Interview: Tracey Ullman on Singing Sondheim and Cuddling Cows

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New York premiere of 'Into The Woods' - ArrivalsAnyone of a certain age will fondly remember “The Tracey Ullman Show” when it aired in the late ‘80s on Fox, and for many Americans, it was their first introduction to the sassy British performer. While she’s done various cable shows in the time since, it feels like we haven’t seen her much in the past few years.

That’s why it’s nice to see her co-starring in Rob Marshall’s adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, playing the mother of Jack (of “Jack and the Beanstalk” fame). She’s a large part of the ensemble that includes Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine and more, as they make their way through the story inspired by a number of the darker Grimm fairy tales including Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and Rapunzel. The musical has an original story that brings all these characters together as Streep’s witch tries to overcome a curse that robbed her of her beauty with the help of the Baker and his wife (Corden, Blunt).

ComingSoon.net had a rare chance to sit down for an interview with Ms. Ullman at the New York junket for Into the Woods last month, and she had a lot of nice things to say about her co-stars, including young Daniel Huttlestone, who plays her son Jack, as well as the cow that played their cow.

ComingSoon.net: You must have known the musical which came out around the same time you were doing your TV show.

Tracey Ullman: I didn’t know this musical. I didn’t grow up in this country and I didn’t see a ton of musicals. I loved Sondheim, and them my son actually was in a production of “Into the Woods” at school, only middle school, about ten years ago, so I saw him as Jack and the Beanstalk, and I was one of those mums that went every night, because I loved it. I loved watching him but I loved the piece, and it was just the complexity of it, and the sadness and the poignancy and all the brilliance of Sondheim. So I saw this group of children do it for ten nights, and just when I saw that they were making it into a film, I just thought, “If there’s any part that’s right for me, I’d love to be a part of it.” It seems to be a certain discipline, singing Sondheim. It’s almost like performing Shakespeare. Do you qualify? Do you understand it? Do you know how to phrase it? It is challenging. I don’t have an enormous amount to do but what I did, I made sure was tutored by David Krane, who is one of the musical arrangers.

CS: Yeah, I know David Krane, he’s great.

Ullman: He’s great and he worked a lot with Sondheim.

CS: Am I going to get a holiday card with you and him? He tends to send those holiday cards on set with the actors he’s working with.

Ullman: Don’t know, don’t know. He really gave me some great tips on how to do it and helped me. So I went along and auditioned and you know…

CS: It’s kind of ironic that your son played Jack and then you played Jack’s Mom in the movie.

Ullman: Yeah.

CS: Has your son seen it yet?

Ullman: No, no, he’s going to come to the premiere. Of course, I just have this great connection with my son. I adore my son and I love that part, and I just liked Daniel Huttlestone immediately and had a great connection with him and a warmth, me being English. He’s a fantastic guy.

CS: I didn’t have a chance to see the sets, but what was it like being in that environment. You’ve done a lot of stagework but Rob Marshall clearly had a soundstage where they built the entire woods. What were your first thoughts of that environment?

Ullman: Beautiful. I mean, we had two big soundstages at Shepperton, and one was the woods before the disaster and one was the destructed woods and it was beautiful trees and grass and mosses, large enough that Chris Pine would come galloping through on his horse. I remember going in there that first morning. They let us in and the smell… it was like being in a real wood. And I grew up near Burnham Beach, which is in England, and it reminded me of my childhood. Little birds were living in the trees. They didn’t realize it was only a set. Little robins were in there. It smelled so amazing and it was very evocative, and we spent weeks and weeks on that set and then we moved over to the destructed set that the giant had trampled on. The whole experience is wonderful. You really connected with the other actors and you felt like you were part of a company and we all rehearsed for three weeks. I loved seeing the film last night and seeing that it wasn’t all CGI, too many effects and things, and it’s very human.

CS: Were you there the entire time?

Ullman: Yeah, although I came in and out, I think we were made available. We all lived in London for four months, and there was always something to learn, like ensemble music or rehearsing your bits or being with the cow was a big thing for me, because whenever you work with animals…. Don’t work with animals and children and I did both and it couldn’t have been better—best experience I’ve ever had. We would have to be near the cow, learning how to lie down and cover it up and be with it and ride the cow for Jack. We’d be doing that in one area of Shepperton, and then you’d look and there would be Chris and Billy galloping around on horses or learning how to swordfight or something. Everyone always had something to do and you could just wander in and watch everybody else. The costumes were a huge preparation and working with Colleen Atwood, who is amazing. Just having the privilege of meeting her and hanging out with her and seeing how things are made and what her process is. I used to hang out there just for the fun of it. Being in England and seeing moviemaking on this scale in England is exciting. I think I left England at a time when the movie business was in the doldrums and to see the amount of production in the UK now, I’m so proud and so happy for everybody there. It’s wonderful.

ullmanintothewoods2CS: I bet the cow had a lot of great stories about all the other movies he’d been in. Like maybe he was a background animal in “War Horse.” Movie animals always fascinate me for some reason.

Ullman: No, this cow was just found at this market. This guy from Seattle came and trained her and there were four different cows and this one I particularly took to. The main cow was called “Targen.” She was quite brilliant and I just adored her, and I keep saying things, but I was stunned at how affectionate she was. If I stopped scratching her, she would nudge me. How can you eat them? I love animals so much.

CS: I don’t know. I’m a vegetarian.

Ullman: Yeah, me too. She was wonderful. 

CS: What ended up being the first number you filmed when you went there?

Ullman: I think really the big first couple of days was for Daniel singing “Giants in the Sky” and that really kicked the movie off. It really kicks the movie off when you watch it. I think the prologue is amazing, all the cuts it makes—“I wish” “I wish”—and establishing all the characters. He just nailed that number, and the crew were very excited by that. And you thought, “Wow, this is this movie and this is Sondheim and this is the language and the cleverness of it,” and we’re in a different world. The camera, our DP Dion Beebe, lovely staff, and never a fuss and never hours setting things up. Very planned ahead. It wasn’t an enormous, enormous budget and it was a tight schedule, and then we got lucky with the weather and Rob Marshall was just so incredibly organized and kind.

CS: Was it all indoors or was it built on the backlot?

Ullman: Well, the woods stuff, but lots of locations. I mean, to do that location with “Agony” when they’re dancing in the fountain and the waterfall there, it’s so funny. My barn was in the middle of a field in the village of Hambledon, right in the middle of the field, and it hadn’t been touched this building, probably for hundreds of years.

CS: Oh, they used a real building for that?

Ullman: Yeah, it wasn’t a set in that. It was just a fantastic unspoiled place.

CS: Was that opening number cut between a lot of different locations? Were you still able to perform it together?

Ullman: We had three weeks rehearsal, so we’d all as a company, we’d sung through and we’d taken our cues. Some of that was easy to get out to the locations to shoot ‘cause we timed it all out. We knew what we were doing, and you knew that you weren’t going to get to the set and go, “Oh, what if I tried this?” Well you’ve done it, you’re set. Let’s go. Because it was such a big film to shoot and organize.

CS: I read that you worked with Meryl Streep once before in the early ‘80s.

Ullman: A film “Plenty.” David Hare, who is a playwright, so we did a film of “Plenty.”

CS: Had you seen her since then?

Ullman: Oh, we’re very good friends.

CS: What else have you been doing? You returned to network television with “How I Met Your Mother” so are you still developing television stuff for yourself?

Ullman: Yeah, this has been a slower time for me. The last thing I did was my Showtime show, and always looking for other people to give me jobs as opposed to having to create my own ensemble, but this was a nice thing to do. I’m writing something now, writing a couple of things. I always come up with ideas every few years or so.

CS: Do you enjoy having this time to relax?

Ullman: Yeah, yeah, you can’t just write, write and write. It comes to me every few years what I’d like to do next.

Into the Woods is now playing nationwide.

(Photo Credit: Dan Jackman/WENN.com)