Few actors get the chance to play two memorable gay fashionistas in the same lifetime. Even fewer get to play them in the same day. But that’s exactly what Michael Urie did last spring and summer, when he found himself dashing from the set of Ugly Betty, where he plays bootlicking fashion magazine assistant Marc St. James, to the stage of The Temperamentals, where he portrayed Rudi Gernreich, the iconoclastic designer who before folding himself firmly into the closet helped establish one of the first gay rights groups in U.S. history.
“I’m not fashionable,” Urie admits, hunched over a cup of coffee at a table in one of his favorite Manhattan brunch spots, just blocks away from his Hell’s Kitchen apartment. The 29-year-old Juilliard grad, who once had dreams of staying in his suburban hometown outside Dallas to teach high school drama, has basically become synonymous with his foppish Ugly Betty character. But on this rainy, chilly Sunday afternoon in December, Urie’s outfit—frumpy dark gray sweater, frayed cap, simple logo tee—is far from exceptional. There’s not even so much as a pattern in sight. Wilhelmina Slater would be mortified. “And here I am,” he continues, “playing two people in the fashion world, one of which has to hide the fact that he’s gay in order to succeed, the other of which is successful because he’s gay.”
It may at first seem too coincidental that Urie spent several months flip-flopping between such similar roles. But while some would say the situation smacks of typecasting, it was actually a matter of happenstance. Urie had been doing readings of The Temperamentals with its gay writer, Pulitzer finalist Jon Marans (Old Wicked Songs), well before he landed the prime-time role that put him on the map. When Marans resurfaced to recruit Urie for the showcase of the play in New York City’s Studio Theatre last April, Urie says he was hardly reluctant. “When I was deciding whether to do it, the biggest negative was that it was another gay character who works in fashion,” he remembers, “but I knew I would be doing something very different than what I do on Ugly Betty.”
Through its sold-out performances, critical buzz, and word of mouth, The Temperamentals extended its limited 2009 engagement for several weeks, finally closing at the end of August. In late February, however, Urie will return for the show’s third off-Broadway incarnation at New York’s New World Stages, the production again coinciding with shooting for Ugly Betty. Audiences who see this latest version will notice that while Urie’s depiction of Gernreich is at times caustic and comical, it’s a considerable cry from his reliably campy turn as Marc.
Set in 1950s Los Angeles, The Temperamentals is the true story of gay Communist activist Harry Hay (played by Thomas Jay Ryan) and his Jewish, Viennese lover, Gernreich, the costume designer who would later become famous for his topless swimsuit and would grace the cover of Time in 1967. Embittered by the antigay discrimination they witness, the closeted pair team with three friends to create the Mattachine Society, the widely overlooked and pioneering American gay rights organization. “It was just too soon,” says Urie, explaining why the group failed to leave a deeper footprint on gay history. “Almost 20 years later was Stonewall, and that was very dramatic. The Mattachine Society was a quiet rupture, while Stonewall was a violent eruption. Mattachine was a secret organization. The more they wanted to branch out, the more they got scared. But in many ways it’s a fascinating story that paved the way. It’s Mad Men meets Milk.”
Taking its name from an early euphemism for gay men, the play not only delivers an enlightening, poignant lesson on gay proto-activism, it also reveals another side of Urie, who nimbly renders Gernreich as the conflicted, driven professional he was. While Hay went on to openly embrace his sexual orientation and form the Radical Faeries in the late 1970s, Gernreich left his fight for gay rights behind to focus on his career. “He’s an artist who survived the Holocaust and now he’s faced with a world where ironically as a fashion designer he can’t be himself,” Urie says. “To me, he’s a hero, a pioneer, and he’s troubled—he’s got a major problem. He has to hide part of his life to make it in the fashion business. It wasn’t like he pretended, but he never came out.”
Some would argue that Urie has done some hiding of his own. His Ugly Betty alter ego has become a byword for today’s confidently flamboyant gay man: Marc is very out at work, dishing out sassy sexual innuendos and flaunting a wardrobe that suggests he’s snatched up nearly every fabric Mood has to offer. In another scene he’ll switch gears, playing a surrogate big bro to Betty’s seemingly gay teenage nephew, Justin, as he copes with high school bullies. And Urie says his art is his form of activism: “Both Ugly Betty and The Temperamentals have given me a platform to help people see the world in a different way, and that to me is going to do a lot more than standing on a soapbox.”
Yet the actor has never openly addressed his own sexual orientation, going only so far as to identify himself on his website as “a member of the LGBT community.” Discussing The Temperamentals, he told The New York Times last June, “Playing a guy who is struggling with his career and his personal life is familiar to me, keeping your personal life to yourself but also being free and open to be yourself in the world.” At the time some said Urie was being disingenuous, that he was trying to have his cake and eat it too. If he can play gay advocate on TV and onstage, they asked, why can’t he share his own experiences with his fans?
“I’ve never been in,” Urie responds today. “I’ve never said I was straight, and I’m not saying I’m gay now. I never lie, and I’ve never shied away from the topic. I’ve certainly chosen through my work to do things that promote the rights of LGBTQ people. I am not a hypocrite—certainly not now.”
By this point Urie has already shown me a photo of the man he’s been dating for more than a year. After gushing over Sprouts, the Brussels Griffon rescue dog his idol and former Betty costar Bernadette Peters gave him last year, he eagerly whipped out his iPhone and showed me a pic of the dog and his boyfriend, actor Ryan Spahn, with whom he’s lived for several months.
When asked what letter in LGBTQ he identifies himself, Urie says Q, for queer.
“I’ve been in a relationship for a while now, and if you just met the two of us together we’d be ‘gay,’ ” he explains. “But that somehow means anything that happened before [we met] didn’t count—and I don’t feel that way. I know that some people feel that way. They were with women, but it always felt wrong. But it didn’t for me. It felt right at the time. It didn’t work out, but it also didn’t work out with other men—many times. That’s why ‘gay’ never seemed right.”
Urie acknowledges that he was more guarded about his personal life at the start of his career, but now that Ugly Betty has found its footing (it’s now in its fourth season) and he recognizes he’ll never be the kind of actor whose career relies on his sex appeal with women, he’s ready to loosen his grip.
“Certainly there was a point where I was like, I don’t know how long Ugly Betty is going to last and how well it’s going to do, and I might want some real anonymity if it ends quickly. I was also never one to seek out publicity or attention, and I basically didn’t want to be labeled. That kind of attention could turn ugly. I guess if I wasn’t in a relationship with a man and I tried to tell people I was queer, it would appear to be a lie or a cop-out—à la college 10 years ago, when people believed in that notion of ‘bi now, gay later.’ But things are different now. I’m much more comfortable, and I’m in a relationship now. I’m not as worried about a future for myself.”
That said, Urie sympathizes with Rudi Gernreich’s decision to keep his sexuality under wraps to preserve his reputation, and he wouldn’t necessarily encourage young actors to divulge details about their personal lives even today.
“It’s a business of perception. My being perceived as queer is likely not going to affect the jobs I get, but with certain people it might. Coming out can ruin your career. My career is not based on people believing me with a woman. If it was, I’d be in trouble. If George Clooney came out, he’d be in trouble. Suddenly people would say, ‘Wait, he doesn’t like what I see him doing? Now I don’t believe it.’ When you have 20 people who have to agree to cast somebody in a role, a little thing like that could be a really big thing to them.”