Michael Urie Discusses the Importance of the Arts in Teaching Life’s Lessons
by Dann Dulin
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Annie Tritt
My favorite Pandora station is ‘Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass’!” boasts Michael Urie with stirring delight. He then air trumpets a few notes from the 1965 hit, “Whipped Cream.” An old fan of The Four Seasons, Neil Diamond, Karen Carpenter, Mama Cass, and Barry Manilow, he’s even a self-proclaimed “Fanilow.” “I am not of my time,” he reveals.
From the living room of his publicist’s Hollywood Hills home, an indefatigable yet somber Michael carries on. “I consider myself lucky to be alive today,” he says. “I might have been promiscuous and would have been in the middle of it all—in the middle of it! And had I not died during that time, I probably would have witnessed others dying.” Gloom sweeps across his boyish face.
On a brief visit to Los Angeles from his New York residence, he’s set to embark on a national tour (first stop, Chicago) of his award-winning one-man off-Broadway comedy, Buyer & Cellar. Michael plays many characters in this Jonathan Tolins-penned account of a jobless actor who finds work in the basement mall of Barbra Streisand’s Malibu compound. He even portrays The Diva herself.
Michael’s last New York performance was in March. “Being on stage by yourself is scary, but it’s a blast,” he concedes. “I still experience the terror. I ask myself, ‘What if tonight’s the night that I forget it all?!’ It’s not easy, but it’s become manageable.” As far as he knows, Streisand has never seen the show and he’s curious if she’ll appear in the audience when the show comes to Los Angeles this summer. “Of course she’s aware of it but I don’t particularly want to…invite heeeer, ” he says cautiously with a lilt. “She doesn’t need to see it.” He ponders for a moment. “But I think she’d like it if she saw it on her own terms. I don’t know if it’s fair for her to watch it with an audience. Maybe she would like a command performance or a video.” He wonders.
Ensconced in a high-back wood-armed King Henry VIII chair covered in a grayish classic music-themed pattern, this afternoon Michael is friendly, dapper, and bouncy. His overall presence constitutes a childlike spirit of wonderment. He’s not unlike Marc St. James, the popular character he played for four seasons on the celebrated sitcom Ugly Betty (2006–2010). Urie was originally to appear in just one episode, but his talent and chemistry with co-star Vanessa Williams won over the producers, and he became a series regular. He rocketed to fame.
During the filming of Ugly Betty, the writer’s union went on strike and production shut down. Not one to remain idle, Urie liberated a passion. He made a documentary film about his high school Speech & Debate Club, where he won a national championship in 1998. Thank You For Judging chronicles the tumultuous journey of several students who compete intensely in a State tournament. Co-directed by Sean Fornara, Michael did not intend to appear in the film, but his own success gives relevance to an event that’s close to his heart. The opportunity of playing multiple characters at these tournaments laid the sturdy foundation for Urie’s acting ability. The touching, absorbing film is now on DVD. During our time together, Michael expresses great pride in this project.
In 2009, Michael performed Off-Broadway in The Temperamentals. For his portrayal of Rudi Gernreich, one of the founders of The Mattachine Society, a gay activist’s group in the closeted fifties, he received a Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Lead Actor. “One day the playwright phoned to tell me that I was ‘too Ugly Betty’ at a particular performance, after I’d been shooting Ugly Betty all day,” Michael giggles.
In 2012, he debuted on Broadway in How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, appearing alongside Nick Jonas and Beau Bridges. Next, Michael returned to the tube in the short-lived sitcom, Partners, from the creators of Will & Grace.
The publicist’s dog begins to bark in the hallway. Michael, dressed in semi-snug jeans and a long-sleeved, thin ash-grey hoodie, picks up a ball and tosses it. Tallulah (named after the feisty headstrong actress, Tallulah Bankhead) proceeds to chase it. The publicist appears to politely escort the Polish Lowland Sheepdog to another room. Just last year Michael, sadly, lost his beloved dog, Sprouts (Tallulah and Sprouts were playmates), and now has a Chihuahua/Boston terrier mix named President McKinley, which he calls “Kinley.”
Active in the HIV/AIDS community, Michael shares that his focus and his on-going mission is to keep the epidemic center stage. “There’s no way that people my age and younger can fully understand the depth and impact of the beginning of the AIDS crisis,” he tells me, finishing a fresh orange and then pitching a couple of peels with an overhand throw into a drinking glass on the coffee table. “That’s why it’s so important to keep this time in our history alive—obviously, it’s not just an LGBT issue—but especially now that the LGBT movement is so big and moving so quickly.”
Hailing David Mixner [A&U, July 2002] as a hero of the epidemic, Michael cites the author and civil rights activist: “‘We lost a generation of storytellers.’ That to me is part of the reason why many of these seventeen-year-olds don’t know about AIDS, because the stories are not being told. It’s partially our fault as a society for not seeking out those who were there and listening to their stories. Of course, the sad truth is that a lot of them are gone.” He folds his arms and lowers his head. “And some of them don’t want to talk about it because they don’t want to relive it. I understand. So it’s our responsibility to carry it on.”
The arts are the finest educational tool, he urges, mentioning the recent airing of The Normal Heart on HBO. (A few years ago, he saw The Normal Heart on Broadway twice.) “So much of what I know about AIDS is from the theater,” he acknowledges. As a teen in Plano, Texas, Michael was deeply impacted by Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer prize-winning play, Angels in America. “I really fell in love with it!” he says with exhilaration. Just then, in another room, the phone rings. Clatter can also be heard throughout the house (a crew sets up for a photo shoot to follow), but Michael stays centered and authentic.
“When I was fourteen, my sister, who’s seven years older and a lesbian, took me to a gay bookstore in Dallas. I had heard of Angels in America through Speech & Debate [in high school], so I bought it, and read it.” Michael’s history lesson of HIV/AIDS has been through plays and films like Philadelphia, Silverlake Life, and Longtime Companion.
As a teenager, Michael’s bedroom was plastered with Batman posters that depicted the crime fighters confronting The Joker. Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the villain inspired Michael to pursue an acting career. At nineteen, he was accepted to the Julliard School and he moved to New York. He became a member of the school’s Group 32, joining fellow student, Jessica Chastain. Several years later he received the John Houseman Prize for Excellence in Classical Theatre.
Following Ugly Betty, in 2011 at age thirty, Michael landed a childhood dream. He was cast in the Off-Broadway revival of Angels in America, playing the haunting lead character of Prior Walter, a gay man battling AIDS.
It was a mammoth undertaking. Urie endlessly researched the early years when the virus was rapidly spreading across the country, burying himself in the culture and climate of the times. He watched videos, read profusely, and sought out those who lived through the horror. He lost weight and applied pale makeup. “Playing that character was totally terrifying—especially dealing with the angst of those times. It was heavy for my thirty-year-old brain. I mean, just trying to imagine what these guys went through…,” he pauses, rigidly swallowing, then continues, “… who had AIDS….Terrifying. Just imagining what my life would have been like if I had contracted the virus….” There’s a moment of weighty stillness, then Michael flashes those “googly eyes”—a self-described term.
I break the silence and ask Michael if he was ever promiscuous. “Not really,” he admits tentatively. “But had there not been AIDS, I might have. It’s so hard to know.” He crosses his leg, grasps his ankle, and twittels with the shoelace of his stylish black urban boots. “I was going from bed to bed but I was always safe—totally safe. I always have been aware of the risks.”
For nearly six years, Michael has been in a monogamous relationship with actor and writer Ryan Spahn, who is the same age, and Urie asserts that they both get tested regularly. Over a span of two years, mutual friends, separately, tried to set them up with a date when they both lived in Los Angeles. It never happened. Eventually, they both relocated to New York and, coincidentally, so did one of the friends. “One day, the friend was very late to meet me, and Ryan was early to meet her, so we were left to our own devices. The rest is history,” he chuckles. This was Halloween. Michael humorously brings his hoodie up over his head then quickly doffs it, blazing that alluring smile.
The couple often collaborates professionally. Last year Michael directed Ryan in the film, He’s Way More Famous Than You. Ryan also co-wrote the screenplay. The cast included Ben Stiller, Jesse Eisenberg, Vanessa Williams, Natasha Lyonne, and Mamie Gummer. Last month they did a reading of The Last Sunday in June, by Buyer & Cellar playwright Jonathan Tolins at Chicago’s About Face Theatre, whose objective is to enlighten and empower others about LGBT issues. Michael chose a Monday night when Buyer & Cellar was dark.
Urie has been active in Broadway Cares, appearing in its fundraisers, Broadway Bares, Broadway Backwards, and Easter Bonnet. He’s also participated in AIDS Walks in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York. “I always leave AIDS Walks standing a little taller and misty. I’ll never get tired of hearing that song someone usually performs at the start of the Walk—‘You’ll Never Walk Alone,’” he remarks, adding, “Even though people are living longer with HIV, every year we get more people doing the Walk.” He’s plainly smitten with the event. But it wasn’t initially so.
During his run on Ugly Betty, he was invited to speak at the Los Angeles AIDS Walk opening ceremony, though decided not to walk. He notes he wasn’t fully aware of the power of the event until later. “It hadn’t touched me yet. I didn’t realize I could be a part of the solution. It seemed impossible to me that I could make a difference,” he recounts.
“I’m thrilled to be asked now, because I feel that I can be of service. It’s so important for me to give back.”
Some of Michael’s friends are HIV-positive. Over the years, some did not survive. His steel-blue eyes unexpectedly squint and his nicely shaped eyebrows furrow. He looks consumed. “So many people my age are truly less aware than I am…,” he notes. “I’ve been lucky enough to be immersed in it thanks to the theater.” He lightly grins, bringing our conversation full circle. Recently, Michael read a modern play, still at risk, by Tim Pinckney, about how all of us can still be infected. “It could be a companion piece to The Normal Heart,” he explains. “It’s about remembering the pioneers of the AIDS movement. So many of them, like Larry Kramer, got fired from their own organizations, because the organizations wanted to become mainstream. Consequently, they ceased being radical.”
Michael also did a workshop production of still at risk, playing the character of a young man who never lived through the beginning of AIDS, very much like Michael himself. “It was interesting for me to get involved because I’m playing a guy who thinks he knows everything, and I’m a guy who practically knows nothing.”
As he speaks, Michael oddly rests his arm atop his head stroking through his generous cleancut acorn-colored wavy hair. A playful habit, it calls to mind a high school student intently concentrated and enraptured with what he’s doing. “It’s impossible for me to relate how it was back then at the beginning of the AIDS crisis,” laments Michael, leaning towards me. He’s wide-eyed and his personality is as fresh as linen drying on a clothesline in the afternoon sun. “Even knowing what I have learned, and pretending [acting] to have gone through it, it’s impossible for me to really know what… it’s…truly… like.”
However, through his compassionate work, Michael remains strident in his efforts to alert others about HIV/AIDS, keeping the past present and always marching to a beat of his own rhythm.
MICHAEL, CENTER STAGE
What is Michael’s favorite?
Clothing: Jeans and a Tee.
Sitcom: Seinfeld, and NewsRadio is a close second.
City: New York.
Physical asset above the waist: Hair.
Physical asset below the waist: [He laughs, thinks, then answers.] Feet. Dancers tell me I have an excellent facility. Let me show you my pointe. [He stretches, arching his foot.] I can’t dance to save my life though…
Actor: Jack Nicholson.
Actress: Sally Field.
Have you ever been starstruck?
Yes! Meeting Martin Short, Tom Hanks, and Lily Tomlin.
Share your favorite beauty tip.
I have a very strict shaving regimen. I like to shave in the shower. I wash my face then apply pre-shave lotion, shaving cream, then I shave, shave, shave, shave, shave. Next I post-shave with liquid I moisturize. I have sensitive skin.
What do you fear?
I fear sharks and the ocean.
What’s the one thing you find attractive about your partner, Ryan?
How many times during the day do you look at yourself in the mirror?
[he screams] … a lot!
What’s your foodstyle?
I’m a very plain eater when I’m acting in a play because I don’t want to be thinking about my digestion on stage. When I’m not in a play, I eat whatever I want. I am not a foodie; I like to eat a lot of food.
What do you dislike most about yourself?
I wish that I could practice what I preach. Even though I am aware of my flaws I still let them get me down.
What do you do when you get down or depressed?
I get gloomy and I try to put on happy music like Herb Alpert or watch a cheesy action movie.
What happens after we die?
That’s probably it. I don’t think much happens. [He looks away.] I would be thrilled if something did!
Where do you go to recharge your batteries?
What kind of undergarment do you wear?
What’s your pet-peeve?
The little things, like making the wrong decision in traffic or getting in the wrong line at the subway or grocery store.
Complete this sentence: “I know it’s going to be a good day when…”
I wake up before I’m supposed to and I’m fully rested.
What celebrity would you like to have wild animal sex with?
Hmmm, good question. I never really thought about it. I’d say, someone like Michael York when he was in Cabaret.
Who would you like to meet?
Making His Marc
Michael gives a brief reply about people who have intersected his life:
Brandon Routh: Lovely.
America Ferrera: Brilliant.
Betty White: Dirty.
Judith Light: A vision.
Christine Baranski: Cool.
Christopher Hanke: Spark.
Randy Harrison: A mentally balanced Tennessee Williams character.
Alec Mapa: Hysterical.
Nick Jonas: A good guy.
Scott Wolf: Ageless.
Jackie Hoffman: One of a kind.
Jessica Chastain: Star.
Michael Musto: Legend.
Vanessa Williams: Class.
Patti LuPone: Doll.
Barbara Walters: The other Babs.
Carol Kane: Cute.
Stroll by to see Michael in Buyer and Cellar at The Mark Taper Forum at The Music Center in Los Angeles through 17th August 2014.
For more about the photography of Annie Tritt, log on to: www.annietrittphotography.com.
Grooming by Anna-Maija Webb. Styling by Divya Akhouri.
Dann Dulin is Senior Editor of A&U. He interviewed The Normal Heart’s Mark Ruffalo for the May issue.