Thursday, June 11, 2009

Q&A with Michael Urie

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(Michael Urie and I)

Best known as Vanessa Williams’ sharp tongued assistant on ABC’s hit comedy Ugly Betty, actor Michael Urie is on the fast path to stardom. Playing Marc St. James, he has brought to life a character whose dynamic and hilarious relationship with Amanda (Becki Newton) creates a duo that rivals Will And Grace’s Jack and Karen for sassiest comedic coupling in recent sitcom memory. While the show is currently on hiatus waiting for filming of the forth season to begin, Urie has wasted no time in showing his incredible range as an actor by appearing in the off-Broadway production of Jon Marans’ The Temperamentals. Named after an old term for “homosexual,” the play garnered so much theater buzz and had such a successful three week run that it recently re-opened in a larger venue.

As famous Viennese costume designer Rudi Gernreich, Urie completely sheds his skin of funny man Marc and tackles the dramatic role of a man who secretly became a founding father of one of the first gay rights movements in the United States. Urie’s inspiring performance traces him back to his roots as a theater actor. Having graduated from Juilliard, he was trained for the stage long before his devilishly handsome smile started dazzling our television screens on Thursday evenings.

After losing much of his family in World War II, Gernreich fled from the Nazi ruled Austria to America, where along with Harry Hay (played marvelously in the production by Thomas Jay Ryan) he formed a secret coalition of gay men to fight the oppression and censorship that homosexuals were facing in the 1950s. Trying to recruit members such as the closeted Vincent Minnelli and Christian Dior, they were an incredibly brave group of revolutionaries that are often overlooked in history books (frequently, the Stonewall riots of 1969 are cited as the first demonstration of gay uprising). The play tells the story of how Hay and Gernreich defied society and gave birth to the battle for civil rights that is still being fought today. After the opening night of the play, I caught up with Urie, who gave me a tour of both the old and the new theater, while he talked to me about the challenges he faced in playing Gernreich, as well as the significance of this play.

AN: How much of an impact do you think art has when it deals with politics? Do you feel that like with this piece, knowing the history of a movement that’s still going on is important in keeping the fight alive today?

MU: Well like you said, this play shows so many things that have not been fixed yet, and it also shows so many things that have been fixed. So in a lot of ways we have come a long way but in a lot of ways we haven’t gone anywhere. You see from films like Milk and Philadelphia and plays like Angels In America and The Normal Heart how art can change society and affect causes, so I think it’s very important because people are way more likely to watch or listen to art than watch or listen to political discussions. It’s a very powerful tool and it’s very important, and as artists, we always strive to do something that actually means something, that actually matters – and that is so rare. Just thinking about what’s happening now in the theater, you have shows like West Side Story which is about hate, really, at the end of the day, and it’s about not hating each other. That play can change people’s ideas and minds, and I think this play also can. It’s a history lesson but it’s also a love story, and it’s also very provocative and it will make you think.

AN: So was it these qualities about this particular play that attracted you to come back to the theater after being a TV actor for so long?

MU: Well I’m always on the look out for a great play because theater is so much more fulfilling than television. As wonderful and lucrative as television is and as much fun as I have doing it, and as great as that particular job is because it too is about something – that show too is about something, even though it’s on TV – it’s so rewarding to come back to the theater at any time. And you know, I never really left the theater because I did a play during my hiatus the first year and I did a play during the writer’s strike and now I’m doing this one, so I could never really leave the theater. I’m sort of a junkie and am kind of addicted to it. Any chance I get to go up on stage I take, because you can’t beat live people watching. Even when we did this show in the smaller theater that only had forty seats, doing it for that many people was thrilling! I mean, nine million people watch Ugly Betty every week. Forty people watch The Temperamentals every night, so it’s very different and you feel it. But to answer your question, I actually had several opportunities to do plays during my hiatus which is very lucky. It was the most unnatural thing in the world to turn down plays, because before Ugly Betty all I wanted was to get a play - but I had to pick what I thought was most important. I’ve been with this play a long time. I did readings of it even before Ugly Betty, so to see it all the way through is very cool, it’s very fulfilling.

AN: You mentioned the intimate setting of this play. Do you feel it needs to be performed in such a small venue in order to achieve its full effect, or do you think it could be just as powerful on a large Broadway stage?

MU: Well, tonight was the first night in this bigger theater. I mean it’s not that big, but it’s certainly bigger than the room we were in before. We’ve moved but the space is still intimate even though the room is twice the size, and the play still works. And you know, I feel like if we moved to an even bigger space it would still work because the material is big. I’m always amazed because I do a lot of Shakespeare, and with Shakespeare it works with five thousand people watching and it works with twenty people watching – it’s just about the story. If the story’s there, its’ message is going to catch fire.

AN: So did you have to make a lot of changes and adjustments in your performances as well as the overall production moving from that theater to this bigger one?

MU: A little bit. You have to be a little louder and stuff like that, but the play is the same. We didn’t have to change a lot. They re-wrote some stuff and they added some scenes, it was a little shorter before. There were certainly a lot of things that were rehearsed for about a week before we put it up tonight and it was a lot different, but it’s still the same thing, it’s still the same play. Also in a lot of ways, you can hear a lot better in this theater than you could in that one because there was something so dead about that room, but this theater is just so alive.

AN: I really liked the way the theater was set up tonight because with the chairs on both sides of the stage, I was able to see the audience members across from me watching the show too, so it was interesting seeing people react to the same thing that I was - especially if I was reacting or feeling the same way.

MU: It was also fun – and we’ll keep learning about this – but sometimes that half of the audience would laugh and that other half wouldn’t, and vice versa. They would see something and they would laugh at it, but the other half wouldn’t see it, which was interesting. I was surprised of what worked in the other theater but didn’t work in this one. Mostly it was the comedy stuff – some things would get a laugh in there but didn’t really get a laugh in here, which was interesting. Plus, in there, the audience was in the play – like they were as close as we are right now. They were literally right there and they knew it so they didn’t respond as much because they were nervous. You couldn’t do anything because you were practically in the light. Here, you’re more hidden so you can react to the material however you want to.

AN: What kind of research did you have to do in preparing for this role and creating this incredible character?

MU: We did a lot of research as a group. We would read all these cool books and talk about them, and there was this documentary that we watched … so we had a lot of help that way. But you know, a certain amount of research can screw you up after awhile, because if you research it too much then you’re just playing research and that doesn’t help. Also, this is a period of time before Rudy became Rudy, so all the stuff that’s documented about him doesn’t include any of this at all. He was never out at all. I mean, he was always in the public eye doing crazy avant garde things, but never as a homosexual.

Click here to purchase tickets to see The Temperamentals


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