On a Thursday evening in January, I’m running late to pick up the actor Michael Urie from the CBS studio lot in Los Angeles. Later that night, viewers across the country who tune into The Late Late Show with James Corden will see Urie do his impression of his colleague Harrison Ford. It’s a routine Urie will do several times during the promotional tour for their new Apple TV+ show, Shrinking.
The bit goes like this: after finishing a scene together, Urie, admittedly a bit starstruck, jokes to Ford, “You know, you’re very good at this.” And Ford quips back, “And you thought I was just a pretty face.” In each retelling, Urie perfectly mimics Ford’s gruff cadence. That night, it scored big laughs from the studio audience and his couchmate, Anna Kendrick.
When he hops in the car, Urie is still fizzing. This was Urie’s first late night show since he was starring as Mark St. James, Vanessa Williams’ bitchy, gay assistant on the ABC sitcom Ugly Betty. He says that last appearance “did not go well.” But to find evidence of that, you’d have to scroll past a coterie of charming interviews with the likes of Drew Barrymore promoting his 2021 Netflix holiday romcom, Single All the Way, or countless promotional videos for his multi-year stint as the host of the Drama Desk Awards.
Urie stays busy and this particular Thursday night is no exception. We’re driving to Burbank to the Colony Theater to see a production of The Diary of Anne Frank. But we’re not just going to see director Stan Zimmerman’s contemporary retelling of the refugee family in the annex. We’re going because Zimmerman, a longtime sitcom writer with credits ranging from The Golden Girls to Gilmore Girls, is the co-writer of the new play Silver Foxes.
It has its world premiere in Dallas on Friday at Uptown Players. Urie is directing.
It’s fitting that his first attempt at directing full-length play will happen on a North Texas stage. He found his way to theater growing up in Plano in the 90s. At the time, he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his teacher at Vines High School. “I loved the idea of directing plays, acting in plays, and teaching students how to act,” Urie says. “It sounded like a pretty good life. It still does.”
That teacher, Gerri Colvin, says she knew Urie had something special back then and points out that he actually got his start directing under her wing. She had him work as the assistant director on a production of Fiddler on the Roof in 1995. She says he would’ve been a great teacher, but has loved following the path he took instead.
“It is so rewarding to know that you encouraged someone in choosing their career,” Colvin says. “Especially someone like Michael, who has done such a variety of work at this point in his life.”
His senior year of high school, Urie had what he calls a “twist of fate.” He was hanging around the theater so much he was skipping class. “I didn’t think I needed algebra two,” he says, “I needed technical theater.” He was failing tests. He bombed the SAT and was initially rejected from the various state schools he’d applied to attend. Around that same time, he was performing an oral interpretation of a poem at a competition when he experienced a revelatory “big house laugh.”
“At first I didn’t really know what I was doing. They were just laughing at me – my personality was making them laugh,” Urie says. “Then I started to do it on purpose, I learned later what I was doing was tailoring my performance to the audience I had, which is what you do in comedy.”
He won that competition. At that moment, he said he realized he wasn’t going to be a traditional college student. He’d already been approached with a scholarship from the Collin County Community College, which was known by students at the time as “quad C,” but is now officially just Collin College. The summer after high school he went on the theater department’s trip to New York City, where students attended 13 shows in 10 days and toured the major performance schools. At The Juilliard School, Brad Baker, then director of quad C’s theater program, pulled Urie aside and said, “You have to audition here.”
Urie says it’s odd in hindsight, because they didn’t have very much context for each other. But, Baker was on to something. Urie attended the community college for less than a year before he was accepted into Juilliard’s acting program.
The last time Urie graced a Dallas stage he was on tour with the one-man show Buyer & Cellar. The play by Jonathan Tollins, inspired by the very real shopping mall underneath Barbra Streisand’s Malibu house, was an instant hit when it debuted off-Broadway in 2013. In it, Urie played the sole, probably fictional, employee at the mall, alongside a series of other characters, including Babs herself. Urie is one of those rare theater magicians who can slip from one persona to another with the slightest flick of a wrist.
It’s not that Urie is a chameleon; he has specific qualities. His signature cocktail is a healthy dose of affected cheerfulness, a sprinkle of snark, garnished by the industry’s most expressive eyes. (See for yourself in nearly every episode of Ugly Betty.) On stage, he is an impressive physical performer. So much so, he broke a rib by hurling himself across the stage in a comedic bit during a performance of Jane Anger at Shakespeare Theatre Company in January. (His longtime partner, actor Ryan Spahn, starred with him in that production.)
For Urie, nothing succeeds like excess. He’s mastered histrionics; it seems he’s always on the verge of rolling his eyes or letting out an exasperated huff. But this makes him infinitely watchable. It’s that quality that adds charm to the literary agent, Redmond, who plays a sort of nemesis to Hillary Duff and Sutton Foster in the show Younger. And it made him a playful antagonist for Nick Jonas in his Broadway debut, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. But don’t be confused, Urie is a serious actor. He’s performed Chekov and Shakespeare, Jacobean drama and commedia dell’arte. He’s also the voice of Sebastian, the pug in Beverly Hills Chihuahua.
When I catch Urie in February, he’s three days into rehearsals for Silver Foxes. Set in Palm Springs, the play follows three gay men who set off to rescue their friend from a homophobic assisted living facility. There are hijinks, hookup websites, and stray cats. And Urie, who brought his dog Kinley to Dallas for the adventure, is having a ball.
“I’ve directed things for the camera, staged readings, and a solo performance piece, but I’ve never done a full rehearsal process for a play as a director,” Urie says. “I keep wondering if my instincts will work in this capacity.”
The fact that this particular script exists as a play at all can be credited to Urie’s instincts. Zimmerman has been a longtime collaborator with Urie, helping write jokes for various speeches and hosting roles. Zimmerman and his writing partner James Berg originally imagined Silver Foxes as a sitcom and Urie was one of the voices telling them to consider writing it for the stage.
“It works really well as a play, they just had to adapt to things having it take place in just one location,” Urie says. “It’s got a really comic funny sensibility but it’s also extremely relatable, because it’s about being young and getting older and being old and remembering being young.”
For Urie, this strikes a particular chord. For much of his career he’s been one of the youngest people in the room, whether that was in the Broadway revival of Torch Song or as wedding planner on Hot in Cleveland. On the latter, Betty White leaned over to him before his first take and teased, “Oh, Michael, don’t fuck it up.” But now, he’s the adult in the room.
“To be in a leadership position and have older actors I respect, my queer elders in the theater, turning to me for answers is really something,” Urie says. “I’m at a point in my career where I’m being offered more adult opportunities, more adult work.”
The first time Urie visited Los Angeles he performed on the stage at the Colony Theatre. A member of Urie’s 2003 class at The Juilliard School had petitioned to add a Los Angeles showcase in addition to the annual New York event, which allows fourth year students to perform for industry members like agents and casting directors. That student was Jessica Chastain.
When we walk into the Colony, there is a line wrapped around the parking lot. When I get back from grabbing us sippy cup wine, Urie is recognized by the usher who escorts us to our seats. “I knew who you were right away,” he says. “Stan said you were coming.” It’s not exactly what Urie would’ve predicted 20 years earlier.
At the end of the night, Urie is drinking a glass of champagne at The Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, the idyllic Los Angeles County city that serves as the setting for Shrinking. In that show, he plays Brian, a happy-go-lucky lawyer who is best friends with Jimmy, a grieving therapist played by Jason Segal.
It’s his first venture into “prestige TV,” which is to say this show marks something of a serious turning point for Urie. If Ugly Betty, which launched his career, was campy and whimsical, this is thematic and serious. And Urie, who at 42, is staring down his future as a middle-aged actor (and now theater director) is feeling the pressure, but in a good way. In Dallas, he’s directing a play of his “queer elders” and on Shrinking he’s the queer voice in an ensemble of very famous straight actors.
“This show is the most watched and most liked by my friends, my peers, and honestly, my acquaintances,” he says. “This show more than any other I have ever done does feel like an adult gig.”
But Urie is loving the journey. Maybe his character’s catchphrase on the show isn’t too far off, maybe everything does go his way. Of course, for Urie, before everything could go his way, he had to work really hard, break a few ribs, and master his Harrison Ford impression. It doesn’t hurt that he has a pretty face.
Silver Foxes runs at Uptown Players March 2 – 12. uptownplayers.org