CULTURE

Michael Urie Pushes Back

The star of Single All the Way—Netflix’s first gay Christmas movie—talks working with Jennifer Coolidge, channeling Madeline Kahn, and what it means for queer actors to play queer roles.

by Carrie Wittmer
Photographed by Andreas Laszlo Konrath

Urie wears Bode top and pant, Falke socks, and Prada shoes.

When Michael Urie first received the script for Netflix’s queer holiday rom-com Single All the Way, he realized he was looking at the wrong part. The actor shot to fame in the aughts after playing Marc St. James on the ABC dramedy Ugly Betty from 2006 to 2010, has starred in Broadway productions including How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Chicken & Biscuits, and made appearances on television shows including Younger and The Good Wife. But when reading the screenplay penned by Chad Hodge, he immediately felt the character his agents wanted him to audition for just wasn’t a good fit. “I looked at the character description and it was a ruggedly handsome handyman, gruff and tough around the edges,” he tells W over a Zoom call. “And I was like, oh, this isn't really me. But I'll find my way into it.”

He did find his way, right into the film’s other lead role. Instead of the handsome handyman, he plays Peter, a Los Angeles-based social media manager who is obsessed with plants and a total catch. (He’s also perpetually single, despite having a green thumb.) At first, he wasn’t sure if some of his peers (Neil Patrick Harris, Andrew Rannells, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, to name a few) might have already nabbed this “charming, neurotic, gregarious” lead role. But once Hodge, who had already been familiar with Urie’s work, caught wind of his interest in Peter, he gave the actor the part without requiring an audition. “In show business, so often, we’re just sort of expected to do what we’re told, and not push back. It worked in my favor this time around,” Urie says. “I pushed back a little bit and I got the job.”

Urie wears The Row jacket, shirt, and pant.

Although he says Christmas movies are more up his partner’s alley, Urie recognizes the significance of appearing in a Netflix holiday film with a gay couple at the center. It is the first of its kind from the streaming service, which has churned out stockings full of heterosexual Christmas content, including A Christmas Prince in 2017 (followed by A Christmas Prince: The Royal Wedding and A Christmas Prince: The Royal Baby) and The Princess Switch trilogy, in which Vanessa Hudgens plays three (straight) people. Single All the Away is an “exciting milestone” for Urie. “It is a world devoid of homophobia,” he says. “There is never a moment in this movie when anyone is worried about being gay or ashamed of being gay. The problems are not to do with sexuality. The problems are to do with not being able to maintain a relationship, which is not just a gay thing—it [can be] a gay thing, but it is not just a gay thing. Straight people have that problem, too.”

In Single All the Way, Peter travels to rural New Hampshire to visit his charming, quirky, and slightly overwhelming family filled with the kind of people you’d sincerely refer to as “characters.” He brings his close pal Nick (newcomer Philemon Chambers) along for the ride, and although the story follows the same predictable beats we’ve seen in holiday rom-coms for decades, watching those same events unfold with a gay couple is refreshing. It also helps that Urie’s other co-stars in the film are Jennifer Coolidge, Barry Bostwick, Kathy Najimy, and Jennifer Roberston.

The film’s references are also specific to a gay audience, rather than pandering to a straight one. Take the scene in which Urie pays homage to another film beloved by the queer community, for example. He utters the phrase “flames, flames, on the side of my face,” which is a heavily-memed line of Madeline Kahn’s from the 1985 camp classic, Clue. Both Clue and Kahn are important to Urie—the line was added into the script by Hodge, who asked the actor if he knew about Clue. Urie replied, “If you're about to give me ‘flames, flames on the side of my face,’ then I will be in your debt forever.”

Urie wears Bode top, sweater, and pants.

Urie also cannot help but gush for several minutes about Coolidge, who appears in the film as his Aunt Sandy. Before shooting Single All the Way, the two had met a few times but never performed on-screen together, despite both starring in the 2021 film Swan Song from director Todd Stephens. Having seen her body of work and reading her role in the screenplay for Single All the Way, Urie thought he knew what to expect from Coolidge in the film. But he was wrong: Coolidge’s performance, which includes donning Christmas tree ornaments as earrings howling at small children during a small holiday stage production in the film, was so unexpected that it gave him a newfound appreciation for her. “I know how actors work, but I couldn't explain how her brain works,” he says with utter fascination lighting up his face, attempting to comprehend Coolidge’s brand of unpredictable comedy. “I don't know how she comes up with that stuff. Something magical happens, and she is having the most fun of anyone. It is a truly, truly, truly delightful experience working with her. I wish I had more with her. I mean, I hope we do a Single All the Way 2.”

Urie is also eager to discuss the impact that starring in Ugly Betty had on not only his career, but his personal life as well. For a fleeting moment in the aughts, the sitcom had a strong chokehold on pop culture, not unlike that of Game of Thrones or Lost. Known for its telenovela-esque cliffhangers, the show dominated both water cooler chats and awards shows, won a couple of Emmys, and turned the cast, which included Urie, into an overnight sensation. It was quite innovative for its time, but popular shows from the “Golden Age” of television that center brooding antiheroes, like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, have obscured our memory of its significance.

“We did go to serious places, we were able to tell some real stories and really focus on some truth,” Urie remembers of Ugly Betty and its early-aughts progressivism. “It was so diverse. The hero was a person of color and the villain was a woman of color.” Still, Urie remains aware of its flaws. “There’s some comedy racism that maybe wouldn’t fly today. There’s some comedy transphobia that certainly wouldn't fly today,” he notes. “But at the time, what we were talking about, what we were representing, was new, and it was stuff that hadn't been explored before. It always came back to this beautiful, bright character in the middle, Betty, and even though the show’s called Ugly Betty, she was beautiful.”

In a cultural landscape that centered straight white people, Ugly Betty certainly stood out from most other shows airing on network television in 2006. And while Urie’s character Marc St. James was introduced as a villain, over time, Betty’s generosity and sincerity rubbed off on him, and quickly, the writers started to write the character for Urie. “When I saw the breakdown for the role, the entire description was ‘bitchy, gay assistant,’” Urie says. “I knew that the casting director had seen me do this Jacobean tragedy in a basement, where I was dressed sort of like David Bowie and played it up, essentially like a bitchy, gay guy, and that’s how I got the job.”

But after Ugly Betty took off, Urie says he was told to stop playing gay roles so that he wouldn’t be typecast. “I was encouraged not to come out of the closet and all that stuff,” he admits. It wasn’t until 2010 that Urie opened up about his sexuality in an interview with The Advocate, in which he said that he identifies as queer.

Ugly Betty gave a gay character layers that transcended stereotypes, and by using Urie to inform the character, the show didn’t limit Marc’s personality to the his originally narrow description. “Everything that Marc St. James did was me,” Urie says. “It’s not necessarily what I’m doing in my regular life, but that was all authentically me, my tools, my traits.” In the decade since the series ended, the actor says he has also noticed an evolution in the way gay characters are written elsewhere. “It’s very rare that I pick something up that’s set now, that’s modern, and the character’s problem is that he is gay,” he says. “There’s a lot more going on in the queer community now, and I’m excited about that kind of content. I also think we’re in this period of time where it’s going to [become] rarer and rarer that gay characters are played by straight people.”

However, the actor cites the example of Adam Driver playing Louis in the 2011 Broadway revival of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America as the rare instance of a straight actor playing gay that felt natural and inoffensive (Urie also starred in the production as Prior Walter, a drag queen). He praises Driver’s simple approach, and his choice to not dramatically change his voice or body language to play the role. “He did not feel the need to put on any kind of airs that were not authentic to himself,” Urie says. “I’ve always admired that and really appreciated that about him.”

Urie wears The Row jacket.

The actor also noted that there are many heterosexual actors who have been rewarded for leaning into stereotypes: changing their voice, or adjusting their body language and movements to “seem” gay. Straight actors who do this are often perceived as having a degree of confidence or bravery, “And I don't think it's necessarily helpful to them or to us,” Urie says.

After a moment of contemplation, Urie settles on one final thought about his place in the entertainment industry as a queer actor who has played queer roles: “The implication is that somehow it’s easy when you’re queer to play queer, and somehow it’s a great challenge when you’re a straight cis person playing [queer],” he says. “We’re all just trying to make it, but I sometimes think if I had been out of the closet and known in 2006, I would not have gotten the job on Ugly Betty because I would have either not even been considered or I wouldn’t have had the guts to be my full self and use all of my flamboyant and effeminate qualities for the audition. I would’ve thought I needed to be stoic and masculine because of shame. Now, I’m a big grown ass man, and I feel very differently about things like that.”

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