Michael Urie on Playing an Activist and Assistant on The Temperamentals and Ugly Betty

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Photo: Patrick McMullan

Most people know Michael Urie in his role of Marc, editrix Vanessa Williams's bitchy assistant on Ugly Betty. But Urie is also an accomplished stage actor, and he's showing off his theatrical chops right now in The Temperamentals, Jon Marans's moving, often hilarious play about the Mattachine Society, a gay-male activist group born in the closeted atmosphere of the early fifties. The show features Urie as Rudi Gernreich, an early founder of the group who left before he could be outed to become a fashion designer so influential he made the cover of Time in 1967. Urie spoke to us about his character's future on Betty and why he's so private about certain issues.

What are you up to today?
Well, it's raining and my dog won't poop or pee in the rain, so generally what happens is, we both get drenched, then the second we walk indoors, shit just starts flying out of her ass. She's a Brussels Griffon. Her name is Sprouts. Her full name is Dame Lady Colonel Brussels Sprouts the First. She's a colonel because she fought in the dog-cat revolution of aught-four.

So she's a highly decorated vet?
She's a very decorated vet but we don't use the word V-E-T, because that means something else.

So who is your character to you?
He's an activist but also an artist, and oftentimes, artists have to be activists with their work rather than with their actions, and ultimately that's what he becomes. He paved the way for [fashion] flamboyancy of all kinds, and although he was never out publicly, he was a huge influence on the community and on freeing yourself. But this is also a love story, about how Harry and Rudi start in one place and, by the end of the play, are in very different places.

In the context of this play, it's almost impossible not to ask
you about your own sexuality. You've never really publicly declared it, but on your own website, you identify yourself as "a member of the LGBT community" and say that organizations that help people with HIV/AIDS or people who are LGBT are "A-Number 1 in my book!" So what's the deal?

Well, that's my M.O. I'm interested in keeping — you know, actors have to be able to do lots of different things, and while I'd say there's an ongoing theme [to the parts I play], I'm also not interested in having any real publicity about who I am and what my private life is and things like that. I'm an actor and I don't want to be a [fill-in-the-] blank actor.

Do you really think that saying "I'm gay" would stop you from getting an array of roles?
That's not really the point. By using publicity to say something like that, it could become a person's M.O, and I'm not interested in that. I really think this article should be about The Temperamentals. I understand where you're coming from and why you think this is important and that this is a play about being true to yourself. But artists and activists are not quite the same thing, and I feel like support can come from lots of different ways.

Do you get sick of reporters asking you about this?
They don't ask about it as much as you might think. Actually, it's been a long time since anyone asked it. I don't think it's really newsworthy if the gay guy from Ugly Betty is gay or not.

So, speaking of the world of Betty, it looks like Marc's career at Mode hangs in the balance on the upcoming season, with Betty having beat him out for that editor position.
Well, that's something that's great about TV. Characters change, but over the course of years. My character started off being a one-line bitchy gay assistant, and now we see he has career ambitions and love and affection for other people. I have a feeling there's going to be some serious rivalry between Marc and Betty this season. I've always thought of Ugly Betty as classical theater. The stakes are very high.