This presidential election has been a gift to entertainers who were already household names. Alec Baldwin, Larry David, Kate McKinnon: They’re among the most prominent beneficiaries of a bonkers political season. Yet when New York Times comedy writer (and DC native) Jason Zinoman went to name his preferred actor-in-chief, he passed them all over in favor of Broadway star Laura Benanti.
Twice this fall, the five-time Tony nominee has portrayed Melania Trump on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Benanti isn’t new to television—her most recent roles were on Nashville and Supergirl—but the Late Show sketches are higher profile.
Benanti’s local roots run deep: Her parents hail from Northern Virginia; one uncle was a founding member of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington; and an aunt retired from WMATA. The lyric soprano will perform two concerts at Wolf Trap Saturday. She spoke to Washingtonian about her Eastern European roots, newfound late-night fame and whether she’s dressing as Melania Trump for Halloween.
It was Stephen Colbert who originally pointed out how much you looked like Melania, back in March, when you were on his show promoting the musical She Loves Me. Did you think about it much afterward?
No. I didn’t. Well, maybe a couple of times I thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny if…” but we really didn’t hear much from her until her speech. It’s not like I had been practicing.
You’re great comedic writer—we know that from all your YouTube videos. Did you write the first sketch?
I did not. They called me and asked if I would come in, and they had written something brilliant. (The second) time around, I pitched them that Melania had been sent to an undisclosed location. We were set to go, and then she had her Anderson Cooper interview, and (the sketch) had to be completely rewritten. It was more of a collaborative effort, which was really fun for me.
What were your ideas?
I wanted to keep the concept that she was being watched, coached, and that she was not alone in the room, because when I watched the Anderson Cooper interview, the thing that struck me was how much she was looking off to the side, and it made me laugh, just picturing Megyn Kelly holding up cue cards.
She Loves Me is based on a Hungarian play. Was there any research that you did for that (Tony-nominated) role that you were also able to call on for Melania?
No, there wasn’t. My original last name is Vidnovic, which is Serbian. I am Eastern European. So I didn’t play around with that at all. I have an Eastern European resting bitch face as it is. And you know what’s funny? Melania’s mother is named Amalia, the same as the character I played in She Loves Me.
There seemed to be a gap, right after the Billy Bush tape surfaced, when people felt a lot of pity for Melania. Did you ever think, “I can’t come back and do Melania, because there’s something so sad about this situation?”
For sure. That’s why I pitched that she basically being held hostage. I didn’t want to ever come after her, but I did want to use her as a conduit to Trump, to show how some women feel forced into defending the men in their lives for atrocious things. It was important that it didn’t seem like I was bullying her, but I also didn’t want to turn her into a martyr. When I saw the Anderson Cooper interview, I thought, “They are using her as a beautiful mouthpiece for Trump. I can do this now.”
The ending to the second sketch suggests maybe there really is a Melania who is mad and confused.
My favorite moment in the sketch is when Stephen says, “Have you forgiven him and she says, “Not really—YEEESSSS. Yes I have.” I want her to feel human. I don’t approach it like an impression; I really approach it like an actor. I want her to have layers, and I like the layer that she’s actually kinda pissed.
You’re pregnant, (and expecting a girl early next year, with husband Patrick Brown) I’m assuming that shooting you from the chest up was strategic?
Yes. They knew they couldn’t shoot me below the boobs. Being “live via satellite” helped with that. Otherwise, we would have needed the world’s largest podium.
Are you dressing as Melania for Halloween?
I’m not. I’m so lazy. I bought one of those pregnant-lady shirts with a pumpkin on it. It’s not a real costume; it’s an ode to Halloween.
You’ve been around the Broadway world for a long time. It seems like the Broadway community is more involved with this election. Why is that?
People definitely rallied around Obama, but I think people who would otherwise keep their beliefs somewhat quiet feel like that’s just not an option this time around. The situation is too dire. That’s certainly how I feel. And I think I lot of people on Broadway feel the same way. We are like a subculture, and we’ve been fighting for a long time—think of the ’80s and AIDS. I’m so proud to be part of this theater community.
So what are you going to do on Election Day?
Just voting, voting, voting.
That’s why Trump is saying the election is rigged, Laura.
Fine. I’m just gonna vote, and then bite my fingernails.