. We always sing harmonies in the car. We drive the kids mad but we love doing it. 

Were you familiar with the original musical prior to making Into the Woods, and had you ever seen any productions?

Ullman: My son was in it in middle school. He played Jack. I watched it for ten nights because I adored him and I was helping him with the production. It really got to me. Everyone does this in high school or middle school because there are lots of parts for girls. It is wonderful, the layers of it and the emotions. I loved the Cinderella part. I did not really like her prince when she married him. I love that the Grimm fairytales were told the way they were written, pretty harshly with people cutting off their children’s feet so that they can marry a prince. The music really got to me as all Sondheim stuff does. You do not come out humming a bit, but you do come out thinking. It gets you to the poignancy of it. Sometimes people leave you halfway through the woods. You are not alone. No one is alone. Children will listen. It is all about mothers and Into the Woods warns children of the different messages in the world.

Was it nice to have musical composer Stephen Sondheim give his blessings and be involved with the production?

Ullman: It’s always great to have his blessing. He came when they recorded in London with a seventy five-piece orchestra, and he was so happy because he had never heard it with such a full orchestra. He was there at the recording studio when we all showed up to do our bit. We did not know he was going to be there. You’re looking at the man that wrote the lyrics to West Side Story. It was very exciting. We met him and talked to him. He was very happy with the film and thrilled it got made. It was wonderful to be around him. 

I don’t think anyone makes better film adaptions of musicals than director Rob Marshall. As an actress, what was your experience like working with him on this project?

Ullman: He is fantastic. He comes from a musical theater background. He’s devoted to the shots and comes so prepared. It really is a complex, visible film, and difficult to score with difficult subject matter. He paced it so beautifully, and he cast it beautifully. He made it real. He totally understands the material and you feel safe with him. We only had three weeks of rehearsal. I knew he had done an amazing job with all of us. I want to do more with him. He is brilliant. He had us all rehearse three weeks beforehand, so when we got to these locations in a field with a cow, I knew what I was doing from the rehearsals. Then one night I said could I sing live? Rob said, “Yeah. Sing live.” It was great fun.

You’ve worked with several legendary directors throughout your career such as Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Mel Brooks, and John Waters. As an actress, is there anything that you learned from them that you have been able to apply to your work over the years?

Ullman: I’ve had little bits in everybody’s films. Sometimes I have been in people’s worst films ever but at least I worked with them. Oh, it is amazing. I loved working with Woody Allen. He was fantastic. I had a night out in the south of France with my husband and Robert Altman. We got our piece of Altman. It was amazing. I worked with Lawrence Kasdan, James L. Brooks, and John Waters. I had a blast with John. I did a movie with him in Baltimore and it was out of control. I love it that I can join in with all these folks. I love doing my own thing too. I’ve never being pigeonholed. I now need to take over for Maggie Smith and Judi Dench. This is it. This is where I see myself going. As if I’m as talented as them. I am just saying I would like to go on till I’m 90 and find more roles for women at my age. That is really important. That is why this movie is fantastic. There are lots of parts for women like Christine Baranski, Anna Kendrick, and Emily Blunt. It is so much fun. 

Since you’ve been such a pioneer for women in modern comedy, who are some of the new female comedians that you really enjoy watching?

Ullman: I think it is a brilliant time for women. In a minute we got Amy Poehler and Tina Fey hosting the Golden Globes, which is always fun. It’s great that two women can do it now and be just brilliant. There is no question that they needed a man to do it all. It is changing. My heroes were Carol Burnett, Lily Tomlin and Gilda Radner. They encouraged me and helped me. I like really Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer and Sarah Silverman. There are so many great girls out there right now. Melissa McCarthy is brilliant too. I think women are very empowered right now. All that crap about women aren’t funny is really annoying. The late great Christopher Hitchens once stupidly said that. Sometimes guys like girls, but sometimes they do not. I think they feel threatened by them. I don’t even like to think about it. 

Finally, with all of your great accomplishments throughout your career, are you most proud of the fact that you discovered The Simpsons?

Ullman: I am glad to be associated with the little yellow people, I breastfed them. I am incredibly proud, yes. I knew something extraordinary was happening when they were part of the show I did. The longevity is amazing and they’ve become this global brand. I knew it was getting big when 20 years ago I was on holiday in Italy and I saw a Simpsons bathrobe. I thought, hey, this is really catching on. I am very proud to be associated with them. Matt Groening he is the guy! 

It was an honor to speak with you today Ms. Ullman, thank you for your time. 

Ullman: It was nice to talk to you too Jami. Have a lovely Christmas.

Into the Woods opens in theaters on December 25th. 

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