Laura Benanti was “Daniel Day-Lewis-ing” (her words) a Melania Trump impersonation among Stephen Colbert’s staff when her husband jokingly told her something to the effect of, “I don’t like this, this is scaring me.”
The Tony Award-winning actress had only had hours to whip together a Melania character. She woke up one morning in Delaware to “a flurry of emails and calls” from “The Late Show” asking her to appear that night. The task would be to parody the Republican convention speech the future first lady had apparently just plagiarized from Michelle Obama, then the current first lady.
Her impersonation developed over the course of a train ride between Wilmington and New York City. Benanti sat next to a stranger on the train. “I was practicing and trying to get her mannerisms down,” said Benanti to HuffPost over a phone conversation. “And I’m pretty sure that guy thought I was going to murder her.”
Earlier in 2016, Benanti had appeared on the show to promote the play “She Loves Me.” During the appearance, Colbert presented side-by-side photos of Benanti and Melania to highlight the similarities in their appearance. When the show wanted to do their Melania sketch in a pinch, Benanti became entrusted with the role.
“I had such a short amount of time to work up the impression, that basically I just stayed in character for the four hours that I was at Colbert,” said Benanti. “I’m sure everyone was like, calm down, but you know, it’s not a lot of time to prepare something.”
The video ended up becoming the first political sketch to go extremely viral for “The Late Show,” garnering over 9.3 million views on YouTube alone to date. The segment was so good that it essentially became a cornerstone for the success the show has built over the last few months, with Colbert pivoting to focus heavily on Donald Trump.
For Benanti, the original and subsequent impersonations have greatly elevated her profile and are now helping her fulfill a goal of getting more comedic acting opportunities.
But despite the success, Benanti wants this role to end as soon as possible.
“The best day of my life will be the last impression,” said Benanti about dreaming of the day the Trump family leaves the White House. “Where Melania can break free, and we are breaking free. That will be the happiest I have ever been.” Other than ― “my wedding to my husband and the birth of my daughter” ― of course.
“I would much prefer the good of our nation over my impersonation.”
Benanti is no fan of Donald Trump.
“I’ve always thought of him as sort of a brash egomaniacal loud mouth with a show that people inexplicably watched,” said Benanti. “I didn’t think much of him [before the election]. And I mean that in both ways.”
She’s particularly frustrated by the hypocrisy. “Everyone complaining about celebrities or actors or whomever telling them how they should live their lives, I mean, that’s who was elected,” said Benanti.
Of course, the actress is not parodying Donald. She’s playing Melania. Benanti wrestles with that distinction.
“I think [Melania is] a beautiful woman, she speaks five languages and I don’t think she ever thought she would be a first lady,” explained Benanti. “I don’t want to come after her or Baron. I don’t want it to be a nasty impression. I want to make fun of him. And I can’t do a Donald Trump impression, so that’s my sort of angle.”
As the impersonation has evolved ― and Melania became the First Lady ― Benanti refined the angle into something relatable to the similarly scared and angry country.
“My take on it subsequently has been that we’re essentially all his reluctant wife now,” said Benanti. “Like, we are all reluctantly married to Donald Trump. So, we have to ― for the most part ― make the best of it and figure out how to hashtag resist.”
Benanti loves “The Late Show” team and has no interest in quitting the role. Colbert has great ratings. The impersonation has opened new doors for her professionally. But being in this position is still, inherently, a bad situation. And she’d like to break free.
“We’re all reluctantly married to him now,” she reiterated.
Watch the original sketch below: