Q&A with Michael Urie

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(Michael Urie and I)

Best known as Vanessa Williams’ sharp tongued assistant on ABC’s hit comedy Ugly Betty, actor Michael Urie is on the fast path to stardom. Playing Marc St. James, he has brought to life a character whose dynamic and hilarious relationship with Amanda (Becki Newton) creates a duo that rivals Will And Grace’s Jack and Karen for sassiest comedic coupling in recent sitcom memory. While the show is currently on hiatus waiting for filming of the forth season to begin, Urie has wasted no time in showing his incredible range as an actor by appearing in the off-Broadway production of Jon Marans’ The Temperamentals. Named after an old term for “homosexual,” the play garnered so much theater buzz and had such a successful three week run that it recently re-opened in a larger venue.

As famous Viennese costume designer Rudi Gernreich, Urie completely sheds his skin of funny man Marc and tackles the dramatic role of a man who secretly became a founding father of one of the first gay rights movements in the United States. Urie’s inspiring performance traces him back to his roots as a theater actor. Having graduated from Juilliard, he was trained for the stage long before his devilishly handsome smile started dazzling our television screens on Thursday evenings.

After losing much of his family in World War II, Gernreich fled from the Nazi ruled Austria to America, where along with Harry Hay (played marvelously in the production by Thomas Jay Ryan) he formed a secret coalition of gay men to fight the oppression and censorship that homosexuals were facing in the 1950s. Trying to recruit members such as the closeted Vincent Minnelli and Christian Dior, they were an incredibly brave group of revolutionaries that are often overlooked in history books (frequently, the Stonewall riots of 1969 are cited as the first demonstration of gay uprising). The play tells the story of how Hay and Gernreich defied society and gave birth to the battle for civil rights that is still being fought today. After the opening night of the play, I caught up with Urie, who gave me a tour of both the old and the new theater, while he talked to me about the challenges he faced in playing Gernreich, as well as the significance of this play.

AN: How much of an impact do you think art has when it deals with politics? Do you feel that like with this piece, knowing the history of a movement that’s still going on is important in keeping the fight alive today?

MU: Well like you said, this play shows so many things that have not been fixed yet, and it also shows so many things that have been fixed. So in a lot of ways we have come a long way but in a lot of ways we haven’t gone anywhere. You see from films like Milk and Philadelphia and plays like Angels In America and The Normal Heart how art can change society and affect causes, so I think it’s very important because people are way more likely to watch or listen to art than watch or listen to political discussions. It’s a very powerful tool and it’s very important, and as artists, we always strive to do something that actually means something, that actually matters – and that is so rare. Just thinking about what’s happening now in the theater, you have shows like West Side Story which is about hate, really, at the end of the day, and it’s about not hating each other. That play can change people’s ideas and minds, and I think this play also can. It’s a history lesson but it’s also a love story, and it’s also very provocative and it will make you think.

AN: So was it these qualities about this particular play that attracted you to come back to the theater after being a TV actor for so long?

MU: Well I’m always on the look out for a great play because theater is so much more fulfilling than television. As wonderful and lucrative as television is and as much fun as I have doing it, and as great as that particular job is because it too is about something – that show too is about something, even though it’s on TV – it’s so rewarding to come back to the theater at any time. And you know, I never really left the theater because I did a play during my hiatus the first year and I did a play during the writer’s strike and now I’m doing this one, so I could never really leave the theater. I’m sort of a junkie and am kind of addicted to it. Any chance I get to go up on stage I take, because you can’t beat live people watching. Even when we did this show in the smaller theater that only had forty seats, doing it for that many people was thrilling! I mean, nine million people watch Ugly Betty every week. Forty people watch The Temperamentals every night, so it’s very different and you feel it. But to answer your question, I actually had several opportunities to do plays during my hiatus which is very lucky. It was the most unnatural thing in the world to turn down plays, because before Ugly Betty all I wanted was to get a play – but I had to pick what I thought was most important. I’ve been with this play a long time. I did readings of it even before Ugly Betty, so to see it all the way through is very cool, it’s very fulfilling.

AN: You mentioned the intimate setting of this play. Do you feel it needs to be performed in such a small venue in order to achieve its full effect, or do you think it could be just as powerful on a large Broadway stage?

MU: Well, tonight was the first night in this bigger theater. I mean it’s not that big, but it’s certainly bigger than the room we were in before. We’ve moved but the space is still intimate even though the room is twice the size, and the play still works. And you know, I feel like if we moved to an even bigger space it would still work because the material is big. I’m always amazed because I do a lot of Shakespeare, and with Shakespeare it works with five thousand people watching and it works with twenty people watching – it’s just about the story. If the story’s there, its’ message is going to catch fire.

AN: So did you have to make a lot of changes and adjustments in your performances as well as the overall production moving from that theater to this bigger one?

MU: A little bit. You have to be a little louder and stuff like that, but the play is the same. We didn’t have to change a lot. They re-wrote some stuff and they added some scenes, it was a little shorter before. There were certainly a lot of things that were rehearsed for about a week before we put it up tonight and it was a lot different, but it’s still the same thing, it’s still the same play. Also in a lot of ways, you can hear a lot better in this theater than you could in that one because there was something so dead about that room, but this theater is just so alive.

AN: I really liked the way the theater was set up tonight because with the chairs on both sides of the stage, I was able to see the audience members across from me watching the show too, so it was interesting seeing people react to the same thing that I was – especially if I was reacting or feeling the same way.

MU: It was also fun – and we’ll keep learning about this – but sometimes that half of the audience would laugh and that other half wouldn’t, and vice versa. They would see something and they would laugh at it, but the other half wouldn’t see it, which was interesting. I was surprised of what worked in the other theater but didn’t work in this one. Mostly it was the comedy stuff – some things would get a laugh in there but didn’t really get a laugh in here, which was interesting. Plus, in there, the audience was in the play – like they were as close as we are right now. They were literally right there and they knew it so they didn’t respond as much because they were nervous. You couldn’t do anything because you were practically in the light. Here, you’re more hidden so you can react to the material however you want to.

AN: What kind of research did you have to do in preparing for this role and creating this incredible character?

MU: We did a lot of research as a group. We would read all these cool books and talk about them, and there was this documentary that we watched … so we had a lot of help that way. But you know, a certain amount of research can screw you up after awhile, because if you research it too much then you’re just playing research and that doesn’t help. Also, this is a period of time before Rudy became Rudy, so all the stuff that’s documented about him doesn’t include any of this at all. He was never out at all. I mean, he was always in the public eye doing crazy avant garde things, but never as a homosexual.

Click here to purchase tickets to see The Temperamentals


My Top 10 Favorite Books of All Time

(Arranged in alphabetical order by the author’s last name)

1. Burroughs, Augusten. Running With Scissors.

This memoir brilliantly succeeds in maintaining a humorous tone while narrating a truly heartbreaking coming-of-age story.

2. Connolly, John. The Book of Lost Things.

Chronicles a young boy grieving over the death of his mother while embarking on a journey through a fantasyland of morbidly revamped fairy tales.

3. Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking.

A master of prose, Didion employs in short and blunt sentences an astonishing memoir about dealing with the death of her husband.

4. Easton Ellis, Bret. American Psycho.

This novel’s bold critique of materialism and pop culture interspersed with a captivating narrative detailing an obsessive-compulsive murderer provides for a killer read.

5. Eggers, Dave. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

Eggers’ memoir about discovering a sense of autonomy in a world of chaos he is suddenly thrust into is both daring and stylistically unconventional.

6. July, Miranda. No One Belongs Here More Than You.

The gorgeous and fluid imagery interlaced with the demoralized characters within this short story collection makes it a true masterpiece of contemporary American fiction.

7. Nelson, Maggie. Jane: A Murder.

The varied poetry-meets-prose dual narrative of this quest for answers and identity makes for a work of postmodern nonfiction genius.

8. Palahniuk, Chuck. Survivor.

A suspenseful, adrenaline filled, and brilliant satire about the sole survivor of a suicide cult’s rise and fall from fame while plotting his own death.

9. Safron Foer, Jonathan. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

Capturing 9/11 through the eyes of a child, this illustrious novel uses the tragedy as a gateway for self-discovery and uncovering lost family history.

10. Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Warning against the consequences of narcissism, this classic novel intricately blends horror and romance in an unbeatable fashion.

Interview with Plastiscines

(Me with Plastiscines)

When I walked into the lounge where French rockers Plastiscines were waiting to be interviewed, it was hard for me to look at lead singer Katty Besnard without hearing her voice scream “I’m a bitch!” in my head. A lyric from “Bitch,” one of the tracks on the group’s dynamic new record, “About Love,” her music felt like a warning. Nervously sitting down with a tape recorder in my hand, I was ready to become the journalist-turned-escargot, but was pleasantly surprised when she and the rest of her band mates greeted me with nothing but smiles, modesty, and cheery hospitality. The all girl-powered band was far from bitchy, and with their trendy European attire that looked like they walked out of a Top Shop catalog, it was hard to believe these fashionistas are a punk band rather than a troupe of runaway models. Huddled on a couch and finishing one another’s thoughts and sentences, the ladies looked so comfortable and snuggly together that watching them felt like I was at the auditions for the French remake of “The Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants.”

Hailing from St. Cyr, France, Plastiscines are critically regarded as the leaders of “les bébés rockers”, a revolutionary new wave movement of Parisian teenage rock and roll storming through the European punk scene. The release of their debut album, “LP1” in 2007 garnered a commendation presented by both the French Minister of Culture and British musician Pete Doherty, as well as spots playing concerts all over the world, including the much revered music festival Coachella in 2008. Now, being the inaugural band launching the new NYLON Records label, Plastiscines are ready to conquer territory slightly west from their native FranceAmerica. The day before embarking on their first full U.S. tour, I caught up with the feisty French foursome about everything from their new record to why they stand out from all the Paramores and Katy Perrys out there.

AN: What’s the inspiration or story behind the name Plastiscines?

Katty Besnard: It comes from a song of The Beatles called “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.” There’s a line with the word “plastiscine” in it and we thought it was a good name for a girl band.

Your first album came out when you were still teenagers. What was the transition like for you to go from regular high school girls to rock stars at such a young age?

Katty: (laugh) We’re not rock stars. The change came naturally because first we started the band and then we started playing more and more shows. It’s not like we went from one point to the other – it was more of a natural growth.

You are the first artists to be signed onto NYLON Records and will be releasing your new album “About Love” later this month. What types of new opportunities does this change offer you and does it affect your music at all?

Marine Neuilly: We think it’s such a great opportunity to be signed with NYLON. A lot of the time we’re kind of stuck in France and don’t really know what to do. I mean, we’ve been working for over a year on this album – just practicing the songs but we didn’t have any plans for the future. Then we were contacted by NYLON saying they’re creating the label and wanted to sign us. It was a bit weird at the time because we didn’t know what to expect, but everything started going well. We signed, moved to L.A., recorded the album and it just all seemed very natural.

You have a very interesting and unique sound because it mixes heavy garage band elements with a lot of pop/rock. Who would you cite as your biggest influences and have those changed between recording your first album and this new one?

Katty: Well, I think we have a lot of the same influences but we just know of more bands now so there are more influences. We’re still influenced by garage bands and punk bands like The Ramones. Blondie, too, is a big influence.

Louise Basilien: We’re also really influenced by 60’s girl groups, where all the background vocals were very clear and big.

How do you think you’ve grown from your first album to this one? In other words, how is this record different and what can your fans expect from it?

Louise: First of all, we became better musicians through the years. Even with the first album that we recorded two and a half years ago, we were kind of crap (laughs). I mean, I’m not saying that we’re good now but we’re obviously better. I think we’re better musicians because we actually understand what we’re doing. That doesn’t mean we don’t play crappy stuff sometimes. We’re still practicing and trying to get better. Even during recording the second album we learned so many new things that we actually changed a lot.

Marine: Also we actually knew what we wanted the music to sound like. We recorded the first album when we were really young, 17-years-old, and just kind of went with the flow. Now, we know what we really want with these songs and we’ve been thinking a lot about them and they’re planned – that’s what makes the biggest difference.

Anais Vandevyvere: That’s what makes the album bigger than the first one. All the songs have real breaks and different melodies and harmonies. It was really more interesting for us to record this album because we put all we wanted to do, musically, together.

On this new record, you worked with some new big names in the industry such as your producer, Butch Walker. After the success of the first CD, did you feel that there was there a lot more pressure recording this album than that one?

Katty: I think we actually had more pressure recording the first one.

Louise: Yeah, we had a lot of press before recording it because we were teenagers playing rock and roll and older people thought it was really cool. To us it was normal, but to them it was like “wow!” so we had a lot of people and press talking about that a lot. So a lot of pressure was put on us because people were expecting so much. For the second album, it was more our expectations than everybody else’s, so to me it was so cool to record the second one – much less pressure than the first one.

Marine: The first album came out two years ago and so it was a challenge for us to come back with something very real and that we love, and you know, we worked so hard for that. Working with Butch Walker was so …

Anais: Surreal.

Marine: Yeah, surreal is the right word. At the beginning we were just supposed to record four songs together but then there was such good chemistry between us and Butch and Jackson (our engineer and co-producer) that we all wanted to keep being together and finish it. It was so cool and we were so happy to be together. It wasn’t like we were working with big names so it was crazy stuff.

Louise: It was really more like a family in a way, you know? Drinking wine after recording, having fun, singing songs together – it wasn’t like “oh Butch is famous so he’s leaving after two hours.” It was more like twelve hours a day and just fun.

I love that in your music you stay true to your heritage and rather than trying to appeal to an exclusively English speaking market, you still incorporate a lot of French on your albums. When you’re writing songs, what is it like for you to switch from your native language to English and what challenges does that present?

Anais: Actually it’s kind of weird. First we write in English because all of our influences are English and American bands, so it’s more natural for us to write in English. Sometimes when we write songs in English we think, “oh this could be cool in French,” and so we change it … but we never plan that – it just happens sometimes.

This summer you’re embarking on your first American tour. What are you looking forward to most about performing for your American fans that haven’t seen you live yet?

Marine: I mean, it’s kind of weird. Everything is happening so quickly! Two or three months ago we were still recording and now the album is going to be out in a few days and we’re leaving for this big tour on a tour bus with our faces on it. I mean, it’s so great. We’re leaving tomorrow. It might be kind of hard all being on the tour bus together every night with like sixteen other people, but it should be really great getting to meet people and stuff.

Is there any particular place your tour is stopping that you’re most excited about going to?

Katty: Texas! It should be very interesting.

Louise: Yeah, I want Texas too!

Marine: And Los Angeles too. The last time we were there we were recording and spent the night at the Roxy and now we’re going to be playing there. Lots of people we met will be there, like our producers, so it should be fun. I’m really looking forward to it.

You’ve found yourselves going from a sensation in France to becoming internationally renowned musicians. Since your first album, you’ve played sold out shows across Europe and toured the world. Being such an international band, what is your favorite place to tour and why?

Katty: I think we’re really looking forward to do this tour in America. When you come from Europe, America seems very …

Anais: Big?

Katty Very far. Unreachable. Now we’re here and we’re doing this amazing tour with three other bands. It’s a dream come true.

Female fronted rock has been making quite a large comeback over the past couple of years, with musicians such as Paramore and Katy Perry being radio favorites. How do you think your music stands out amongst other “girl bands” or female musicians?

Marine: Basically, they’re all the same. Paramore is all boys but with a girl singer. It’s always girls and boys. The main difference with our band is that we’re all girls, there are no men. We wouldn’t even want a man in our band.

Katty: I don’t know, it might be nice sometimes (laughs).

Louise: Also, Paramore is really emo music and Katy Perry is pop music, they’re not really rock and roll bands. We play a little pop music, but we’re really a rock and roll band – it’s not the same.

Now that you’ve already had so much success, what are some other or new goals you have as a band that you would still like to accomplish?

Anais: Our goal was to go on a big American tour, but we have that now. We need to think of something new. Maybe we could tour with a really big band, like Kings Of Leon or someone like that. Our next goal, I guess, would be to be on a big headlining tour in America and maybe have our own set.

Marine: And we can each get a tour bus – one each!

Katty: Just to keep on doing what we’re doing now. I think we’re very lucky, especially for a French girl band – I think we’re the only one really out there. Just keep on making the music.

*** Plastiscines’ “About Love” will be released digitally on iTunes June 9th, 2009. Hard copies will be available August 2009.