On the heels of a recent success, Michael Urie talks making the leap from acting to directing.
He rose to fame as a performer, but Michael Urie has recently been taking turns in the director’s chair as well. We caught up with Urie to discuss his evolving career after the success of his recent directing project, Bright Colors and Bold Patterns, a one man show written and performed by gay funnyman Drew Droege.
It seems you’ve been something of a pioneer when it comes to being openly gay in entertainment.
Thank you. I have to say I was lucky. People first learned who I was in a major way from Ugly Betty in a very specific role, and it was successful. When it first came on TV, there were people who said to me, “Don’t come out of the closet because if this doesn’t work out, you won’t be able to play straight roles and blah blah blah.” I heard that and weighed that as an option. … Even recently people have told me that I need to stop playing so many gay roles, but I just think: I work! I’m busy!
And you don’t only play gay roles.
My next job is not a gay role! … But yeah, I do a lot of gay roles because they’re awesome! And because they’re different. I think the concern is being typecast as gay. But being typecast as gay is as silly as being typecast as straight. The idea that there’s only one type of gay character is an antiquated idea.
How do you think your career would be different if you had chosen to shy away from gay material?
If I didn’t play gay characters — if I wasn’t out of the closet — I would just not work as much. You wouldn’t know who I was. And I certainly wouldn’t have the opportunity to direct plays off Broadway about a gay person. Or be in [certain] plays off Broadway. Or host a show about movies on a gay network.
Speaking of your show about movies, it’s fun to watch you and your guests dish cinema with gay-appeal on Cocktails and Classics. But how do you define a classic?
I think that part of being a classic isn’t necessarily being a good movie. For example, I don’t exactly think Mommy Dearest is a good movie. Is it a classic? Absolutely. Is it a gay cult classic? One hundred percent; so it is totally on brand. But then we did Cabaret, which I think is one of the greatest movies ever made, but it didn’t rate so well because you also have to take into account it’s on basic cable, so people are flipping channels, and … we have to choose movies that people will want to stay on.
Have you always been interested in directing?
Before I ever wanted to be an actor, I wanted to be a director. When I was a kid, Steven Spielberg was my hero, and I wanted to be a film director. I had no idea how one went about doing that. So once I was in high school, and started being in plays, I thought “Oh, I could direct plays. I understand that.” I would talk my teachers into letting me direct.
How do you approach a show as a director — as opposed to as a performer?
They always say, “If you can read a script and you want to play every role, then you’re the director of it. And if you read a script and you want to play one role, then you should act in it.”
What are some dream projects for you?
There are lots of plays that I want to be in: classic Shakespeare and Chekhov. And I love working on new plays. I just did a new play at the Labyrinth Theater Company. It’s really thrilling to work on new plays because you are a part of the creation of something. … I’ve been lucky enough to perform in a lot of plays on my bucket list — like Angels in America and Amadeus. I hope I get to do more. But as far as directing — no [dream projects] really. I’m certainly open to the idea of directing another play. But I don’t feel like I should find a script and push it. I feel like I should let it find me again.
What are your hopes for the rest of 2017?
Hopefully, Bright Colors will be back — either to New York or elsewhere — because we’re not done with it. I’ll be performing Government Inspector off-Broadway. … I’m hosting the Drama Desk Awards again this year. So I’m going to have a pretty busy spring. And then there are some things looming for the fall. I think I’m going to be kept nice and busy doing theater, but I love TV. I did a great stint on Younger this past season and hopefully they’ll have me back. So: more work, more friends, more family — more of all that.
Virginia Williams shares what she learned by confronting herself on a billboard — and other life lessons — as our conversation continues.
Congratulations on the success of Bright Colors! How did you become involved with the project?
When we started doing Cocktails & Classics— which is our LOGO movie watching show that [my partner] Ryan produces and I am the host of — the first person we thought to join us in talking about movies, was Drew. So I really got to know him doing that. Working on this with Drew Droege and Zach Laks was just the most wonderful way to finish up 2016. It was such a crazy year. I had some great experiences in 2016 for sure, but so much craziness happening, and to end with sort of a surprise smash. You know the play ended up being this…people came! You know we did it for a short stint in September, and then we brought it back after the election. And there was something about the world changing that really just made the play funnier, and deeper, and more resonant, and sweeter, and really just everything. I don’t know, I’m sure it was a combination of we’re all a little bit deeper and more resonant. But I think that Drew is such a brilliant performer, and brilliant mind…Of course he wrote it, but he was able to sort of lean into these ideas that were more universal, than we realized.
How did you first experience the play before you came on board as director?
[When I saw it] I thought “This is not just a monologue. This is not just sketch/improv/rambling. This is a play! A fully realized play with a beginning, middle and end, and all that’s missing is the production around it.” And I just felt like called to it. I knew that I could fill in the blanks that he needed filled in. I have experience of my own doing a one-man show. I could help him to know how to do eight shows a week, and I could be there from night to night to sort of guide him through what it’s like. So I basically just said “Hey, can I join you? Can I help you and be the director of this, and we’ll go find some producers?”
How would you compare NY and LA audiences?
NY audiences are tricky. If they love you, they love you, but you do have to earn it. In LA, the stakes are not quite as high; so ticket prices are lower, and the theatres are smaller; it’s not as much of a business so when something’s good it can really pop. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be considered as good to be a success. Whereas in New York, something can be brilliant but if nobody comes, then it doesn’t matter. Or you know if it’s the kind of a show that needs a good review in the New York Times, and it doesn’t get it, then it could sort of, you know, teeter away. In terms of specifically how they react to things, well certainly in “Bright Colors and Bold Patterns”, there’s a lot of references to Los Angeles, which ring very differently in L.A. versus New York. And I notice this as a buyer and seller too which I did in New York and L.A. You know they’re both so well written that the jokes work. The sort of coastal jokes still work in New York, but they ring truer in L.A. because everyone there is acutely aware of Palm Springs or Malibu or whatever. I’d also say certainly in L.A., I didn’t see our production in L.A. post election, I only saw it pre-election. But that made a huge difference you know, things just change. As I was saying before, things change, and I know a New York audience is very keenly aware of what’s happening in the world. Perhaps an L.A. audience, certainly if they’re going to a theatre to see you know a star they love from internet videos, or from sketch comedy or from comedy basically in L.A., which is what people are going to see Drew for. Fans of Drew know they’re going to get a laugh and we get to surprise them with something to think about. Whereas in New York, if audiences are coming to see a play that they heard was good, and they might not know who Drew is, they’ll expect a little more substance.
What’s your favorite thing about the show?
To me what aesthetically is most special about Drew’s play is that he’s alone, but there are four characters — that it is a naturalistic play. It is a play with you know essentially that takes place in one place that has three walls, and a fourth wall that is the audience. Like any naturalistic play by you know Eugene O’Neill or Edward Albee that takes place in a room,in this case on a patio, and where the characters interact with each other in a real way, the way that they would pretty much in the real world, naturalism. The only difference is, there’s only one actor, and the other three characters don’t appear. It’s not the first time it’s been done, other people have done that before. But most people had never seen anybody do something like that. I had never seen anyone do anything like that on stage. And so that, to me, is part of the magic of the play. And what is most exciting to me as a director is finding the moments where I get to direct the other characters. Obviously I had to do it for Drew, and the way that Drew responds to the other characters. But it’s really thrilling to watch those moments work for an audience, and to watch the audience, to hear, feel, and sometimes watch the audience, if I’m staring at them, spying on them (laughs). To notice them get the other characters, and get what’s happening with the other characters, its really cool, really thrilling, and totally unique to this play.
If you originally wanted to direct, how did you end up focusing on acting?
I sort of was getting you know, winning competitions as an actor, I was getting scholarships as an actor and then I got into Juilliard and I was like, “Well I guess I should be an actor!” I got into Julliard and that sort of makes sense. I auditioned for Juilliard kind of on a whim when an acting teacher told me I should, so then I sort of switched gears and said “okay I’ll be an actor, great.”
And it wasn’t until you know I got out of school and I was an actor and I did theater and T.V.
When did you consider directing for the screen?
It wasn’t until my partner, Ryan, and his writing partner, Halley Feiffer, had written had started working on a screenplay. They thought that I might be the right person to direct it. At first I was like “Okay, sure, whatever you guys think, let me know.” But then it sort of materialized. The script was great; I loved it, and I could see myself directing it. … I felt ready, and I felt like I could do it, and if ever there was just a safe place to try it, it would be with Ryan and Howie. And we got the producers on board, and we made this movie called He’s Way More Famous Than You. It was a small movie, and it did pretty well. Didn’t make a ton of money, but it’s out there, and it’s available. After He’s Way More Famous Than You, I took a short film that won a bunch of awards at festivals and is also out there and available. And then a web series. And then you know after the web series, which was a wonderful experience, but extremely challenging, I sort of thought I need to take a break from being a producer/director. Because inevitably when you direct low budget things, you’re also producing and it’s just a lot of work. And it takes a lot of energy and time and so I sort of haven’t been. Not that I haven’t been pursuing it, it hasn’t been my focus since the web series. What’s Your Emergency which is the web series. And I didn’t, as far as directing theatre, I hadn’t really been inspired to. But I enjoyed acting too much.
Tell us about your time at Juilliard.
Well, it was really perfect for me. I mean I went to a community college in Texas for a year after high school, and it was the teacher at the community college that urged me to audition. Then I got in. I had no ulterior motive, I had no preconceived idea, I just knew Juilliard was good, and that I wanted to learn everything I could. So I got there and just sponged it all up, and it was really great for me. I really responded to the material we worked on, the classic stuff. And all the different techniques you get to take part in. I had great classmates, great teachers, friendships to this day, collaborations to this day: it really put me in the right place. I find myself using my training from Juilliard in everything that I do. I don’t know what other training programs are like, so I can’t speak to the, but I know that Juilliard strives to be a place where you leave with your own technique. You don’t leave with “their technique.” In other words, they’re not pressing a certain kind of acting technique on you. They’re giving you lots to chose from, and you take what you need, and you leave the rest. I feel like that’s really worked for me.
How did you and Ryan meet?
First we met through mutual friends, and it didn’t really take. Then two years later we met again through mutual friends and it did. We met first in LA. Then I relocated to New York and he moved to New York. When we met again, that’s when it kind of sparked. And I think we were just both in a better place in our lives, where we were both open to a relationship. And we worked together a lot: Cocktails & Classics but also we were in a play together, we have made these films together. We just acted in a film together playing a couple at the end of 2016. And he’s written a play that I’ve done workshops of as an actor. It’s fun that we get to work together! I mean it’s also when we don’t: He’s off in Chicago right now doing Gloria at the Goodman Theatre. That’s exciting, that he’s off being himself. And I’m here doing Bright Colors & Bold Patterns or was. It’s fun for us to work a part then come back together.
What else do you have coming up this year?
You know I spent a lot of time last year following politics and helping. Trying to help Hillary Clinton, campaigning and phone banking and tweeting and facebooking in her favor. And kind of lost sight of some things along the way. And so I want to keep mindful in this year of our responsibility of citizens with the government that is a complete unknown, and a new administration that is totally…that will be a total unknown. I was never that political before this election cycle, and I hope to continue to be at least try to figure out what that means for the future.
Cocktails & Classics is so much fun. How do you pick the movies you showcase?
Well, I’m always interested in what people think we should screen. So if you have any ideas, please let me know [laughs]. I have my own ideas, and Ryan has his. And, of course, so do our regular panelists like Drew Droege, Michael Musto, Jessica Shaw, and DJ Pierce a.k.a. Shangela from Drag Race. We always see what they think. Then — because it’s a TV show and we want good ratings — we try to pick movies that we know will rate — even if we don’t necessarily like them. I mean, there have been a few times when we’ve screened movies that I personally don’t care for, but I know other people do: I’m not opposed to playing the game.
Speaking of your movie show, Cocktails & Classics, can you give us a preview of what’s coming up?
Clue, Soapdish, Showgirls, Sister Act I and II, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion and Rosemary’s Baby — it’s a really good season. Drew is in it and Michael Musto, of course.
Last modified: June 16, 2017