For Texas raised Michael Urie, theatre has always been a part of his life.
To his surprise, after high school he was accepted into the Juilliard School for the Performing Arts in New York City, where it sounds like he soaked up every ounce of learning he could from this elite teaching institution. Although Urie is probably most widely known from his starring role as Marc St. James on the television show Ugly Betty, he’s also appeared on Younger, The Good Wife, Hot in Cleveland, Modern Family, and Workaholics just to mention a few.
He is also a very accomplished Shakespearian actor. He’s played Hamlet in Hamlet, as well as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. Urie also co-starred in the hilarious Jane Anger play written by Talene Monahon, which began Off-Broadway in New York City at the New Ohio Theatre. Earlier this year it ran at the Klein Theatre in Washington, D. C. In it he plays Shakespeare, but with writer’s block.
On the New York stage he has appeared in the revival of Torch Song Trilogy and Angels in America, as well as the outrageously funny Shows for Days, Grand Horizons, and Chicken and Biscuits. Urie also starred in the one man show Buyer & Cellar! A play about Barbra Streisand’s self-made basement mall of quaint shops (it’s totally true), where she’s selling her own stuff…to herself! (It’s totally not true.) Note: Urie plays Babs as well as a plethora of other characters including James Brolin. Brilliant isn’t a word big enough for Michael Urie or the playwright, Jonathan Tolins.
Michael, you were clearly a working actor when you landed the part of Marc St. James on the television hit, Ugly Betty, but this part transformed you into a household name almost overnight. Were there challenging adjustments to make?
I went from living in a tiny room in Bushwick with three roommates to getting recognized in the grocery store in a matter of months. It’s wild how fast Network TV can move. I remember being in line at the grocery store and someone turned to me with an open magazine, pointed at a picture of me and said, “Is that you?” It was very exciting, but also suddenly sobering. People wanted me to be a certain thing and sass them like Marc St. James would, and that’s not me! I had to find a balance between giving them what they wanted and being myself. Luckily, I was surrounded by “fame veterans” like Vanessa Williams and Judith Light, so I had incredible role models who were brilliant at handling fame.
You were supposed to only be in the pilot episode, correct? I’m astounded that while shooting the pilot, which is exciting and frightening at the same time, you had the focus to think on your feet and create bits that ultimately turned your one-episode appearance into a full-time regular co-star for the rest of the run. Please share with our readers how generous Vanessa Williams was with you.
I was playing her assistant, a sycophant, and I mostly just stood over her shoulder and followed her around. I thought he’d try to be like her in every way, so I sort of mimicked her physically with facial expressions and gestures, stood like her, etc. She had no idea this was happening because I was standing behind her. Someone on the crew ratted me out and Vanessa approached me saying, “I hear you’re doing me behind me…what else can I do that you can do?” And suddenly we’re collaborating and having a ball. I was still a novice in front of the camera, and she’d nudge me closer to her saying, “If you stand here you’ll be in the shot.” By the end of the pilot shoot they put me in the cast photo, all because of her.
With the success of Jane Anger, you’ve received reviews such as the New York Times declaring, “Michael Urie shines!” Will this “revenge comedy” possibly be returning to New York City for a longer run?
We’d love to! Some of my most cherished theatrical experiences have been in tiny basements in New York, and The New Ohio space is one of the best—so much history! I’d love to bring Jane Anger back to New York, as long as we don’t lose the magic of that downtown basement theater experience.
Jane Anger is the perfect segue for this next question. How is it working with one of your co-stars who also happens to be your long-term partner (in real life) Ryan Spahn?
He’s my favorite actor! Being on stage with Ryan is the easiest thing because not only do we have a short hand with the work, and similar techniques (we both went to Juilliard), but we know how each other thinks and can anticipate each other’s rhythms.
Speaking of another Off-Broadway hit, I loved you in Shows for Days with Patti LuPone. Your energy and comic genius was on par with your one-man-show Buyer & Cellar! I’m not surprised that the two of you clicked, considering the chemistry you both had when she played your mother on Ugly Betty, years ago. I’m remembering the heartbreaking scene when you came “out” to her.
I have always loved when TV shows bring on a character’s mother. It’s a trip to see who they pick, so when I found out a mom character was coming down the pike for ME, I was thrilled. That it ended up being La LuPone was a dream. She’s also a Juilliard alum, so I knew we’d at least have THAT to discuss, but of course I knew her entire theater career as a fan. Getting to work with her was just awesome.
We have a mutual friend in common, the ridiculously talented and equally beautiful, playwright, Bess Wohl. How was your experience playing Brian in her Grand Horizons on Broadway? And could you ask for a better co-starring cast than Jane Alexander, James Cromwell, and the sublime Priscilla Lopez?
Speaking of great moms!!! Playing opposite Jane Alexander was epic, her understanding of heartbreak is unmatched. I brought my dog to the theater most nights and at intermission, we’d do video tricks (avail on Instagram) and we even got James Cromwell to say his famous BABE line to her, “That’ll do, Kinley. That’ll do.” Priscilla taught us the choreography from the “One” number in A Chorus Line. I mean COME ON! (And I adore Bess Wohl.)
In December 2021, you starred in Netflix’ Single All the Way, the first gay holiday rom-com with Kathy Najimy, Jennifer Coolidge, and Luke MacFarlane. What a dream cast!
We had a ball, even with strict pre-vaccine covid restrictions! Kathy and Jennifer were old friends and hilarious together. I also got to reconnect with my Juilliard classmate Luke MacFarlane who played one of my love interests. He’s made quite a career doing Christmas movies, and he had some great tips for me. We had a scene where we had to tie a Christmas tree to the roof of a car and the director and I were at a loss, but Luke was unfazed. He said, “I got this, I’ve done a dozen of these scenes!”
Recently, Shrinking debuted on Apple TV+ co-starring Harrison Ford and Jason Segel. In it you play Jason’s best friend? Prior to shooting, were you friends or total strangers? Did you have any scenes with Harrison Ford?
I had met Jason ONCE very briefly and then not again until day one where we had to be best friends! I have to say it was friends at first sight though. I had long loved his work and he is the sweetest man. It was easy to love him. I DO have scenes with Harrison, I’m his lawyer! Very cool working with a legend like that. He likes to pretend to be cranky, but he’s actually a sweet person and loves to work. At 80 years old, he’s the busiest guy I know.
During the summer of 2021 you also hosted a topiary gardening competition with Martha Stewart as head judge titled Clipped, on the Discovery+. Working with Martha, you must have stories.
She was awesome. She brought us all CBD gummies! And baked a cake!
In March, 2023, you directed Silver Foxes, a play written by James Berg and Stan Zimmerman with the Uptown Players, at the Norma Young Arena Stage, Dallas. It’s been billed unabashedly as a gay version of the Golden Girls. Can you elaborate? And is it true that James and Stan were writers on The Golden Girls?
Stan and Jim wrote for Golden Girls, Gilmore Girls, Roseanne, and The Nanny, plus lots of movies! They’re legends. The play is hilarious and very touching. It was so much fun being in Dallas (my hometown) and working in this capacity.
And you have Jersey Boys Live! with Nick Jonas (a television adaptation of the Broadway play) coming up? Can you fill us in on details?
Nick is brilliant as Frankie Valli. I can’t wait for people to see him. We spent six weeks mounting a fully staged version of the original Broadway production that was filmed by the team who made the Hamilton movie. It’s gonna blow people away!
But wait, there’s yet another project. You’re starring in the feature film Summoning Sylvia, a LGBTQ+ horror comedy.
I’m excited for people to see it. It was written and directed by Wesley Taylor and Alex Wyse, and it’s very funny and scary and queer!!!
Was there ever any doubt in your mind that you wouldn’t succeed in show business? Like a moment where you said to yourself, “Let’s just head back home to Texas?”
The last time I had to ask my parents for money was only a matter of weeks before I booked Ugly Betty. It had been a while since I’d had to and I thought those days were behind me. I was disheartened and discouraged when I came up short for my rent and I had to make that call. Crazy that I was on the verge of a job that would change my life. That’s showbiz!
Do you have advice for anyone out there, young or old, hoping to break into show biz?
Show biz is extremely fickle. You must have thick skin and not take things personally; a nearly impossible thing to do with the amount of rejection we face. Take it in stride, and find ways to do your art wherever you can.
If you could go back in time and give little Michael any words of encouragement, what would you say to him?
The thing you think is a hindrance is actually an asset.
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