Michael Urie’s Prophet Motive

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Published February 3, 2011

 

MICHAEL URIE

After winning the Pulitzer Prize, back-to-back Tony awards for Best Play, a record-breaking number of Emmys for the HBO adaptation, and being canonized as a text taught in high schools and colleges across the globe, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes returned to New York City last fall for the first time since it left Broadway over fifteen years ago. Directed by Michael Greif (of Rent and Next to Normal), the politically charged, sweeping epic has been selling out the intimate Peter Norton Space, in which both parts of the seven-hour play have been performed in repertory, since September. The production has now been extended three times—meaning a cast change is in order.

Enter Michael Urie, who on Tuesday took over the pivotal role of Prior Walter from Christian Borle. Urie is no stranger to playing gay roles. Over the course of four years as Marc St. James on ABC’s Ugly Betty, his character grew from a flamboyant gay fashion assistant to a character with resounding emotional depth and maturity. Then there was last year’s Off-Broadway The Temperamentals,  where Urie again portrayed a gay man working in fashion, but this time one at the forefront of the gay civil-rights movement in the early ’50s. And, of course, in the role of his own life, Urie, who initially seemed to be press-shy regarding his sexual orientation, described himself as “queer” exactly one year ago in the February 2010 issue of The Advocate. In our chat, Urie, rather than directly addressing his sexuality, uses that all-telling word when discussing the state of homosexuals today: we.  It is this very idea of “we”—of community, of progress—that is at the heart of Angels. We sat down with Urie to discuss his preparation for the role, his fear—or lack thereof—of being typecast, and the new sense of political urgency the play has taken on today.

SAM BELLIKOFF: Have you joined a cast in the middle of a play’s run before?

MICHAEL URIE:  Yes, one other time. I did The Revenger’s Tragedy with the Redbull Theater in 2005. Like Angels in America, I got the job before I’d seen it. I went to see it with my fingers crossed and was blown away, like I was with Angels. Both shows were excellent, and I got really excited to do them. I can only imagine, I was actually thinking about this today, What if you got a job to replace somebody in something that’s a coveted job, and you get there and the show is terrible [laughs]. That would be horrible.BELLIKOFF: What does it mean for you to be in this now?

URIE: This play has come with my every step of my artistic life. When I was growing up in Dallas, my older sister, who is now living in Berkeley married to a woman, she took me to a gay bookstore in Dallas. You know, you can get Angels in America in any Barnes and Noble. Even where I grew up in Texas, you could get this book. But I happened to buy it there. It was a very vivid memory, being in a gay bookstore in a gay part of Dallas (which has grown immensely since 1995). I still have those scripts that I bought that day. It was always a play that stayed with me. In high school, I worked on the part of Joe. In college at Juilliard, I did a couple of different scenes from it as Louis. And almost a year ago, they were talking about doing this production and I got to audition for Prior, so I started working on him. I’ve had this journey with the play. Every few years I’ve got to work on a different part. This one obviously is most exciting, and the most intense and turns out, the best part, for me anyway. I liked it the most, working on Prior.

BELLIKOFF: Not just because you’re joining it in the middle of this specific run, but because the play itself is so iconic, are you approaching the part differently than you would an original role?

URIE:  With roles that are so deep, like in this play, you have to bring so much of yourself to it that I can’t see two actors doing the same version. If you’re going to go there, you have to use yourself, and then it’s immediately going to become different. So while I get to steal a lot of Christian’s really good ideas and great choices, even doing an idea that came from him will come out my own way and be a little bit different. But it is tricky. Both times I’ve replaced someone, I have replaced people that were giving phenomenal performances.

BELLIKOFF: I can only imagine. With this part, there’s a stark physicality to the role. Does that terrify you?

URlE: I am juicing currently.  As I speak to you, I am preparing the juicer, [laughs] because I have been on this very strict diet. I’ve never dieted before in my life.  I knew that not only was there nudity, but the nudity was going to be for the sole purpose of seeing this character’s physical demise. My body is going to be going through it, playing this seven-hour part. I have to look really sick, so I need to be as healthy as I can possibly be. I’ve actually become healthier than I’ve ever been in playing a sick person.

BELLIKOFF: Your character is considered a prophet of hope. If you had to be the prophet of hope for something, what would it be? What do you hope for?

URIE: Towards the end of the play, I talk about how we’re going to get better. I say, “This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all. The dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living and we are not going away. We will not die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward.”  And then I say, ” We will be citizens. The time has come.”  That line was written in 1993: “We will be citizens.” And now it’s 2011, and we are still not citizens. I think that that is the hope for me. At the end of the play, you know that you are watching a period piece. You know that AIDS is not the death sentence that it was at the time when the play came out, and certainly at the time that the play depicts. And then, at the end, you hear this line, “We will be citizens,” and you know what it meant then. It means something different now, but it’s still true. Gay people still are not… we don’t have the same rights. They’re not seen in the same light, even in New York—a liberal mecca—where this play is being done and takes place.  So I guess that would be my hope. That when you leave the play—and I don’t think it’s possible with this production—you don’t feel that it is simply a period piece. It represents a continuing struggle.

BELLIKOFF: I know your sexuality has been something you didn’t originally want to talk about, before discussing it in The Advocate earlier this year. But looking at the parts that you take, do you see the roles that you’re choosing as your own form of activism? How do you approach what you do?

URIE: There’s definitely been times where I’ve thought or tried to make a concerted effort to branch out as far as the sexuality of my roles goes, but then I can’t help it. A good role comes along, and a good role is a good role. The role of Prior in this play is better than almost any heterosexual role I can think of, so that question sort of goes out the window when the part is that good. It was the same with The Temperamentals. I also would rather work than wait and jobs are coming my way. But also…it’s such a good part, first The Temperamentals and now Angels, I’d be a fool not to do it. Any straight person would too.

BELLIKOFF: Did you used to have a fear of being typecast but now it’s not there as much anymore?

URIE: When I was doing Ugly Betty on TV, I was concerned about being typecast as that character. It didn’t have anything to do with the character being gay, it was more the flamboyance of that character that worried me. I didn’t want to become a stock TV character. There are so few similarities between that character and the one I played in The Temperamentals. They’re both gay and they actually both happen to be in fashion, which is very ironic, but they’re so different.

BELLIKOFF: To backtrack a bit, talking about Ugly Betty, did you have any input into the evolution of your character, Marc, over the years?

URIE: My part, originally—when I got cast, it was this tiny little co-star part. It wasn’t even supposed to continue past the pilot. They didn’t have ideas, it wasn’t a fleshed-out character, until Vanessa Williams liked me. We had an amazing rapport right away, and the producers decided they were going to keep me on. I always thought of typically our parts, Vanessa’s and mine, as Shakespearean villains. And I always sort of treated it like that. We always told the audience what we were going to do and then we went and did it. And then in the end, in the last two seasons, my character got to have ambition and try to move up in the world of magazines and have this lovely rivalry with Betty. I ended up with this incredible arc based on a character that was a joke, one joke. He was just this snarky, bitchy assistant and he ended up with a whole lot of character by the end.

BELLIKOFF: And you also worked on a new pilot, Brain Trust. Is that a different type of character for you?

URIE: Yes! I get to play a nerd. I wasn’t exactly breaking down any masculine barriers with my craft, but I was getting to wear very frumpy clothes and boy colors, sort of like the anti-Marc, which is great. I hope it gets picked up!

BELLIKOFF: What are your main thoughts on starting Angels?

URIE: I’m excited. Excited is the first one. I’m really, really ready. I’m ready to jump in.