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by Michael Portantiere

Michael Urie Celebrates Celebrities

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    With the cancellation of the beloved TV series Ugly Betty, Michael Urie is no longer employed to assume the colorful persona of Marc St. James, but that doesn't mean he's sitting at home and alphabetizing his spice rack. On the contrary, he earned praise when he stepped into the role of Prior Walter in the Signature Theatre Company's acclaimed revival of Angels in America, then he immediately headed up to the Vineyard Playhouse on Martha's Vineyard to appear in their production of the Stephen Belber play Tape. Soon, Michael will be back in NYC for a special Gay Pride edition of Celebrity Autobiography, the hilarious series of shows in which rotating cast members slay the audience by reading verbatim from the memoirs of bold-face names. I recently called him on Cape Cod to talk about his various endeavors.


    BROADWAYSTARS: Michael, I've seen a few shows on the Cape, but I've never been to the Vineyard Playhouse. How's Tape going?

    MICHAEL URIE: It's great. I'm just walking into the dressing room. It's a lot of fun to do this show, because I'm playing a swarthy Italian and I'm all padded up. It's nice to be playing a butch straight guy.

    STARS: Is that a first for you?

    MICHAEL: No. The last time I did Celebrity Autobiography for Gay Pride, I was Burt Reynolds. That was a highlight of my straight male oeuvre.

    STARS: From whose book or books will you be reading for the new edition on June 25 at the Gramercy Theater?

    MICHAEL: I don't know! I haven't gotten my assignment yet. Sometimes they wait till the day of, because of last-minute cast changes and all that. Last time I did Miley Cyrus, Tommy Lee, and Burt. I'm sort of the Celebrity Autobio swing; I'll do anything, I'll play anyone. I've done the show in New York, L.A., London, Austin, and in Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival. In a strange way, it's relaxing. You go up on stage, and you read other people's words from a book. Of course, there's a little bit of skill to it, but mostly, it's a just a lot of good fun.

    STARS: The show on the 25th is being billed as the "third annual Gay Pride edition," but none of the celebs whose books will be sampled are gay. Or, at least, none of them are openly gay. What's that all about?

    MICHAEL: They don't let openly gay people write autobiographies. It's not legal yet. I don't know if you realize that.

    STARS: I suppose you mean openly gay actors. But I'm sure that, between the two of us, we can think of at least one...

    MICHAEL: Oh, I know: George Takei. Actually, if I'm not mistaken, he is the only celebrity who has ever had his book read to him in Celebrity Autobiography. I'm not sure where or when it was, but I heard it was a big success and he loved it.

    STARS: Anyway, the list of authors for the upcoming edition includes Susan Lucci, Justin Bieber, Cher, Dolly Parton, Ivana Trump, Madonna, and Elizabeth Taylor.

    MICHAEL: I see. So it's icons -- people whom the gay community will find amusing. Some celebrities' books just don't work for this show. When I first started doing this, I thought it would be fun to do William Shatner's, but it wouldn't work; that book is already funny on purpose, because he has such a great sense of humor about himself. It's much funnier when people take themselves seriously. The thing about these shows is that they're kind of love letters to the celebrities, because they come across as endearing even if they sometimes seem a little dim or self-centered.

    STARS: Of the stars on the list for the 25th, which one(s) would you most like to do?

    MICHAEL: I wouldn't mind taking a stab at Cher.

    STARS: How about Justin Bieber?

    MICHAEL: [Makes a grimacing noise] When his book first came out, I emailed Gene [Eugene Pack, who created Celebrity Autobiography] and said, "You've got to do this." So maybe I'm partly responsible.

    STARS: Mario Cantone, Rachel Dratch, Gina Gershon, Sharon Gless, and Kristen Johnston are scheduled to perform with you in the Gay Pride show. Sounds like a blast.

    MICHAEL: I've done the show with Rachel and Kristen many times, and I worked with both of them on Ugly Betty, so I know them pretty well. Gina did Ugly Betty, too. And I know Mario Cantone from out and about.

    STARS: It seems like almost everyone was on Ugly Betty at one point or another.

    MICHAEL: We had a good roster. A lot of great people did the show. Then we got canceled, and nobody could do the show!

    STARS: You're most famous for playing gay roles, and you came out to the press while you were doing The Temperamentals Off-Broadway, so I'd love to hear your perspective on whether or not being openly gay can be detrimental to an actor's career.

    MICHAEL: I think things have changed immensely, even since when I first got on TV. We've had people like Neil Patrick Harris, and I think Ugly Betty, Modern Family, and Glee have helped to bridge a lot of gaps. The sad truth is there are certain actors whose careers would suffer if they were suddenly out, but things are moving along. I think the ability to suspend disbelief is better among the people who watch TV and buy movie and theater tickets than the people who make the decisions and sign the checks. The truth is, I got to play a character in this show on Martha's Vineyard that I probably would never play in New York or L.A., because I would never be cast in this type of role. And I'm really surprised at how well I'm doing! It's been so long since I had a chance to play a part like this without being silly about it. Really, it wasn't until I got on TV that I started playing a lot of gay parts.

    STARS: Not that you would ever hesitate to do so.

    MICHAEL: Of course not, whether it's The Temperamentals or Angels in America. I'd be a fool to turn down any good part just because it's a gay role. Being in Angels was a dream come true. I got to work with great people in a perfect play.

    STARS: Even before you came out in the press, you never "bearded" -- that is, you never pretended to be romantically involved with any women. Can I ask how you feel about gay actors who beard or who are in other ways overtly dishonest about their sexual orientation?

    MICHAEL: I don't think I could cite any examples that I personally know of where people are actively lying. There are certainly plenty of actors who are not saying anything or not being activists, but you really can't blame anyone for not being an activist. What sometimes makes me sad is when big movies have gay characters played by straight people, like I Love You, Phillip Morris. Or it might have been great if they could have gotten two lesbian actresses for The Kids Are All Right, even though I love [Annette Bening and Julianne Moore]. It would be nice if there was a big movie with great parts for gay people played by gay people. Of course, on the other hand, I can't begrudge straight actors playing gay parts if I want to be cast in straight parts.

    STARS: Speaking of straight parts that have sometimes been played by gay actors: I understand that you did a reading or a workshop of How to Succeed last year, in the role of Bud Frump, but you obviously didn't wind up in the Broadway revival.

    MICHAEL: It was somewhere between a reading and a workshop. We worked on it for about three days, and then we did it for the money people. I was Frump, and we had Dan Radcliffe, Rose Hemingway, and David Hyde Pierce as Biggley. That was another dream come true. Since I was 14, I'd always thought, "That's a musical I could do," because I'm not a very strong singer. I loved working with [director] Rob Ashford, and [producers] Craig Zadan and Neil Meron. It was none of those people who kept me from getting the job!

    STARS: I saw the hilarious show you did at Feinstein's at Loews Regency with your Ugly Betty co-star Becki Newton, and I was wondering -- let me try to phrase this properly -- if you sing that way because that's how you sing, or if it's partly put on for comic effect.

    MICHAEL: [Laughs] Well, I wouldn't jump at the opportunity to sing a ballad. I haven't had much singing training, and when I sustain notes, it isn't so pretty. But being funny while singing is something I think I can do well.

    STARS: That sounds very honest. Anyway, I'm looking forward to Celebrity Autobiography, especially since I've never seen a complete show.

    MICHAEL: You're gonna love it. It's such a trip.

    Published on Wednesday, June 15, 2011

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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