‘Younger’ Star Michael Urie on Making His Drag Debut in 'Torch Song' and Staying True to Himself (Exclusive)
By Naveen Kumar
“We need to be heroes again,” Michael Urie tells ET before a full weekend of performances at Second Stage Theatre, where the Younger star is leading the first major New York revival of Torch Song Trilogy, Harvey Fierstein’s seminal play about gay life and identity in 1970s and early ’80s New York. “We had a president who was a hero for us,” Urie says, recalling the past eight years with Barack Obama. “Now we have to be the heroes again and stand up for who we are.”
That conviction is at the heart of Torch Song, which will open off-Broadway Oct. 19 and continue through Dec. 3. As the actor notes, the original production “actually changed people’s lives” when it premiered, first in three parts downtown and then on Broadway in 1982, when Urie was just 2 years old. (It has been revised and condensed to a more conventional length -- and renamed Torch Song -- for the new revival.) “When the play came out in the ’80s, it was like science fiction to people,” Urie says.
“Moises [Kaufman, the production’s director] says Harvey was a prophet,” Urie continues. The same might be said of Arnold, the role that finds Urie doing drag gigs in gay bars and tip-toeing through seedy back rooms in the first act, and adopting a teenage son in the second. “That it was 1971 and he was making a living as a drag queen, and that he wanted to be a husband and a father was ahead of his time,” Urie says. “Now, we watch it and it’s beautiful and it’s very moving, but it’s not all that out of the ordinary.”
The role also has Urie mastering new skills. “I’ve never done drag. So that was something I had to learn,” says the one-time RuPaul’s Drag Race guest judge. While he says that doing his own makeup has been fun, the full drag experience has certainly been eye-opening. “I feel for women! It’s really quite a lot that [they have] to go through,” he says. “In fact, after we hang up I’m gonna shave my legs. You have to do it all the f**king time! It just grows right back!”
Playing Arnold won a Tony Award for Fierstein, who later immortalized the role onscreen in 1988 with co-stars Anne Bancroft and Matthew Broderick. “They’re very big stilettoes to fill,” Urie admits. “To be in a play that’s so vivid for people and so iconic, it was daunting. But nobody could do it like [Harvey] did it. He’s such a unique performer and one-of-a-kind actor.” The creative team, led by director Moises Kaufman, has supported Urie creating his own take on the character, though for the record, his Harvey Fierstein impression is spot-on. “I was really able to interpret the role my own way without this ghost over my shoulder saying, ‘Do it like THIS!’” he hisses in the longtime actor’s unmistakable rasp.
Urie has been something of a pioneer himself, playing a colorful gay character on a major network sitcom before the past decade’s surge in LGBT representation on television. And he’s been open about his sexuality since landing that breakout role on NBC’s Ugly Betty, in an industry that can still be unwelcoming. “At first, I was encouraged to stay in the closet,” Urie recalls. “I think there are probably still gay actors who are in the closet because they’re afraid that their careers would suffer if their sexuality was public. I can’t think of any [that I know], which is good, I guess.” As for himself, “I realized that being gay is not going to hurt my career, it’s only going to help,” Urie says. “There are jobs I would not have gotten if I hadn’t been out of the closet.”
That includes his current turn in Torch Song. “If people are going to insist on straight actors playing straight characters. I think, especially with a role that’s about being gay, like this one, it should be a gay actor getting up there and telling the truth about himself.” At the same time, Urie doesn’t want gay actors pigeonholed into playing gay characters. “Alan Cumming’s performance on The Good Wife was a huge and major step. [Robert and Michelle King], the creators of that show, did an amazing thing” in casting him, Urie says.
Of returning to the King’s universe himself to reprise nosey NSA geek Stephen Dinovera on the CBS All Access spin-off, The Good Fight, Urie jokes, “I plan to -- whether they write it is yet to be determined! I think it’s very possible that they’ll bring us back.” In the meantime, Urie enjoys his time as Redmond on Darren Star’s hit TV Land series Younger, often appearing opposite Hilary Duff. “It’s a really happy set -- it reminds me a lot of Ugly Betty [in that way]. We were friends; we loved our jobs and took really good care of one another.”
Urie also feels the same way about arriving at the theater to perform Torch Song each night. “It feels like a big, warm hug in a dumpster-fire world.”