MICHAEL URIE: Hi!
RYAN SPAHN: Hey, good morning.
MU: I have this coffee cup that says “Nope” on it. Any question I don’t want to answer, I’m just going to hold this coffee cup up. [shows coffee cup]
RS: Perfect, and I’ll just repeat the question until you actually answer it. Okay, are you prepared to be interviewed by your partner of 13 years?
MU: Yes, let’s do it.
RS: Hey Michael, do you recall the first live performance you ever saw?
MU: Cathy Rigby in Peter Pan. I remember it vividly. Peter Pan flew out of the audience. It was so exciting. And there was also a character named “Michael.” [laughs] From there, it was a string of performances that my family went to at the Fair Park Music Hall in Dallas, Texas. West Side Story, Porgy and Bess, Jerry Lewis in Damn Yankees, Ralph Macchio in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. These big budget national tours. And during that time, I started doing plays in school. But prior to my discovery of live theatre, I was really into movies. I wanted to make movies.
RS: What’s the name of the first movie you made? The one we have a VHS copy of?
MU: Donuts. It was a crime comedy. I made it with my childhood friends Kyle, Mark, and Stuart. We shot the movie in our houses.
RS: How old were you when you made Donuts?
MU: Oh my gosh, we were like ten or eleven. Maybe twelve.
RS: Was Donuts made before or after you were writing movie reviews for your school paper?
MU: It was around the same time. I was a mogul. I was on all sides of the film industry. [laughs] I was writing reviews for the “Haggard Herald,” my middle school paper, and I was making my own feature films, like Donuts. And Clips! I had Clips and Clips Two. Those two movies I made by taking clips from different mainstream movies and editing the clips together in order to make my own movie. The editing process comprised of using a VCR and a camcorder.
RS: So, you filmed the TV with the camcorder?
MU: No. You could connect the camcorder and the VCR. If you put a blank tape in the camcorder and played a tape on the VCR, you could record the different pieces. Does that make sense?
RS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, you’ve been in the entertainment industry since you were ten, it seems. How have you stayed grounded through the years, especially during the ups and downs?
MU: Grounded? [scoffs] I can’t say that I’ve necessarily stayed grounded, but I think in the back of my mind, I’ve always known that work could dry up. Certainly I’ve known that my luck could change. Movies and TV and theater are my escape, but they are also my work. That helps keep me stay grounded. Even though the business is hard – and can be very frustrating and painful and disappointment follows you whether you’re on top or you’re not – what grounds me is knowing that I’m able to have a profession that is also my very escape.
RS: Would you say your perspective has it evolved? Was there a major turning point where you shifted to this perspective?
MU: When Ugly Betty went on TV, I was living in New York. I had three roommates, my rent was less than $500, and I was making so little money from temping and the odd theater job that I was able to get my lifestyle down to $1,000 a month. Before I got Ugly Betty, I got behind on my finances and I had to ask my parents for money. That was the last time I ever had to ask my parents for money.
RS: How old were you?
RS: So, at 25, that was the last time you had to borrow from your parents?
RS: That’s amazing.
MU: So far. [laughs] I went from being able to live on $1,000 a month, to then suddenly, within months, being in magazines at grocery counters. I had been out of school for a few years. I had been working hard. I had lots of disappointment and rejection. I had certainly considered trying a different way into the business. But then – suddenly – I’m making more than I had ever made in my life. And Ugly Betty wasn’t a typical series. It showcased a wider range of experiences. We had an eleven-year-old kid and actors in their 60’s. We had Tony Plana, who had guest starred on every TV show for the last three decades, and stalwarts like Judith Light and Vanessa Williams. The were incredible leaders. They reminded me that being on a hit show out of the gate was a diamond in the rough. They had all been on hit TV shows and failed TV shows before. They knew Ugly Betty was rare, but they also knew it was even more rare to be on a show where everyone loved each other and the material. Having that – this actually goes back to the grounding question, Ryan – having that be my first break – that grounded me. I was very fortunate.
RS: You have a new job that you love, too. Chicken & Biscuits. I thought it would be fun for you to tell the story of what Natasha Yvette Williams said in rehearsals. It’s such a funny story.
MU: Hold on a second, hold on one second. There’s some wet thing on the ground in our apartment. [walks off camera]
RS: There’s a wet thing on the ground?
MU: Yeah, and [our dog] just noticed it. I don’t know what it is.
RS: Like Kinley spit something up? Or is there a leak?
MU: No, I think it’s spit up.
RS: Is it in the kitchen?
MU: No. It’s by the couch.
RS: Wow. I hope they keep this section in the interview.
MU: Yeah… I don’t know long it’s been there.
RS: [laughing] Just lay a wet rag on it.
MU: Okay. Hold on. [returns on camera] So – Chicken & Biscuits has a lot in common with Ugly Betty. They are both terrific, uplifting, and familial. The people involved in the play come from a wide array of experiences. There are over 30 people making their Broadway debut on Chicken & Biscuits, which is very exciting.
RS: What show was your Broadway debut?
MU: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. In Chicken & Biscuits, Norm Lewis and Natasha Yvette Williams have been on Broadway, but the rest of the cast are all making their Broadway debuts. I mean, our director is only 27 years old. This is the first time our playwright has had a play on Broadway, so there’s a lot of people who are more new to it and a lot of people who are veterans. But, that said, we immediately became a family, which is a testament to the material and our director, Zhailon Levingston. The way he ran the room. It was a warm and safe environment.
RS: That’s wonderful.
MU: Okay, so the story about Natasha Yvette Williams. There is a section in Chicken & Biscuits where Norm Lewis, who plays the pastor, is giving a eulogy. It’s a very funny moment. When we were in rehearsal, and Norm was still learning the speech, everyone was on-stage except Natasha. And Norm was like, “I think the next line is something like, ‘and then God…’” Norm couldn’t find the line and was trying to remember. “And then God… no what comes before God?” And Natasha is off-stage, but in the room, and she says, “Nothing comes before him!” The room lost it. This is one of those things that happens only in rehearsal, where someone says the funniest possible thing, and the room just broke down.
RS: Moments like that one, where there is communal laughter amongst the cast, is what I miss most about rehearsals. It’s what makes theatre so special. I’ve missed that during Covid. It seems like Chicken & Biscuits had a lot of those moments.
MU: Definitely. And I would say that you and I, as a couple, when we’re working, the most often told anecdotes in our household are the times when one of us makes everyone at work laugh. More than coming home and saying, “Oh I had this great discovery,” or, “So and so came to the show,” or, “Gosh I wish so and so would learn their lines.” It’s almost never anything like that. The things we talk about are, “Hey, I made everyone at work laugh today. Do you want to hear what I said?”
RS: That speaks volumes about why we love the theatre so much. Those moments of explosive joy.
MU: And in theatre, the theatre is always its own moment. Even though we do the same show every night, you can’t replicate any given performance. So if you come see the show twice, it’ll be vastly different. And making everyone in rehearsal laugh is due to the spontaneous nature of humans and comedy. And that’s theatre.
RS: Do you feel like performing in theatre has saved you? Like if you didn’t have it, do you ever wonder what your life would be like?
MU: Not really. But, I do often think about people who did theatre and then leave it for TV and never come back. I can’t imagine.
RS: Walking away from it?
MU: I can imagine walking away from theatre being your focus, but I can’t imagine saying, “I don’t want to do that anymore.” You hear actors in show biz use language like, “Oh she’s looking for a play” about famous actors, and I always think, “That’s great, but I’m always looking!” I’d never not be looking for a play.
RS: You’ve done so much theatre and on-camera work that you’re at a place in your career where, for instance, this film you just shot, Single All the Way… explain how that job came to you. I think it’s really interesting. This was a big moment in your career.
MU: Actors will occasionally get emails from an agent that’s like, “Here’s a project, here’s a role, here’s the script, here’s the sides. They would like you to go on tape.” This means make an audition. I got an email like this from my agent for this gay Christmas movie for Netflix called Single All the Way, and I was like, “Oh how cool! A Christmas movie about gay people? How fun.” And the role was “Nick;” a rugged gorgeous handyman. I was like, “Well, I guess maybe I could get that, but seems like a long shot.”
RS: I think you could’ve gotten it, Michael. You’re selling yourself short.
MU: Thanks, babe. [smiles big] Well, I opened the script and immediately see that “Nick” is a main character but the real main character is “Peter,” who is described as, “Cute, neurotic, and gregarious.” And I’m like [looks around] that seems more like the part I would get. So, I reached out to my agent and I was like, “Oh, I know the writer, Chad Hodge. I was wondering if he realizes I’m being asked to read for “Nick.” I think, [Chad] would be more interested in seeing me read for “Peter.”
RS: And then you counted all of “Peter’s” lines, and you were like, “I definitely want to read for “Peter.””
MU: [laughs] So, I asked my agent, “Are we sure that “Nick” is the right role?.” My agents are like, “Let us get into it.” But I was thinking maybe “Peter” was already cast with like Neil Patrick Harris, or Andrew Rannells, or Jesse Tyler Ferguson or stop me anytime, Ryan. [laughs] But my agent comes back and says, “Okay, don’t make a tape. They’re talking about “Peter” for you.” I thought – great – I don’t have to worry about being a rugged handyman anymore. I can worry about being myself. And then, all of a sudden, I was just offered the part. I didn’t have to make a self tape. It was a situation where my agents said, “Michael loves this, Michael wants this. Hey, Chad Hodge, do you remember him?” And Chad was like, “I do. That’s a good idea.”
RS: How did you know Chad Hodge?
MU: You know, show biz. He’s a big TV guy. I got to know him in that world.
RS: It’s important to remember that so many jobs in your career have come from people who know you, who like you, who want to work with you. There is such good word around you as a person and as a performer, Michael. Even with Jersey Boys Live! That movie came to you because people knew you from the theatre and you sent an email and said, “Low key, I want to play Bob Crewe. Is the part available?”
MU: You know what else I learned about that job? I had told the casting director more than a decade ago that I wanted to be in Jersey Boys. When I saw the opening night in Las Vegas, I saw the casting director, Merri Sugarman, at the afterparty, and I was like “I want to be in this show!” Merri was like, “Oh…” [laughs] Merri told me years later that in her head she was like, “No way.” It wasn’t until they were doing this live TV version where it made sense. It was a combination of the good will of working your ass off, and getting seen, and having the director and the choreographer and the producers all go, “Oh yeah, we can trust Michael. We can rely on him to do a good job.”
RS: It was also a full circle moment for you, too, with Nick Jonas because you guys shared the stage in your Broadway debut, and now, you’re sharing the screen in your musical movie debut.
MU: That’s right. Nick and I opened together in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and became fast friends. He has been a great champion of me through the years. He saw Buyer and Cellar like four times and when I found out he was playing Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys Live!, that’s when I threw my name in the hat for Bob Crewe.
RS: It’s also interesting for people who read this interview, especially other performers, to remember that while you’re at a certain level in your career, and the jobs might be shinier, it’s still about work begetting work. People knowing you and loving you. People wanting to share rooms with you. I think actors at earlier stages in their career could track the same kinds of results with regards to their own careers. That they’re getting jobs from people knowing them. Hopefully that could be inspiring.
MU: It’s also about being aware of your abilities and of your worth; the ways in which you can help make something work better. For example, my agents came to me with the Single All the Way audition and I said, “I think it would be better if I did this other part.” That was no fault of theirs for not knowing that, but I just knew myself and knew the players would quicker accept me as this other role. The same with Jersey Boys Live! I knew I had good will from the star, the director, and the choreographer. I knew that what I’d bring to the project would be potentially appealing. So it’s not going after the things that are ultimately going to be impossible.
RS: With Single All the Way, what did it feel to be the star of a movie that centers an LGBTQ relationship, given that that’s not a thing that happens often – especially in Christmas movies? And then being on set, working with a very openly gay cast playing openly gay characters, what was that like?
MU: There was an actor named Adam Capriolo who came late in the shoot and he was like, “Everyone’s so gay!” I had totally forgotten, but we was right. We had all these openly queer people. The director was queer. The writer was queer. The three men at the top were queer. We had queer icons like Kathy Najimy, Jennifer Coolidge, Jen Robertson, and Barry Bostwick.
RS: It’s rare that an LGBT+ movie celebrates love and family and joy, and is not riddled with tragedy. Which is often the case when you have that many openly queer people involved in something. For that to happen, it usually has to be about something painful and awful.
MU: Right. There’s no homophobia, no trauma. There’s conflict, but it doesn’t stem from how we’re different. In the same way Chicken & Biscuits is about a black family – I’m the only white person – but there’s no racism. It’s all about family.
RS: You’re right. The play is super celebratory. Even the differences are celebrated. People are not pitted against each other. What was it like starring in Single All the Way with Luke Macfarlane, a former classmate of yours from Juilliard?
MU: It was so fun. We had never worked together professionally. He has done lots of Christmas movies, but this was his first gay Christmas movie.
RS: Did you guys have to kiss?
MU: A bit of a spoiler, but yes, Ryan.
RS: Was this the first time you two kissed, or did you make out at Juilliard?
MU: We never made out at school.
RS: Tell me the truth, Michael. [laughs]
MU: We either missed our window, or Luke wasn’t into it. Probably the latter. It was really fun to re-connect with him. As you know, because you also went to Juilliard, those years at drama school are extremely formidable. I spent most of my time on set with Luke and Philemon Chambers, who plays my best friend. Philemon and I have no previous experience together. We had relatively little in common. He’s new to acting and he’s from a different part of the country than I am, but what we had in common was this movie and our experience. We immediately were best friends. We spent so much time on and off set getting to know each other. And falling in love, kind of.
RS: Do you have to say “I love you” in the movie?
MU: Yeah, I think we do.
RS: Do you remember when you first said “I love you” to me?
MU: Wow, who is this interview about, Ryan? [laughs]
RS: I’m just curious if you remember what you felt like.
MU: I felt like I was in love!
RS: I know, but it was so long ago. [laughs] With regards to love, and coming out of the pandemic, where do you think love could be used in the world today?
MU: The ways in which people respond to mask wearing, vaccinations, isolating, and social distancing… I think that speaks very directly to love and how much one loves their fellow humans.
RS: Oh, like adhering and respecting that?
MU: People who are unwilling to wear masks or get vaccinated or self isolate and social distance, yes. That speaks volumes about how they feel about other people. And of course, the previous administration was so divisive. Us vs. them. Like when a Republican was recently elected Governor of Virginia, the President and Vice President congratulated that person after campaigning against them. That’s something that never happened for four years. We lived through that, and then we’re living through the pandemic, which is defined by people who are willing to keep others from getting sick and the people who are unwilling. That’s the first thing that comes to mind with regards to love. Right now, I’m far more drawn to stories about connection and uplifting each other personally than stories about trauma and what drives us apart.
RS: Has that perspective changed since the pandemic? Would you say you felt that before or did that become the focus as a result of all of that time in isolation?
MU: I feel like I felt that way before and I also feel like… I was in a really good play when Hilary Clinton lost the election to Donald Trump. It was a play about a hate crime called “Homos, or Everyone in America” by Jordan Seavey.
RS: That play was running when Donald Trump got elected?
MU: Donald Trump got elected the day after we opened.
RS: Wow, I forgot about that.
MU: And then weeks after his election, there was a surge in hate crimes. I remember thinking, “This play is not supposed to be relevant.” We were doing this beautiful play about a hate crime that was supposed to be a cautionary tale, but it suddenly became very hard to go through. I do think it is important for art to help us understand our feelings so it not all an escape, but there is also a real place in the arts to understand why we’re all the same; how we’re made of the same stuff; how we can connect. That is still very important, especially when it comes to what you asked about love. As we all nurse our PTSD, post-pandemic souls, Christmas movies like Single All the Way, movies where the music surges through you like Jersey Boys Live!, and plays like Chicken & Biscuits, these will all make your heart feel happy.
RS: I agree. Okay, this is my last question, Michael, and probably my most important. So pay attention! Chris Pratt, Chris Pine, Chris Hemsworth, or Chris Evans?
MU: One hundred percent Chris Pine. Don’t you remember watching Wonder Woman 1984 on Christmas Day? The montage of Chris wearing 80’s clothes?
RS: Yes. [laughs] Do you remember what you said?
MU: “I don’t want this to end. I could watch an entire movie of Chris Pine trying on clothing from the 80’s.” Obviously, I love Chris Evans – Captain America. I love Chris Hemsworth – Thor. Chris Pratt is also an appealing person. But Chris Pine as Captain Kirk. That 80’s clothing montage.
RS: [laughs] Okay, I love you Michael.
MU: I love you too, Ryan. See you on the next Zoom that we have in five minutes.
RS: [laughs] Bye!
Talent MICHAEL URIE @michaelurielikesit
Photography SINEM YAZICI @sinemy
Styling MICHAEL FUSCO @mikeystyles for Exclusive Artists
Grooming CHELSEA GEHR @chelseagehr for Exclusive Artists using Kevin Murphy
Photo Assistants CHRIS CARROLL @chriscarrollphoto & AMY E. SILAHTAR @amysilahtar
Retoucher ANTHONY ICIANO
Interview RYAN SPAHN @ryanspahn
Production @BELLOmediagroup x @maisonpriveepr_la x @alexbonnetwrites