The Season 3 premiere of “Tracey Ullman’s Show” at Tribeca TV turned into a major lovefest between two legends on Friday evening in New York. Introduced by Tribeca founder Jane Rosenthal as “Tracey Ullman’s very best dearest friend,” Meryl Streep joined Ullman for a post-screening Q&A that covered not just the breadth of Ullman’s career, but the deep bond between the two actors.
“I met you when I was 32,” Streep said, “and I said to my husband, ‘I think I’ve made a new friend.’ It’s hard to make a new friend when you’re old and famous.”
The pair met when Ullman, then 21, and Streep were cast in the 1985 film “Plenty.” They have remained close since — as evidenced by a natural banter that sometimes slipped into the pair singing together on stage. “We had babies at the same time, shared life experiences,” Ullman said. “People ask me, ‘do you and Meryl talk about acting when you get together?’ Are you kidding me?”
The question of fame, and managing that, came up as something the both of them deal with. “The least fun part of what I do is be ‘Meryl Streep’ or whatever that is,” Streep said, as opposed to other people she’s observed in Hollywood, who “like to be the thing they’ve created — be a diva or whatever.”
Ullman noted that the two of them experience fame in different ways, and that while people faint when they see Streep, “when people on the street see me they say, ‘I got a cousin like you, she’s crazy too. She should have a show, she’s funny too.”
Ullman spoke about her youth spent watching the difference between comedy in the U.S. and the U.K. — specifically how U.S. shows were more likely to feature female comedians like Gilda Radner and Imogene Coca. Meanwhile, “in England I’m watching ‘Benny Hill’ with girls in bikinis having their bums pinched.”
According to Streep (who said she looked it up on Wikipedia), Ullman is the first female comedian to have a show airing in both the United States and U.K. simultaneously. Ullman had been on hiatus, following the death of her husband and collaborator Allan McKeown five years ago, when BBC called her to see if she wanted to make a new show.
“He gave me the confidence to come to America,” Ullman said of her late husband. When the BBC called in 2016, she hadn’t done a show in England for 30 years, and had to learn how to handle the production aspects of making “Ullman’s Show” on her own.
“I got it together — I felt the old juices going, and I had a good time,” she said. Making the show gave her work, which she valued because, according to Ullman, she doesn’t get cast in other people’s projects. “No one’s going to call me up and give me a job.”
While Ullman scoffed at the concept of her and Streep hanging out and talking about acting, she did note one thing they have in common as performers: “We’re both obsessed with accents and doing the real thing for the period, because accents change over the years.”
Streep agreed. “It’s a cultured thing and it defines you,” she said. “The way you speak does define you and locates you for people. The idiosyncrasies of speech — I don’t understand why people aren’t obsessed with it.”
Streep praised Ullman’s legendary ability to slip between various personas, which is showcased by the BBC/HBO-produced sketch series, as well as her political acumen: In the episode screened at Tribeca, Ullman portrayed Angela Merkel, Theresa May, and Brigitte Macron as well as other assorted original characters.
“I found that the most interesting women I could impersonate were politicians,” Ullman said, calling out Merkel as a particular favorite. “Could you imagine being her, the only girl in the room with Putin and Berlusconi and George W. Bush?”
“She holds her own,” Streep said.
While she does target a number of political figures with her impressions, Ullman said that when she plays May or Merkel, she looks for the humanity and empathy within these women. For example, Ullman doesn’t agree with May politically, “but I never come at it like ‘I want to have a go at you.’ I just see her as an awkward vicar’s daughter.”
And May is also currently dealing with the political mess of Brexit, which she technically didn’t cause. “That’s the sadness of her, which I enjoy more than anything,” Ullman said.
Streep called out the fact that Ullman is attuned to global politics on a level few are. But Ullman did say that “I’m not in some liberal indignation bubble — I can’t be or I’d go mad right now. I don’t want to be one of those late night shows that hates Trump the most and the best.”
That said, Streep ended the panel by declaring that “we need you to run for president right now.” Based on the cheers which followed, the audience agreed.
“Tracey Ullman’s Show” premieres September 28 on HBO. The Tribeca TV festival runs September 20-23 in New York.