A mere nine days after finishing her Tony-nominated run in the Roundabout Theater Company’s production of She Loves Me, actress Laura Benanti was enjoying a much deserved vacation. Then Melania Trump delivered her (allegedly) plagiarized speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland Monday night and Benanti, who in March showed off a spot-on impression of the aspiring First Lady, found herself back in the hot seat, throwing down a hilarious Trump-inspired sketch on Tuesday’s episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Be careful what you wish, perhaps, except that Benanti couldn’t be more delighted with the gig (and hint, hint, she’s available, Lorne Michaels). We caught up with the actress this morning to find out the secrets to her Melania.
Tell me about the lead up to last night. How did it all come together? On Monday, I drove down five hours to Delaware to celebrate my grandmother’s 92nd birthday, which is on Thursday. And Tuesday I got an email from Vinnie Favale, who is a producer [on The Late Show] and has been my biggest champion, asking if I would come do the bit. And I was like, “Yup, but I’m five hours away.” So my mom and sister drove me to a train in Wilmington. I took a train, got back to the city, we rehearsed the sketch. I got turned into Melania by my brilliant hair and make-up team, the wardrobe team at Colbert, and we did it. So I was essentially watching her video and learning her accent and mannerisms on the train. This guy next to me probably thought I was an insane person. So at 9 a.m. I learned I was going to do it and by 11 p..m, I was doing it. There wasn’t a lot of time for deep Meisner work on it.
Did you watch the speech live on Monday night? I had seen the speech, and of course I had seen the controversy surrounding the speech, and there was definitely a little part of me that was like, “Oh, I wish I could be doing something with this.” So when they called it was pretty perfect.
You were definitely thinking during the speech “I have some material here I can work with”? Definitely. But I didn’t know it was necessarily going to be happening. But I didn’t really start working up an impression until I talked to Vinnie.
You were on the Colbert in March and showed a teaser of what you could do as an impression. I had her face down, her sort of squinty pout. I had worked on that. But I hadn’t worked on her dialect because we hadn’t heard her speak very much. This was her debut, sadly. So I only really started working on the dialect yesterday morning.
What was the hardest part of nailing her style of speech? Honestly, trying to honor the dialect in a way that didn’t feel like I was mocking a person when English is not their first language. That was really my biggest concern. And it’s not an easy dialect. Slovenia actually has many, many different dialects depending on where you’re from. So it’s not like I could even just go online and google “Slovenian dialect.” I had to listen to her, very specifically. And it’s easy to slip into other dialects. It’s easy to make it sound Spanish or Italian, both of which I’ve done a lot of. Working up a Slovenian accent in a matter of hours is not something—I probably should have worked it up earlier, is what I’m trying to say.
And what about the body language and movements during the speech. I know you had some moments in your sketch where you posed over your shoulder. She certainly doesn’t do things like that. That’s where I took liberties. I didn’t want to take liberties with her dialect, because that seemed rude. But I thought as a former model and someone in the fashion industry that is a place where I could really be over the top, with her physical body language. Kissing him a million times in the beginning and the model-y striking a pose for every camera.
When you got to the Colbert studios, what was your first impression of the sketch? Brilliant. Pitch perfect. It was spot-on, what it should be. All the references were hilarious. An impression is only as good as the skit and I’m so grateful to them for giving me that material, putting that dress together. And then my hair and makeup team they did such an incredible job of making me look like her. When I first got to Colbert and I had my hair in a ponytail and no makeup, it was like Melania Trump was going to an Indigo Girls concert. I think the true transformation happened with hair, makeup, and wardrobe, and working on that dialect and having the brilliant material. It took a village.
Not to pull a Hillary Clinton reference out of this… Did you get to ad lib at all? I didn’t need to. Certainly all the body movements were mine. In rehearsal, I didn’t really do any of that posing I had done. But no, I didn’t need to ad lib. The script was brilliant.
Was the Saturday Night Live send-off at the end a bit of an audition tape? Or was that from the Colbert team? Nope, not at all. That was their idea.
But it doesn’t hurt. Has anyone from SNL tapped you yet? No, not yet. But I would love if they did, and I would also love to go back on Colbert as the character. I think it’s really fun. And it doesn’t feel mean-spirited to me. It’s just funny. And I like making people to laugh.
Going back to Melania’s actual RNC speech, besides your actorly reaction to it, what did you think of it, overall? Well, I had not memorized Michelle Obama’s speech from 2008 so before I knew that it was plagiarized, essentially I thought she did a good job. I thought she came out, she was poised, she handled the crowd well. Some of the things that they were saying were hilarious to me, talking about acceptance of Muslims and African-Americans and Mexicans, basically the opposite of everything they’ve been talking about. That was funny. Saying they’ve been together for 18 years when he’s only been divorced for 17 was also comical. So there were definitely moments in there when I thought, “Oh, this is real.” There’s a movie Idiocracy, a brilliant movie with Maya Rudolph. If you haven’t seen it, you’re watching it now.
Which is both terrifying and entertaining. Mostly terrifying. But I’m happy to turn the terror into something we can laugh at. Because I actually do think people are more apt to hear a message through humor. I feel like people’s hearts are more open when you have them laughing, so I think this is actually a really great thing.
I know when we spoke back in March we had discussed your Melania impression and whether you would get to use it. And you said you would put the good of the country before any career boost. But now that her husband is the Republican presidential nominee, do you foresee a future of more Melania Trump impersonations? I hope that I get to play Melania Trump until Hillary Clinton is elected president. That is what I would like to do. I would like to get to play her during then campaign, and then put it away. And then come up with another one.
The response I’ve seen has been really positive and I imagine most of your followers are of a more liberal bent. Have you had any negative response? There’s always trolls, but I have to say, I’ve been really pleased thus far. The majority of people have been incredibly effusive. And even a few Trump supporters were like, “Yeah, that was pretty funny.” And there’s the occasional person telling me what an asshole I am, but you know, if you’re going to be political, you’re going to have to put up with some of that. The internet, and especially Twitter, feels like the Wild West right now. People are just hiding behind their egg avatars and fueling the most hateful nonsense. So I just block them. You can’t take it seriously.
But winning over a couple of Trump supporters is a pretty big deal. I mean, they were like, “You’re a liberal idiot, but that was funny.”