BWW EXCLUSIVE: Michael Urie Talks GayFest SPRING AT LAST!, ANGELS IN AMERICA, UGLY BETTY & More
Today we are talking to the current Prior Walter in Michael Grief's off-Broadway revival of Tony Kushner's Pulitzer prize-winning ANGELS IN AMERICA, and also a headliner of Monday night's SPRING AT LAST! Gala to benefit The Harvey Milk School, late of ABC's smash-hit comedy UGLY BETTY, the charmingly candid and overwhelmingly talented Michael Urie! In this exclusive conversation we tackle topics ranging from Shakespeare to Sondheim to the power and legacy of ANGELS IN AMERICA and what songs and words of hope we can expect from him at the SPRING AT LAST! Gala alongside headliners Lance Horne and Wanda Sykes. Plus, Michael gives us the first news on a number of films he has coming out in the next year and much, much more!
PC: What are you going to be doing on Monday at the SPRING AT LAST! event? Are you performing anything with Wanda?
MU: I'm not sure - I think they are saving her for the end. I don't quite know yet - at least not what the running order is or exactly what I am doing. What I do know for sure is I am singing this song Lance [Horne] wrote.
PC: What song?
MU: It's this very, very funny song called "Kiss You Goodbye" that I've sung before at a night of his songs. I think that's what we're doing - it's not completely set yet.
PC: He's so talented - and he's also done this column. What an album!
MU: Complete genius.
PC: We premiered the Cheyenne Jackson track from the album in this column.
MU: That is so, so cool. Actually, I've known Lance since Juilliard.
PC: You went there together?
MU: Yeah, he was there as a composing major and I was there as an acting major. I was in this little rock opera of his.
PC: What was it?
MU: It was... (Pause. Thinks.) based on the story of DorIan Grey but it took place in clubs.
PC: What was it called? Who did you play?
MU: It was called CLUB KID and I was the door bitch; the person at the door. They stole - well, stole; borrowed - this three-piece purple suit from the costume shop at Juilliard and that was my costume. Then, I stole it from CLUB KIDS. (Laughs.) Watch now, I'll get billed by Juilliard!
PC: What did you think of the piece? Lance spoke of it quite favorably to me.
MU: It was just this brilliant thing. I think it was like fifteen minutes long - this popera. We did these weird movements and stuff. It was very artsy. So, that's how I first me Lance! And we were friends all through school and, then, after school, he wrote the music for this play with music about Mt. St. Helen's, oddly.
PC: How unique.
MU: Totally. Then, he was the musical director of my cabaret show with Becki Newton that we did at Feinstein's last year, called BECKI & MICHAEL IS BROADWAY. So, I've had a long and wonderful history with Lance. He is quite genius.
PC: "Strange Bird" and "In The Name Of The Father" are gorgeous songs. Amazing songs.
MU: Oh, yeah! Just beautiful. Beautiful. I also love his stuff with Alan Cumming. All that stuff is great. I was actually in Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival when they came through and I got to see their show - it was just breathtaking. First of all, it was, you know, home town son returns when Alan Cumming shows up in Edinburgh. On top of that, it was just an electric night.
PC: Would you aspire to have a career like his insofar as the range of roles and splitting time onscreen and onstage?
MU: Alan? Definitely. He's definitely done very cool things and really carved out a niche for himself being a non-traditional actor/star. No one else is really like him. You can't really look back to predecessors and say, "Oh, that's the Alan Cumming mold." In the future we will, but not so much before - he really carved out a niche for himself.
PC: What roles would you like to play in the future?
MU: Oh, so many. In the Shakespeare canon alone - I'm an enormous Shakespeare nut, so there are several plays of his I want to do.
PC: You did Mercutio in ROMEO & JULIET I know.
MU: I've also done Horatio in HAMLET. I did a rep at The Old Globe and we did TITUS and OTHELLO and MIDSUMMER. I did LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST, too.
PC: What was rep at The Old Globe like?
MU: It was amazing. It's a five-month gig in San Diego and you do three plays and put them up one-by-one in their outdoor theater for fantastic audiences. It's like a slice of heaven. It was pretty, pretty cool.
PC: Sounds wonderful - but challenging.
MU: Well, my situation there was doubly cool because while I was there I found out that not only was this little pilot I shot a tiny costar part for getting picked up, but I was being made into a series regular.
PC: What serendipity!
MU: So, I spent my days in LA shooting UGLY BETTY and then I would drive back down to San Diego to don my red wig for Rodrigo in OTHELLO. Then, after the show, I would drive back to LA and shoot the next day and go to The Old Globe to be in MIDSUMMER.
PC: So you were juggling three roles in your head simultaneously.
MU: Yeah, yeah, exactly! So, in the end, my part in BETTY turned out a bit Shakespearean - by default. (Laughs.)
PC: Who did you play in TITUS?
MU: I was Chiron in that TITUS. But, that was the second time I did TITUS - I've also played Saturninus.
MU: Oh, I know! He was so, so fabulous. I really want to go back to that play someday. He was so terrific, though.
PC: He's in Taymor's TEMPEST as well.
MU: I haven't seen it, but I know he's playing a serious character in it and I can't wait to see him in it.
PC: What do you think of SPIDER-MAN? Have you seen it?
MU: (Laughs.) I haven't seen it. I think it sounds more dangerous than ANGELS IN AMERICA!
PC: That's hilarious.
MU: People are flocking to it, so that says something, I guess. It seems a little crazy to me. A little crazy. (Laughs.) I mean, I hear people tell me that PETER & THE STARCATCHER is so incredible, so maybe this new revamp of SPIDER-MAN will kind of get back to the roots like people say that is doing.
PC: With all the hubbub surrounding the latest episode of GLEE, I have to ask what you think since your show UGLY BETTY had the first teen gay kiss in primetime.
MU: Yeah, it was on our show first. The character of Justin and his friend on the show had the kiss. I was there that day, though, because I was in the scene right before it. We knew it was a very, very important and special day when we shot it. We didn't get the numbers that GLEE got, so, obviously, they have reached more people, which is great and fine - but we were the first to do it.
PC: What do you think of that being a hot-button issue still?
MU: I think it's the idea of a young person being out and the loss of innocence thing. We hadn't really seen it until UGLY BETTY, so that really paved the way for GLEE. They are such a huge thing right now - and it is so popular. It's so, so, so important for that many young people to see that. I'm just thrilled that there is an outlet and there is a place for twelve, thirteen, fourteen-year-old kids who might not have anybody in their immediate life to turn to, at least they can turn to a station on TV - on FOX, a station everyone gets - and they will be able to find people who look like them and talk like them and act like them and they will be able to know that they aren't alone.
PC: And you support the "It Gets Better" campaign?
MU: Yes, I did one right when they first started. I wanted to jump right on that bandwagon. I thought that was a very, very, very cool program and very important - and I think it did really well. I think it did a really, really, really good job of getting the message out there. That awful period of time where kids were being bullied and ending it for themselves; that seems to have stopped. I'm sure the bullying hasn't stopped, but the bullying will never stop - and that's something I said in my "It Gets Better" video, "We empower bullies. We give them the power by letting their completely meaningless words hurt us." And, we always will. Even as adults, that will always continue - the bullying may get subtler or more socially accepted like from, say, critics - but, it's still bullying. Bullying - in any form - is only going to be as powerful as we let it be.
PC: What do you think of the VANITY FAIR "fag" comment?
MU: I think that you just can't be using that word, you know? They can't be using that - it's not a good word to proliferate.
PC: Did you have moments where you were harassed or were bullied when you were growing up?
MU: You know, I was so lucky. I don't know why, but I escaped so much bullying. I grew up in a suburb of Texas and I moved to New York when I was nineteen. I now live on 11th Avenue and, while it's not exactly neighborhood-y, since I've lived there for the last two years - and I also have a little dog now, which I guess could be part of the reason - I have been called a f*ggot by random people walking down the street or driving by in cars probably a half dozen times. I have never, ever been called that before I moved to 11th Avenue. I mean, this is New York City - you know, a few blocks away from Hell's Kitchen and not too far from Chelsea and the Upper West Side - but it didn't happen until I moved there.
PC: What do you think of that?
MU: It's very odd to me, as an adult, that there are people who are throwing that word at me. I was very lucky to escape it as a kid.
PC: Do you think it could have anything to do with them reacting to your character on UGLY BETTY?
MU: No, I think that they just recognized a guy with a little dog and a bright scarf or something. I mean, it's not like I dressed like I did on that show. It's not like they even said it to my face, they just shouted it out of cars or ran by.
PC: ELLEN was first, WILL & GRACE, then UGLY BETTY, and now GLEE - is it finally time for a gay lead protagonist on TV?
MU: It's tricky. It's tricky to avoid stereotypes - we are at a very sensitive time with the culture. I think we have to put down a layer of political correctness before we can start wavering - just because we have to eliminate the word gay meaning "lame"; we have to eliminate the word faggot as being a blanket negative term to call somebody. We have to move past that and level the playing field - to mix metaphors - before we can venture outside of telling these sort of moralistic stories. I think, ideally, characters on TV and in movies will be gay and it won't be issue-based. Much like that movie we were talking about that I did, WTC VIEW, which was about a gay man but it actually didn't have anything to do with him being gay - it was a story about a man who happened to be gay. We need mainstream movies like that where characters are gay but they aren't just the sassy leading lady's best friend or the guy coming out to his parents or the woman leaving her husband because she is a lesbian. Non-issue based characters - I don't know if that's the next step, but I think that's the ultimate goal.
MU: I thought it was an excellent movie, with a story that isn't known enough. Thanks to the wonderful film and Sean Penn's really good performance, it got that story out there. And, I think that the school founded in his name is simply phenomenal and I am honored to be doing this event for them and to benefit the kids of The Harvey Milk School.
PC: Tell me about if or how you feel the message of ANGELS IN AMERICA has changed in the nearly twenty years since it premiered.
MU: I do think the message has changed. It's a more so a reminder now - I wasn't in New York in the nineties and I didn't see the show, but I imagine that at the time it was a truly heartbreaking and cathartic way to look at the tragedy that was happening - still - at that time. But, now, in 2011, when HIV/AIDS is not the death sentence that it was in 1986 or, even, in 1993, when the play was happening, but it was truly a death sentence and truly horrific then. So, in that respect, it is a period piece - but it certainly doesn't play as a period piece. That, I believe, is a testament to the absolute sheer genius of the play itself.
PC: Genius at the very least.
MU: It, like Shakespeare - and I've been in some really good new plays, too - this play is truly an onion. Every night there is a new layer to find. I mean, I've been in it since February 1 now, and every night there is a moment while I am doing it where I think to myself, "I could do this play forever. I never want to stop doing these scenes."
PC: Like Shakespeare - you can always find something new.
MU: Absolutely. It absolutely is. And, the stakes are so incredibly high and the stories are so unique. The characters are so deep - and the actors I am so lucky to share the stage with in this production are so brilliant. And, Michael Grief, who has directed it, has done such a phenomenal job - putting us in just the right place both physically and emotionally.
PC: Tell me about the two different Priors in the two plays.
MU: When I was like fourteen or fifteen, my sister - who is a lesbian and now lives with her wife and kids in Northern California - she is seven years older than me, and she took me to a gay bookstore in Dallas. And, as I always did at that age, I went right to the section with plays and I saw ANGELS IN AMERICA. I had heard that it was the great play. So, I thought, "I'm gonna get this and I'm gonna read it for fun." And, so, it was probably the first play I ever bought with my own money and read for fun.
PC: And you were hooked.
MU: Totally. Then, in high school, I worked on Roy Cohen. For my college audition monologue, I did Joe Pitt. When I was at Juilliard, I worked on scenes playing Louis. But, it wasn't until the auditions for this production came up that I ever even looked at Prior. Of course I had been aware of Prior, but, to be honest, it was probably too intimidating to me. Maybe I didn't want to do a drag scene, subconsciously? I don't know why I never gravitated towards it - but I was a fool because it is not only the character closest to me and the part most appropriate for me, but he is such a soulful character that I love being with everyday. I mean, yeah, he's sick and he goes through it and he has so much rage and anger and, maybe lunacy - especially in Part Two - but, he is somebody who I would love to know in life, so I love having him with me everyday. Certainly, he's emotionally exhausting and taxing and sometimes I just don't want to go out and be sick - but I always find I love playing him.
PC: Have you figured out a back-story for the character since he is sort of enigmatic and little is known about his life?
MU: I have figured out a back-story for myself. There are some things that Tony gave me and some things that Adam Driver - who plays Louis - and I have talked about with their history and stuff. At a certain point, that stuff isn't always helpful, but, we definitely found common ground. Michael Grief was really instrumental in our rehearsal process.
PC: Tell me about working with him.
MU: We're very lucky that he was able to be around so much - I mean, he is one of the busiest men in all of the American theatre. He was with us a lot when we were rehearsing to be put into this production. He had all the answers - if he didn't, he would work on it with us and we'd find an answer together. That was quite a thrill.
PC: Did you have any time to work with Tony Kushner?
MU: We had some time with Tony. Tony's a bit busy now with the new play, but Michael was always a great conduit for him.
PC: What did you learn from Tony about Prior's back-story?
MU: What's interesting is the long, long lineage of people named Prior Walter - he is the thirty-fourth Prior Walter. So, we have the deep back-story, but the more recent history of Prior Walter is more vague. You've got a little bit in the text that says he has a small trust fund and that he is a designer - but, you don't know quite what kind of designer. I think he does a lot of things - or did a lot of things. In a dream he tells Harper that he swiped the make-up from the Clinique counter at Macy's, so I think that at times he has been a window designer at Macy's.
PC: "The Fall colors," right?
MU: Yes! He says he swiped the Fall colors from the Clinique counter. I imagine he's at Macy's working hard on the windows and then he just wanders over to the Clinique counter and takes what he likes.
PC: What a fabulous back-story!
MU: I really love the moment later where he is listing off all the things that are wrong with him to his nurse and he says, "My eye doctor says everything is OK for now; my dentist says "Yuck" when he sees my bloody tongue; my dermatologist is in Hawaii; and my mother - well, leave my mother out of it. Which is usually where she is." So, I get the sense that, you know, he doesn't hate his mother, but he can't really rely on her.
PC: What makes Prior tick?
MU: Well, I think that's sort of the big point with Prior is that he has Louis and a great friend in Belize and when Louis leaves and Belize can't be with him all the time - he is alone and he has to face all of this sh*t alone. That's kind of the point. That's kind of his big problem - having what he has and going through what he is going through; and not just the illness, but the disorientation that he is having from the drugs or from the disease or from the angel that comes to visit him - whether that is real or not - and he has no one to help him through it.
PC: Is Prior Walter an apparition himself? An actual man who has a mission? An angel? All? None?
MU: Yeah... I don't know! (Laughs.) It's hard to make a decision about that. It's hard not to take it all seriously. What's so brilliant about the play is that all the questions you just asked, Prior has asked and asked himself and asks of Belize. He is constantly aware - and that's part of the reason this play is a never-ending journey, is because he will say, "I saw an angel; I'm not insane. But, I saw an angel and that's insane." So, he's the first one to admit that everything he is going through is ridiculous and insane, but he is not. He is not.
PC: How rich.
MU: Yeah. Yeah. Very.
PC: What do you think of the Mike Nichols film version?
MU: It's great. I loved it. I saw it the two nights it premiered or whatever on HBO. Like any great piece, it works at the giant Walter Kerr Theater, it works at the tiny Signature Theatre, and it works for the camera ten inches away - I think any well done incarnation will be brilliant and that one was certainly no exception.
PC: Justin Kirk does a phenomenal job in the film.
MU: Oh, he does. Gosh. Stephen Spinella won two Tony Awards for the part!
PC: Is this production going to come to Broadway?
MU: It would be super cool, but I don't think so. It works so well in the space - it was built for the space it is in.
PC: It seems odd that this is staying off-Broadway but NORMAL HEART is coming to Broadway after all this time.
MU: I think that production of NORMAL HEART will be a lot less expensive than ours would be. Plus, it's a bit of a staged reading and it's never been on Broadway, anyway. What's great about the NORMAL HEART is that they are sort of bookends - THE NORMAL HEART is about the confusion and fear at the very top of the outbreak and ANGELS is a few years later when it is a part of society and people are dealing with it. So, it is kind of cool that those plays will be overlapping for a few weeks and be on in New York at the same time. Then, there's Tony's new play - THE INTELLIGENT HOMOSEXUAL'S GUIDE - that is going to sort of be the epilogue to the two great plays in some ways, certainly to ANGELS.
PC: What can you tell me about the new play? It's modern, correct?
MU: Yeah, they have iPhones and stuff. Like ANGELS, it's about religion and politics and sexuality and all the hits. All the great hits.
PC: Where do you place FALSETTOS in the scheme of things?
MU: It is the musical theatre equivalent, I think.
PC: Would you consider doing Marvin someday?
MU: Well, I'm not the singer that I wish I was or that some people think I could be. I wish I had the pipes to just jump into musicals.
PC: What have been your favorite performances that you've recently seen?
MU: Well, I just saw Geoffrey Rush in DIARY OF A MADMAN at BAM and it was a true, true delight. He's such a genius. That theater at BAM is so amazing and I was actually at a matinee with all students and they were a phenomenal crowd to watch - you know, a weird Gogol short story translated by the guy from the PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN. It was just a phenomenal day. I was truly inspired by him and by that.
PC: What about your favorite film performances this year?
MU: 127 HOURS just blew me away. I think that was my favorite movie last year. I think James Franco was just phenomenal and that movie was just stunning.
PC: What TV do you enjoy? MAD MEN, BOARDWALK EMPIRE and DAMAGES are better than most movies these days.
MU: DAMAGES! I am so glad DAMAGES is coming back. Last season of DAMAGES just like changed my world. Lily Tomlin, Martin Short, Len Cariou - what a fantastic show. Campbell Scott. If I could pick one show to be on that would be it - that and WALKING DEAD.
PC: Patty Hewes is taking on John Goodman and the Army this season.
MU: Wow! I can't wait! I hope Martin Short comes back.
PC: Do you watch BOARDWALK?
MU: My dear friend Kelly McDonald is on that show.
PC: She's the lead with Steve Buscemi, who just did this column. What a pair.
MU: She's just amazing, isn't she? We did a really cute romantic comedy in Scotland over the summer, THE DECOY BRIDE. I am completely smitten with her. David Tennant - who plays Dr. Who - is in it, too. It will be a fun one, I think.
PC: What about JEREMY FINK & THE MEANING OF LIFE in the can?
PC: What about PETUNIA?
MU: I just did PETUNIA. We shot it during my last two weeks of rehearsal and my first two weeks of performances of ANGELS IN AMERICA, so that was a fun and exhausting one. PETUNIA is a really cute, dark, New York family indie with Christine Lahti as the matriarch and David Rasche as the patriarch. Eddie Kaye Thomas is in it, too, and Thora Birch from AMERICAN BEAUTY.
MU: We haven't shot it yet and I don't know when they want to shoot it. It has been pushed a few times. So, someday I will be able to tell you about it and I hope to meet them and work with Tracy and Sandra. It's a really great script, so I can't wait to shoot it.
PC: What about doing an Edward Albee play? You are ideal for a bunch of roles in his plays.
MU: Oh, I'd love to do Edward Albee's stuff. There's actually a play of his that is very, very rarely produced that once I am a bit older I would like to get going. It is called EVERYTHING IN THE GARDEN.
PC: I know that play. I've read the original, too. You'd be excellent if it's the part I'm thinking of. Obscure choice.
MU: Yeah, it was an English play originally.
PC: His adaptation is superior, for sure. What other Albee roles entice you? TINY ALICE?
MU: TINY ALICE, ZOO STORY, of course Virginia Woolf? someday.
PC: What's on your iPod?
MU: You know, the last things I put on my iPod were actually the songs I am going to be singing on Monday. I've really been loving that Cee-Lo Green song "F*ck You", though.
PC: Bruno Mars is one of the most talented songwriters in music - he wrote that song with Cee-Lo.
MU: Yeah, I saw Cee-Lo and Gwyneth and the Muppets do that at the Grammys and I've been hooked ever since.
PC: Define collaboration.
MU: Collaboration! Collaboration is when magic is made with more than one person. It's when more than one person finds common ground on the same page. That's collaboration. It's the most important thing we've got!
PC: It's the essence of theatre.
MU: Oh, absolutely - really, any art. Even if you get up and sing alone, you still have to collaborate with the writer of the song and the person who is accompanying you and all that stuff.
PC: What's your favorite cast album?
MU: (Long Pause.) I have an answer for this! It's tricky because I really love cast albums - especially on road trips. They're so good to pass the time. I think if I'd have to pick one it would have to be INTO THE WOODS. There are so many things to listen to within it.
PC: And those two great last songs, "No One Is Alone" and "Children Will Listen".
MU: Absolutely. And, I can listen to my girl Bernie on one recording and my girl Vanessa on the other! (Laughs.)
PC: Any Vanessa Williams diva stories?
MU: She was the best. You want to talk about a collaborator - Vanessa Williams is a true collaborator. She makes diva a positive thing, in every way. She is a special, special lady.
PC: What about an UGLY BETTY movie?
MU: It'd be awesome, but I don't see it happening, unfortunately.
PC: But, you'd be up for it? There are rumors of an ABC Family reunion show.
MU: Hell yeah! Hell yeah. I would be there in a second.
PC: Anything else coming up?
MU: There is, but I'm not allowed to talk about it yet! I'll call you when I can. (Laughs.)
PC: ANGELS IN AMERICA hopefully will extend again to keep you even busier until then.
MU: Yeah! Right now it's just until April 24. There are tickets available and there is a secret student rush that I am not supposed to talk about but it's there and I want people to come so I‘m spilling the beans - you can get tickets the same day for $30. If it's sold out, you can buy tickets to the steps and see the show there. I think those are $40.
PC: Thank you so much, Michael. This was so fun and informative.
MU: Thank you, thank you, thank you. It was truly a pleasure to speak with you, Pat. Bye bye.