Fans may have tuned in to root for the virtuous yet un-chic Betty Suarez (America Ferrera) as she struggled to succeed at a Vogue-like fashion magazine during ABC’s run of Ugly Betty from 2006 to 2010, but it was the show’s devious duo — imperious creative director Wilhelmina Slater (Vanessa Williams ) and her scheming gay assistant Marc St. James (Michael Urie) — who kept us howling with laughter.
Though the 10-year anniversary of the show’s premiere is still a year away, The Advocate couldn’t wait to touch base with Williams (who will be appearing in San Francisco’s Broadway @ The Nourse concert series April 25) and Urie (who stars opposite Queer as Folk’s Randy Harrison in Such Good People, available Tuesday on DVD and VOD) to share some behind-the-scenes memories of their unholy alliance.
The Advocate: Ugly Betty premiered in 2006, the same year that The Devil Wears Prada came out. Was anyone concerned that both projects featured a young woman working with a dragon-lady fashionista at a Vogue-like magazine?
Vanessa Williams: Silvio Horta was the show’s creator, and his first pass at the script was that Betty was working as a spy. The network didn’t like that, so he set it in the world of fashion. We were riding a trend, so the people who loved the film and wanted more loved the series too.
Michael Urie: I remember there being an awareness [of the similarities], but the feeling and outcome was that the two projects at once helped each other and were different enough to live in their own worlds. I even remember making an Anne Hathaway joke in an episode.
What do you remember most about working together, and how did your working relationship evolve over the course of the series?
Williams: I was originally supposed to have a new assistant in each episode, but when we were filming the pilot and in our first scene where he’s injecting me with Botox, Michael was so brilliant and he came up with so many great ideas.
Urie: The most wonderful thing any actor has ever done for me was when Vanessa took me under her wing in the pilot episode. Right away, she took a liking to me — and I to her! — and she encouraged me to make Marc my own.
Williams: In our first conference room scene he was behind me and I yelled, “Marc!” As I sank in my chair, he slinked into his chair at the same time, like we are one.
Urie: She even suggested I stand closer to her in a scene so I’d be on camera in a certain angle. Divas don’t have to do things like that, and many other actors would’ve been too concerned with themselves to help out a newcomer like me.
Williams: On the second day I went to Silvio and [executive producer] Salma Hayek and I said, “He’s terrific. You’ve got to keep him.”
Urie: As the episodes went on, our friendship only deepened, and our work together got better and better. We had immediate chemistry, but by season 4 we not only had a shorthand but unspoken instincts on how to best make our scenes sing.
What were your favorite or most memorable Wilhelmina-Marc scenes?
Urie: Someone just tweeted me a clip from that episode when we beat the crap out of each other in a stairwell, because her bruises needed to be “real” for whatever scheme we were scheming that week.
Williams: I love the one where we get stranded by a cab so we’re walking the streets of Queens, being accosted by ladies of the evening. We go into a church and I use my shoe to break into the church donation box so we can get back to New York.
Urie: I loved the episode where she traded me to Fabia [Gina Gershon] for a church booking and then remorsefully remembered the “good” times while Vanessa’s recording of “The Way We Were” played.
Williams: Or when I had to give up all my possessions and I’m lying on my bed surrounded by furs, crying, “Why, Marc, why…?” I loved all those visuals. The show cost a lot, but every penny showed up on screen.
Urie: In the final episode, the writers gave me the most wonderful scene where I shared gossip with a comatose Willie. It was so hilarious and so sweet. It was also the very last scene we ever shot together, so I promptly went to my dressing room afterwards and sobbed.
What was the most challenging aspect of playing your role over the course of the series?
Urie: Finding the right tone was always something that I cared a lot about, and the writers were excellent at toeing the line between camp and truth. I always wanted to be able to get away with true silliness but also play naturalistic pathos.
Williams: Nothing was challenging — it was all so much fun! One day I was pitching a softball at Naomi Campbell, then I was up on a huge sign in Times Square, then I was ice-skating. … I loved it!
What do you think Wilhelmina and Marc would be doing today?
Urie: I’m sure Marc would still be doing Willie’s bidding. He’d probably have been promoted, but I can’t imagine him very far from Wilhelmina Slater.
Williams: My dream was to have them do a Wilhelmina and Marc spin-off where we’re running Mode U.K., causing trouble and brushing elbows with royals.