Alanna Ubach Plays ‘Ted’s Cuddliest Character
Ted, Peacock’s new limited series, is mostly about John Bennett (Max Burkholder) a weird teenager and the teddy bear his wish brought to life close to a decade before the premiere. It is also a family sitcom about the other Bennetts, which forces the audience to wonder if perhaps what made John weird is partly growing up with his parents. His father, Matty (Scott Grimes), is a reflexively bigoted Boston rageaholic. “Take a long look, Johnny,” Matty tells his son when John walks in on him in the middle of getting treated for an ostrich bite on his buttock, suffered while installing a fence. “This is what life is.” John’s mother, Susan (Alanna Ubach), is such a sweet and gentle soul that when she got a colonoscopy before the events of the series, she didn’t want to worry John about what the results might be, choosing instead to walk herself home: “It was only a couple of miles!”
Which is to say, while Ted (voice of Seth MacFarlane) might be a stuffed toy, it’s Ubach who gives the show its soft, squishy heart.
Last week, I chatted with Ubach about her chemistry with her on-screen husband; which of her past roles most stood out for co-creator/showrunner MacFarlane; and whether her own son has any toys that could come to life without bothering her too much.
Since you’ve played Suze for two seasons on Euphoria, I feel like I don’t need to ask what aspects of playing Susan Bennett in Ted might appeal to you.
Well, they’re completely different people, obviously. They’re very different mothers, they operate differently, and I’ve never played a role like Susan Bennett before. It took some convincing for everyone to come on board and hire me for Susan Bennett, because I’ve never played a character like that. Susan from Euphoria: the way I see it, she was as edgy as other characters I played in the past, so that I felt right at home with her. But with Susan Bennett, it was a wonderful challenge.
The joke of Susan Bennett’s character is partly that the audience might see her as a bit of a victim, even though it doesn’t seem like she thinks of herself that way at all. What work do you have to do to create a character who doesn’t verbalize or maybe even acknowledge her struggles?
Well, I thought to myself, “If I were to turn down the volume watching this and you turn the bear into a pet, like a dog or a cat, this might be a drama. How can I treat this like it’s a drama? What if this were like an Arthur Miller play? Where this woman is in an emotional war zone environment and she has this verbally abusive husband and her son is a little lost and his only best friend is a family pet. How can I ground her as much as I possibly can in order for it to come across as authentic and hilarious at the same time?”
I’ve watched some of the interviews that you’ve done with Scott Grimes, and it seems pretty clear you and he built that tough relationship on screen by having real trust and affection with each other.
Oh, I adore him. I had the pleasure of working with Scott back when I was 17 or 18. On Party of Five, we played boyfriend and girlfriend. Cut to 30 years later, here we are playing husband and wife on a Seth MacFarlane show, so it came around full circle.
Scott is also from Boston, where the show is set; you are not. What was the most surprising thing you learned about Boston culture from him, or from this project as a whole?
First of all, that accent is so hard. It’s right up there with a South African accent and an Australian accent. You want to go to New York, and your brain is telling you, “(Brooklyn accent) Yeah, you want to talk like this.” No, it’s a very different placement in the mouth, and it took some getting used to. Every time I would go a little New York, Seth would remind me, “Alanna, soften the ‘o’s and the ‘a’s.” That to me was the biggest challenge as far as being a Bostonian was concerned.
Another challenging part of creating your character was sometimes acting opposite a stuffed bear who was going to be animated later. Obviously, the person voicing him (MacFarlane, who directed every episode) was on set. What was that process like?
It was a challenge. Seth is right next to the actual set where the scene is filming, but he’s in his own little booth and they have all of these CGI contraptions attached to him, and then there is one single camera shooting solely Seth MacFarlane for every single scene. So any time he’s in the scene, it’ll capture all of his gesticulations and his emoting, and then they superimpose all of that underneath the bear in post. We couldn’t help but turn our heads when we could hear Seth coming from the other room. Our eyelines were in front of us. The bear was basically a stand with two eyeballs. So we’d be looking at this bear across the table, and then I’d hear Seth to my right and I’d immediately turn right: “Wait, wait, wait. No, keep that over there. The bear’s in front of you.” It took some getting used to.
I’m around the same age as you and Seth and Scott, so one of my favorite gags of the season was when Susan gives Blaire a 90210 poster, and it’s Steve.
Well, first of all, props to the prop department, they just dove in. They brought it. I was so excited, the way they decorated the house and all of the little tchotchkes that peppered the kitchen and the living room and the dining room. Cut to the gift-giving scene in the Christmas episode. What a perfectly ridiculous move on Susan’s part to assume that someone as hip and cool and smart and worldly as Blaire is actually going to love 90210. It just goes to show you how clueless poor Susan is.
Also, that it’s Steve, and it’s not Dylan or Brandon. I mean, come on.
No, no, no. It was probably half off in some bin, and she went for it.
Meanwhile, what Blaire actually wants is a Sherilyn Fenn Twin Peaks poster instead, probably.
Oh, definitely, 100 percent. Or, maybe a Cure poster, or something like that. A Tribe Called Quest.
I want to touch on a few of your other comedy roles. What did you learn from your time on Beakman’s World, either as an actor or about science?
Oh, boy. The Rat, Mark Ritts, and Beakman, Paul Zaloom, were two of the smartest people I have ever met. They were so eloquent, so hyper-educated. I think Mark was a Harvard graduate, and he was working on a book while we were doing the show. To them, this was a fun hobby, to be on this science show, but I never thought comedy could be so outside of the box until I met Paul Zaloom. He was so acutely aware of what children wanted to laugh at and laugh with, and that was something that really moved me as a kid. Granted, I was 15 years old, but it was great to be around these highly intelligent men. Mark even helped me write my entrance essay for USC Film School. They were just geniuses.
As far as the science goes: learning that science back when I was 15 years old is like learning French back when I was 15 — I’ve lost all of that information. I couldn’t speak French to save my life. I’m starting again with Pimsleur, but I really do need to brush up on my science as well. Unfortunately, I lost it all.
I remember we did a whole segment on what a fart was, and I know soap makes water wetter. I will give myself that credit. Soap makes water wetter. And the voice being the first instrument. Thank you. You’re welcome.
In terms of tone and concept, I feel like you could draw a fairly straight line from Ted back to The Brady Bunch Movie.
When I first met Seth, he said, “You know what I really know you from? When I was in college, I saw you in The Brady Bunch Movie. I never forgot that,” and that really touched me. To do something that is this absurd and try to ground… I haven’t had this much fun in years as far as delving into a character. He gave me so much to play with, and I’m so grateful.
Well, it’s crazy. I looked 38 when I was seven years old, so I was younger than all of the other cast members. This is a fun fact: We had a scene at a bar. All of the girls go out to a happy hour after a day of temping. So we were there in the morning to shoot it, and I guess the owner of the bar found out that I was 19, and so he closed the bar down, he was about to kick us out. I don’t know if they had to pay some weird fine, but I’ll never forget that. He was a real pain in the ass, so I’m glad we got it done.
Part of being a character actor is that sometimes you pop up on a show just once. Was there ever a sitcom you guested on where you really hoped that producers would find a reason to bring your character back?
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I played a crack whore who was engaged to marry Danny DeVito. Technically, I die; I OD while he’s proposing to me, but they throw me out into the hallway, and that’s that. Well, six months went by, and they called me to ask if they could bring me back. I go, “Oh my gosh, Trudy’s back from the dead, they revived her.” Then they decided not to. I was so bummed, but Trudy was a lot of fun. I played Danny DeVito’s daughter back when I was a kid, in Renaissance Man, so to be playing his crack whore wife-to-be was a true honor. I grabbed him. I was like, “Danny, I played your daughter in Renaissance Man.” We were cracking up: “Okay, now I’m going to make out with you. All right? I’m going to French kiss you, Danny; I’m going for it.” He’s like, “Do what you need to do, kid. Whatever sells it.”
Back to Ted: Susan gets a big solo with the church choir for Christmas. What was the process for that scene?
They hired this really amazing choir. They were phenomenal. We prerecorded it in Studio City, and then we shot at a parish in Pasadena, around the corner from All Saints, where I baptized my son. So it was a lot of fun. It was special filming in Los Angeles, because I was born and raised there.
My six-year-old boy just joined a choir, and he is so jazzed. He’s really into it. He’s the smallest, youngest choir member in the bunch, finding his voice.
My last question is about him, in a way. Does he have one toy that, if it came to life like Ted, it would be okay with you?
Any of those little tiny Star Wars figurine Legos. They would be fine if they came to life. They’re so small that they wouldn’t be intimidating. They wouldn’t bite me; they wouldn’t try to run away. I could just maybe throw them in a bucket and it would be impossible for them to crawl out of it. They wouldn’t cause as much trouble as, for instance, the giant giraffe that’s taking up half of his bedroom. That would probably just trample me in the middle of the night and kill me. So if anything’s going to come to life, it’s going to be those tiny-ass Legos. One or two, to keep each other company.