Laura Benanti on Playing Colbert’s Melania Trump: She’s ‘Absolutely Complicit’
The Broadway star dishes on what it’s been like to play Melania Trump on “The Late Show” for the past four years and previews her new HBO Max special “Homeschool Musical.”
Not since Tina Fey arrived fully formed on Saturday Night Live as Sarah Palin has there been such a spot-on fit between a political figure and their comedic impersonator.
When Laura Benanti debuted her Melania Trump impression on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert during the 2016 Republican National Convention, it was almost too good to be true. Not only did the Broadway star, with little more than a white dress and some cheekbone shading, look exactly like the future first lady—she also had the voice and eye squint down pat.
Four years later, Benanti’s impression is better than ever. During her 10th appearance as the first lady on The Late Show earlier this week, she celebrated President Trump’s electoral loss by threatening to leave him for good. “Stephen, it’s like I keep telling my husband,” she said. “Donald, it’s over. We both know it ended a while ago. Now we just need to accept that and keep going until the prenup runs out.”
But lest you think that was Benanti’s way of sending Melania off into the sunset, she reveals in a new phone interview this week that she and Colbert are planning a “great big goodbye” that she promises will be “pretty spectacular.”
Of course, the actress is far more than Melania Trump. In addition to recurring roles on TV shows like Law & Order: SVU, Nashville and Younger, Benanti recently released her debut, self-titled album, which includes transformative covers of songs from Rufus Wainwright, Selena Gomez and Paul Simon among others. She is also a five-time Tony Award nominee (and one-time winner) for her numerous starring turns on Broadway, an industry that has been devastated like few others by the coronavirus pandemic.
In early March, Benanti put out a call on Twitter to students around the country whose high school musicals were getting canceled to post videos of their performances and tag her. “I want to be your audience!!” she told them. The result was thousands of submissions and now an HBO Max special she produced called Homeschool Musical: Class of 2020 featuring seven of the most talented and compelling high school seniors who reached out.
Ahead of the special’s premiere on Thursday, Dec. 17, Benanti spoke to The Daily Beast about her love of musical theater, her disgust with Melania Trump, and a lot more.
How did you start playing Melania Trump on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert?
I was on the show promoting She Loves Me on Broadway and he mentioned that he had seen on Twitter that a few people had said I had a similarity to her and I sort of made the face. And then that was that. I didn’t think much of it until a few weeks later, after she famously plagiarized Michelle Obama’s speech at the Republican National Convention, I woke up to, like, dozens of voicemails from the Colbert show saying, would I be willing to come and do a sketch that night? Having never heard me do an actual impression before. And so I was actually out of town. So I took the train back to New York and worked on the impression the entire way. And the rest is kind of history.
What did you feel like was the key to capturing her?
I feel like it’s the pout and the squint. Certainly it’s a very exaggerated version of her.
As all great impressions are.
Yeah, exactly. But I just took the idea of her being a model to an extreme place.
A lot of comedy—and a lot of journalism for that matter—portrays Melania Trump as a victim, but one thing I love about the pieces you do is that you really avoid that trap for the most part. How do you view her role in the Trump White House?
I think she’s completely complicit. I think that she knows exactly who he is. She married him knowing that. And this whole ‘free Melania’ narrative is actually something we purposely play against. Because I think that’s a dangerous thing to make it seem like she’s also a victim. There have definitely been times where we’re like, are we making her too likable? Because in some ways, I feel like we’re all Melania Trump. We’re all reluctantly married to him right now. But I think she’s absolutely complicit. She was part of the birther movement. She has said horrendous, horrendous things. She wore that ‘I really don't care, do you?’ jacket. I just don’t think she’s a very good person.
The most recent piece you did suggests that she will be leaving her husband once he’s no longer president. What do you imagine for her future?
I mean, who knows? I have no ability to see into the mind of a person who would be married to Donald Trump. There’s nothing about me that is in any way like her. So I couldn’t possibly begin to imagine why she does what she does. So she could end up leaving him and writing a book and trying to become sort of like a national hero. Or she could end up staying with him and just living the life that she’s been living. Who knows?
What about you? Do you think that was your last appearance as Melania Trump? Or do you think it’s something that you’ll continue doing in the future?
No, we’re planning sort of a great big goodbye to her that I’m really, really excited about.
Oh wow. Is there anything else you can share about that?
I can’t unfortunately, but it’s going to be pretty, pretty spectacular.
So you also just collaborated with Randy Rainbow on a new holiday song “The Man with a Plan” about Biden. How did that come together?
I’ve been wanting to work with Randy for a while and we’ve been trying to figure out ways to collaborate. Obviously I can’t do Melania with him because that’s Colbert’s domain. I would never, ever want to step on their toes. So we’ve been trying to figure out a way to collaborate and I was going into the studio to record some holiday stuff for an album I’m hoping to put together next year. And my producer suggested that we do a parody of some kind. And I was like, I have the perfect person!
You’re so great at this comedy stuff. I mean, and obviously comedy is part of what you do in your other work, but did you ever have ambitions to be in sketch comedy or anything like that before really focusing on Broadway?
Broadway was the thing that I had wanted to do my whole life and I got to do it so young. I started when I was 18. So when you sort of fulfill your dream at 18, it’s an interesting thing. Like, how do you segue from there? It wasn’t until really the advent of social media that I was able to start creating comedic content. And so I really credit, frankly Twitter, when it first started with people understanding that I was funny. But I think the Melania thing really was the culmination of people—and this is ironic—but people taking me seriously as a comedian. And what’s funny is that for years I had a hard time getting people to know I was funny, because I did so many dramatic roles. And now it’s the other way around. People love me as a comedian and it’s harder to get taken seriously for dramatic stuff.
Obviously this year has been so devastating for Broadway. How has all that impacted you? I mean, were there things that you would be doing right now that you haven’t been able to?
I’m very, very lucky in that I have been working probably even more during this period. I didn’t have any theater plans. I was going to do a television pilot, which I ultimately had to end up leaving because I’m now filming Gossip Girl for HBO Max, as a series regular on that show. And I’ve gone back to Younger. So I’ve been filming Younger and Gossip Girl in tandem as well as executive producing Homeschool Musical and putting out this album and a book and a lot of stuff. I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve been quite busy, but all of my closest friends are theater artists and our community has been absolutely decimated. And we’ve had no help from the government and people are losing their homes and their livelihoods and we need relief. The theatrical community all across the country needs relief.
Yeah, it’s the theme in some ways of this new special that you are putting out. What’s the story behind the Homeschool Musical special you produced for HBO Max?
I mean, it was all born of a social media post. On Friday, March 13th, I went out on my mom’s porch and basically said, ‘If your musical is canceled and if you’re disappointed and you want someone to watch you, I want to watch you. And then I used the hashtag #SunshineSongs thinking I’d get like 20 videos. And I got 15,000 videos. And it really took on a life of its own. I watched every post and commented on every post and then I turned it into free virtual online concerts that were streamed into senior living facilities. As you know, senior citizens are among the most isolated during COVID. And then I also just personally called hundreds of Children's Hospitals and connected with them. And we ended up streaming into hundreds of Children's Hospitals. And then after that, [the production company] World of Wonder contacted me and asked if I wanted to make it even larger. And so we went to HBO Max and we were all on the same page and now it’s become this musical documentary that I’m incredibly proud to be a part of.
I got to see the film and it’s incredibly moving. As a former theater kid myself, it’s just so hard to imagine what it’s like, especially for these high school seniors who thought they were going to have this great experience and then it all just gets taken away. So even seeing just seven of them get to share that is really special.
I’m so glad that you feel that way. I’m also really so moved by their activism and how they choose to use their artistry. I don’t want people to think like, ‘Oh, I think musical theater is going to change the world.’ Or like these kids missing out on their shows is the most devastating thing that’s ever happened to anyone. The reason I had the impetus is I know that this generation of kids self-identifies as anxious more than any previous generation. And they’ve been through a lot. They’re the 9/11 babies. And I think that in many ways they feel a bit invisible. Even though they’re seen all the time on social media, there is a loneliness. So I’m really just sort of proud to be a part of showcasing them, not only for their talents, but for the resiliency of their spirits.
Looking ahead to the future, what do you picture when you imagine performing in front of a live audience again?
It’s my prayer that happens sooner than later. And safely, obviously. I think that when we are all able to basically be in a theater together, again, it’s going to be unlike anything we’ve experienced before. There’s nothing like live theater in general, but when you have been starved for it for so long, and I think in its absence, we realized even more its importance. My husband and I often say, we cannot wait to either be in that audience or even better on that stage. When we finally are able to return, it’s going to be magnificent.