Last month actress and comedian Tracey Ullman, 39, won an American Comedy Award as best TV actress for her HBO series "Tracey Takes On . . ." (Wednesdays, 10 p.m.).
The British-born Ullman, Emmy'd six times, portrays a slew of characters, among them: Chic, a New York cabby; Mrs. Noh Nang Ning, a doughnut shop owner; and Trevor, gay male flight attendant.
Question: What's the worst part of being in some of those costumes?
Answer: I hate sticking on beards. It drives me crazy because it's so bloody itchy.
Q: Were you funny as a kid? Did you get into trouble?
A: A little bit. I could always imitate everybody. A very old soul. I was kind of cynical. I was pretty bright at school, but I used to sneak out and go to a coffee bar and smoke and make fun of everybody.
Q: Which female comedians do you like? Not that there's that many women who make it in comedy.
A: My heroes are Gilda Radner and then Carol Burnett and Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler. I think it's a real advantage for a woman to be funny, if you are genuinely so, because there's not many women who can really do it. I think I'm in a small group, and that's great. You know, I don't have to rely on my looks, which would really make it difficult for me. I figured that out early on. I'm not a conventional looker. I think it's useful.
Q: What kind of work did you do pre-success days?
A: Oh, God. I've always been a worker. Pretty much dropped out of school at 14, and at 16 I went to Berlin as a dancer because I didn't have the choice of going to university because I just didn't have the money. Then I came back and had to work in offices and shops because I wasn't famous yet, and it was, oh, boy, boring. Nine to 5. And in England you're like, "Please, when is the tea trolley coming 'round?"
Q: Remember your worst boss?
A: There was this horrible man I used to work for. He was always kind of looking in his desk drawer and locking it. I remember he went out on lunch hour, and I looked in his desk. Really dirty pornographic stuff. Horrible.
Q: What kind of company was this?
A: It was a paper marketing company where you just sold rolls of paper to people in the Midlands. I remember when I left, this woman said to me, "Oh, I can't believe you're leaving. You could have gotten Cheryl's job in five years." And Cheryl was wearing nylon day suits and selling rolls of paper to people in Scotland.
Q: What was your job?
A: I just had to call this number and say, "Hello. Sharon. Faxing through to you now." It was one of those early fax machines. It used to take like 20 minutes per page and a big orange light flashed across it. And at the end of it she'd go, "Hello, Tracey. Received the fax." "OK, Sharon." "Bye-bye, Tracey." "Bye-bye, Sharon." Then I'd call her again in seven minutes. "Hello, Sharon." "Hello, Tracey." It just went on for hours, and that's all I'd do all day.
Q: What other kind of work did you do?
A: I used to work in a department store, and everyone was always stealing stuff. I never did. I could never steal anything. And you had to stand up all day with those fluorescent lights and the under-floor heating and I thought, "I've got to get out. I'm gonna have varicose veins at 19." And I worked in a baker's once.
Q: Me, too. Messy work. What did you do there?
A: I just served the bread. In England you get beautiful fresh cakes and every time I put them in a bag, if I got the cream on me, I used to lick my fingers. The manager used to say, "Don't do that." And I didn't know it was a reflex, and then after I did it like 10 times, she fired me. And I worked in a jeans store in the '70s. People wore really, really tight jeans and you'd do stuff like lay them on the floor and pull the zipper up with a wire coat hanger.
Q: I remember those jeans. You really did have to lie on the floor to get 'em on.
A: Yeah. Pressing women's ovaries. But that was good fun because I worked with a couple guys, and we used to play loud rock music and smoke joints and shut the store at 5 o'clock. I really liked that because I used to get on the jeans displays and dance, and then they said, "You should be in show business." I said, "You know, guys, I think I'm gonna try it."
Q: Where did you start? You went from selling jeans to . . . ?
A: Well, when I decided to be an actress, really try hard at acting, I had to go and do repertory theater in the north of England and obscure places. You're really doing it for what you can learn, not for financial gain obviously, but it's the groundwork for your future career and nothing like theater. And it was miserable, you know. I'd be in bed, room's freezing cold, middle of winter, no money, on my own. My little set of heated rollers in the corner.
And it was hard work. Eight shows a week and you couldn't be off. I remember once being at work, and I was just throwing up, throwing up, and I was in the middle of a scene on the stage and then I'd walk offstage, throw up in a bucket, walk back on and carry on, and that's work, you know.
Q: When you take a break from your work, what do you like to do? I'm trying to see what you're like out of costume?
A: I don't go out much. I'm really a homebody. I just like quietness and reading and nature. I live five minutes from my office, and the kids' school is five minutes from home, so we sort of work in a little triangle in the Santa Monica area. [Tracey and her husband, television producer Allan McKeown, have two children--Mabel Ellen, 12, and John, 7.]
I don't get involved in the whole show biz scene. I'm not comfortable with all that and the phoniness side of the business. I think L.A.'s a decent place to live if you don't get involved with the whole show biz thing. I'm about the work. I love the work.
Whatever Works runs every Monday.