Our Chat With Super Cute Out Actor/Director Michael Urie
Michael Urie had just graduated Juilliard when he was offered a starring role in Brian Sloan‘s new play, WTC View, which chronicled the life of a young gay man named Eric living in New York City in the weeks after the 9/11 attacks. It was 2003, only two years after the towers fell. To say the play was a risk is an understatement. Yet, Urie not only took on the part in the play, but also in the 2005 movie adaptation of Sloan’s work.
“It was interesting,” Urie told me as we chatted about his role in the play-turned-film. “It was a beautiful way to revisit those weeks after 9/11 because the play is a microcosm of New York in late-September 2001. The city became very much a city of familiarity. Normally, in New York, people don’t talk to strangers, and, if you have to, you deal with people, but people aren’t outgoing or friendly without a need to be. But in those weeks after 9/11, people became protective of each other. In New York specifically, everyone was talking about the same thing. We became a closer-knit group.”
It’s been ten years since the film version of WTC View was released, but this week, the movie is coming out in digital format to iTunes. So much has changed with Urie in those ten years, both personally and professionally: He’s gone on to star in the huge television success Ugly Betty, and he’s performed in countless other stage performances, including a one-man show, Buyer and Cellar. But as he reflects on WTC, he can see his own personal growth as both a person and performer.
“It’s been really cool. I’ve gotten to watch myself grow up,” he said. “Now that I’m looking back at WTC View, Eric is 33 in the play, and I was 23 when I did that part. Brian [Sloan] was really, really good at making sure that I was playing it like a 33 year old. There were things I didn’t really understand: Eric’s rage, anger, his fear and paranoia. I was 23 years old! I had nothing to be angry about. But now, I’ve grown up. I’m a grown man now. I understand Eric now in a very different way.”
The character of Eric is gay, but, in essence, his sexuality is an afterthought in the grand scope of the film. However, Urie’s “breakout” role as another gay man, Marc St. James in Ugly Betty, wasn’t as subtle, to put it lightly. In fact, the openly gay actor said many feared that the flamboyant part in Ugly Betty would be a “pitfall” for him, which, luckily, it hasn’t.
“I knew right away that I’d have people telling me to avoid what I was doing on Ugly Betty,” he said. “When you look at what I’ve done after the show, I’ve done lots of gay characters, and lots of campy characters, but I’ve been given the chance to play other people who are nothing like my character on Ugly Betty, like my parts in The Tempermentals and Angels in America. I did Buyer and Cellar, which is a totally different genre and medium, and my part on Modern Family I like to see as Marc St. James ten years later, all grown up. He’s become a real person, and he’s kind of bitchy.”
Urie has also had the opportunity to go behind the camera as the director of the extremely humorous online series What’s Your Emergency?, which chronicles the day-to-day operations of a totally defunct 911 call center in Hell, Michigan. Each episode is brief—generally around 10 minutes long—but the series has been a huge success. Part of the reason is because of the actual online medium, according to Urie.
“When I got my first iPhone, I never thought I’d be creating projects to watch on this thing,” he joked. “Our calendars are changing. I spend a lot of time doing things—acting, shooting film—but I also spend a lot of time doing things on my computer. If have a seven minutes free, I can watch a cat video, or a movie trailer. I can justify that time commitment to watch something on the web while doing my busy work.”
In some sense, Urie said, the world is changing, that the word “television” isn’t really a concrete thing any more, and that our sense of what a television show actually is has evolved, too. Gone are the days of water-cooler chats about what Rachel and Ross were doing on Friends the night before.
“Now all we’re talking about is that fucking blue-and-black dress on the Internet!” he said. “It’s fascinating. When you’re trying to get a water cooler moment, like we all are trying to do in show business, it makes what you’re creating and what you put out there in the digital platforms far more scrutinized. You’re usually forced to set a bar. With digital stuff, we haven’t set the bar yet. We haven’t figured that out.”
But, there is something promising about putting works online, like both What’s Your Emergency? and WTC View. As Urie told me, he gets contacted via Twitter (@michaelurie) every day by someone who finds Ugly Betty, or his web series, for the first time.
“That’s the exciting piece of the digital world,” he said. “We have access to everything all of the time, the way things are meant to be.”