The difficulty of trying to balance the pleasure of speaking with the incredibly funny Alanna Ubach is getting to all of her projects. Although ostensibly we are FaceTiming on a recent warm Monday afternoon to talk about her voice work in Hulu’s Crossing Swords, a stop-motion medieval adult animation series from the team behind Robot Chicken. Ubach voices Queen Tulip on this not-for-kids series. However, we also discuss her work in Euphoria, Bombshell, Coco, Coco at the Hollywood Bowl, Legally Blonde, Meet The Fockers, the 2021 Monsters Inc. television series….Ubach went over a lot of material. But she could not have been kinder on the journey, and speaking from her home in California, she has a ton of energy to boot.
The following is a condensed and edited version of my rollicking FaceTime chat with the peppy Alanna Ubach of Crossing Swords.
BT: Congratulations on Crossing Swords. You’ve already been renewed for a Season 2!
AU: I can’t believe it! I’m so excited!
BT: This is a funny show. It feels like you can get away with almost anything in it.
AU: Anything goes when it comes to these little peg characters. What I liked about it is that it was a walk down nostalgia lane for myself because when I was a little kid, I remember my parents bribing me to go to errands with them. I do it to my child: “Okay, if you come with me to Save-On’s or CVS, you get to pick out your favourite toy”. My father would say to me: “If you come with me to Save-On’s or Thrifty, you get your favourite peg toy”. These peg toys were a part of my childhood.
BT: What was your starting point for the voice you used? I was laughing every single time you had a line.
AU: Oh, I love you, thank you so much! You know how much that means to me? Because it’s such solitary work, what I do. You have these little funny voices in your brain and then finally you’re like: “Hmmm, well maybe this might work with this, yeah, let’s try that. I’m laughing, but I hope that everyone else will”. And then when I meet someone such as yourself, to tell me that you liked it, that means….it makes my fucking year.
BT: How do you go about crafting this voice?
AU: Look, the Internet is exciting because there’s bottomless content on the Internet, you can YouTube whatever you want, but I was like: “Okay, The Queen’s English”, I typed in: ‘The Queen’s English, what does that sound like?’ Because my British accent is terrible! I immediately go to the Dick Van Dyke, like: [using accent] “like a Cockney kind of accent, like feckin’ Oliver Twist”. And I’m like: “Okay, well I’m going to have to educate that, [chuckles] that voice a little more”, and I found this really interesting interview with Helen Mirren in it. And I thought: “Oh! Okay”, and then I found Judi Dench. And I kind of threw in a little Maggie Smith and Judi Dench and Helen Mirren and I thought: “I think that’s going to be funny because their voices are so serious and proper. If I’m saying “fuck” behind this very proper and educated British accent, I think that it’s going to work”. The alchemy might crack people up. Let’s see! Then I got hired, so I was very happy.
BT: You’re doing voices alongside a number of British actors in Crossing Swords, which makes it funnier in a sense.
AU: Sure! It astounds me when I think of all these British actors that are playing American roles, or Australian actors such as Margot Robbie, because when the camera cuts, she immediately has an Aussie accent. She can go back and forth, I find that astounding.
BT: What do you think of Margot Robbie?
AU: I think that she is acutely aware as an artist of the fact that innocence and vulnerability truly play a very disturbing part in her, she tends to inject all her characters with that kind of vulnerability and innocence and a girl who finds herself at the wrong place at the wrong time and it’s very interesting. She’s one of the sweetest people you’ll ever meet, she’s so lovely and so committed and so focused. It’s just a joy to work with her.
BT: What’s it like working with the distributor of Crossing Swords, Hulu?
AB: You know what’s amazing about Hulu is that Disney and Hulu are part of the same company! And it’s funny, I was interviewed for Crossing Swords, they did these in-person interviews and I was really raunchy and cussing and I really did pick up my red phone, unfortunately. Afterward, I got in my car and I thought: “Oh my God! Wait a second, I’m in Monsters Inc., I have to call them and tell them not to air that interview of mine”, because I was afraid that I would come across as too garish and vulgar and I’m also on children’s shows. And they called me back and they were like: “Alanna, don’t worry, we are Disney. [chuckles] Don’t worry, we’ll fix it, it’s all good.” But they’re a very, very, very cool company because they leave the artists alone, they leave you alone. It’s like with Sam Levinson, HBO just left him alone, they trust. They hear a pitch and they’re like: “What do you need? Here’s the money. Here are the sets, go get ’em, have fun!”. They’re the coolest parents for whom anyone could ever wish.
BT: That show is incredibly intense but also really necessary. How do you feel being a part of Euphoria?
AU: So necessary, but I just fell in love with the writing. It was another audition. I was sent the entire script of the pilot and I was actually supposed to audition for the role of Rue’s mother. And then I found out that they were really very, very excited about Zendaya. And I thought: “Well it’s not going to be believable to play her mom, but are there any other roles in this…oooohhh, how about, this is interesting, I like the lush”. She reminds me very much of all of the mothers with whom I fell in love when I was a teenager because they were lenient on all my friends. And I was jealous of the fact that they didn’t have curfews and was jealous of the fact that we could get drunk at their house, as long as we weren’t driving. She didn’t have any rules or regulations, a single mom, but then years go by and then in retrospect, you look back and think: “Oh, that woman was actually quite neglectful and probably clinically depressed, right?”.
BT: What’s it like for you to watch the intense show?
AU: You know, it really is astounding to see, to almost be given a keyhole into (Sam) Levinson’s life. Technically, that Rue is Sam. When he was a young boy, he battled drug addiction and he had a mother and father who never give up on him, and I remember on the set, he never mentioned that his mother had said to him: “When you go to college, it’s probably going to be too stimulating for you, obviously, just get your GED and read the paper and maybe one day you’ll tell your story”. I can’t imagine Sam as a young, 14-year-old boy, going through the same thing through which Rue was going. I’d never known…well, there was this young girl, Noelle, who I did know when I was around 15, 16, who had a pretty bad crystal meth addiction. But I didn’t know a lot of addicts growing up, to again, be given a keyhole into that world, it’s frightening to me. Especially as I have a son that is two and a half, and to think that this could potentially happen to him, to anyone.
Creators telling these kinds of stories have a different kind of eye. It takes a different kind of eye to be able to strip all of these people and then slap the audience in the face with the irony that they bring to the storylines and to the characters. It’s really wild.
BT: Sydney Sweeney, who plays your daughter, is doing great work on the show.
AU: Sydney is phenomenal.
BT: How do you feel playing opposite Syd and Maude Apatow, who plays your other daughter?
AU: Because the show is dark and heavy, as a character actor, you’re not there on the day to day, and we do whatever we can to kind of make it light on the set, because otherwise the entire cast and crew will be institutionalized by the end of something like this. Because it is dark, it is heavy, I’ve found that the shows on which I’ve worked, on the films on which I’ve worked that do have that heaviness, that you have to keep it light on the set, otherwise you’ll go crazy.
BT: What do you think of the idea in tv and movies, the darkness is left in the work and is healing?
AU: Completely and totally cathartic. I think that’s just the way it is. They get as much of a cathartic experience as people do watching it, I think. We’re all bozos on the bus, we all have faults, and that’s the deliciousness of what we do.
BT: How much do you play into the comedic aspects of Bombshell? Because your Jeanine Pirro is funny.
AU: Dammit, thank you. Jay Roach, believe it or not, he is also such an artist and actually quite serious a fellow. He’s very zen and he’s very, very calm. The fact that all of this is coming out of him is astonishing because there’s stuff that’s so hilarious, you would assume that he’s a manic personality, but he’s not. When you’re around him…I tend to act like the people I’m around, especially the people that I really like. [chuckles] When I’m around him, I try to be my most calm and my most zen until the camera’s rolling and then you bring whatever you need to the team. I think that it takes a sort of calm environment and atmosphere to be able to give that much energy in front of the camera.
BT: How do you balance the drama and comedic touches of Bombshell?
AU: I auditioned for the role and Jay Roach, I worked with him on The Fockers, he’s seen me do these wacky characters. He said: “Listen, if we go…if you mimic her to the T, I am afraid we’ll go the SNL route. We have to figure out who she is behind closed doors, when she’s taking out the mail, when she has insomnia, what is she like when she’s talking to her mom on the phone? This is the person that we have to meet because this is what the movie is about, what these people were like behind closed doors. Stripped of all the celebrity and stripped of the persona, because she’s such a strong persona, such a big personality on air. Who is she like when she’s cooking or hanging around her kids? What’s that person like?”. I did have to treat it like a drama, yes.
BT: You mentioned your love of Succession.
AU: Well, I love great acting. I love good writing and that’s the show that trusts itself and the story is rich. No pun intended. [chuckles] But the story is dense and everyone has a backstory and everyone has this strange agenda. I find it interesting when filmmakers and showrunners decide to take risks and you don’t have to be madly in love with the lead. And that’s my theory, you don’t have the like the lead, the lead does not have to be likeable. I was a child in the eighties, I was a latchkey kid, every show I watched, every film I watched, the leads were always likeable. I find it refreshing to really understand and get a glimpse into these people’s lives that are technically abhorrent with the way they think and the way that they operate and I find it more interesting.
BT: What did you like most about being a part of Coco?
AU: One of the most magnificent things ever. First of all, it’s my cultura, I’m Mexican and Puerto Rican and that really was huge for me to celebrate a culture that had been under a microscope, especially these past three, four years, God forbid. It meant a lot that they were making this movie about the Day of the Dead and in fact, the creators went to live in Mexico for about a month to really find all of the intricacies of the culture. Disney Pixar’s team of Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina and Darla K. Anderson, they were so integrity-based the moment that you meet them, and they were so serious about what the project was all about that you had to bring your A game to the table. You had no choice. It would be rude if you gave like a half-assed take on the character. I basically dedicated a character to all the aunts and uncles with whom I grew up. My Tía Flora being the most important, she had a very thick Mexican accent, I thought: “Oh! That’s what I’ll do, I’ll do my Tía Flora”.
BT: What did you like most about performing Coco at the Hollywood Bowl?
AU: I was born and raised in Los Angeles. I was born and raised in Downey. My mom still lives in the same house where I was raised. To be able to perform at the Hollywood Bowl was, for me, like a baseball player growing up in Detroit and they finally play at Tiger Stadium. To me, it was very equivalent to that. It was one of the most magical moments of my life.
BT: How much do you feel like you’re putting of yourself into voice work?
AU: I grew up doing a lot of prank calls when I was a kid. I was constantly looking in the Yellow Pages, and I was calling everyone in the 562 and pretending to be other people and I had them fooled, who would have thought? It turned into a career for me. But when I was a little kid, I think that I was drawn to comedies because that’s to what I was exposed as a child. I would come home, turn on the tv, it would be One Day at a Time, Good Times, What’s Happening!!, The Benny Hill Show, Wait Till Your Father Gets Home and The Muppet Show or The Carol Burnett Show, whatever day of the week it was and those were my babysitters. It’s no wonder that I ended up mimicking and going into voiceovers, sort of stumbling into it, because I was always mimicking…mimicking really does turn me on. It’s one of those things, I love mimicking.
BT: What’s the latest on Legally Blonde 3?
AU: Oh my God, I don’t have any…I haven’t…I don’t know. I don’t know. I mean, it’s funny, again, the life of a character actor, you usually find out if you’re in the movie or not in the movie like two weeks before they start filming. They ask you: “What shoot days are you available?”. Who knows, I’m sure it’s going to be a wonderful, wonderful movie with or without me. There’s something for which I am on call: Filthy Rich, starring Kim Cattrall, which is coming to Fox very soon. And because of quarantine, knock on wood, [knocks] I’ve been able to actually pay for groceries and such [chuckles] based on my voiceover gig, thank God for that! Boy, this has really hit the industry hard and I can only hope that everything sort of goes back to normal really soon. We’ll see!
BT: How is the upcoming Monsters Inc. series?
AU: It’s unbelievable, any time you get, this would be my third, or actually fourth, technically, Disney gig and they are enthusiastic about their show. It’s like going to a theme party with acrobats and you have a Cirque de Soleil character at the party and you can’t help but…it’s exuberance that’s intoxicating. When you walk into the actual headquarters in Emeryville of Pixar, the actual Disney Studios, everyone there is excited to be at work. [laughs] That’s the only way I can explain it! They don’t look tired, it’s not your typical office space. It’s people that are like: [raises voice] “Hey! Good morning, Alanna! Do you need a coffee? Are you excited to play the character?: I’m like: “Well yes, hell yeah, I am, woo!!!”. It’s really phenomenal and you walk away with this big Chuck E. Cheese grin. I get excited to go in and record because you feel like you’ve been to Disneyland that day, it’s wild. It’s really wild.
BT: Well, it is the Happiest Place on Earth.
AU: Dude, that Walt Disney, man. He knew what he was doing. He really knew what he was doing. He was aware of what people are always hungry for.
BT: Who are some people with whom you’ve especially enjoyed working?
AU: It was almost a bucket list to be cast in Meet The Fockers because I was working with Barbra Streisand and Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman and Teri Polo and Ben Stiller, all of these people of whom I had been such a big fan for many years, then finally you meet them in person, they’re so sweet. They’re such lovely people in person, it’s no wonder they are A-listers. You always seem to think to yourself: “Okay, these people are A-listers, they must be really cutthroat and cunning and a little calculating and not want to have anything to do with anyone who has like three or four lines, or five minutes in the entire movie”, but they were so lovely and they reminded you of all the theatre geeks with whom you went to school [laughs] that were so excited to act that it’s no wonder that they became as successful as they are. It’s no wonder.
We have a really bad rap, but I’ve never met an actor I didn’t like. They’re like the Canadians. I’ve met a few, I met one director who scared me half to death, that was awful, and the second actor with whom I worked, he was extremely racist and that was very disturbing to me, to be hanging out with him. I won’t name names, but I couldn’t believe that he had chosen this profession. I thought ‘how could you possible have a passion for humanity and be racist? This doesn’t make any sense. You shouldn’t be acting, you should be doing something else.’
BT: What did Crossing Swords feel like when you were reading it?
AU: Oh my God, when the first line in the audition was: “Have you ever fucked on an 1,800 pound chandelier hastily bolted to the top of a canvas tent?”. I mean, I thought this was hysterical. And I like my comedy like I like my rap: naughty! [laughs] A little vulgar and memorable, and that’s what it was. I’m 45. Of course, everybody has a naughty side to them, it was a wink and such a fun show, such a fun show to be a part of.
BT: I hear you even have your own ship, a potential same-sex coupling with Coral?
AU: [giggling] Yeah. Apparently, yeah, exactly.
BT: Maybe it’s a subtle callback to The Brady Bunch Movie?
AU: [laughs] It’s funny that Christine Taylor was my love interest in The Brady Bunch Movie and then cut to ten years later, her husband has lost his virginity to me in Meet the Fockers, which is hysterical. We’re all connected, we’re all brothers and sisters.
Crossing Swords airs Thursdays at 10pm on CTV Comedy Channel. All of season one is now available on Hulu.