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The stage star chats about his role in Grand Horizons, acting opposite Jane Alexander and why he's not worried about being typecast
Michael Urie acknowledges that he often plays gay characters, notably his breakthrough role as flamboyant personal assistant Marc St. James on ABC's Ugly Betty; an out-of-work actor turned curator of Barbra Streisand's tchotchkes in the one-man play Buyer & Cellar; and a neurotic Jewish drag queen looking for love in the recent revival of Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song. In Bess Wohl's Grand Horizons, currently on Broadway courtesy of Second Stage Theater, he adds another such role to his résumé: Brian, a high school drama teacher who's blindsided when his long-married parents (James Cromwell and Tony winner Jane Alexander) announce they are splitting up. Yet besides being gay, these characters have nothing in common, which is a testament to the diversity of LGBTQ representation on stage today and why Urie isn't concerned about being typecast. In a wide-ranging conversation with TDF Stages, the 39-year-old actor talked about his latest Broadway gig, his longtime romance with Ryan Spahn, and why he and Jesse Tyler Ferguson need to collaborate.
Gerard Raymond: How did you become involved with Grand Horizons?
Michael Urie: I first heard about the play from Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who played my role in the original Williamstown production last summer.
Raymond: That's funny—wasn't Buyer & Cellar written with Ferguson in mind, but when he couldn't do it, you signed on?
Urie: Exactly! This is the third time this has happened. He also did a play called Log Cabin, which I had done some previous readings of but then couldn't do the production [at Playwrights Horizons]. We've got to figure this out. I was on Modern Family, but I didn't have scenes with him. I keep saying to him I want to work together. Anyway, he said Grand Horizons was going to Broadway, but he couldn't do it and that I should, and he sent me the script. A week later, I was offered the job. I said, "Jesse, did you make this happen?" But he didn't. I had worked with Second Stage before [on Torch Song] and I knew Leigh Silverman, the director, a little bit, but it was pretty cool.
Raymond: What attracted you to the project?
Urie: I was very excited to do a modern play, and Bess Wohl's writing is so fresh, it leaps off the page. I had never read or seen a story about nearly 80-year-old people getting a divorce. It sets off this chain reaction of truth that this family has never really explored before. It sends them into complete chaos. The fact that the parents are getting divorced after 50 years of marriage doesn't just affect the family now and in the future, but retroactively as well. It is sort of mind-blowing to these adult children who have pretty much resigned themselves to their lives. Now they have to reexamine everything.
Raymond: Jane Alexander, who's returning to Broadway after a 22-year absence, plays your mother. What's it like working with her?
Urie: She's such a legend. I had seen her in movies, of course, but I had never seen her on stage, so I didn't know what to expect. She is such a creature of the stage—she knows exactly what her voice and her body need to do. There's an amazing scene between our characters, when she tells Brian something he doesn't know. She has never told this to anyone, and she chooses to tell her adult gay son. The scene is such a delicate balance between what the audience knows and what they think. Surprising the audience is the most thrilling thing for me. You get to decide when and how to let an audience in on it. It's like drugs for an actor. That scene is particularly tricky—we don't want the audience to get ahead of us; we want them to be right with us and Jane is an incredible dance partner.
Raymond: Recently, you've been working on stage nonstop. Just last month, you finished A Bright Room Called Day at The Public Theater.
Urie: The crazy thing is, the two job offers [for Grand Horizons and A Bright Room Called Day] came on the same day! It was an opportunity I couldn't pass up. With my character Baz in Bright Room, on paper, it makes sense that I would play that role—you know, thirtysomething gay man and when you consider typecasting... But that guy was working for the Institute for Human Sexuality in 1930s Berlin at the beginning of the Third Reich. That's very different from Brian in Grand Horizons, a guy teaching high school drama in the Northeast, single and thrown into tumult when his parents decide to divorce. Two completely different genres of theatre, two completely different characters and I got to do them both almost at the same time. Pretty lucky!
Raymond: Do you have any concerns about getting typecast in gay roles?
Urie: It doesn't bother me that I go from one gay role to another because they are so different. Take Grand Horizons versus Torch Song, which also has a big standoff between mother and son—they couldn't be more different. And any time I rest on my laurels or slip into a rhythm that is familiar to me, either from a TV show or another play, that gets nipped in the bud pretty quickly by Leigh, the director. I'm glad she is demanding that this character not be like any of the others I've played. If this is what typecasting is, I'm totally okay with that because these roles are very different, and I'm absolutely being challenged. I feel so fortunate to get these roles, but it is also not equitable. At the risk of costing myself jobs, there are more of us out there than just me and Jesse Tyler Ferguson.
Raymond: You've been in an 11-year-relationship with actor Ryan Spahn. What's it like with two performers in the house?
Urie: This is a bummer of a business sometimes, and it can be really hard. Sometimes we say, "Let's not talk about acting for a little while," because it's just exhausting. And if one of us has to make a self-tape or learn lines, we are not good at that with each other. We are often right for the same things and it's hard not to say, "Well, if it were me…" and that's not really helpful. He has seen Grand Horizons twice already, but I can't get to see him in How to Load a Musket [currently at 59E59 Theaters], unfortunately, because we have the exact same schedule and my show will run longer than his. This is the first time that has happened. We do work together—we were in Hamlet [in D.C.]—and I'm sure we will end up working together again.
Raymond: You're not just a theatre actor. Can you talk a bit about your work as a director and producer on Drew Droege's solo shows, and about the Pride Plays series you launched last year?
Urie: I've known Drew for almost as long as I've known Ryan—they were neighbors in the same apartment building in Los Angeles. And for years and years, Drew would stay at our apartment when he came to New York; he was doing his show Bright Colors And Bold Patterns by himself with a couple of chairs at Ars Nova. I saw it and said, "Can I please help you make this a full production?" I didn't have major thoughts about the script or his performance, but having done a solo show [Buyer & Cellar] myself, I just knew how to maintain something like this, how to take care of yourself when you are all alone on stage—emotionally and physically. In Drew's new play Happy Birthday Doug [coming to Soho Playhouse in February], which will be directed by Tom DeTrinis, he plays all the guests at a party. With this one I'm helping as a producer—weighing in on some things, problem-solving and talking to investors. I like that we are a team, getting the band back together again.
I am also coproducing Pride Plays again this year with Doug Nevin [in June at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater]. It originally came about because we had been talking about queer theatre and representation and—along the lines of your question about typecasting—how plays could get typecast as gay plays when there are so many different kinds. I think Pride Plays proved it. Last year, we had 20 play readings in five days with over 200 artists, and a couple of thousand people showed up. The thing that I am most proud of is that there were no two plays that were comparable. There is so much diversity within the LGBTQ community.
Raymond: Let's talk about your roles as fashion icon and Drama Desk Awards host for the past four years.
Urie: Well, the fashion icon thing is very cool. It is so much about my height and the faces I am able to make. Working with Christian Siriano on the Met Gala—it was him, he's a genius. I also was in a fashion TV show, Ugly Betty, for four years and I learned how to wear clothes. I wouldn't say I have the taste of Billy Porter. I don't know how to put things together like him, but I've worked with Billy's stylist, Sam Ratelle, who helped to dress me for the Tonys and for the Drama Desks last year. I love hosting. The same things I like about being in a play I like about hosting: the surprise. Everyone's nervous at an awards show, so it is thrilling to have an arsenal of jokes. I think it is all kinds of ridiculous that we are all giving each other awards, but it helps to talk about these shows and get the word out. I'm always happiest when awards shows spread the wealth. Sweeps can be really depressing for the people who are not sweeping.
Raymond: In addition to Grand Horizons, what's coming up for you as an actor?
Urie: After the show is over, I'm shooting Fun, a pilot for CBS with Becki Newton [Urie's Ugly Betty costar]. It's a comedy created by Michael Patrick King. We are playing a brother and sister who run their family funeral home. It will be a multi-camera sitcom à la Will & Grace and it is very funny, very sweet. I also have a couple more episodes of Almost Family; I don't know yet about Younger. They always give me juicy fun stuff to say!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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Gerard Raymond is an arts journalist based in New York City.
Michael Urie in Grand Horizons. Photo by Joan Marcus.