"I'm waiting for my life to start," Michael Urie says expectantly. Not that he’s dramatic or anything but, the actor admits, “You caught me on a weird day, I guess.”
Only two days earlier, Urie had moved back to Los Angeles to star in a new TV show, CBS’s Partners. He’d been living in New York since Ugly Betty — the show that put him on the map for playing flamboyant editor’s assistant Marc St. James — relocated there in 2008. In the years since, Urie’s had an impressive run of roles on the New York stage, as real-life fashion designer and Mattachine Society cofounder Rudi Gernreich in The Temperamentals, AIDS-stricken protagonist Prior Walter in Angels in America, and arrogant Bud Frump in the Broadway musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
But Urie’s leaving all that behind for now. And if he’s feeling anxious and a little bit lonely, perhaps it’s understandable. Production on Partners starts in just over a week, but he has yet to read any scripts for it since shooting the pilot a few months back. “They said they had six scripts written. I’m like, ‘Can I read one? Can I just look at one?’ ” But that’s not how it works in TV.
Plus he left his boyfriend behind on the East Coast. “He’s an actor, a writer, and a student,” Urie says, explaining why Ryan Spahn, his partner of four years, can’t just pick up and head west with him.
Urie might be resigned to spending his first week in his reclaimed Hollywood apartment doing mundane tasks like hanging curtains, but before he knows it he’ll be thrust into the throes of television production, working long days with his new TV “family.” On Partners, Urie plays Louis, a gay man who runs an architecture firm with his straight best friend, Joe (Numb3rs’ David Krumholtz). Louis has a boyfriend (Brandon Routh, of Superman Returns) and Joe has a girlfriend (One Tree Hill’s Sophia Bush).
“Have you seen the poster?” Urie’s face lights up as he grabs his iPhone to scroll in search of the just-posted one-sheet. It shows the series’ four leads squeezed side by side in the back of a New York City cab, with the overline “From the Emmy-Winning Creators of Will & Grace” and the tag “Four Friends. Three Couples.”
Not only is CBS banking on Partners’ association with the groundbreaking Will & Grace, the network’s ad campaign also invokes another iconic, long-running sitcom: Friends. For his part, Urie is thrilled to be on a refreshingly old-fashioned, character-driven sitcom at a time when most comedies are, as he says, “so referential” (see: network TV’s other new gay-themed comedy, The New Normal).
Plus, Urie’s character, based on Max Mutchnick, the gay half of the Will & Grace creative team, was written with him in mind. Or at least that’s what Mutchnick has said. “That’s really nice,” counters Urie as he matter-of-factly swipes a sweet potato fry across a mound of ketchup at a 24-hour diner near his apartment. “I don’t think it’s true, but it was really nice of him to say.”
It’s not actually so far-fetched. Urie had tested for roles in two previous comedies from Mutchnick and David Kohan: the short-lived Twins and the even shorter-lived Four Kings. “I didn’t watch it,” he says of Four Kings, which he had really hoped to land. “I was too bitter.”
Choosing to do Partners wasn’t necessarily a no-brainer — that is, according to his friends who questioned the wisdom of playing another gay role and risking, at 32, being pigeonholed. “Everyone was telling me, ‘Don’t do any more gay men,’ ” Urie says. “But it’s not like they’re banging down my door wanting me to play the straight parts.”
Anyway, the gay parts he’s taken have been good. “Why would I want to play the straight guy in this?” he asks of Partners. “The gay guy is way better, it’s just a way better part.” Likewise his gay roles onstage, as in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: “How was I supposed to turn that down? That would be insane.”
Urie gets that he’s not the leading man type that Hollywood goes for. When he does play straight, it’s usually an asexual kind of part, like Mozart in a North Carolina production of Amadeus or Bud Frump in How to Succeed. It’s never, he says, “the heartbreaker, macho type. If I were to fight for the romantic lead, it would look silly. It would be embarrassing for everyone because somebody would have to say it at some point: ‘Isn’t this the gay guy?’ They’d use weird words like ‘too soft’ or ‘flamboyant.’ I’ve heard all those words and they’re awful.” He’s heard them time and again from his agents, who are — in the kindest way possible, Urie says — relaying the euphemisms uttered by producers.
“You have to be perfect for a part,” the Juilliard graduate explains. “Some actors are perfect for the kinds of parts that are in every TV show, sometimes two in a TV show, or three. I’m not. I’m right for a few parts, but they’re all really awesome parts.” Though he’s obviously open to appearing in dramas, he would rather not have to spew jargon about, say, forensic science. “I don’t want to talk about that. They could get somebody much better. I would waste their time trying to make it look silly or something. I would be like, ‘What if this was a funny scene?’ ”
Not only does Urie get that he’s lucky to be working at a time when there are many more good gay roles than even a short while ago, he feels blessed to have come out publicly a few years back and not had it adversely impact his career. “Everyone went, ‘Oh, my God!’ ” he jokes. “No, it felt good. I was happy that it happened. But it certainly hasn’t affected my career.”
That career is thriving in a number of directions. Amid all his TV and theater, Urie’s been dabbling in producing and directing. He directed He’s Way More Famous Than You, a small but star-studded indie his boyfriend cowrote and starred in (it features performances by Ben Stiller, Jesse Eisenberg, Natasha Lyonne, and his Ugly Betty costar Vanessa Williams). Now he’s producing another one written by Spahn: Grantham & Rose, which is currently shooting in Atlanta.
But Urie’s truest passion project has got to be Thank You for Judging, a documentary he produced and codirected starting in 2008, during the Hollywood writers’ strike. The high school speech and debate doc is modeled on the 2002 spelling bee hit Spellbound and focuses on Urie’s own high school, in Plano, Texas, where he trained in “dramatic interpretation”; he went on to win a national championship in 1998. Urie didn’t initially expect to be on camera, partly because he never knew when the strike would end and he’d be called back to the Ugly Betty set. But his own post–high school success is central to the documentary, even if it’s never laid out in detail; he’s the one who made it big, thanks to what the kids in Plano call “interp.”
Thank You for Judging was screened this summer at Outfest, the Los Angeles LGBT film festival, and Urie expects to secure a distribution deal soon. Meanwhile, he’s biding his time, sitting Indian-style on the diner’s banquette, devouring a comfort food combo of iceberg wedge with bleu cheese and a pile of sweet potato fries (“These are the best!”), just waiting for his life, and Partners, to start.