Replacing a cast member in as ballyhooed a show as the New York revival of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America is a glamourless proposition. Unless you are Michael Urie, recently of Ugly Betty, who has taken over the central role of Prior Walter and will continue playing the part until the show concludes its run in late April.
Urie's performance is a revelation -- a precise, ravishing embodiment of a tricky character. We grilled the actor about Angels’ influence on his life, the rigors of eight shows a week and on-stage nudity:
Out: How did you wind up in this show?
Michael Urie: I auditioned originally about a year ago, but I didn’t get the part. Then I got the call to replace Christian [Borle, who originated the role of Prior Walter in this production of Angels in America]. I only had to think for a half-second before saying, “Yes.”
Did you have much of a connection to Angels in America prior to performing in this production?
When I was 15, my sister took me to a bookstore in the gay area of Dallas. I had heard about the play but didn’t know much about it. So I bought a copy with my own money. While I was in high school, I worked on scenes where I played Roy Cohn. Then I auditioned for college using one of the monologues written for the closeted Mormon character Joe Pitt. Then at Juilliard, I wanted to be the angry self-hater, so I played Louis. This was the first time I thought about playing Prior. Now, truly, I can’t imagine playing any other part.
Prior is, by all accounts, the center of the play -- both in terms of plot and spiritually. He has AIDS, his lover abandons him, he is visited by angel who demands that he remains still, and, in one powerful scene, he strips for a medical examination. Is the part as challenging as it appears?
For the first time ever, learning lines was hard. I had to do a lot of homework. It’s also my first time doing nudity, and I lost a lot of weight for the part. Until Angels, I had never changed my physical appearance for a job. Still, I’ve only woken up once during the run and thought to myself, “I don’t want to perform today.” Because the play is that good. Doing this piece is like doing Shakespeare. There’s a newness to every performance because Tony Kushner’s language is so dense.
You define yourself as queer, is that right?
I am a member of the LGBT community; I have a man who lives with me. I know some people say that they like the ladies and don’t mean it. But I do.
The run of Angels ends in a few weeks. What happens next?
I’m on pins and needles about a television pilot. And I’m especially excited about a documentary project that I’ve been working on for quite a while about forensics -- like high school debate. My experience with forensics prepared me for how to deal with failure and not always winning. For now, though, I’m enjoying this experience with this play. It makes me wish I could go back in time and pat my 15-year-old self on the shoulder in the bookstore and say, “You’re making a really good decision.”
-- SCOTT HOCKER
For more info on Angels in America and to purchase tickets, head to the show's official website.
Photo: Richard Termine