Wed. Oct 28th, 2020

Interview: Tracey Ullman breaks down the mystique of feminism in ‘Mrs. America’

Mrs. America tells the story of the movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), and the unexpected backlash led by a conservative woman named Phyllis Schlafly, aka “the sweetheart of the silent majority.” Through the eyes of the women of the era – both Schlafly and second wave feminists Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug and Jill Ruckelshaus – the series explores how one of the toughest battlegrounds in the culture wars of the 70s helped give rise to the Moral Majority and forever shifted the political landscape.

In the limited series, multi-Emmy award winner Tracey Ullman (The Tracey Ullman Show, Ally McBeal) joined a virtual press conference to talk about her role as legendary women’s movement leader and author of The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan. In the conversation, Ullman talks about going toe to toe with Cate Blanchett’s Phyllis Schlafly, reminisces on the anniversary of The Simpsons and her close friendship with Meryl Streep.

How did the show recreated Betty Friedan’s appearance on The Tonight Show on August 14, 1963. Did you have – how did you get the dialogue for that chat with Johnny where she told her husband she interrupts him by saying the word orgasm ten times?

Yes. Well I believe she said that. I didn’t have it in the NB – it wasn’t in the NBC archives. But I think it was in Johnny Carson’s personal collection, which we didn’t have access to. But I guess that’s a question for our writer Dahvi Waller. I mean I do believe that’s what she said. I know that on that show that night Jean Seberg was on with her but I didn’t see any actual footage of it. It wasn’t televised, but I read all the transcripts of it – from the University in Illinois. And it was great. It went on for like two and a half hours and interesting things were said and lots of people were present who were I think fans of Friedan. And she – but she lost it with her. And she called her a female Uncle Tom. And said she’d like to burn her at the stake. And that’s what people remember. And that’s what got the headline. So, I think Betty’s temper got the better of her. She got frustrated by Phyllis and ultimately, you know, that’s what people remember.

In looking at Betty’s rivalry with Gloria Steinem, why do you think she let Gloria get under her skin?

I don’t know. I mean she just – they didn’t have an easy relationship, unfortunately. I think Betty was a little abrasive with quite a few people. I don’t know. I think she was – maybe she was – she came along and she was younger. She could wear tight jeans and maybe it was – she does say in my episode, “What is it with her? It’s all about hair!” But I don’t know. They had a tough time. You know but, just because they’re all women together doesn’t mean they all get along.

How would you describe Betty Friedan’s incredible legacy, and why doesn’t she get sometimes the credit she’s due from today’s wave of feminists?

I’d recommend reading The Feminine Mystique again. And just to recognize it was such a phenomenal book at that time. I think it sold 3 million copies at first publishing. And nobody was talking about this stuff at that time. And I – it must’ve been such an incredible thing to research for her. And it wasn’t online stuff. It was all this data about women and how they felt, and she must have done so many interviews and gone to universities and gone to so many libraries and the style of research into this book is admirable. And it’s a wonderful book. I think – I read it in my 20’s. But to read it again, and just the starting line – are we living a half-life? And it’s really worth reading. I mean she wrote the book. And I think that the movement really acknowledged that. But she was a little older than the rest of them and she I think had an ego and wanted to be the leader. So, there was a little friction amongst – with her and the others. But she kept going. She was an extraordinary woman.

You’ve created so many original characters, often comedically. Is it different when you’re creating a real historic person who lived?

No. I mean I always go for being truthful and real and trying to figure out what’s underneath the surface and certainly didn’t play this for locks. And I don’t think I do that really with the characters in my – in the shows I do. I just – I haven’t impersonated real people or been real people. I started doing that in the last show I did, like with Angela Merkel and Theresa May and Judi Dench, and happened to put them in a comedic setting a lot of time. But I could play them – with dramatic effects as well, I do believe.

With The Simpsons in its 31st season do you look on at them like a proud parent since they started on your talk show?

Yes. Fantastic. So proud…and I mean I’m here in London now. It’s on every day, in the morning and afternoon here. I mean it’s a worldwide phenomenon and to be associated with it, I’m very, very proud.

What did this experience do to inform or alter your own thoughts on modern-day feminism?

It was a fantastic experience, this job. It was – to be with such a great group of women. I’ve never been on a show with all females, you know, pretty much. And our DP was a woman. And lots of directors were women. And I guess I was – this movement, I was like 16 when it was all really at its heyday. And, you know, you just didn’t say you were a feminist back then because the men all made jokes if you were a feminist – you had hairy armpits and, you know, no sense of humor. And I certainly wasn’t. They liked to sort of have this stereotypical image of a feminist. But I never felt held back ever in my career being a woman. And there’s some pretty nice guys around too. I didn’t – you know, they’ve helped me along over the years too. I like to mix it up. I’m certainly not a militant anti-men type woman. But it was a great experience to work with all these women. And we became such good friends. And on it goes. And it was amazing to see some of the issues that were problematic back then that still are. They had fought for these rights we get, and the generation before had suffered yet. And we just have such respect for women coming together and making a difference for the next generation. And we just admire them and thank them.

You talked a little bit about reading The Feminine Mystique when you were 20. What do you remember about the movement coming to your consciousness? Was the name Gloria Steinem something that meant anything to you in those years where the show is depicting?

Well I was young. I was in my early – I mean I was probably 16 or I mean we had – I was in England obviously at that time. I mean I remember Germaine Greer and the female unit and in my 20s I did read The Feminine Mystique. But I previously read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex which is, you know, came before The Feminine Mystique. He’s a French author. And just always – my mother was a very, you know, never – was a very strong woman and never felt inferior to any sort of men. And, you know, she was a great role model in that respect. So, I remember Gloria Steinem just like, you know, any young girl in the 70s and how she was stunning to look at and interesting and, you know, eloquent and I have to say it was – back then, you know, you didn’t – the way men and ridicule, some men ridiculed feminism as being somebody sexless and humorless was annoying. But yes, I mean and now it’s much easier to say oh yes, I’m a feminist. So, I think back then it was, you know, a bit harder. But you realize there’s the same things to be fought for. I mean there are hard won rights that we have that women have been so incredibly brave and bold to get for us. And we can’t let them slip away. And we have to keep coming together and getting out and having our voices heard still. And that’s what we really noticed being in this production – the things that still are – have to be attained and achieved and fought for.

Has your daughter has watched the show and what kind of feedback did she have about her generation.

She’s a very smart girl. She’s in politics. And she’s now what? She’s – she works for the Department of Nutrition. She works for an NGO and she’s worked – she’s been in politics and worked in the House of Parliament for seven years. I think it’s just as important to get some men in all of this too. It’s not just let our daughters see it. I think, you know, my son will watch this too. And she’s always been very – had a lot of dignity and a lot of respect for herself. And I think very curious, bold, and she’s an amazing woman. And I’m very proud of both my children. And I know she’s really enjoying this series.

The “Betty” episode has a lot of moments that are very painful as you learn about Betty’s personal history. What was your first reaction when you read that script – that episode’s script? What was your emotional state while you were shooting it?

I think Dahvi Waller did a beautiful job with these scripts to show the vulnerability of people. And because we see the public face of them historically, you know. Betty Friedan fighting for the right to, you know – being interviewed and being strident and strong and, you know, and this is imagining dramatizing her personal life. You know she had a marriage that fell apart. And she was on her own for a while. And she was young – she was older than the rest of the feminists. And I think felt kind of – she had an ego. And to see that in the script was just wonderful stuff to play without, you know, kind of feeling sorry for her or, you know, that’s just the humanity of it and the poignancy of these scripts. It was a – I loved the script. And I loved playing it. And Betty had an ego. And, you know, she was looking back on her glory days and trying to maintain it. And I think that Dahvi captured that beautifully. And she’s been sympathetic and given everybody well-rounded characters and, you know, they’re not stereotypical or overemotional – and I think they’re brilliant scripts. And I was so glad the response to them has been as strong as this and the critics have noticed how cleverly she made all these women you know, fully rounded, interesting women – interesting people. She’s brilliant, our Dahvi.

There’s fantastic debate that you have with Cate Blanchett in this week’s episode. It’s just so dynamic and you two play off one another so well. Could you talk a little bit about that filming process and what it was like working with her to really nail that debate.

We had a lovely director, Amma Asante was with us that day, and we were in a college. And shooting for 18 hours, we were at that. And it was – we really had to maintain our stamina. But I got to work with the great Cate Blanchett for 18 hours. And we never stopped – constant – we had to really focus and remember the lines and get, you know, obviously, and we kept working on it actually. And we did have a rehearsal like a week before. And a few days before because we knew it was going to be a tough one. But we had the transcripts of the actual debate to read. It wasn’t televised of course. And it was a long debate and it went on for two and a half hours. And Betty really seemed to have everyone on her side. And she – was, you know, good environment for her with her female students. And then she just lost it. You know, she just lost her temper and lost her focus and called her a female Uncle Tom. And, you know, “I want to burn you at the stake.” And that’s what gets remembered. You know, and it really was a – must’ve been a – it was a bad moment for her. She got frustrated and lost her cool. And that was a great scene to play. And it was a hard, long day but one of the greatest days for me in my acting career, may I say – enjoyed it enormously. Wearing 70s shoes and pantyhose for 18 hours. I ached.

Your comedic talents have brought so much joy over the years. I’d love to know what your advice is to getting through this pandemic and maintaining happiness in these uncertain times.

There’s not much comedic quality to what’s going on right now. I don’t know. I mean I am so lucky I’m here with my daughter’s son, my grandson. And I just think toddlers are an asset because they have no sense of the pandemic and just no regards to social distancing. So, I have had the joy of my grandson to distract me and I just feel very fortunate.

Have there been people that you’ve been leaning on? I know you talk about your amazing friendship with Meryl Streep.

Yes. We’ve been in – we both became grandmothers this last year. We both became mothers at the same time. We always, you know, seem to parallel each other. And I can’t see people. That’s what’s tough, isn’t it? For everyone. You can’t even see your friends. I suppose I’m lucky. I’m in the same place as my daughter and son-in-law and my grandson. And keeping life very small. And just, you know, I’m with the people that I really love. I just feel lucky I’m not totally on my own as I know some people are. And we’ll meet again…Don’t know where. I love it. Vera Lynn’s 100 years old. I love that the songs from the Second World War are at the top of the charts right now, you know. My mother lived through the blip. And she was always telling me. And there’s been a bit of a blip spirit going on here and it’s a sense of community. You know but we all go out and clap to the NHS on a Thursday night. It just makes me cry, you know, but it’s brilliant.

 What do you think the first thing you’ll want to do when it’s over will be?

Well, you know, I want to go to the seaside. I want to run into the water. I don’t know. I just want to get out. I don’t – I have no idea. I mean I’m just – I think we’re all be a lot calmer and things will be different, and we’ll have to see. But there’ll be a lot that we’ve all learned obviously for sure.

How the project originally came to you and what any early conversations were like, whether it was with Dahvi or other writers or producers of the show and how you characterize their influence.

I was told by my agent that, you know, did I know who Betty Friedan was? I said of course I do. You know, and would you like to read for this role? And I said yes, I would. And loved the script and loved everyone involved. And so, they gave me a bloody hard time giving me this part. I was the last one to be cast. They kicked their tires. They were like talking to me and making me read and they made me fly in and they made me wait weeks. And in the end, I was like oh, you know, look don’t worry about it. But it got to that point, and like it was a privilege to be a part of this group. And I – so it was tough. I mean I really wanted it. And it – I feel vindicated and happy that it’s worked out so well. I think it has. I think we’re all – it’s an amazing group of women and I’m very privileged to be amongst them, really, it’s great. We’re all good friends. We all Zoomed last week. We all Zoomed…and had cocktails, and yes, it was great.

Thank you so much, Tracey.

Thank you. Stay safe and well. (Singing) ‘We’ll meet again. Don’t know where. Don’t know when….’

Mrs. America airs exclusive on FX on Hulu every Wednesday. Tracey Ullman’s “Betty” episode (#4) aired this week.

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