‘Ugly Betty’s actor Michael Urie teams with fellow queer Texan Ash Christian for the gay indie comedy ‘Petunia’
Michael Urie doesn’t mean to disappoint you, it’s just that after basically becoming Marc St. James on Ugly Betty, the hit ABC comedy that launched his career, he’s often expected to be a flamboyantly catty queen.
And he’s not.
The Dallas native teamed with a fellow gay Texan, writer-director Ash Christian, for the indie film Petunia, now available from Wolfe on DVD. His role there as George Petunia, the scion of a quirky clan, is almost the antithesis of Marc: aloof, not-so-effeminate and sexually ambiguous, George is the kind of man the 33-year-old actor has longed to play.
In addition to his enigmatic part in Petunia, Urie talked about entertaining the idea of a polyamorous relationship, the trick to impersonating Barbra Streisand and not living up to people’s Ugly Betty expectations.
— Chris Azzopardi
Dallas Voice: George is a different role for you. What was it like stepping into his shoes for Petunia? Urie: That’s exactly what I was so excited about when I read it. I thought it was such a good script. Halfway through reading it, I was laughing at situations based on character traits, not just jokes and physical bits. I was really interested in it because I love — as you can probably imagine — camping out and being silly and being the center of attention and the colorful one, but it was really great and exciting for me to tone it down and play a more introspective character.
You and the filmmaker, Ash Christian, both lived in North Texas before becoming famous, and both now live in New York. Did you know him or his work before this script came to you? I got to know it because of this. He and my partner, Ryan, are old friends, so I knew him socially. He’d also been on an episode of Ugly Betty, but I didn’t work with him. I remembered his work, though, because he’s a great actor as well [as a filmmaker].
Is your family anything like the Petunias? Nooo! I think the three boys’ dynamic is a pretty specific thing and my parents — we’re from Texas — spent most of their lives in Texas. I have an older sister who’s about seven years older than I am and is married to a woman, so we have a very different thing going on. She’s in Northern California, I’m in New York, my parents are now in Virginia. We get along very well but don’t meddle in each other’s lives like the Petunias, so there’s a lot less friction and conflict in our family.
Helps being so far apart from each other. Yes, it does! It absolutely does. So the time together is isolated and lovely.
You’ve been with women in the past, and you identity as “queer” and not gay. So was this sexually mysterious role something you were interested in on a personal level? Yeah! That was another thing that I thought was really cool: That there was this character [Ash] wrote who wasn’t entirely happy in his marriage but wasn’t necessarily looking to get out of it. I loved the scenes where George wants to have his cake and eat it, too. The moment where he thought maybe he could have a wife and a boyfriend — that was really interesting. And obviously I know that’s not a healthy thing, but I can’t say I haven’t thought about it. [Laughs]
Well, there are people in polyamorous relationships who seem to make it work. What are your thoughts on poly relationships, and do you think you could make one work? I don’t know. Ultimately, if I could make that work, obviously all three parties would have to be 100 percent on the same page.
One partner is plenty of work anyway. That would be the thing for me. I mean, I’m lucky in life that I’m quite busy, so keeping up with one partner is plenty, but what I loved about [George] was the idea that maybe I could vicariously see what that felt like. I don’t think it would actually work for me personally. Maybe for other people, or maybe as an experiment for a period of time. I don’t think Ryan would be so into it. [Laughs]
Currently you’re starring in the off-Broadway production of your one-man show Buyer & Cellar. Because of it, you’ve said you’re more invested in Barbra Streisand than you’ve ever been. What have you learned and observed about Barbra from doing this show that even her most devoted gay fans wouldn’t know? In preparing for this show and preparing to play her, what was most beneficial to me was not her singing, which is what she’s most popular for I would imagine, and not her interviews — for the most part she keeps interviewers at arm’s length and she’s pretty guarded — but it was her performances in movies. And I’m certainly not the first person to discover that Barbra Streisand is a great actor, but I realized that when we watch her in movies, especially movies like Funny Girl or What’s Up, Doc?, we get to see that sense of play that you don’t really get in her concert banter or in interviews. That to me is the real her.
That is the her that we have in our play, and our play is a fictional story of what it might be like to work for her and her street shops that she keeps in her basement — that is very real, by the way. [Laughs] It’s sort of a fantasia on that, and so I found that watching her silliness in movies, and watching that fun that she had and is now continuing to have, is the real her. And I don’t know her. I have never met her. I don’t know if I ever will. But that, to me, is probably the Barbra that is really there if you were to break down the barriers … and live in her mall. [Laughs]
Will you bring the show on the road? I hope so. I would like to. We’ll see. There are some rumblings but nothing to report just yet. I would like to do it. We’re gonna stay in New York for a while longer and there are certainly other cities I would like to play in, so I think so.
Within the last year, two gay-themed shows were canceled after just one season. One of those was your show, Partners. Do you think gay-themed shows are tough sells on major networks? I don’t know if it’s a gay-themed show thing. I think network television is a very tricky beast, and ultimately I feel like Partners could’ve found its footing. Unfortunately we had a lot of episodes — there were seven episodes that never saw the light of day — that are brilliant. But it’s tricky. Networks are becoming more and more niche, and Partners really belonged amongst different shows. We were surrounded by very funny shows like How I Met Your Mother and 2 Broke Girls, but maybe we needed to be in a different crop of shows. I think it was less about the gay thing and more about just finding a family of shows that we fit better in. But it’s funny: Six-and-a-half million viewers is a lot of people. A lot of people saw that show, but on CBS, that unfortunately is not a hit and I get it. Though it would’ve been nice if they would’ve nurtured us.
Look on the bright side: At least you got to kiss Brandon Routh. That’s exactly right! There was a really funny blooper that, of course, nobody will get to see where we did the kiss and then I messed up a line and I said, “I’m sorry, can we do it again?”
Your role on Ugly Betty as Marc St. James was so iconic and sometimes, when you essentially almost become that role, it’s hard for people to separate you from the character. Did you experience that at all? Absolutely. In real life I’m more like George in Petunia than Marc. I enjoy playing characters like Marc, but me personally, I’m not generally like that. I can get excited, but I’m not bitchy or fashionable or a sycophant or any of the things that Marc was, but those characters are so much fun to play.
What I found very quickly when that show started and was at its height in popularity — I was new to L.A. — was that I was not meeting anyone’s expectations. People wanted me to be Marc. They wanted me to be like that, and then immediately, as soon as they’d lay eyes on me they knew I wasn’t. Especially when they started talking to me, they realized, “Oh, he’s not that,” or they’d think I was playing coy or being shy. That was a very interesting period for me to realize that, on the one hand, I liked the attention, but I wasn’t going to be able to give people what they wanted. I had to remain aloof and keep myself in an air of mystery because I wasn’t going to be what they wanted. I wasn’t going to be the king gay — the catty, stylish, fashionable, funny guy they all wanted me to be. That just wasn’t in my nature. I needed someone to clothe me and give me lines to say in order to be that. It was an interesting lesson learned, actually.
How did it feel knowing you couldn’t be that person to them? I felt bad. But it was probably for the best. I don’t really wanna be like that guy. It’s not in my nature.
There have been rumors of an Ugly Betty movie. Are you open to the idea? Oh my god, are you kidding? All I want in life is to work with those people again. I’m always trying to come up with ways to get back with all of them. We’ve really remained as tight of a group as we were without being able to see each other on a daily basis. I know everyone of us would jump at a chance to make a movie. Unfortunately, it’s not our call. I hope it happens. I think it would be terrific.
Are you looking at any new TV roles? Nothing in particular, but I would love to get back on TV. My appetite was very much whetted with Partners last year. We shot that in front of an audience – that’s where my bread is buttered, being out in front of an audience. Doing a multi-camera show, it’s so much fun. It’s like the best of both worlds for me.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 20, 2013.