Soapbox: Michael Urie

Ugly Betty fave Michael Urie has traded in the competitive world of fashion for the even more competitive world of...speech and debate? In his new documentary Thank You For Judging, Urie introduces us to the world of high school forensics, where the outcasts of the lunchroom are suddenly the rock stars and many an actor has honed his chops. But before the feature had its Outfest debut this summer, Urie shared how real life inspired art and why it’s still okay to use your imagination in this extended Instinct Soapbox.

***

Debate is pretty self-explanatory, but we wanted to show the other side of speech and debate, forensics, which is kind of like competitive acting. It’s an opportunity for kids who might not have another opportunity to break out of their shells and shine. When I was in school, I was heavily involved in the drama program and speech and debate, but there are a lot of kids who are shy or maybe don’t get the part in the play, and this is sort of an equal-opportunity acting activity. Everybody gets a chance to work on something, everybody gets to perform in front of their peers and a judge, and everybody gets comments and critiques.

Of course, it is a competition so there is winning and losing, but the thing I was always so blown away by both when I was in it and when I now went back is how supportive it is—especially in Texas where there is a competition for everything! But the competition for forensics is so warm and it’s such a welcoming environment. And when a kid loses, they might be disappointed, but they will never let that affect their support for their teammates.

I was one of these kids and it really set me up for a great mind-set in the professional world. There’s nothing you can learn in any kind of actor training program that prepares you for the volume of rejection that we get in showbiz. And that world of forensics was a great way to let a loss slide off your back. It was actually during a round of competition where I was doing poetry interpretation that the seed was planted for me.

I was doing this reading that I interpreted as extremely dramatic and heartfelt, lots of pathos and anger. And I start performing it in this huge room full of people, and I said something with this kind of inflection that it got a full laugh from the audience. Now, I had no intention of making that line funny! But somehow, the way I said it got everyone to laugh. And in my head I’m thinking, “That’s weird. That wasn’t funny.” But whatever was in my breakfast that morning, somehow I kept saying things that made the audience laugh. And then halfway through the piece I decided to just roll with it and try and make everything funny, and I turned that piece into this hilarious, raucous comedy, and I won. And that was the moment that I thought, “Okay, maybe I should be an actor. Maybe this is exactly what I want to be doing—keep making people laugh like this.”

Now I didn’t think I had what it takes at that point. I didn’t have the confidence to think I could be a professional actor, it seemed so far off to me. But that was the moment I thought I could at least give this a try.

In a way, I see myself in all the kids from the film. Certainly Mario, who is such a wonderful kid. I can’t imagine anyone not being able to relate to him. That speech he writes is all about being different, and we’ve all felt that way. Outcast, misfit, whatever you want to call it, this is where you can go and meet like-minded individuals. In your particular school there may be one or two people like that. But you go to these speech and debate tournaments, and there are hundreds. And then they realize, “Wow, high school is just a blip. There’s a whole world out there.” And that was a huge revelation for me.

There are all of these moments in your adolescence where you feel alone, you feel outcast, especially with the LGBT community. If you think about it, it’s the only minority where, for the most part, they are not raised by people who are in that same minority. Most LGBT kids are raised by straight parents, so they don’t have that immediate comparison. But they need something like the “It Gets Better” campaign or something like forensics, where they can go and be among like-minded individuals.

But more than sexuality, when I was in high school I was shy. I wanted to pretend and make believe much longer than my friends did. I wanted to continue using my imagination. And I remember at a point thinking, “Wow, how come I’m the only one who wants to keep playing or putting on shows in the backyard?” So I felt like an outcast in that way. I had a great support group of family and friends, so I was lucky to never feel bullied over who I was or what my sexuality was, but I did feel this sort of pressure to grow up and stop being the kid who plays. And, as you see in the movie, these kids still play.

And when I was that kid still make-believing, I was always directing movies. So moving behind the camera has been awesome! All the years on Ugly Betty I was a sponge, because that show was kind of made like a movie. And I was able to learn so much between that and several independent films I’ve gotten to do, but in particular I learned how important it is for a director to be a problem solver. And I was so excited when I got the opportunity to make He’s Way More Famous Than You, which we’re shopping to distributors right now. It was an amazing experience and a very meta comedy a la Curb Your Enthusiasm. And we have great cameos, including Vanessa Williams!

You know, one of the things that made Ugly Betty so good was the leadership, and Vanessa was immediately so open to dialogue about the work. I was of course nervous to work with her the first day, but she right away would ask me for suggestions or just want to play around. I learned so much from Vanessa, and she really, really let me shine. I mean, I was only supposed to be in the pilot! She was supposed to have a new assistant every episode. But because she apparently liked me so much and felt that we were better together than apart, she lobbied for me to stay. I think you’re always better when you have someone to play off of, so whether it was the awesome dynamic between me and her or me and Becki Newton, it was always more funny in numbers. And people really loved that show! People still come up to me all the time and tell me that. That’s awesome!

There’s so many exciting things about [my new show] Partners, too. For one, yay, I’m back on TV! Two, it’s a multi-camera sitcom, which is what I grew up watching and love and it sadly has gone out of fashion. But CBS is still knocking ‘em dead with it, and the people behind this sitcom are the top people. You can’t get better than Max Mutchnick and David Kohan—they did Will & Grace! And Jimmy Burrows is directing—he is the father of the multi-camera sitcom. And I’m surrounded by these awesome, beautiful actors like David Krumholtz, the very homely Brandon Routh, who plays my boyfriend, and Sophia Bush, who could be like the next Jennifer Aniston. She’s awesome.

We had the best time shooting the pilot, it’s just very comfortable. The four of us get along extremely well already. It’s great because we all have something under our belt—I did Ugly Betty, Sophia did One Tree Hill, Brandon was Superman and Krumholtz has been around forever—so we’re all excited to share the next chapter with each other. So it’s a really comfortable environment. I just can’t wait to get to work.

Moderated by Jeff Katz; art by Dave Arkle. For more info on Thank You For Judging, visit thankyouforjudging.com.