For many of his fans, Michael Urie is still synonymous with scheming fashion assistant Marc St. James, the character he indelibly played for four years on Ugly Betty. However, the 34-year-old actor first came to the attention of LGBT audiences with his widely-praised performance in WTC View (now available on iTunes), the 2005 film in which he starred as Eric, a young New Yorker seeking a roommate for his apartment and genuine connection in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks on the city. Since Ugly Betty went off the air in 2010, Urie, who came out publicly as queer that same year, has proven his versatility with several projects including the 2012 sitcom Partners and a number of acclaimed turns on stage including The Temperamentals, Angels in America, How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Buyer & Cellar, an uproarious crowd-pleaser in which he plays a struggling actor working in Barbra Streisand’s basement shopping mall. He’s also making a transition to directing by helming the witty new workplace web series What’s Your Emergency? Urie chatted with Queerty about the making of WTC View, the rumors of an Ugly Betty reunion, and whether Streisand has seen his imitation of her.
I think it’s now a period piece, for sure. But it also captures a time that those of us who were in New York remember very vividly, which was the weeks following the attack. It’s very easy to remember what happened on that day through YouTube and all the images out there. For those people who don’t remember 9/11 because they were too young, they definitely know what the day was like. But the weeks following was when strangers really came together and people really took care of each other. It was a beautiful thing. Of course, the reason people were taking care of each other came from a terrible tragedy, but it’s important to remember that when the shit hits the fan as it did on that day we’ve got each other’s backs and will take take care of each other. I was in New York on 9/11 and there have been no other times quite like that when we as New Yorkers we came together and talked to each other and listened to each other. New Yorkers get a bad rap for being rude, but I don’t think we are. I think we’re busy. [Laughs] Maybe we’re not friendly, but if engaged we’ll gladly be part of one another’s lives. After 9/11 it was different. We were all on the same page. It was very therapeutic. To do the play two years after 9/11 and we shot the movie nine months later, it’s continued to live at festivals and DVDs and now digital. I feel it’s a great catharsis. God forbid something like this happens again, but we’ll know how to deal with it. We as humans will have the right instincts to take care of each other.
I was in New York. I think it was my second day of my third year at Julliard. I was heading to school and I happened to catch on TV that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. As we all did, I thought it was strange and bizarre. Everyone who heard about the first plane thought it was a freak accident. I went to school knowing that when I got to the subway station above ground I’d be able to see the World Trade Center. By the time I got there both buildings were on fire. Between leaving the house and getting to the train the second plane had hit. As I watched confused someone said to me, “They got the other one.” The whole train ride there everyone was silent. I went to school and class was canceled and I was offered to an office and all the students watched it play out on TV together. After that they took us to the theater and the dean spoke to us. Some of my classmates and I tried to volunteer but we were turned away. There was so much going on. I found my way home somehow.
I didn’t have Eric’s experience and I was only 23 at the time. I wasn’t afraid of anything. I thought I was invincible. In a lot of ways I understand Eric more now. When I look back at the movie I understand why it was such a terrifying time. The character is actually 33 in the movie and I was only 23 when I played him. Things had to be explained to me. I didn’t always know why he was doing some of the things he was doing, but looking back now I understand. I’m more like Eric now than I was then.
Obviously a lot of progress for gay actors has been made in the 10 years since the film. Back then did you feel any trepidation about playing a gay character at the beginning of your career?
This part was just way too good to pass up. I had no doubts. When Ugly Betty came around there was definitely trepidation about playing another gay character after that because it made such a splash and was so popular. I was told not to and was encouraged to stay in the closet and all that stuff. I always felt I wasn’t going to get typecast as a gay character as long as I played gay characters who differed. You can’t even come close to comparing Eric in WTC View to Marc St. James in Ugly Betty. Nor could you compare Marc to Rudy Geinrich in The Temperamentals or Prior Walter in Angels in America or my character in Partners. Even though that was a broad comedy, he was still a different guy. I’m sure there was a period of time when you could get typecast as a gay character. I’ve been really lucky because I’ve been able to work in different genres. I wanted to work and if I stopped playing gay characters no one would know me anymore. [Laughs]
What’s great about the digital world is that people are still discovering it every day. I get tweets from people who have just watched it for the first time, which is really cool. I’m happy that people still like it. I know that everyone in the cast still has great fondness for the show. So if it were real we’d all jump on board, That said, it’s nothing more than a rumor right now.
You officially came out as a non-hetero five years ago. What affect did that have on your career?
It certainly opened doors for me. Once I was open and out, people had more respect for me. I didn’t have to speak to people through any kind of veil. I could just be honest. They could be honest with me and didn’t have to dance around. Conversations are so much easier when you’re open. I think I got more work. I know that actors are supposed to be mysterious and that’s all well and good, but actors also need to be understood. I never lied. I never pretended. I never said I was straight. I just never said anything. I think once it was out in the open and I was honest and upfront, I think people liked me better and I liked myself better and I liked everyone else better.
As we continue to evolve as a species, we’ll see there are a lot of people who identify as straight who are actually queer and we’ll be OK with that. Even though I’ve been with the same guy for six and half years, I certainly live my life as a gay man. These labels are good for us to understand how to communicate with each other but eventually things will be far more fluid.
Do you get offered straight characters?
Yeah, not manly guys or romantic characters, but they’re out there. They come my way. They’re characters who have an ambivalent sexuality or the fact that they’re straight isn’t part of the character or quirkier comic characters. Obviously, I get way more interesting gay characters, but it happens.
Besides your work in film and TV, you have a solid stage resume. What’s appealing to you about appearing in front of a live audience?
What’s great about a live audience is you know how you’re doing. So often in film and TV you’re at the mercy of your collaborators, which can be incredible and you can wind up way better than you should thanks to great directors and editors and DPs. But sometimes they can use the wrong take or angle and you can look bad or it can mess up the timing of something. Doing a play you have more control over your work but you can also tell how a performance is going. You can feel them, even in a drama. You can’t really get that in any other medium in which we work. Multi-camera sitcoms come close, but those people are instructed to laugh.
Your performance in Buyer & Cellar last year was met with wide acclaim from critics and audiences and, personally, I found your interpretation of Barbra Streisand to be very respectful. There was talk that she might see the show in L.A. Did that happen?
She did not come, although many people close to her came. I think the only way she could see it would be on tape or in a private performance with her friends. If anyone knew she was in the audience it would ruin the whole show. If no one knew she was in the audience it wouldn’t be fair to her. The play only works because she’s not in the room. I feel the play is quite respectful of her entirely. Of course, we have fun at her expense but ultimately we tell the truth about her. She comes off great. But the audience does laugh at her and I think that would be hard for her. If the audience laughing at her was all her friends it would be very different because they’d be laughing with her. If she ever saw it, she’d need to be sitting right next to Donna Karan and James Brolin.
Did anyone in her inner circle ever comment on your performance?
Yes, her manager and publicist saw the show and came backstage and said hello and they were lovely. Richard Jay Alexander, the guy who directed her concerts, was really complementary about it. I think they told Barbra that she comes off great but she shouldn’t come to the theater to watch it though because it would be weird.
I go to London this week and will do it for two months at the Menier Chocolate Factory. She’s totally universal but if they don’t know her, I think within the first few minutes of the play they’ll have an idea of what she’s like. Jonathan Tollins did such a good job of creating her within the play. I think what’s going to resonate so wonderfully in the U.K. is the class system, this idea of the haves and have-nots. That’s what the play is really about. Los Angeles, Hollywood and show business has such a class system to it that it really comes to life — when you put someone who’s at the top of the heap like Barbra Streisand in a room with and in a relationship, really, with someone at the bottom of the show business barrel. London, specifically, has such bold lines between the classes and I think they’re going to get a huge kick out of it and understand what John is saying with the play and how it deals with the isolation and loneliness of the class system.
Watch the trailer for WTC View below.