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Michael Urie On 'The Cherry Orchard,' Gay Characters On TV After 'Ugly Betty' And Directing Films

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MICHAEL URIE CHERRY ORCHARD
Carol Rosegg

Michael Urie happens to really, really like New York.

At least by Hollywood standards, the 31-year-old Urie's almost exclusive devotion to the Off Broadway stage in the year and a half since "Ugly Betty" went off the air might seem bold, if a tad inconspicuous -- especially for a young actor whose portrayal of the deliciously sassy fashion assistant Marc St. James helped make "Betty" a gay favorite for its entire four-season run.

But the Juilliard alum's risk-taking has certainly paid its dividends: his seminal performance as Rudi Gernreich, the Austrian gay rights activist and founding member of the Mattachine Society in 2009's "The Temperamentals" nabbed him a Lucille Lortel Award, and his starring turn in last year's revival of Tony Kushner's "Angels In America" was hailed as "precise, ravishing." More recently, he's had the chance to try out the director's chair for size, helming the documentary "Thank You For Judging" as well as the upcoming independent feature "He's More Famous Than You," in which he also stars with real-life "better half" Ryan Spahn.

Now Urie is taking to the stage yet again as the clumsy, lovesick Yepikhodov in "The Cherry Orchard," alongside John Turturro and Dianne Wiest, in Classic Stage Company's production of Anton Chekhov's tragicomic masterpiece, which recently extended its run through Dec. 30. He nonetheless took time out from his hectic performance schedule to chat with HuffPost Gay Voices, revealing his thoughts on Chekhov, primetime TV's current crop of gay characters and the challenges of coming out of the closet in Hollywood.

What is it about Chekhov's work, and specifically "The Cherry Orchard," that makes it relevant to modern audiences?
"The Cherry Orchard" is all about a family losing their home, which is so relevant given the housing crisis. It's really about what can happen when you look away from the business of your life. These characters have really turned a blind eye to their money, and they're paying the price for that. The great tragedy is that you see it coming and they see it coming, but everyone is, for whatever reason, helpless. There's definitely a feeling of economic crippling, and of course, the modern psychology of Chekhov is right there. I think that has always resonated with audiences.

How are you and the rest of the company handling the play's dual tragic/comic nature? What's unique about this interpretation?

It was actually the very first production of the play that set it in stone as a tragedy; it's definitely a "tragicomedy." There are certainly a lot of ideas and opinions about the play; we've had a lot of discussions about what the play is and what is has been in the past. Andrei Belgrader, our director, has a very acute ear to what we need and what we don't need. So often, with Chekhov, it's like a game of telephone...we've really worked hard to make it easy on the ears. It's not like doing Shakespeare, where every word is perfect and there's a music to it. With "The Cherry Orchard," the music is really in the emotions.

What's your character, Yepikhodov, like?
He's educated and professional, but he's also very unlucky. They call me "Master Disaster" -- I take a drink of water, and there'll be a cockroach inside of it, and so on. Not only is he unlucky in love, but he has to squeak around the stage with these ill-fitting shoes...it's a great part and I get a lot of juicy scenes, but I also have a lot of time offstage. I thought it would be a great opportunity to immerse myself in the production and be able watch these true, true pros [like Turturro and Wiest], but not have to stress about carrying the play.

You've been on a hit sitcom, starred in Off Broadway productions and directed films. How difficult is it for an actor such as yourself to move in between mediums?
Before I was on TV, the jobs I've been lucky enough to do now might have been hard to get. I can get through more doors having been in the TV world, which is really, really cool. I love live theater so much so I've been having incredible opportunities. "Ugly Betty" was such an incredible experience, so it's hard to think I'll top it, beyond just the luck of its success. I don't have a burning desire to try to make that happen again because it probably won't. I choose to live in New York and i choose to busy myself with theater gigs.

Do you keep in touch with any of your "Ugly Betty" co-stars?
We always seem to have an e-mail chain going around with everyone on it. I just spoke to Becki [Newton] the other day, and even though America [Ferrera] is off in London right now doing "Chicago," her husband helped get my documentary into the Austin Film Festival. I went to see Judith Light's opening night in "Other Desert Cities" the other day. So the family is still together even though we don't see each other every day anymore. I don't know how special that is, but I feel it's rare.

Your "Ugly Betty" character, Marc St. James, was really ahead of the curve in terms of being a fashion-loving, flamboyant young gay man on a TV series. How much of an influence do you think the character had on the current array of unashamedly gay characters on primetime TV?

When I look at the things we were doing on "Ugly Betty" in its first season, it's amazing to see how far we've come as a society... not just on TV, but as a society. Shows like "Modern Family" and "Glee" are two of the biggest comedies on TV and certainly very buzzworthy, and both have great gay characters who have really big problems beyond just coming out of the closet. I think we've come a long way, and I like to think we helped pave the way. I remember when I was a kid, watching Ellen Degeneres come out on TV with my family. I imagine kids that were that age in 2005 or 2006 watching "Ugly Betty" and being able to see themselves. Also, having the Justin Suarez character [played by Mark Indelicato] come out of the closet was a major, major step forward for LGBT youth on TV. He certainly helped pave the way for the Kurt Hummel character on "Glee."

I remember liking that Marc's mother's reaction to his coming out portrayed what is, unfortunately, a reality for some LGBT kids, and it wasn't idealized or sugar-coated in any way.
I think it made it easier for kids and their parents to watch something like that go down in the wrong way. We showed what was happening in 2005, and "Glee" is able to show what's happening now. At that time Marc's mom [played by Broadway legend Patti LuPone] really needed to reject him. But I always like to think that she eventually came back. One can only hope she started singing showtunes with Marc!

You've said in the past that you weren't comfortable talking about your sexual orientation in the media. How was that changed for you?
When "Ugly Betty" first came on, I was certainly very keen to leaving the door open to playing leading men, romantic leads. When I first started on the show, not even Neil Patrick Harris was out yet. I learned pretty quickly that while it would limit me, it wouldn't limit me more than I was already limited, if that makes sense. Sometimes I play gay characters, sometimes I play straight characters...I just think of myself as playing awesome characters.

So would you encourage new, up-and-coming actors to come out of the closet?

I think that for certain people, if it were to come out, it would still limit them as actors, which is why there are a lot of them who choose to remain mum about their sexuality. Every time another high-profile person comes out, it becomes less and less of a burden for actors. But people with the biggest suspension of disbelief are those who watch TV or go to the theater for pleasure only. It's so interesting what people will say when you encourage them to judge it. While it's tricky when you're trying to get jobs...once you get the job, that's the easy part.

So what's in store for Michael Urie in 2012?

There are a few things that are brewing that I'm not at liberty to speak about, but...I want to keep doing plays, I want to keep directing movies. I'm really satisfied right now as I've gotten to do great things and I know more great things are coming. And I feel lucky to be surrounded by people who make great things happen, both personally and professionally.

Classic Stage Company's production of "The Cherry Orchard" runs through Dec. 30. Click here for more information.

Watch Urie's "It Gets Better" video below:

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