Laura Benanti gained 8 million YouTube views and the wrath of Donald Trump’s angriest devotees when she satirized his wife on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert during the Republican National Convention. On Friday, the actress spoke to Broadway Journal about the experience. Tonight, she headlines a Hillary Clinton fundraiser at Industry bar in Hell’s Kitchen.
Q: Did you learn anything about Trump or politics from appearing on television as Melania?
Benanti: Yes sir. Almost every time I tweet I will get a barrage of terrifying tweets, that range from ‘you’re ugly and fat’ to really scary — like, ‘I want to kill you.’ I don’t think that Hillary Clinton is a perfect person. And I’m not saying that all of her supporters are perfect people either. There is plenty of shouting and rhetoric on the Democratic side. However, I don’t think there is a whole lot of, ‘I’m going to rape you and throw you in a dumpster’ happening when someone tweets that they like Donald Trump. When you look at his rallies, when you look at how his supporters respond to protesters, punching them in the face, screaming at them, he elicits violence and anger in a way that I’ve never seen before. I find it terrifying.
Q: Do you get that with every tweet?
Benanti: Almost every time I tweet something political I get at least one or two really scary responses. I don’t even consider ‘you’re a fat ugly whore.’ That’s nice compared to the other stuff.
Q: During your first Melania impression on Stephen Colbert, when Colbert asked whether you’d support Trump, you acted like a hostage in the studio, and then silently mouthed to the audience, ‘no’. How’d that come about?
Benanti: We didn’t plan that. I had no idea he would ask me if I supported Trump. So that I was taken off guard. I wish I had just said, absolutely not. But it was funny.
Q: Eight years ago, Broadway seemed very excited about Obama. Where’s Broadway now?
Benanti: I think they really support Hillary Clinton. Our union has come out in support of her. I think there was almost this feeling that a savior had come with Obama. There was an intense feeling of hope and change. There was so much joy in that election. Unfortunately, here, the driving factor is all of this hate and fear mongering, and it’s driving me to support Hillary more than ever.
Q: Your persona is very open. Hillary Clinton is private. Do you understand where she’s comfing from?
Benanti: Of course. Look, I can’t compare the life I lead to the life this woman has led for the majority of her life. When we think back on all of the things that she has been mocked and criticized for, including personal things. The way the press was cruel to her child when she was at her most awkward phase. How could you not become more protective of yourself and your family? I cannot imagine what it is like to go through your life truly trying to do the right thing and doing so many wonderful things and of course making mistakes along the way and having the pervasive argument be, ‘you are not likable, you are not trustworthy. You are shrill.’ All of this language that would never be used for a man. This whole likability conversation to me stems from a deep-seated misogyny in our culture. I don’t care if she’s warm. I want her to be good at being the president of the United States. And I think she will be.
Q: Why do you think the race has gotten closer?
Benanti: I think that there are a lot of people in our country who have a lot of anger and fear and are dissatisfied with their lives and their children’s lives. I think unfortunately Trump speaks to the deepest fears in them and does what any good demagogue does, which is to say, ‘well the Mexicans are the problem. The Democrats are the problem. You, my loyal followers, are perfect.’ Unfortunately, some people don’t respond positively to Hillary. I hear people say, ‘both candidates aren’t perfect.’ No, of course they’re not perfect, but one is way better than the other. There are many people I love who support Donald Trump. I don’t think all Trump supporters are racist. But he plays into fear and dissatisfaction.
A: Do you know Trump supporters in theater?
Benanti: No, they are mostly my family. Not my immediate family. My cousins, my aunts and uncle. My really dear friend Walter, who is my security guard sometimes. I love that guy, and he is a Trump supporter, and we would have fights until we’d be like, ‘I don’t want to fight with you anymore.’ (A spokesman for Benanti said the personal security predated the abusive tweets.)
Q: It must’ve been rewarding when the Melania impression went viral.
Benanti: I was really happy. Political satire can be very important. Even though it’s funny and it makes us laugh it can also shed light on things in a way people may be more likely to hear. I think when most people are laughing their hearts are more open.
The interview was condensed.