Interview: Michael Urie
The Ugly Betty actor toils in Barbra Streisand's basement in the new solo comedy Buyer & Cellar
Fri May 9 2014
Photograph: Sandra Coudert
Michael Urie in Buyer & Cellar
“We’re not lampooning her, we’re not roasting her. She happens to be a character in this story,” Michael Urie says over brunch last Sunday, at Howells and Hood in Tribune Tower.
The actor, 33, is speaking of Barbra Streisand, whose street of pretend shops in the basement of her Malibu compound (as revealed in her coffee table tome, My Passion for Design) provides the basis for Buyer & Cellar, the one-man comedy in which he plays the sole employee of Barbra’s personal mall. Urie’s been the recipient of rave reviews for the piece, which he’s been performing Off Broadway for most of the past year. This week he kicks off a multicity tour, opening tomorrow night at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place.
He’s just come from a live appearance on WGN Radio, and next on his agenda is a Season of Concern event at the Harold Washington Library Center. That evening, he’s scheduled to throw out the first pitch at a Cubs game (though he claims his sister would be better suited to the task; “she’s the athletic one”). And in-between, Urie plans to take in Porchlight Music Theatre’s production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which he says was a favorite show of his even before he went into the recent Broadway revival as the foil to Nick Jonas.
Even with so much on his plate for the day, Urie lingers indulgently over our plates from H&H’s brunch buffet. Here, a few highlights:
On the role for which he’s best known, playing the scheming assistant to Vanessa Williams’s fashion-mag editor on ABC’s Ugly Betty:
"I was only a co-star in the pilot. Which is less than guest star. But thanks to Vanessa Williams, who liked me a lot, and the director liked me a lot, and the producers liked me—by the end of the pilot shoot, they put me in the cast photo."
On Buyer & Cellar playwright Jonathan Tolins, with whom Urie worked on the short-lived 2012 sitcom Partners:
"Jon Tolins was a playwright I knew going all the way back to high school. His play Twilight of the Golds was really popular in speech tournaments [which Urie participated in as a high-schooler in Texas, and about which he’s co-directed a film documentary, Thank You for Judging]. So when I met him socially, I immediately said, 'Oh, I love your work,' which he loved. I said, 'I used to do scenes from Twilight of the Golds in high school,' which he didn’t love."
On getting in on Buyer & Cellar:
"[Tolins] slipped me the script, but with the caveat that he wrote it as a vehicle for Jesse Tyler Ferguson. So I read it and thought, That lucky bastard.
I knew it was a great play, but the way it was presented was really important. You don’t want it to seem campy; you don’t want it to be silly or mean-spirited or like fluff. You hear about a one-man show about Barbra Streisand starring the gay guy from Ugly Betty—I get it. That was my fear."
On why he’s currently content to keep working in theater rather than TV:
"There’s not a lot that I’m right for [on television]. And having done one big hit show and one failed show, it puts one in a tricky position. They don’t want you to do what you did on the hit show because everyone knows that already. And they don’t want you to do what you did on the failed show because it failed."
On his relationship with Barbra Streisand, who is among the characters Urie is required to play in Buyer & Cellar but who has not seen the show:
"I was not a devotee, but I was a fan. My mom is actually a huge fan; I remember watching the ’94 concert special with her and having to have my mom explain some of the jokes, like the one about being able to walk around New York and not get recognized because so many men dressed up like her. I was 14 years old and in Plano, Texas; I didn’t know what that was. I didn’t understand why people loved her so much, and [my mom] really explained a lot of that to me."
"I really had to find my inner Barbra, so I watched a lot. The early movies that I already knew and loved were very helpful, but also the late movies—Meet the Fockers, Guilt Trip. I play an older Barbra, the current Barbra. Early Barbra was helpful because she’s so silly and fun. Middle Barbra was not so helpful, because she’s so serious: Yentl, Prince of Tides, not helpful. Meet the Fockers was really the best for me. She’s so funny in it, she’s really sexy, and she’s maternal, and those were all things that I needed for my Barbra."
"Entertainment Weekly did a piece about the show, which she [apparently] read, and in it I was asked what I would do if she saw the show. And I said I’d shit my pants. And she was reported to have said, 'He’s smart.'"