Tracey Ullman's Fight for 'Mrs. America': "I Was the Last Person Cast"

Mrs. America - Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedan - Publicity still - H 2020
FX

Tracey Ullman had to fight for her role as Betty Friedan in the FX on Hulu limited series Mrs. America, about the movement for (and subsequent backlash against) the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. Sporting the feminist icon's gray-streaked hair and straightforward speech patterns, Ullman, as in so many other roles, physically embodies the feminist icon.

But what could have easily become a caricature by a less skilled actress is a deeply realized version of the complicated figure.

"I'm an actress first and foremost. It's taken me to be 60 years old to actually [get to a point where] people recognize that," she tells The Hollywood Reporter. "They gave me such a tough time casting me, actually, because one person — I don't know who it was — said, 'Oh, we don't just want a comedian doing impersonation.' And I'm like, 'Wow, if that's what people think I do after all this time, it kind of breaks my heart.'"

Ullman approached the role as a serious dramatic actress, "which is the way I've always approached my work," she explains. "I don't just do impersonations. I really want to understand people, get under their skin."

The actress, whose most recent stint on television was the 2016-18 HBO/BBC series Tracey Ullman's Show, spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about pushing for her role, Friedan's feminist blind spots and reuniting with her castmates on Zoom for a viewing party of the Mrs. America premiere.

What goes through your mind when you take on a role playing someone like Betty Friedan?

I just really wanted to be a part of this interpretation and Dahvi Waller's writing. I think I was the last person to be cast and they gave me a tough time, you know, kicking the tires for months. I'm like, "Oh, please." I knew I could do it and I just remembered her so well and identify with her and her ego. I love The Feminine Mystique. I read it in my 20s when I read Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, which preceded that. It's a European version. I've never forgotten that.

When she became an American she was always on TV as an older lady, plugging away some book. She'd be on C-SPAN, you know, looking for the argument, looking for the energy, looking for the passion. She just struck me as bohemian and somebody who had been so educated as a young woman, and then everything had been cut short for her generation once they left university. Hence why she felt so moved to write The Feminine Mystique and talk to people about what had happened to women or what was happening for women. It was an extraordinary book, and you look back and think, "Wow, she had to really go out and talk to people and go to libraries and get statistics that weren't available." If you tried to write a book like that now, there's so much available. It was quite a feat to sell 3 million copies that quickly of that first edition. I was just determined to get the part and to be taken seriously as a dramatic actress, which is the way I've always approached my work. I don't just do impersonations. I really want to understand people, get under their skin. It was a wonderful experience and I feel sort of vindicated for them taking so long casting me now.

How do you start researching someone whose work was so well-documented?

There's a lot to look at and read about Betty Friedan, and lots of interviews and appearances on television and speeches and demonstrations and marches, but it's trying to understand what they're like in private. You get that impersonation and you can look at the speech patterns of (adopts Betty's voice) standing at a lectern saying, "This is just hypocrisy." I returned many, many times to the interview where she's talking about young men coming back from Vietnam. It's imagining them in their private life that's harder to do. But I loved her huskiness and her Peoria, Midwest accent. I love all that — that's my thing, knowing where people are from and therefore what they can expect and what they grew up with. I think she was much more aware of the type of women that Phyllis Schlafly was gaining the support of than people like Gloria [Steinem] and Bella Abzug, who were more New York. I think she really understood where Phyllis' power base was coming from and the sort of woman they were. She saw Phyllis coming a lot sooner than anyone else.

Did that have anything to do with the fact that she had been in the public eye longer?

Yeah, she had, and she became a celebrity. I think she loved her fame. She got to not be a housewife in Peoria all the time and she got to be a celebrity and be on the Carson show. Unfortunately there's no actual footage of that available, because I think most of the stuff got wiped before 1970 or was in Johnny Carson's private archives, which we didn't have access to, but she would go on the Carson show in the early '60s and say stuff like, (adopts Betty's voice"I just say orgasm 10 times in a row." You think, "Wow, that was really incredible to say that sort of stuff back then." She had chutzpah. I love that. So I think her life really changed. She was the mother of the movement and she'd written that book, and then a new wave of women came along and sort of stole her thunder a bit, and she had a real ego problem and a problem with Gloria Steinem, who she felt was not quite the real deal. I mean, just because we're all women together doesn't mean to say you all get along. "We're women, we're all friends." There are problems within groups of women, as you know. It shows the vulnerability of her and the breakdown of her marriage and the new wife that her husband had. I think it became rather acrimonious, her relationship with her ex-husband. Dahvi chose to show that within the episode. It was just fabulous and really gave me something to play and to get variation and show the woman.

Speaking of the women not getting along, the show briefly touches on the issues that existed within the second-wave feminism movement. Betty did have her blind spots.

Yeah, she did with lesbians — she would call homosexuals the "lavender menace" for quite a while. She turned around and changed, but she took her time. I liked seeing her as an older lady interviewed on C-SPAN and she would say, (in Betty's voice"We learned a lot." She just evolved, as people do.

Because Betty's mannerisms are so distinct, how do you walk that line of inhabiting her without making it seem like too much of an impersonation or a caricature?

That's not what it is. I didn't have any makeup, which in the type of thing I do when I impersonate, like, Angela Merkel or Theresa May. I've used a lot of prosthetic makeup and I don't have anything like that. It's not Saturday Night Live, and that's not what I do anyway. I'm an actress first and foremost. It's taken me to be 60 years old to actually [get to a point where] people recognize that. They gave me such a tough time casting me, actually, because one person — I don't know who it was — said, "Oh, we don't just want a comedian doing impersonation." And I'm like, "Wow, if that's what people think I do after all this time, it kind of breaks my heart."

Actually, being funny is a lot harder than doing drama. I've learned that over the years. You try writing a scene where a husband leaves a wife: drama, that's kind of easy. You try making that funny. You've got to realize, sometimes the respect that people like ultimately, I think Robin Williams got it, and Eddie Murphy gets and should get it more, [people] seem to think that because you've done comedy, you're just surface or you're not really doing the real thing. It's like, are you kidding me? You go back and you look at Gilda Radner and Imogene Coca and Lily Tomlin and Carol Burnett, they're brilliant actresses. They understand. They're clever people and they understand what they're portraying. I don't feel I have to argue that at all. I feel vindicated by the reviews and the response and my work with the other actresses to not have to think that's what happened or was what I intended. (Betty voice"God damn it!"

I hope Betty would be pleased with me. She was tough, and I was the last person to be cast. It was hardest part to cast, they said. I would just channel her and sort of call upon the gods as I do sometimes with characters. Like, "Ah, help me out here Betty. What do you want me to do? I want to make you proud. I don't want you to think (Betty voice'Oh, you stupid girl.'" I felt this huge responsibility.

The scene on the airplane between Betty and Gloria was very tense and shows a little bit of what their relationship was like.

I've met Gloria Steinem a couple of times over the years, she's just fabulous and just so much fun to talk to and has a great sense of humor. I think that did happen. I don't think they said anything to each other, they just got stuck together. But yeah, I loved that, and her (Betty voice"I hope it didn't upset you." But yeah, there was a lot of conflict between that group, there were a lot of problems and it was tough. I loved re-creating those big conferences and conventions. The women always got the rotten hotels in the back room, and look how powerful the guys were. In episode three, when Shirley Chisholm is on the platform at the end with all those old white male nominees and she's there — it makes me tingle now to think of her up there, the symbolism of that, how hard she [worked]. Her being on that platform, that scene, when we shot that we all just really felt it.

It's particularly interesting to watch that scene after seeing how the Democratic primaries have played out this year.

Kamala Harris goes, Elizabeth Warren goes, and here we are left with — I personally am a Democrat and I pray to God Joe Biden can win — but you know, we're left with two old white guys again in 2020. It's crazy. Shirley Chisholm backed down for the same reasons in a way that Elizabeth Warren did. I don't know, we've made a lot of progress but there are still fundamental differences we cannot overcome.

The show has been an immersive distraction for people.

I think due to these dreadful circumstances we have more of a captive audience. I just want the guys to watch it too. For some reason in these interviews they say, "How does your daughter feel about this?" And you go, "What about my son?" It's "girl" stuff all the time. I just hope it does get a really big audience and I think it deserves that. We all worked so hard and Cate Blanchett is amazing. She was a brilliant exec producer and never stopped working on the scripts and every aspect of the production. The great group of mostly women, so much was put into it and the intentions were so good — and it's still an argument and still everything still continues on. But it was a wonderful thing to be a part of, really, and all the women that were in it — oh God, I've never been in a production with all women like that. It's always the guys that are ultimately the head, and it wasn't like that. We got on great. We all Zoomed the other night for the premiere and wore hats and drank cocktails. We all miss each other because we all had a lovely time in Toronto, and we would all get together and made an effort to connect up. It was a great time. Wow, a year ago! A different time.

A very different time.

I feel very fortunate. I'm riding through this with my family and hunkering down. I get to see my grandson every day and I'm lucky. I'm well and so are my family.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. New episodes of Mrs. America arrive Wednesdays on FX on Hulu.