Art Talk with Michael Urie
June 16, 2014
"We perform the show for the people that are in the room and then that performance is theirs forever and ever…." -- Michael Urie
While Michael Urie might be familiar to many for his sassy—and hilarious—six years as Marc St. James on Ugly Betty, the Texas-born actor also has had an impressive career as a stage actor. It’s hard to believe that the same actor who won Juilliard’s prestigious John Houseman Prize as a graduating senior, had planned to become a drama teacher because he figured he wasn’t talented enough to pursue either acting or directing. Urie has, since then, proved himself very wrong with a career that, in addition to television and film roles, has included a Broadway run as Bud Frump in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, two stints as a filmmaker including directing the newly released documentary Thank You For Judging, and an award-winning star turn in more than 400 performances of the solo show Buyer and Cellar, playwright Jonathan Tolins' take on what it might be like to work in the mall in Barbra Streisand’s basement. [Ed. note: Yes, Barbra Streisand really does have a mall of personal memorabilia and collectibles in the basement of one of her homes.] We spoke to Urie by phone as he prepared to bring Buyer and Cellar to Washington, DC for a residency at the Shakespeare Theatre Company.
NEA: What do you remember as your earliest experience of the arts? And also what led to you becoming a professional actor?
MICHAEL URIE: MY parents were a little bit into the theater, not a lot into the theater, a little bit, and there were two shows I remember going to…. And it was, they were Peter Pan and West Side Story. And we went to Peter Pan I think because my mom loved and had showed me the Mary Martin TV version. And this was sort of the same version with Cathy Rigby who's still doing it 20 years later, or more. That's crazy--still getting hoisted and flown around. And then West Side Story was one of my dad's favorite stories…. They were both so mesmerizing and so wonderful and it was at Dallas Summer Musicals in Dallas, Texas where I then--once I got into theater--I went to see so many amazing shows. Like Tommy Tune in Busker Alley and Jerry Lewis in Damn Yankees, and I saw Phantom of the Opera, Les Mis, of course, and Miss Saigon. And I saw How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying with Ralph Macchio. I was 16 and I was like, I love musicals! I didn't really have a knack for singing and dancing and when I saw How to Succeed… I said, Finally there's a musical I can do! I can sing that stuff and I can dance. It's a brilliant musical wit great songs [and] there are characters that sing in my range and that sing like me. And I said, I can be in that show and tried to get my high school to do it. I was always trying to find ways of getting that show done so I could be in it and I could play Finch or Bud Frump…. Anyway, long story short, I ended up getting to do it on Broadway and it was like one of those dream-come-true kind of things. And that's all because Dallas Summer Musicals really opened my mind to professional musical theater.
NEA: When did you make the decision to be a professional actor?
URIE: The first thing I ever wanted to do before I discovered the theater was be a film director. And then when I discovered the theater I thought this is what I want to do and I love making plays and I want to make plays and I want to be a director. I [also] thought there’s no way I can be an actor cause there's no way I'm going to be good enough to be an actor or a film director so I can just teach theater in high school and make plays and so that sort of became my dream for a few years in high school.
I was also a competitor in speech and debate and I competed a lot in speech and debate on the circuit doing poetry interpretations, humor interpretations, dramatic interpretations, all this stuff, not so much the debate stuff. [I did] the acting side of it, which was like competitive acting. And I was doing a poetry interpretation and I thought it was really dramatic and I was playing it like it was really serious, a really dramatic poem, and the audience, because of some inflection or some face I made, the audience laughed. At me. And I was like, what the hell man, I'm pouring my heart out here. My heart and soul. And you're out there laughing at me. And so, I was like, well, that's kind of weird. And then I did something else and they laughed again. And I thought, what the hell, this is not funny. This is not cool. And then I was like, well gosh, if they think it's funny maybe it is funny. And so I began to try and make it funny. And it got funnier and funnier and funnier and then I won…. So that was the moment I decided I wanted to be an actor and that was toward the end of my senior year of high school.
Because of a series of unfortunate events I had--or fortunate depending on how you want to look at it--I made all these plans. I was going to be a teacher and I went to see all these different schools in Texas that had good drama programs and good teaching programs…. And then I bombed the SAT. And I had a lousy GPA and a lousy class rank. I just had lousy grades. And I got rejected to all those schools. There was a community college in town where I had gone to see plays and I had sort of gotten to know the teachers and it was a really cool place and they offered me a scholarship…. I was like --why not? They do really good plays, they have a lot of money, and they're really close by…. So that summer I went on a class trip with that community college. I wasn't going to it [yet], but it was a summer class and we saw 13 shows in 10 days. And it was amazing… We toured NYU and Juilliard. And after the Julliard tour our teacher, who wasn't even my teacher yet, he just knew me a little bit [because] we'd gotten to know each other on the trip and he knew my work, he'd seen me in plays at my high school and of course I'd auditioned and stuff--he took me aside and he [said], “You have to audition for this place.” And I did and I got in.
NEA: How did you get involved with Buyer and Cellar?
URIE: Buyer and Cellar came to me through Jon Tolins [the playwright] personally. We had worked together on a couple of readings of an unproduced play of his, and I knew him socially…. The whole idea about the Barbra Streisand basement mall and the guy who works there came [a conversation with a group of people in which] he said, “How'd you like to be the guy who works down there?” and that was the jumping off point. And he wrote it as a blog and a good friend of his, a talent manager, read it and said you should turn this into a one-man show and I'll get my client Jesse Tyler Ferguson to be in it…. And so the whole play came about with the idea that Jesse Tyler Ferguson wanted to be in it. So he gave [the script] to me and said you'd be great in this, too, but it's for Jesse… I read it and loved it of course and then [Partners, the show Jon and I were involved with] gets canceled and we both go back to New York. Theaters are starting to get really excited about the play, the play itself and as attached to Jesse. [Jesse couldn’t] really commit cause he's got his TV show and all these other things that are going on for him… so Jesse gave Jon his blessing to shop it around with me and it became my job.
NEA: Can you talk about the challenges of doing a one-person show? And is there anything that's really surprised you about the experience this show?
URIE: Yesterday I had my 401st performance! Can you believe that? It's been 401 performances, and I'm still enjoying it and still finding new things and still able to do it. I never imagined that. I mean, I never ever imagined that I'd be able to do something like this for this long. And it's been great. So that has been the greatest surprise. But yeah it's challenging, it's isolating. The experience of performing night to night is mine alone. There are other people who go through the show with me. You know, certainly the audience and stage management and people who work the show. But the experience of being up there and being the face of it is mine and mine alone and that is a pretty crazy reality when you're used to being colleagues onstage. I've never been the only one up there. You know what I mean? I've hosted [shows] before and I've done things where I've been alone onstage but at the end of the night there's someone else up there with you and there's something else to do. And this there's really nothing else. So that's a lot of pressure. And it can really get to your head. Physically it's extremely challenging. And I sleep a lot. But I can do it. I mean I'm physically capable of doing a 100-minute monologue. Sometimes, like yesterday, I do it twice in one day…. The harder part is mentally preparing. You know, it's about 7:25 when I have the show at 7:30, and I say, How am I going to go out there and do it? And what if I forget everything or have a nervous breakdown? Of course, it never happens and I've been very lucky but you never know. You just never know.
NEA: Given the subject of Buyer and Cellar, I wanted to ask you about jobs you’ve had other than acting. What's the best day job you’ve had?
URIE: I worked at Barnes and Noble for a little while… and that was cool because… in the late 90's Barnes and Noble was a really cool place to go. And it was the only job where I had access to books and a discount for books and coffee. It was a destination where friends could meet me at work or people could come by. It was a nice place to go, a nice place to hang out; I loved going there. I knew every book in the theater section. And I knew the music section backwards and forwards, and it had just everything and when we needed books and CDs to read and listen to music. We don't need that anymore, fortunately or unfortunately. But back in the day when I was a senior in high school working at Barnes and Nobles was pretty classy thing.
NEA: Is there a job you’ve had other than acting that's really helped you prepare you for a career in acting?
URIWE: Well, I was a temp. When I got out of Juilliard, my money job was temping. And I had the lowest qualifications to be a temp, which put me in reception desks. Pretty much exclusively all I did was sit in a reception desk…. Sometimes I would be responsible for answering the phone but usually I was just the guy to that was friendly when you walked in. And that always having a friendly face and being nice to whoever walks in the door, that helps when you’re an actor for sure. You just smile and fake it and always make a good impression, I should say, a good first impression.
NEA: So we've confirmed the Barbra Streisand really does have a mall in her basement. Who do you suspect also has a mall in their basement? And what do you think they're collecting?
URIE: No one! I don't think anyone else has a mall in their basement…. I always ask Jon though, I always say can we do a sequel and can it be about what's in Barry Manilow's attic? Or like, who's in Neil Diamond's garage?
NEA: My last question is a fill-in-the-blank: Theater matters because...
URIE: Because it’s gone as soon as it's over and the experience was completely singular to whoever was in the room at the time. And only the performing arts can give you that. We perform the show for the people that are in the room and then that performance is theirs forever and ever…. There's no changing it or fixing it or highlighting it or toning it or anything like that. It just is what it was in the building.
Here's another interview with a Barbra Streisand tie-in you might enjoy--our Art Talk with Lainie Kazan!