From being thrust into a school production of Fiddler on the Roof because there were no other boys around, to being a mainstay in entertainment who has appeared in about every medium – stage, TV, film, web series, viral videos, Michael Urie has seen the evolution of LGBTQ representation in the biz.
Making his first splash in Ugly Betty as Marc St. James (in a role that was originally supposed to have a very brief stay) to his most recent film, Netflix’ gay holiday rom-com Single All the Way, he has been at the forefront of making openly gay actors part of mainstream Hollywood – he, himself, coming out during his run on Ugly Betty.
Hailing from Texas, entertainment would be part of his blood early on by making feature films with his friends at home, writing reviews for his middle school paper, and seeing the touring big Broadway productions, including an early memory of seeing Cathy Rigby in Peter Pan. His free time was spent, shall we say, eclectically?
I played alone with action figures a lot! But I didn’t make my GI Joes battle, I would reenact disaster movies I loved like Jaws or The Poseidon Adventure or The Towering Inferno. I renamed my GI Joes to be actors I liked: Richard Dreyfuss, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman were all in my rep company. I also went through a major Batman phase – at one point I had five Batman posters on the wall and life-size cutouts of Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton as the Joker/Batman – my bedroom looked like a Blockbuster.
After attending community college in Texas, he was accepted to Juilliard’s prestigious Drama Division. He was a long way from home, or was he?
New York was a culture shock, but it felt that I was suddenly where I was meant to be. The first day I stepped foot in New York on a school theater trip, on a hot smelly summer day a block from the Port Authority, I knew I was home. When we got to the hotel, our teacher announced he was going from theater to theater to drop letters off confirming talkbacks he had arranged and asked if anyone wanted to tag along. To my astonishment, I was the only one who took him up on it, and we spent the next half hour running from stage door to stage door. Seeing the proximity of theaters in midtown blew my mind.
Juilliard would open his eyes to a whole new world of acting and the different methods of teaching that went with it.
It was always fascinating which students thrived in which classes – the classic beauties would have a breakthrough when they covered their faces in masks class, a great singer might struggle filling the room with their speaking voice. I waltzed into our clown class thinking I was funny, but it was my classmates who usually opted for drama who excelled. I ended up doing my best work using my imagination to create worlds from nothing, exercises where we’d be given an impossible prompt and be told to go with it – “save the children” where we imagined being soldiers in a war-torn land escaping with children in tow; another where we studied a portrait in a museum and created a whole life from it. I’m sure my years alone playing with GI Joe prepped me for that!
While at Juilliard, he studied Shakespeare, Jacobean drama, and commedia dell’arte and earned the John Houseman Prize for Excellence in Classical Theatre. He would return to that style in 2018 to play Prince Hamlet in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Hamlet in D.C. to critical praise. Studying the classics early on gave him the acting fundamentals that we would build his career on.
I use the same technique for every role and utilize the various aspects of training as needed. We spent hours on voice and speech and combat in school, which was invaluable playing Hamlet in an 800-seat theater without a microphone, but not so needed in a movie scene whispering in bed like in Single All the Way. But I did have a few scenes all alone without dialogue – which harkened back to our “private moment” exercises from school. In Torch Song, I had emotional monologues with a thick Brooklyn accent in a big space and found my voice needing to project like in Shakespeare. Without the breathing exercises we labored over in movement and voice class, I wouldn’t have had the breath support to talk non-stop and bounce around the stage for 100 minutes in Buyer & Cellar.
Temping and odd theatre jobs would keep him barely afloat before Ugly Betty came into the picture. Michael ingratiated himself to the cast and crew during his guest spot and became one of the most recognizable faces of the cast. A true Hollywood story of Michael’s is the time we went to buy his first car in Hollywood and instead of bringing pay stubs and tax returns, he showed the salesperson his picture on the ABC website. His character on the show would evolve from villain to the bestie everyone wanted, that evolution to fan favorite was a team effort.
It was organic – impulses and ideas we’d throw out on set would become part of our characters. I remember in Episode 3, Becki Newton and I had a four-line exchange in a scene where we just kept improvising more lines. After that, the writers started giving us runs like that back and forth. Vanessa and I had so many scenes together in her office. We would often come up with different ways to play physically, or variations on how we circled a desk. But the arc of Marc over the four seasons is a testament to the great writers we had – fleshed out relationships with Vanessa, America, Mark Indelicato, and of course Becki – I couldn’t have complained if I’d tried.
Urie is among the top names that come to mind when talking about accomplished out actors. Reveling in our current boom of LGBTQ representation in film, it is easy to forget the climate that existed when Ugly Betty premiered over 15 years ago. Urie’s career almost wasn’t.
When we were doing Ugly Betty there were very few out gay actors and now there are lots! I was urged not to come out and not to play any more gay roles, but coming out and playing gay roles has been a huge boost to my career. Imagine if I had turned down every gay role since Marc St. James. I wouldn’t be on your cover! I also think there was a sense among the ‘powers that be’ back then that queer stories could not be mainstream – that straight people just wouldn’t be interested. That seems to have changed. Single All the Way could not have made Netflix’s top ten in so many countries and globally with just queer viewers!
Michael’s personality has remained down to earth. Talking with him is like sharing gossip with a bestie at happy hour, with his positive take on life, that’s just a little bit sassy. He knows full well how the business works and that acting jobs are never a constant. After Ugly Betty he went back to his musical theatre roots and made his Broadway debut in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Stealing the spotlight from his co-star Nick Jonas, his performance was charming and electric. He then starred in the brilliant one-man play Buyer & Cellar, for which he won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Solo Performance. (Writer’s note: This is the first time I saw Urie live, immediately after seeing his performance, I went back to the box office and bought a ticket for the next night – it was that brilliant.) In the production, Michael commanded the stage and painted a very real world that was both compelling and a master class in acting.
You learn a lot about yourself alone onstage for over 600 performances – especially about how your brain and body work when you are up there. Being able to have so many at-bats taught me volumes about what you can and cannot plan for on stage. Going totally blank, audience disruptions, food poisoning … I finished Buyer & Cellar ready for anything.
His next powerful performance was in Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song revival on Broadway. An important piece of theatre and LGBTQ history, the original production made headlines and inspired conversations about our community in mainstream media and even gave us future Golden Girls star Estelle Getty.
Torch Song was wildly ahead of its time when it first opened. When it premiered, the idea that a gay man would have a foster child was like science fiction and that a mother would say heartbreaking things to her son about being gay was commonplace. In our production, audiences didn’t bat an eye at me being a dad and every night would audibly gasp at what Mercedes Ruehl said to me.
Above all the legends, gay icons, and A-listers Michael has co-starred with, sharing the stage with Mercedes Ruehl would leave an indelible mark.
Playing those long scenes with Mercedes Ruehl as Ma every night was like going toe-to-toe with a prizefighter. I was certainly star-struck when I met her. But, what every diva/icon/superstar I have worked with has in common is – they love the work. I am put at ease knowing that we will gel because of the love of the work.
Michael pops up everywhere. From big studio projects to vlogs, podcasts, and friends’ viral social media videos, he is not a snob when it comes to taking a gig and supporting the artistic community. Even COVID couldn’t keep him still.
It is much harder for me to say no than to say yes. By the time I am asked, it means someone has gotten excited about me in a role, and that excites me. On the rare occasion I say no, it’s probably because I can’t actually do it due to scheduling or because I think someone else should be doing it.
I try to stay busy, so when the pandemic began, I went stir crazy very quickly. I had several projects shelved, some go away completely and with so many people and organizations suddenly struggling, projects in our living room – most of which were benefits or fundraisers – were super fulfilling.
Michael appeared in Broadway’s Chicken & Biscuits, a comedic telling of a family’s gathering for a funeral. In Broadway’s mission of representing minority voices, Urie was the only white actor of the cast. The production marked the Broadway debut of playwright Douglas Lyons as well as a large number of the cast. Unfortunately, the production was cut short due to COVID.
We were having such an incredible time and the audiences were unbelievable. I loved performing that play with those actors. We played Circle in the Square Theater, which is in the round, so the audience was all round us and at times (during the church service sections) participating. Alive every night, spontaneous, and oh so joyful.
Over the past couple of years, we have seen a shift in the beloved TV holiday movie season. Mixed couples, racial diversity, and same-sex stories have become part of the culture. One of the most popular holiday films of this past winter was Netflix’s Single All The Way, starring Urie, Philemon Chambers, Kathy Najimy, Barry Bostwick, and Jennifer Coolidge with Michael starring as a gay man returning home for the holidays with a pretend boyfriend. We’ve all done it, right?
I was impressed by Chad Hodge’s script. I had never read a Christmas rom-com about gay people and I couldn’t put it down. A lot of people have reached out to me saying how much it meant to see a movie like that with a gay protagonist finding love. And I had not realized how much playing the gay romantic lead was going to mean to me.
His favorite moment from filming Single All The Way?
I mean, any time Jennifer Coolidge was on set, everyone was laughing. The only other person I have worked with who made that many people on a set that happy was Betty White. But my favorite memory was on the last day of shooting. We shot the last moments of the movie where our heroes finally kiss, and shooting this final catharsis on the last day of the shoot was so dreamy! Our crew (mostly straight, entirely French Canadian) burst into applause when we kissed – they were so invested, and we were all so proud of the job we’d done. That was the first moment I realized this movie might appeal to a wider audience. If we could get gruff Québécois gaffers to applaud two guys kissing, we were really on to something!
We have seen a lot of gay characters in lead roles as of late. Does Urie think this is a trend that the media is capitalizing on, or does he think mainstream entertainment is truly becoming inclusive of the LGBTQ community?
I think the latter! Mainstream Christmas romantic comedies are a wonderful way to show the world they can watch an LGBTQ love story and enjoy themselves, root for the protagonist, and maybe even relate to the characters.
Will there be a Single All The Way 2?
OMG so many possibilities! I would love to check back in with this family every Christmas, see who is meddling and who is single – maybe a wedding, a baby, another Christmas Pageant with Aunt Sandy … So many possibilities!
Michael’s real-life rom-com is with his partner, Ryan. The two have been together for more than 13 years. How did they meet?
We met on sort of a blind date. We were set up by a friend, but it didn’t quite materialize until two years later when another friend introduced us. The second time, the timing was right.
With Michael’s busy schedule, traveling, studying lines, and doing activist work, how do they maintain a healthy relationship – for 13 years?
We are super honest about our feelings every step of the way. We’ve both supported each other’s careers and know the ins and outs. Ryan knows when we are in a public situation I need out of and vice versa, and we can communicate with a look or a gesture.
Riding high on the success of Single All The Way, Urie will next be seen on the big screen in a blissful combination of his musical theatre prowess and always enjoyable screen work.
I can’t wait for people to see Jersey Boys, which we shot over the summer with Nick Jonas as Frankie Valli. As one of my favorite musicals, it was a dream to be in and see Des and Sergio’s creative process. People are going to flip! Nick was born to play Frankie.
And his message to his fans?
Oh wow. No one’s ever asked me that! I guess I would say thank you for liking the work – I love making it, and love making you laugh, cry, and feel.
You can follow Michael on IG: @MichaelUrieLikesIt
Featured Image and Cover Photography: SINEM YAZICI @sinemy
Styling: MICHAEL FUSCO @mikeystyles for Exclusive Artists
Grooming: CHELSEA GEHR @chelseagehr for Exclusive Artists using Kevin Murphy
Photo Assistants: CHRIS CARROLL @chriscarrollphoto & AMY E. SILAHTAR @amysilahtar
Last modified: February 4, 2022