Thursday, 26 March 2015

Big Interview: Michael Urie

Michael Urie is currently starring in Buyer and Cellar at the Menier Chocolate Factory. 

Michael originated the role of Alex More in Jonathan Tolins' one-man play when it premiered off-off-Broadway. He then transferred with the show to off-Broadway where the piece became a major, sell out hit. Michael later reprised his performance for the play’s U.S. Tour.

Buyer and Cellar follows an out-of-work LA actor who gets a job in Barbra Streisand’s Malibu basement where she has created her very own, private shopping mall. As revealed in her 2010 'My Passion for Design' book, Streisand’s basement mall does exist; however, everything else about this play is fictionalised.

Michael is best known for his portrayal of Marc St James in Ugly Betty, and is also currently appearing in hit comedy Modern Family. For Buyer and Cellar, Michael received the Drama Desk Award, Clarence Derwent Award, and nominations for the Drama League and Outer Critics’ Circle awards. 

His other New York theatre work includes: How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying (Broadway), The Cherry Orchard (Classic Stage Company), Angels in America (Signature Theatre), The Temperamentals (off-Broadway), The Revenger’s Tragedy (Red Bull Theatre) and Another Vermeer (HB Playwrights). 

For television Michael’s work includes The Good Wife, Hot in Cleveland and Partners; and for film He’s Way More Famous Than You (also director), Thank You for Judging (co-director/exec producer), Beverly Hills Chihuahua, WTC View, Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life, The Decoy Bride, Petunia and Such Good People.

I recently spoke to Michael about bringing Buyer and Cellar to London, what he thought when he read the script for the very first time and the incredible journey the piece has taken him on…

When I first heard about Buyer and Cellar I thought it sounded absolutely crazy, but I was also very intrigued!

[laughs] I know!

What were your first impressions when you read Jonathan Tolins' script? I believe he was actually writing it with someone else in mind?
Well first he explained it to me and I thought, ‘Well that sounds nearly impossible and brilliant’! I had no idea how they would pull it off, but thought it was an amazing idea. I knew if anyone could pull it off it would be John Tolins because I knew him and his work really well. At the time we were working on a TV show together so I knew he was one of the cleverest of the bunch. When I read it I was correct; as you know when I read it I didn’t know I would be doing it… although he told me “This is for someone else, but I would love for you to do it some day”. I was happy for Jesse Tyler Ferguson and I wasn’t reading it with that terror of ‘how the hell am I going to do this’ which was nice.

What did you think?
Right away I totally fell in love with it and thought it was brilliant. Then, as actors, what we have to do when we get excited about something is try and forget about it [laughs], because you don’t want to think about what you’re missing out on. Then, a few months later John’s and my TV show got cancelled and Jesse’s did not [laughs]. A theatre in New York decided they wanted to put the show on and I feel like it was within a month – or maybe two months – of our TV show ending we had the dates of Buyer and Cellar opening off-off-Broadway. That was about two years ago!

Fast forward to now and you have been on such an incredible journey with the show. How have you developed with the piece over the last couple of years?
I’ve gotten more comfortable with it. For the first month or two I was just terrified. The show is nearly one hundred minutes – it ain’t short – and it’s just me, I don’t leave the stage, I have all the lines and it was just a terrifying prospect! The first time getting all the way through it was so terrifying, I made lots of mistakes. The first time I did it all the way through in front of people who weren’t part of the show I skipped five pages without realising until I got home that night. I would only skip something now if I wasn’t paying attention. 

Was it nice to have a break before bringing it to London?
I hadn’t done the show for six months before I started rehearsals here, luckily I still remembered it… which was good [laughs]. When we first started doing it I lived like a monk – I wouldn’t drink, I wouldn’t go out and was sleeping all the time. I still definitely sleep as much as I can when I’m doing the show because I need to have as much energy as possible. I don’t get as nervous any more. I’ve had many openings for the show because we toured and they all get me nervous. The words are ingrained in me and I feel like the show has grown a lot. 

How much has it been tweaked?
The play itself hasn’t really changed apart from a thing or two here and there. We cut probably twenty minutes when we first started – it used to be much longer. What changes are the audiences; there was even a change when we went from off-off-Broadway to off-Broadway. Once it became like a critical commercial success in New York – we ran off-Broadway for about a year and a half – the audiences became savvy, they knew what they were coming to see. 

What about when you went on tour?
On tour was a mixed bag. Sometimes the show would be part of a subscription series so people would be walking in with no idea what they were seeing. We played in Dallas which is my home town so everyone had heard about the show. Then we played Los Angeles where the play takes place and where Barbra Streisand lives! And now here we are in London! I know the Menier’s track record is stellar, I’ve seen things here and I think audiences will be ready to experiment and have a good time! 

When people ask you what they can expect from the show what do you tend to say? Everyone seems to be particularly intrigued about this…
This is the interesting thing… people are going to have a great time because it’s totally hilarious. It’s an imaginative ride, the audience are forced to use their imagination because I play six or seven different characters and I don’t change clothes or make up or wigs or anything, it’s all done with suggestion. I change my voice and physicality, it’s kind of like a long story told by a guy who can tell a good story. The character I play is really good at telling the story and becoming the other characters. With the help of lighting and sound and lovely projections, I tell the whole story and the audience are forced to fill in the gaps – what Barbra looks like, what Barbra sounds like… 

What about if someone doesn’t know much about Barbra?
Even if you don’t know anything about Barbra Streisand, based on what I tell you, you will have an idea in your head as to what she looks like. I think that’s part of why John is a genius! Knowing about Barbra helps because there are lots of references, but it’s not essential. By the end of the show you will feel like you’ve been part of it, like you have been another character in the play. A lot of people have said to me, “I saw Barbra up there” and of course that’s crazy because I don’t look anything like her, I’m not doing an impression… it’s more of a suggestion. You and I create Barbra together. I certainly do the bulk of the work [laughs], all the audience have to do is be open minded.

I think the piece really has heart, people are quite touched by it!
It’s a very universal idea, she’s this giant star but still lonely. And then Alex, who ends up working in her basement, is also in show business but he’s kind of at the bottom of the barrel trying to find his purpose. To put two characters like that who are in the same business but on completely opposite ends of the spectrum is vast. It’s a very interesting, obviously fake, social experiment. 

The Menier is so intimate which really compliments the experience, how do you feel about being so close to an audience?
It’s interesting because I’ve done it in so many different theatres now, sometimes I can see people and sometimes I can’t. Their energy and laughter is always very much a barometer for how it’s going and how I’m doing. I’ve done it enough times now to know that even if a crowd aren’t necessarily doing what I want them to be doing – laughing, sighing etc – they are still hearing the story. It’s compelling enough that people still enjoy it so I’ve learned not to judge an audience by how much they laugh. I mean, I prefer it when they do laugh! It’s a lot easier [laughs]! 

You’re here in London for the next few months so what are your plans? Have you managed to see much theatre?
I’ve got a bunch of friends here that I’m looking forward to seeing. I had my stage manager from New York and tour here and the director for the first few weeks. On a one man show you can get really isolated! But obviously I get to make new friends at the theatre and I have other friends here and people coming to visit. My plan was to see everything I could before I opened because now it’s very hard for me to see anything. Theatre here is very inspiring! I saw Miss Saigon first. There’s a couple of things which are totally sold out which I’m still going to try and see! I’m curious about some of the adaptations like The Commitments, Shakespeare in Love, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – these stories I adore and wonder what they might be like on stage.

There’s too much!
I know, I know [laughs]! I don’t have time! I need to make time somehow!

You must get lots of Ugly Betty fans coming along to check out the show?
Oh yeah, it was really popular here! I think in some ways it was more popular here than it was in the U.S. I guess there are just more shows over there – I think we have so many more shows than you do here. It was popular in the U.S. but so were lots of other things too. But also the landscape of television has changed so much, it was part of a time when television was much smaller. Even in the last five years with Netflix and Hulu and Amazon everything has blown up so much. Television has become such a digital medium. Now people talk about TV shows they are obsessed with that I’ve never even heard of! With Ugly Betty people were nationally aware of that show in the States, they might not have watched it or liked it but they knew about it. But over here it feels like people really loved it! People are always lovely after the show. When they wait after this show usually they’re surprised I can even stand because it’s so exhausting! Even when I was at Miss Saigon people came up to me, they just wanted a photo and to say hi and ask why I’m in town. It’s really nice!

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

Buyer and Cellar runs at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 2nd May 2015. Please visit for further information and tickets.

Photo Credit 1: Kevin Thomas Garcia
Photo Credit 2-4: Joan Marcus

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