What a difference a year makes.
Last year at this time, we were excited that actor Michael Urie was going to be back on our televisions in the CBS sitcom, Partners. Unfortuantely the series premiered last fall to not-so-great reviews and low ratings, so CBS pulled it quickly.
Not one to be down and out for long, Urie is busy promoting his directorial film debut, He’s Way More Famous Than You, which was written by Halley Feiffer and Urie’s partner Ryan Spahn and co-stars Jesse Eisenberg, Vanessa Williams, Mamie Gummer, Ben Stiller and Ralph Macchio. The former Ugly Betty star also is wowing audiences off-Broadway with his one-man show Buyer & Cellar. The Jonathan Tollins play about a young man who takes a job at Barbra Streisand’s underground personal mall (and meets the lady herself) did so well in its initial run that it’s moving to a larger theater beginning next month. Also next month, Urie will receive the prestigious Clarence Derwent Award for Most Promising Male Performer on the New York Metropolitan Scene.
I spoke with the always cheery Urie recently to talk about his current projects as well as if the experience with Partners is going to keep him away from TV for good.
Buyer & Cellar is a one-man show, so does that make your job easier or is it harder?
It makes it way harder, I think. It’s just like the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Not only do you have to remember all the lines and all the moves and all the moments [but] you’re also alone. I think it’s lonely. On the one hand, I never have to worry about another actor blowing a joke…but on the other hand, I don’t know if you realize, but I play multiple characters, so actually, there is dialogue in the play but I’m both sides of the conversation. So sometimes, I get frustrated with the other characters and I have to remind myself that I’m them, too.
That sounds like it could really mess with your head.
It does. It definitely does…[the play is] a very unexpected story about a very familiar thing. You know, it’s about Barbra Streisand which is very familiar to so many, especially the people that are coming because, well, pretty much everybody has an idea about her. So, it’s interesting for them to hear this crazy story. The story is fiction, but it is based on a lot of truths about her and specifically about this shopping mall she’s built in her basement. It’s a wonderfully ridiculous thing that inspired John [Tollins, playwright] to write about the guy who has to work down there. And, as far as we know, nobody has to work down there. There’s no shopkeeper in Barbara’s mall of shops, but in our little world there is.
Now, what was it about this project that attracted you in the first place?
Well, I love John very much. I’ve been a fan since I was in high school and I used to do scenes from his play Twilight of the Golds. And then we met and got to know each other in New York… and then we got to know each other really well during Partners. He was a writer on Partners, which you may remember was a television sitcom that was a big hit for about six weeks.
I remember it well. I remember it well.
Actually, my parents are in town and they came to see the show and we’ve been watching the lost Partners episodes. There’s seven unaired episodes of Partners and there’s some really good ones. It’s a bummer, it’s a bummer.
Now that some time has passed, any different perspective on the Partners experience now?
I still think they should have given us more time. We had six and a half million viewers. If we’d been on NBC we would be renewed for three more years. It was so much about the climate of CBS. Why CBS didn’t give us a chance on another night, or didn’t at least wait for The Voice to be over [and] see how we’d do. I’m sure we lost a lot of viewers to The Voice, people that would have watched our show instead.
You know, maybe we didn’t share the same sensibility as the audience that was watching How I Met Your Mother and Two Broke Girls, which we were sandwiched in between. Maybe we would have been better served following a show like Mike & Molly or a show like Two and a Half Men, that was a little bit more, I don’t know, a little more mature. I’m not sure. I’m not really sure.
There’s a million theories, but sometimes when I watch…watching those lost episodes with my mom, I think, ‘wow, this show would have found an audience. It really could have found an audience.’ There’s David Krumholtz, who is so funny and we had a great chemistry. Some of the jokes are so clever, were so clever. And Jimmy Burrows really knew how to direct the show…I know reviews were mixed, but I feel like people really saw that there was potential there. In the old days, shows really got a chance to find an audience. Some shows still do, I mean, depending on where you land. You could still find that.
We were in overdrive from the moment we got picked up and we were just content, content, product, product, product, show, show, show. Then when the ratings weren’t great we were like, ‘what do we do? How do we make this work?’ And that’s not a good place to be creative. It’s a hard place to come up with something.
Max Mutchnick and David Kohan [Partners creators] are brilliant. And they’re the guys to make the show. If you want a multi-camera show, those guys know how to do it. They know what they’re doing and I just feel like, I feel like we weren’t given a shot. And, you know, CBS knows what they’re doing too, obviously. They have nothing but hits…I had a great time. I had my awesome multi-camera Max and Dave and Jimmy Burrows experience. I will never forget it.
Will it make you a little trepidatious about another project on TV anytime soon?
It’s a lot of energy, a lot of pain and a lot of disappointment but I would do it again.
Ryan Spahn and Urie – partners in life and on-screen.
We talked about He’s Way More Famous Than You last summer at TCA and it’s finally out there for people to see. How do you feel?
I’m so excited. Well, it’s on iTunes already and it’s on On Demand now, and it’s in theaters in select cities. And I’m just thrilled. It’s a crazy weird dream come true and it happened in random circumstances. I feel very fortunate. I’ve wanted to direct forever, and I feel very fortunate that I was given this opportunity. An opportunity many want and few get, so I feel very lucky and I love that people let me. My partner co-wrote it with Halley Feiffer and they’re the stars of it. It was like family making a movie. Halley and Ryan and I are very close. Halley and I are extremely close and it was produced by friends, and our friends were all in it. And we had a fabulous New York crew. It was just wonderful.
Was it a difficult challenge with the insider stuff about Hollywood and independent movies and the cameos?
Well, the challenge was to make the insider stuff accessible to anyone. We premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival, which is a very movie savvy crowd. And so they got all the inside references, of course, and enjoyed the indie film of it all. We also played the Cleveland Film Festival and the Dallas Film Festival, where I’m from, and those screenings, we played sold out screenings there. Those were filled with film buffs, but not necessarily indie film buffs, and certainly not industry people…all you need to really know is show biz people are crazy and play along. And that’s been extremely gratifying. I actually feel like, in a lot of ways, the movie is more for people outside of show business than people in show business.
What else is coming up outside of the play and the movie?
I directed a short film that we’re finishing up now that we’ll be heading to festivals. And I produced another movie that Ryan wrote that we’re also finishing up now, that will be heading to festivals soon. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that Buyer & Cellar continues. And I would love to, you know, get back on TV, of course.
I would love to try my hand at a multi-camera sitcom again. I really, really enjoyed that. It was the best of both worlds. I love theater and I love the reach of television. I would love to do that again. I would love to work with Jimmy and Max and Dave again. I would love to work with CBS again.