Someday Productions LLC and Pillow talking are pleased to present the following interview with stage and screen actor MICHAEL URIE
Buyer & Cellar (Westport Country Playhouse)
PT: Thank you Michael for granting us this interview. We know you are so busy with Buyer & Cellar at Westport Country Playhouse so we really appreciate you taking the time out of your busy schedule! Why don’t we start with something of a standard first question and have you tell us a little bit about your background.
MU: Well, I’m from Texas, born in Houston and I grew up outside of Dallas. When I was nine years old I decided I wanted to be in show business. I saw the movie Batman –
PT: Was that the version with Michael Keaton?
MU: Yes, Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. I was a big fan of Batman. I had superhero action figures and I would watch the old Batman series on Nick at Nite. I was excited to see that movie and it was the first time I understood how movies were made. I saw it and I liked every part of it. I liked the story, I liked the acting, I liked the costumes, I liked the sets, I liked the music. I liked everything about it. And I thought, I want to do this, I want to make things like this. I wanted to be like Tim Burton.
PT: That’s great! Of course Burton is so iconic and very inspiring.
MU: Yes. I wanted to be a movie maker – and still do. From then, I would always look at life like a movie and think about life as if I were making a movie.
PT: That’s really fabulous. So when did the acting bug hit?
MU: It wasn’t until high school that I tried acting – and I liked it! It was like, when I got my first laugh. I remember getting a big laugh at something and thinking, Oh wow, that felt good (laughs)! Maybe at that point I thought that directing movies was too complicated. At least when I was in high school there wasn’t really a way to make movies. You could make them on your own, but they never turned out like the ones that I liked. So I thought I could make plays and be in theatre and direct theatre.
PT: Very logical.
MU: I didn’t think I had what it takes to be an actor until someone suggested that I try it. I auditioned for Juilliard and I got in. And I said, Well I guess I’m going to try and be an actor. Julliard was fantastic. I loved every second of it. I was like a sponge. I soaked up everything that I could.
PT: What a great experience! Julliard is a great school and a great training ground.
MU: Julliard was terrific. I couldn’t have had a better time there. You know, not everyone does, by the way, have a good time there. Some people don’t like it, some people struggle, some people quit, some people get kicked out. But it was exactly what I wanted and what I needed at that time. I had some ideas of what I wanted out of a career and out of school, but I never really expected what’s happening to me [now] to have happened. I know a lot of actors who get into it have these really specific ideas and goals as to what they want and that is kind of the kiss of death. You don’t get to decide where you fit in show biz. Show biz chooses for you where you’re going to end up. And that could be a really rude awakening. If you think, Oh I’m going to be an action star and you end up doing a play about Barbra Streisand for three years (laughs) – it can be a very rude awakening. If you were really counting on being an action star it could be really disappointing.
PT: Yes, there are a lot of rude awakenings in this biz (laughs).
MU: I’m sure there are lots of people – people who I went to school with – who thought, I’m going to go and be a big star on Broadway or I’m going to go and be a big movie star –
PT: Or the next Brad Pitt!
MU: Yeah, exactly! And they might. They might just be that. And they might absolutely not. So do you roll with it? Do you roll with it and just go where the work is? Do you follow the path that is presented to you or do you try to carve out of the path that which isn’t coming naturally? I think, and I’m pretty sure – and it’s worked so far for me, that it’s better to listen to what it is that people want you to do and do that instead of trying to force a square peg into a round hole.
PT: It definitely seems that it’s worked for you. You’ve been very successful as an actor!
MU: I was lucky when I got out of school. I got some work. I had good times and I had rough times, but I’ve been able to do a lot of cool and different things in theatre, on TV. I’ve even gotten to direct stuff. I’ve developed some great relationships and people asked to work with me again. I’ve made up some of my own work and I’ve made some good stuff and (laughs) not so good stuff. I’ve had some successes and some failures.
MU: Yes. I’m coming back to this role that has been great for me. Buyer & Cellar started Off-Off-Broadway three years ago. I knew when I first read it that it was going to be something special. I wasn’t sure if everyone was going to agree but I knew it was something special and I knew it would be fun to do. And I knew that if I just did it right it would be really good. We did great at the Rattlestick [Playwrights Theater] and then we moved to the Barrow Street Theatre and played there for a long time. And then I toured all over the country with it. And we went to London.
PT: And now you’re here in Connecticut.
MU: We’ve been invited to the Westport Country Playhouse which is a beautiful theater and the audiences so far have been fabulous. And we’re going to make a film for WNET Channel 13.
MU: Yeah, it’s kind of like the jewel in the crown. Pretty exciting!
MU: I think you’ll be surprised at how much you’ll think about life. It’s very funny. It’s a very funny play. Jonathan Tolins wrote it and it’s brilliant. He wrote a really brilliant play that’s filled with humor. But it’s also about all of us. We all go through the things in this play that the characters go through.
PT: This is one of those rare instances where we are seeing a show we’re not yet familiar with.
MU: It happens to be about Barbara Streisand and this wacky mall she built in her basement and a made-up story about a guy who gets hired to work there. And that’s the premise. And that’s funny already.
PT: Oh, yeah!
MU: What happens in the play that you don’t see coming, I think, is the connection between this made-up character and Barbra Streisand and how they relate to each other event though they don’t have any reason to. And how they sort of become friends – or something. They develop a relationship together. It’s really moving. And I think anybody who has ever had a boss will relate to it. Anyone who has ever felt alone will relate to it. And anybody who has any amount of money will be able to understand what it’s like.
PT: (Laughs) Really?
MU: Well, she’s obviously quite wealthy and he is a struggling actor in Los Angeles who doesn’t have anything. So they have a huge financial disparity. Everyone can relate to that. Everyone has been in that position – whether you’re a have or a have-not, you’ll find yourself relating to this play.
PT: Now we really can’t wait to see the play.
MU: (Laughs) That’s good!
MU: Well…she’s aware of it. And all of her people have come to see it. And they all quite like it. She has not been. Maybe she’ll watch this movie. I hope she’ll watch this movie once we make it. I think it’s interesting because people have always wondered, Has she come? Will she come? Don’t you want her to come? I mean, I would love to meet her. I would love to say that I’m the guy that play that you’ve heard about. But I don’t think it would be fair to her. I love her. I think she’s wonderful. And the play – ultimately – is very kind to her – it’s a very sweet interpretation of her. Of course, on the way, we have fun at her expense as you can imagine and there are things that come about in the play that will lead the audience to laugh that in a way – that I think if she were in the room it wouldn’t be fair to her. So I really never wanted her to come. I want her to know about it, I want her to see it. And I’d love to show her some of it myself. I think there are certain parts that I think she would really like, [but] I don’t think she would like all of it. I just don’t think it would be fair to make her watch it.
PT: That makes perfect sense.
MU: It’s kind of an unprecedented thing. It’s not like Muhammed Ali watching Will Smith as Ali in a biopic as Ali. It’s made up. It’s not real (laughs).
PT: We understand. (Stephanie) I imagine she’d get some sidelong glances from people and that would make her a little uncomfortable.
MU: If anyone knew she was there, it would be a disaster. It could only work if she snuck in. If the audience knew she was there, then no one would be able to concentrate.
PT: (Laughs) Maybe she’ll be there this weekend, Michael, when we’re there! You never know.
MU: (Laughs) Maybe Westport is when she will finally make her grand appearance.
PT: Well, Westport is certainly a nice place to hang out. So we know you also were on The Good Wife.
MU: Yes. The show is over now. It ended last week.
PT: That must have been a great experience.
MU: Yes. It was a really cool show to be on. They took such good care of the actors on that show. We always had good material. In fact, for our last episode the director said that he had spoken to the creators – Robert and Michelle King – and they said to go ahead and let us play and have fun. As long as we got all the information out, we could treat it like a swan song and really have a good time with our roles. That’s such a nice thing to hear from a creator who doesn’t even have to listen to your ideas much less to [tell you to] have fun and encourage you to play.
MU: That was like the cherry on top of the experience. It was a great time, great writing. We’ve had great characters. It was a great show. And then on top of that to get such a nice parting gift from the creators – it really meant a lot.
MU: It was going well and also because Vanessa Williams who played my boss – I was playing her assistant – she really liked me and she encouraged me. In TV, you know, there’s a lot of discouraging. It happens a lot in TV where you’re told to tone it down or to do less. I’ve been lucky because I’m a – a big …I do a lot as an actor.
PT: (Laughs) Larger than life?
MU: (Laughs) I’m not subtle. Let’s put it that way. I’m not what you would call a subtle actor. So these few times when I’ve been encouraged to go for it by the kings at The Good Wife or Vanessa on the set of Ugly Betty (and it just wasn’t Vanessa) but she didn’t have to do that. She didn’t have to say, What else can we do that’s fun? She didn’t have to take my input. She could have very easily said, I’m Vanessa Williams, I’m a star and you’re a guest on my show. And she didn’t. She treated me like an equal. We made each other better and became a little unit. The producers saw that and capitalized on it and I’m forever grateful.
PT: (Stephanie) Well that’s a testament to who you are as an actor and to those relationships!
MU: Thank you. And to her as well. She’s a classy, classy person. She’s a diva in every good sense of the word.
PT: You’ve done so many different mediums – theatre, TV, film – how do the mediums differ and do you have a process for approaching a project?
MU: The process does vary from medium to medium. But more so it varies from project to project. When you start a project, usually there’s already a vocabulary for how it works – if you’re a guest star on a TV show and you’re joining something or if you’re replacing someone in the show – you’re sort of told what the rules are, what the dynamic is. If you’re starting from scratch with a new play or a revival of an old play then you and the company and the director really decide [what the rules are] and you sort of figure it out as you go.
PT: That makes sense.
MU: The common thread to me is always like sending it in the right direction – to the camera, to the audience — and then [my performance] varies based on where it is. If it’s a camera it’s three inches away – that’s one thing. If it’s a theater like the Westport Country Playhouse with 800 seats, then it has to get all the way to the back of the house. In a lot of ways it’s the same.
MU: Of course, when you’re doing a play you start at the beginning and go all the way through every night whereas in a TV show you sometimes have to break it up – and then you have to remember what you’d done days ago or at least pretend you know here you were. In some ways you have to use more imagination in TV and film even though the set might be completely realistic. You have to use your imagination for where you’ve been and where you’re going. In the theatre even though there is a missing wall and all these people watching you, you really get to play out the entire thing from start to finish.
PT: (Stephanie) I personally have seen a lot of your work. I saw you with my daughters when you were on Broadway in How to Succeed...
MU: (Laughs) Yeah, that’s great!
PT: (Stephanie) We loved it and you were just phenomenal. I’d also love to ask you about The Temperamentals. It was such an important piece. I know you won a Lucille Lortel Award for it. Tell us about that. How was that experience?
MU: It was great. It was my first major role in New York. It was after Ugly Betty was already on. It was a play that I had been working on casually for years already. Long before Ugly Betty I had done readings and workshops. I just thought it was beautiful. It really spoke to me. So once I was on TV and had a hiatus, they came to me about doing a production and giving it a shot and we did. It went really, really well. It was very important to a lot of people. It was a piece about the LGBT history that a lot of people didn’t know about. It was really thrilling to celebrate those who did know and those who were part of it and it also educated those that didn’t know. It predated Stonewall [riots]. It was a major movement in the LGBT community that most people don’t know about or didn’t know about before this play*. It really touched a lot of people and people still talk to me about it all the time as being something that really affected them and they were really glad they got to see it.
*According to Wikipedia, The Temperamentals chronicles the founding of the Mattachine Society, the first sustained LGBT rights organization in the United States, and the love affair of two of its founding members, Harry Hay (played by Thomas Jay Ryan) and Rudi Gernreich (played by Urie).
PT: We wish we had! You have such a diverse body of work. We know you are interested in many things including directing. We read you even directed The Fantastiks when you were back in high school.
MU: (Laughs) You’ve really gone deep.
PT: (Laughs) Yes, we scoured the internet for details about you. We went very deep.
MU: That was very cool. Back in high school we discovered The Fantastiks and my friends and I put it on. And it was really good (laughs). We did a good job. I’m still really proud of it. We had a great show. We had the exact right kind of actors to put on a show like that. That was really the beginning of my directing bug – well, no, actually that wasn’t the beginning, but it really fed my directing bug. When I went to school at Juilliard I kind of let it go. I didn’t really think about directing so much. It wasn’t until I was already on TV and Ugly Betty was over. In fact, my partner and his writing partner at the time had written a screenplay and they said we think that you should direct this. And I was like okay, let’s talk about it.
MU: I had spent all my time on Ugly Betty really fascinated with everything. I thought, Now here’s my chance to be on a real live film set or TV set and watch how it works, and watch just what a director does. It’s very different than theatre. And it was different than what I always imagined it when I was a kid. I really thought after those four years of watching great directors, good directors, directors that had decks stacked against them – I really thought that I could do it. And then I did a few independent films and I saw what it’s like – the difference between a big, multi-million dollar TV show and a small, (laughs) multi-thousand dollar independent film. I really felt I had a sense of how I could navigate directing a film. And then I got the opportunity. And a movie, He’s Way More Famous Than You came out. I’m really proud of how it came out. And we got some incredible reviews and some awful reviews (laughs) which to me means we really did it.
PT: That’s great! [Any ink is good ink!]
MU: We played a bunch of film festivals and we had a nice little theatrical release. And it’s out there in the world. I also directed Thank You for Judging, which was a very different skill set. I co-directed that one. I didn’t direct alone. And then I’ve directed some shorts and a web series. I’m dying to get back to it. I’ve been a bit derailed by this one-man show. Doing this one-man show so long has made it hard to really plan another feature film. That’s why we’ve done some shorts and a web series.
PT: You’re very busy!
MU: Yes. It takes a lot of planning. Directing movies is not a hobby. You have to put your life on hold and make it happen and I have not been able to do that. But I want to and I want to get back to it.
PT: We’d love to review your film.
MU: Excellent. I’d love for you to review it!
PT: Tell us more about your web series and future agenda.
MU: Well, the web series is out and you can see it on Stage17.tv. It’s called What’s Your Emergency. It was written by Ryan [Spahn], my partner, and Halley Feiffer, his sometimes writing partner. It’s about a 911 center in Hell, Michigan that’s run by morons
PT: (Laughs) Love it!
MU: It’s very funny. Reed Birney plays the boss. In every episode there’s a face that you recognize who is in peril at the other end of the phone. We had the most fun. To quote my Texas people, I was a pig in shit (laughs). I had the best time making it. It’s out now. The company we made it with is no longer producing original content so I don’t know if we’ll have any future seasons of it, unfortunately. But more will come of something else, if not that. We’ll come up with something. The people I get to work with are so great and I know we’ll find another project eventually.
PT: And after Buyer & Cellar?
MU: After I finish Buyer & Cellar, I will be going back to Younger, a show that is on TV Land. It’s a wonderful show with Sutton Foster [and Hilary Duff]. Then I have some other [projects] – you know how show biz is – there are things I can’t talk about. There’s this weird thing that happens in show biz where you’re not supposed to talk about things until they’re in the press. So one day they’ll be in the press and then we can talk about it (laughs). But for now I just know that I will have a lot of things happening.
PT: Excellent! We’d love to talk to you again about your upcoming work!
So, we like to end every interview with one of our – what’s becoming our signature – questions. If you were to sum up your life to date in one word, what would it be?
MU: Um…(pause) Lucky!
PT: Lucky – that’s perfect! Thank you so much, Michael. We’re looking forward to seeing you in Buyer & Cellar this Saturday.
MU: We’ll say hello after the show!