Last month, Michael Urie ended a sold-out run of Jonathan Tolins’s playful comedy Buyer & Cellar at Off Broadway’s Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, after winning several accolades, including a Drama Desk award for Best Solo Performance. He’s back for a return engagement, currently playing at the Barrow Street Theatre in the West Village.
In recent years, Urie has become a familiar face on and off Broadway (The Temperamentals, Angels in America, The Cherry Orchard, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying), but he’s best known for his four-season stint as a fashion designer’s assistant on Ugly Betty. He recently directed his first feature film, He’s Way More Famous Than You, in which he also plays a character loosely based on himself. Later this month, he will be seen in a supporting role in the wacky comedy Petunia, starring Christine Lahti.
As the 32-year-old Texas-born actor describes it, his career path owes much to a series of happy accidents so far. “I grew up in front of the TV and, at age nine, I wanted to be a director,” he recalls. “But then I kept getting cast in plays in school so I thought, ’Maybe I am good at this.’ Then, somebody suggested that I audition for Juilliard, which I thought was crazy, but I decided I might as well try. At Juilliard I fell in love with the classics and when I graduated, I would have just been happy as a clam going from regional theater to regional theater playing the great parts in Shakespeare and Chekhov. I mean, I would kill to do Shakespeare in the Park, but I can’t get arrested there!” It was playing a classical role on stage that led to his big break on television. “I was doing a wacked-out version The Revenger’s Tragedy with the Red Bull Theater Company in a basement, where I looked like David Bowie and acted like Caligula.” His performance caught the eye of a casting director, who the actor learned was currently casting a TV pilot which had a small part for a character described only as “bitchy gay assistant.” Urie says, “I thought, ’I bet I can do that.’” It was meant to be a one-shot deal, as the character was supposed to be replaced every week since the designer, played by Vanessa Williams, would fire her assistant every week. “Vanessa and I got along immediately,” Urie reports. “I made this choice that I was obsessed with her character and I would emulate everything she did, which she loved. So we started playing together. And she would give me tips; if you stand close to me, you will be in this shot. And by the end of week they put me in the cast photo. And, of course, the rest is history.”
In Buyer & Cellar, with expert comic timing and devastating charm, Urie plays an out-of-work gay actor who’s hired to work for Barbra Streisand, in a basement shopping mall constructed in the superstar’s estate in Malibu. The only factual element of Jonathan Tolins’s whimsical fantasy is the actual existence of a subterranean street of shops that Streisand had built in her barn to display her collections, described in her lavishly produced 2010 coffee-table book My Passion for Design. Urie talked to us recently about what it’s like playing the fictitious store manager of Babs’s personal shopping mall.
How did you get involved with Buyer & Cellar?
I was a fan of Jon’s work from way back. I knew his play Twilight of the Golds in high school because we used that piece all the time in our speech and debate tournaments. Then, last fall, completely randomly, we both started working on Partners, the short-lived sitcom for CBS. He was a writer for the show. That’s when we really got to know each other, when he showed me this script which had another actor attached to it at the time. So I read it as a friend. Then, cut to the actor who wasn’t available and Jon asked if he could attach me to the project and pitch it around. Then something got postponed at the Rattlestick [the company which had previously presented Tolins’s Last Sunday in June] and they decided to put the play on in March. It was the shortest incubation period of any new Off Broadway play. The last new play I did in New York, The Temperamentals, took seven years from the first time I read it to when we finally produced it.
Jon says that his last play, Secrets of the Trade, took 14 years to get on stage. I think he started writing Buyer & Cellar over the summer and finished it probably in July or August 2012. He kept tinkering and it changed a lot while we were in rehearsing. He was great about tailoring it for me. Every once in a while he would say, “You are saying the line wrong, but I like what you’re doing so I’m changing it in the script.” I would say, “Okay, but don’t tell me what it is, otherwise I’ll start saying it right!”
Did he talk to you about how he came to write the play?
I think it came out from a joke, honestly. Jon read the book when it came out and he said to his friends, “How would you like to be the guy who works down there?” And that spawned this idea. He wrote it initially as a kind of short story and someone said he should turn it into a one-man show. But it’s written like a seven-character show, and I’m the lucky son of a bitch who gets to play all seven characters.