By GRACE L. WILLIAMS
for Montclair Local
When she first stepped onstage at the “Late Show With Stephen Colbert” to play now former first lady Melania Trump, actress and singer Laura Benanti had no idea she would strike comedic gold.
For the past four years, viewers have watched as Benanti’s Melania provided a hilarious caricature that maneuvered through the daily inner workings of her duties and activities. Now that she’s given Melania a headline-grabbing musical sendoff (see MontclairLocal.news for the video clip), Benanti, a recent addition to the Montclair community, shared a few tidbits with Montclair Local about the role in addition to behind-the-scenes moments and a bit about her other work.
Excerpts from an email exchange with Benanti are below.
Q: How did the character Melania come about?
A: I was a guest on the “Late Show With Stephen Colbert” promoting my Broadway show “She Loves Me.” Stephen mentioned that I looked a bit like Melania. I made the face and didn’t think of it again until a few months later after the famously plagiarized Michelle Obama speech Melania gave at the Republican National Convention. The next morning I woke up to phone calls and emails from the Colbert show asking how I felt about putting together an impression. It was a live performance, and I had about five hours to study her mannerisms and put the impression together, which involved observing her mannerisms and then exaggerating them for comedic effect. After a while, my main goal became trying to make Stephen laugh.
Q: What specific mannerisms inspired you as you stepped into the role?
A: The smoldering squinty eyes and the pouty lips and exaggerating her model status became the tent poles of the impression. Also, over time, a sort of Borscht Belt comedian thing took over with her. And that was really fun.
Q: Over the past four years, there has been plenty of fodder, but what three moments as Melania stand out to you the most and why?
A: The first sketch stands out for me for obvious reasons, as does the last one. Other than that, I really enjoyed the sketch that featured Christine Baranski as the other Melania stand-in.
Q: What about responses or feedback from viewers?
A: I had no idea that it would take off in the way that it did. I thought I would do it once, and that would be it, but the initial video garnered millions of views in a matter of days. I didn’t consider the danger it might pose to my family. We did receive some unfortunate threats, and I continue to receive hateful comments on social media. For the most part, it’s been wonderful. The response has been fantastic, and I feel like it really solidified me as a comedic actress. But I certainly have and continue to receive hate mail. But I believe that political satire is an important part of our democracy and has been since our inception.
Q: Did you ever hear directly from Melania or her people during your stint?
A: I’ve never heard a word!
Q: Tell us something from behind the scenes that the audience and fans might not know.
A: During the first sketch, I was secretly pregnant with my now 4-year-old daughter. And for the first six or seven sketches, I was still pregnant. Toward the end, it took some creative camera work to hide it!
Q: Tell us about some of the creative things you’ve been up to during COVID-19.
A: During the pandemic, I committed myself to serving others, particularly through my viral social media campaign #SunshineSongs. I reached out to young people who are missing out on their shows and asked them to share their performances with me. I received over 15,000 submissions and watched and commented on every one. It grew into free online “sunshine concerts” for isolated senior citizens and hospitalized children. It then became the documentary “Homeschool Musical: Class of 2020” on HBO Max. It was wonderful to contact so many young people and people being of service during that time.
Q: Speaking of pandemics, how do you stay funny when things get a little too real?
A: Humor is how I move through the world. It’s the lens through which I try to look at most things. That said, I’ve definitely had moments of deep sadness and frustration. With this new moment in our nation that we find ourselves in, I’m feeling quite hopeful.
Q: Will Melania be visiting Montclair any time soon?
A: We have put Melania to rest. But I would love to sing or give back to our community in any way I can!
Q: What else can you tell our neighbors about you and your work?
A: I have a self-titled album out that I’m really proud of. You can buy or stream anywhere you get your music. It will be out on the vinyl soon as well, and I’m really excited about that. One of my singles (my cover of the Jonas brothers song “Sucker”) is a charitable endeavor, with all of my proceeds from the song going to Food Corps. They are always an incredible organization, but during the pandemic, they are making sure that children who rely on their school cafeteria for most of their day’s nutrition do not go hungry during this time. I also have a comedic book for moms called “M Is for Mama and Also Merlot” that was co-written with my friend (and fellow mama) Metropolitan Opera soprano Kate Mangiameli.
Q: What is next for you?
A: I’m currently filming the final season of “Younger” as well as the highly anticipated HBO Max reboot of “Gossip Girl.”
— Some answers have been edited for length or style.