Want to Get into Trump's Head? Ask a Guy Who Plays Him on TV

"I can empathize with him because he's alone, all of his idiosyncrasies are now exposed."

by Eve Peyser
May 17 2017, 5:57pm

Image: Gavin Bond/Comedy Central

I've known Anthony Atamanuik for years, long before he became Donald Trump, so it's strange to see him at work—the oversized red tie, the wig, the expression constantly fluctuating between a wide smile and a sad, bitter sneer.

Anthony is the creator, host, and executive producer of The President Show, which airs Thursdays at 11:30 PM on Comedy Central. The conceit is that Anthony's Trump, in an effort to evade his presidential duties and satisfy his insatiable need for attention, is hosting a weekly talk show. Few impressions justify building an entire show around, but Anthony's is the exception. When he took the stage for a pre-show Q & A at a recent Thursday evening taping, I couldn't help but mutter "holy shit." He had everything about Trump—from the president's signature thumbs-up to his melodic, New York drawl—down to perfection.

Much as the real Trump probably shocked himself as much as anyone when he won the presidency, Anthony never meant to become a Trump impersonator. He fell into it in 2015, a couple months after Trump announced his candidacy, while performing in the Upright Citizen Brigade Theatre's legendary ASSSCAT improv show. When a fellow improviser said, "Mr. President," Anthony had the idea to enter the scene playing a character that seemed far, far removed from the White House at the time: President Trump.

That bit turned into a summer 2016 tour with Bernie Sanders impersonator James Adomian, where the two comics did "Trump versus Bernie" debates at cities across America. He figured his gig playing Trump would end after the election, but Trump winning basically guaranteed that there'd be an audience for his impression as long as he wanted to do it.

According to Anthony, pretending to be Trump for almost two years gives him insight into strange psychology of the president. It also can be traumatic as hell. I asked him how he was holding up.

VICE: How does it feel to play Trump every day? How has your character changed?
Anthony Atamanuik: When I started to [do Trump], I went through two phases—I went through a panic: Am I serving the devil by doing this? Am I making profit off of something that's terrible? I made a pact with myself that I had to always stay hard on him. I had to find a way in the show to get across really progressive ideals. A lot of it was talking about the prison-industrial complex, a lot of things that white audiences aren't into hearing about.

My other rules were you never be racist or sexist just for the sake of it—because I'm Trump so I can get away with doing those things. I can echo Trump's sentiments, but I have to undermine them in front of the audience. I had rules of the road in terms of content, and I would sometimes step on them and then have to walk back from that show, and go, Oh, I think I crossed a line there. It was a learning process like anything.

The second shift was when I started to physically understand him beyond the face and the voice. I had always done him physically, but I hadn't digested it. It was also a lot of conscious decision-making, but I told myself, you have to figure out how to subconsciously [do Trump]—it's so much better that way, when it's automatic. I started to study his face, how he rolled his jaw, and retraining my face. When I was doing the show in Tucson, and I'll never forget this feeling: It felt like I was wearing his mask. I had almost an out-of-body experience while doing the show, where I was talking, but my brain was witnessing me doing it, and it was separate from me.

Does play Trump take an emotional toll?
Watching the news—doing the research part—is the part that takes the toll. There's always this deepening panic—a sort of low-grade panic attack. That's the worst part: the observation. It's two-fold: One, it's like, "Oh God, what's happening?" but two, it's watching everyone screw up so bad, and let this guy just get away with it. Everyone's pretending like it's normal. They're playing this game, like, now you're the president, and we're gonna treat you like the president, and you'll see what it's like. No guys, your whole belief about how you're treating him and what you're catching him on is ridiculous—that's where the panic creeps in for me.

In terms of playing him, I always feel like—or I hope—I'm taking him down in the process. So that's delightful. I'm always excited when I get to do him because I know I get to get in this car and drive it into a wall, or just fuck it up.

I remember when I hung out with you during the election, and you told me you assumed you would stop playing Trump once it was all over. What was it like to realize you were in this for the long haul?
I went through the stages of grief. I remember when the [Bernie vs. Trump] tour ended, I was like, "Thank God. I don't want to do him." I had a couple of Trump shows [at UCB] in August and September and into the election, and I was already starting to think about what long-term projects I could do that are not this. I was also trying to do as many things to try to take him apart… I even went to the Clinton campaign offices. I did comic relief there.

I wanted to ask you more about your involvement with the Clinton campaign. I remember you telling me that you almost helped prep Hillary for the debates.
I was in the running to prep her, I went and met with [Clinton campaign manager Robby] Mook and all the top folks there. [Campaign chairman John] Podesta was a fan of my Trump stuff. I made a pitch to all of them: "Listen, you have debate prep people where it's a presidential-level thing, I'm sure you have people there who you need to have there who can do the real stuff. Have her debate with me for a half hour, just so she gets a feel for what he's going to be like."

I went into a team meeting, and I told them about how I thought there was a way to hit Trump's mother and connecting it to how he talks about women. Because I feel like his mother is his Achilles heel: the source of a lot of his issues with women. You know, a narcissistic personality like that—it takes a lot to shock them out of their own narrative, and I thought that might've thrown him off. I also said, I don't know if it was in the meeting, maybe it was just to a couple of [high-level] staffers, I said, "You guys think you're seven points up. But you're a point and a half down." I said that in August.

Watch Desus and Mero talk Trump and classified info:

I think they underestimated Trump, because you can't prep Hillary for a normal debate. She can know all the facts, and it doesn't matter when you're talking to Trump.
And it didn't matter! She won every debate, but only on technicalities. But Trump won in terms of how people perceived him taking down the Establishment. It didn't matter who was there. He was not Establishment, and he won his bona fides by going through the Republican primaries and insulting everyone.

That was sort of great.
It was great. And it was cathartic. I think a lot of liberals won't admit that they watched those debates and loved watching him take apart Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio and all that. Everyone, in a weird way, had a psychological rooting for him at a certain level because he was blowing it all apart—and because there was this safety valve belief that he could not become president.

Do you think impersonating Trump for almost two years now has given you any special insight into his mind? Do you think you get Trump better than everyone else?
Yes, I think I get Trump better than everyone else. I think that the number-one indicator of that—on the surface—is that the tagline for our show is, "I'm the president. Can you believe it?" He said that in the Rose Garden when [the AHCA was] passed, two weeks after our show had been on the air. I don't think he watches the show. I just know him really well.

With Trump, I can empathize with him because he's alone, all of his idiosyncrasies are now exposed. You know, he wants to be loved so deeply. This Comey firing was a perfect example of him being like, "Wait a minute, you guys said you didn't want Comey." Granted, I don't think that's why [he fired Comey]... but I think he really was surprised when the press wasn't supporting him.

"He's this sort of pear-shaped, ladylike man who knows he's that, so he compensates so hard in every fucking arena to try to deflect anybody from seeing him for how he is."

It's hilarious because some people talk about Trump like he's some calculating mastermind, and he's not. He's just a stupid guy who really wants to be loved.
For his whole life, he's used to his surface charm getting himself out of everything. Even that Billy Bush tape—the admissions that are in that Billy Bush tape are disgusting—but in that, too, is him uncomfortably talking, filling time with Billy Bush, who he probably doesn't want to be talking to. So he is just bragging and acting like an idiot, because he wants to fill the time so that Billy Bush won't penetrate him. I'm not saying I think any of his admissions [in the Access Hollywood tape] are made up, but what I think is interesting is the deeper psychology of his insecurity as a man, his fear of lack of masculinity, the fact that he is like an old dowager. He's like an old woman—that's not an insult, he is. He's this sort of pear-shaped, ladylike man who knows he's that, so he compensates so hard in every fucking arena to try to deflect anybody from seeing him for how he is. His whole existence is that deflection.

Where I plug into that is I grew up without a lot of money. My mom divorced my dad, and I kept moving school to school. I never had a core group of friends until probably seventh or eighth grade. I was just shuffling through friends and different experiences. I was made fun of a lot because I had a big nose, and I was super wiry. So I developed a personality that was like, "How do I keep you away? How do I control the situation?" I've done a lot of therapy—which I don't think Trump's done—but I understand sometimes I can dominate a circumstance simply because it's old behavior from my childhood, where it's like, you're gonna make fun of me, so I better make fun of myself first. You're gonna attack me, I better attack you first. In that way, I really understand that part of him.

My theory is that his ego is insatiable and he loves seeing his name on TV and in the papers, and running for president is another way to do that. He just wanted to be loved by the press, and he doesn't understand why they don't love him and why they don't support him no matter what he does.
That's the other thing—he doesn't have a big design. He has impulsive decision-making based off his belief in lionizing himself because he's the president now. He wants to pump that ego up. He also doesn't want to be president anymore, doesn't like it, doesn't know how to get out of it…

How I understand him is his root desire to get out now, and that's the core thrust of the show. This is him trying to get out of the other things he's doing, and in the process of him trying to get out. We're showing how hamfisted, shoddy, cheesy, sad, and sometimes, funny, sad, and gross he is. We're showing the most honest version of Trump.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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