“There’s so many roles in your mid-fifties as an actress, it’s unbelievable.
My cellphone rang 10 times just this morning,” grins Tracey Ullman when we meet to discuss her role in Into the Woods – an all-star film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s award-winning Broadway musical, which puts a modern twist on several beloved fairy tales.
“It’s great to sing, too. It opens up your horizons, and gives you more opportunities to get roles. I’m just looking for that action-figure role – a little plastic person to make some money,” continues Ullman, who turns 55 this month. “Thank God I can sing. I can tap, too. In a pinch, I might flash one of my boobs, and you’ve got a job!”
The perennial funny girl is, of course, jesting, although few actresses have been as adept at re-invention as she. She made early appearances in West End musicals The Rocky Horror Show and Grease, then starred in 1980s TV sketch shows A Kick Up the Eighties and Three of a Kind and the sitcom Girls on Top, then had a brief career as a pop singer. Having thus captivated British audiences, she audaciously set out to conquer the US, emigrating to Los Angeles in the mid-Eighties, where she produced and starred in three eponymous network shows spanning 15 years.
Throughout her career she enjoyed the support of her TV producer husband Allan McKeown, who sadly passed away last Christmas Eve, just three days shy of their 30th wedding anniversary.
Naturally she has drawn on the support of their two children, son Johnny McKeown, 26, who has followed in the family footsteps as an actor, and daughter Mabel, 28, who lives in London and previously worked for the Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman. “She was never really interested in showbusiness. She’s the director of a charity,” says the actress, failing to mention Mabel’s recent failed bid for selection as Neath’s Labour candidate in the 2015 general election. Her daughter’s political affiliations should comes as no surprise, given Ullman’s own enduring friendship with the former Labour party leader Neil Kinnock.
When we meet, Ullman’s fingers are bare, no wedding ring, and she is dressed perplexingly like Little Red Riding Hood in a long crimson hooded cape with matching scarlet lips – despite the fact that she plays Jack’s mother in Into the Woods, a woman who is not happy when her son returns home from selling the family cow for a pocket full of beans.
It was her son who first introduced her to Into the Woods, when he played Jack in a school play. “I’m passionate about my son,” says Ullman. “I saw him in Into the Woods and, of course, like a beautiful parent, I watched him every night for 10 nights, because he’s a genius! And he’s available: JohnnyMcKeown.com. He’s an out of work actor. Just putting it out there. He’s modest,” laughs the actress who attended the well-known London school for child actors, the Italia Conti Academy, while her son cut his teeth appearing in her TV series State of the Union five years ago, and is currently enrolled in drama studies at Syracuse University in New York.
In the new A-list version of Into the Woods, Ullman appears alongside Meryl Streep’s witch, Johnny Depp’s wolf, James Corden’s baker and Emily Blunt’s baker’s wife, but it turns out her favourite co-star was a cow.
“I really liked the cow. Some people got really freaked out by it, but seriously, it was a great thing for me, working with the cow. She was like my dog. I remember being in a field, at five o’clock in the morning, and it was misty. You’re freezing cold, and you warm your hands on a cow’s jaw. That’s a great day’s work, getting to laugh with everybody all day.”
While she has made Los Angeles her home over three decades, she has maintained a Mayfair residence in London, and returned to the UK in September last year to film Into the Woods in locations including Dover Castle and Surrey’s Waverley Abbey, as well as Shepperton Studios.
Initially hesitant about scenes that called for her to slap her screen son, Daniel Huttlestone, around the head, she argues: “But people did that in fairy stories. He was not damaged during the production. In fact, no children were harmed during the course of this movie. I have a great love for Daniel, honestly. It was good that we could use real kids in this film, whereas on the stage, Jack is 37 and Red Riding Hood is menopausal,” quips Ullman, who told Michael Parkinson in 2007 that while most actresses feared losing their looks, she was looking forward to getting older since she “didn’t have any looks to loose”. She has chosen to age gracefully, allowing her long dark hair to turn grey at the temples.
Throwing herself back into work since her husband’s death, she appeared in three episodes of the hit TV comedy How I Met Your Mother earlier this year, as well as completing TV movie Good Session and promoting a new knitting book, Knit 2 Together on The Martha Stewart Show. Last month she appeared on Broadway in a limited production of the musical The Band Wagon.
Ullman was born in Slough to a Polish father and English mother. When she was 13, a clairvoyant predicted she would be enormously successful in the US. The prophecy was fulfilled when she became the first foreign-born female comedian to successfully crossover to US TV audiences, earning her seven Emmys and a Bafta Lifetime Achievement award. She and her husband also amassed a fortune flipping high-end property in Los Angeles.
It was too painful to remain in the home that they shared until his death from prostate cancer last year, so Ullman recently put their three-bedroom, three-bathroom contemporary Brentwood home on the market at an asking price of $3.5m.
While her facility for mimicry has enabled her TV sketch show career, it also led to a variety of voice work. She supplied the voices of characters in Corpse Bride and The Tale of Despereaux. Despite well-received performances in Mel Brooks’s Robin Hood: Men in Tights, and becoming an early muse to Woody Allen, appearing in Bullets Over Broadway and Small Time Crooks (although her scenes were cut from Everyone Says I Love You), the early promise of her big-screen career never quite materialised.
Accustomed to playing unglamorous characters, she was unsurprised when she arrived on the set of Into the Woods to see that she would be wearing drab peasant garb alongside her glamorous ringleted and corseted costars. “I could just roll around in the leaves and get a bit of cow dung on me, and I was camera ready. ‘Just brush the poo off of her, and turn her loose,’” smiles the actress, who took home her character’s nightgown, embroidered with tiny cows.
While she forged close bonds with her Into the Woods colleagues – Streep in particular, who she previously worked with on Plenty and Death Becomes Her – younger cast members such as Anna Kendrick failed to appreciate Ullman’s legacy. “We were talking this morning, and Anna was like, ‘Oh really ... You had a single?’ Anna was born yesterday. Google me, honey! I was on Top of the Pops with Boy George and Duran Duran and U2. I was on Stiff Records, with Elvis Costello, back in my day. I can carry a tune, and I’ve loved singing all the way through my career. I was a one-hit wonder in 1984 and I’m still here.”
‘Into The Woods’ is released on 9 JanuaryReuse content