“Buyer and Cellar” Star Michael Urie Talks Babs & Betty
Though perhaps best known for his slyly camp work on television’s Ugly Betty, Urie is a Julliard-trained actor who has sought out complex work on the New York stage like The Temperamentals and Angels in America. He’s got another theatrical hit on his hands with Buyer and Cellar, now settling into an extended run at the Barrow Street Theatre after premiering at the Rattlestick in April.
Hilarious, inventive and surprisingly touching, Jonathan Tolins’ play follows out-of-work actor Alex as he takes on his latest, only-in-LA temp job: a “shopkeeper” at the faux mall in Barbra Streisand’s basement. The play is fiction; Streisand’s Main Street USA cellar of shoppes to showcase her collectables is not. Tolins manages to mine this nugget of real absurdity to find something insightful to say about celebrity, perfection and loneliness. He’s helped immeasurably by the warmth and skill of Urie’s performance, as he toggles between multiple characters, including Ms. Streisand herself.
I recently had the chance to catch up with Urie in his makeshift dressing room beneath the Barrow Street stage, who is as crush-worthy in person as he is on stage.
Take the leap for Urie’s tales of Babs, being an out gay actor and the unmistakeable scent of Vanessa Williams.
On playwright Jonathan Tolins “slipping” him the script for Buyer and Cellar: [Jon and I] were both transplanted to LA for [the sitcom Partners] and we became really good friends. And that’s when he slipped it to me. He showed [the script] to me and asked me, “What do you think?” It was originally written for a different actor but that actor ended up not being able to do it in the window that Jon wanted to do it. When he slipped it to me he said, “You know, I wrote it for this other actor and maybe someday you’ll get to do it.” And I was like, “Yeah… maybe…” [laughter] And I kept my distance from getting too excited about it–as actors have to do. But as soon as that other actor said that he wasn’t able to do it, he gave his blessing to Jon to do it with another actor. Jon asked me and within days, I mean days, the Rattlestick had an opening and asked us to come do it. It could not have been quicker. Our TV show ended, sadly, prematurely but this came up and it couldn’t have worked out better for us.
On why LA is so difficult for actors like the character he plays in Buyer and Cellar: LA is a really, really tough town. And it’s, I think, ten times tougher for a struggling actor in LA than in New York. Because in New York, you’re still an actor, even if you aren’t in something that night. In LA, if you’re not on a billboard, forget it. And I know that from both sides of it. I know that from seeing my billboard taken down and from just being out there auditioning… I mean, I remember going to an audition the day after Partners got cancelled and being back at the bottom of the barrel. And being like, “Wow. I was just on the billboard and now I’m at a pre-read for a pilot that I don’t like in a room with thirty other people.”
On his own temp job history: I’ve had that time before I was on Ugly Betty where I didn’t have big breaks. Where I’d have a job and then go back to temping. Or I’d have a job and I’d go back to doing my medical research study on marijuana.
On the secret to “playing” Barbra: First of all, to play her, I’m really playing the “her” that Jon wrote… but of course I sought out everything I could. And I found out that actual live, in-person interviews were not very helpful because she doesn’t really give much. But in movies, she’s so free and so interesting and so full and lively and all this personality. I watched a lot of her movies and developed a real love for her as an actor… Meet the Fockers was the most helpful to me. It’s recent and she’s a mother and she’s out there… She and Dustin Hoffman are having the grandest time. And there are these great maternal scenes with Ben Stiller. And she’s full-on Jewish and lets herself be that. She covers that up in interviews. She suppresses all that stuff, I find, in interviews. It’s delightful to see. It’s like, “Oh my God, that’s what happened when Fanny Bryce grew up.” It’s that girl but with age, maturity and menopause.
On how to work with a “diva”: [Ugly Betty co-star] Vanessa Williams was great to meet but she wasn’t like [a diva to me] — she was someone I truly got to know and became not only close friends with but co-workers — we worked together closely for years. I mean, we knew each others smells and stuff. [laughter] And then you see her in concert and there’s nothing she can’t do. She’s been successful for years and years. She doesn’t spend like Barbra and have things like Barbra but, you know, I rode in her Maserati. [laughter]
On the “diva” he was most nervous to meet: Meeting Bernadette Peters was pretty crazy for me because I was such a huge fan. She got us our dog. And our dog passed away and now she’s texting me every day with new pictures of dogs. “What about this one? What about this one?” So that’s very strange, to now know her.
On what would be in his basement shopping mall: You know what I have that’s kind of cheesy and fun? There was a period of time when I was growing up with my best friend–we were ten, eleven, twelve–we got this book from the library that had celebrities addresses. I’m sure they were completely bogus. They were agencies or — you know there are these autograph signing agencies… We would write to all of them. I have a pretty great collection of autographed pictures of celebrities. I have Nicholson. That was pretty cool. Though Nicholson from a movie you probably don’t even know. Man Trouble. Maybe the worst movie he made. It was shortly after Batman and around the time of A Few Good Men. But a completely forgettable movie. Why he used the look from that as the headshot he sent out I’ll never know.
On how bombing the SAT might have been the best thing that ever happened to him: [In school,] I loved making plays and I thought, “I’ll be a drama teacher and I’ll make plays all the time. Forever. And that will be my life.” And then I started to be good as an actor and people would say, “You’re good.” And I started to make people laugh and I thought, “Huh. Maybe I should be trying to be an actor.” And around that same time I bombed the SAT and had terrible grades and didn’t get into any of the schools I wanted to go to to become a drama teacher. So there was a community college in town that was really good and had a lot of money and put on really cool plays and had a really popular theater program. I had met the director and he said, “You could come and we’ll give you a scholarship.” Which was like $300 and covered ten classes. It was so cheap to go there. And when I found out I didn’t get into those other schools, I thought, “I’ll just go to the community college and I’ll be an actor instead. It will give me a couple more years to think about it and do some plays.” And the funny thing was, there’s the SAT and the ACT. The ACT is the shapes and colors version of the SAT and I took that one after the SAT and I did great. But I’d already made my decision to go to community college. Felt great about. Knew it was the right decision. And then got acceptance letters from all those schools. It was crazy. So if I’d done it in the other order I have no idea what would have happened.
On what he got right and wrong at his Julliard audition: So the summer after I graduated high school before my community college began, I went on this big field studies trip to New York. Saw 13 shows in 10 days. Toured NYU and Julliard. And after Julliard, [my professor] pulled me and me alone aside and said, “You need to go to this place. You have to audition here.” I was like, “OK. All right. I will.” And I was perfectly happy with my community college and didn’t try to get into any other schools at the end of the first year — except for Julliard. And I got in. [For my audition] I did Demetrius from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Bernard from Arcadia — which I didn’t know was pronounced BER-nerd, until years later. [laughter]
On being part of a vanguard of popular out gay actors, like Zachary Quinto and Neil Patrick Harris, who are able to work in television and film as well as theater: I feel like a poorer member of that club. [laughter] I really admire those two who have such a platform in both arenas — not so much to be political or humanitarian — but to do good work. To return to the theater. NPH is coming back to do Hedwig and Zach is coming back to do The Glass Menagerie. He actually came to see [Buyer and Seller] the other night. And Jim Parsons and Jessie Tyler Ferguson. It’s interesting. Theater is a gay place, I guess. [laughter]… I think the commonality is the theater bug, being bitten by the theater bug. You are only as good as the last time you were on stage. And that’s how I feel. I’m only as good as the last time I was on stage. If Sunday night was a lousy show and I don’t get to do it again until Tuesday, I’m only as good as that lousy performance I gave on Sunday night. Great things happen in television and I’m very happy with a lot of the work I’ve done on television and on film but you don’t really know how good you are until you get in front of those people. And I think people who know that, they really get that. And that’s why they come back.
On his most surprising (and gratifying) ovation: My partner Ryan and I made this movie He’s Way More Famous Than You that I directed and he co-wrote — it’s On Demand and on iTunes now [laughter]. Last night we played it for 300 kids who are at this arts camp. We played the movie and did a talk back after. In the movie it’s meta; we play ourselves. We play a couple. And we walked up on stage together and sat next to each other. You could tell they were curious if we were really a couple. There were a couple of questions in a row that sort of alluded to it and then someone said, “How did you guys meet and start working together?” And I said, “Well, we’re a couple in real life.” And they went nuts: cheering, clapping, screaming. It was incredible. Granted this is an arts camp. But I didn’t expect that. I didn’t expect a full on ovation for that announcement. That was pretty awesome. That was a pretty exciting moment for both of us. And to know — they couldn’t have been surprised if they’d seen Ugly Betty. [laughter] And the movie. But it was just cool. And I’m sure there were a few little gay kids out there and it’s nice for them to see that role model.