The Interview: Michael Urie Dives into Shakespeare’s Hamlet
By Michael Raver
While he may be best known for his portrayal of flamboyant style maven Marc St. James on ‘Ugly Betty’, actor Michael Urie is no stranger to treading the slanted boards. His solo performance in the wildly successful Buyer and Cellar gained him a Clarence Derwent Award. He has also landed roles in notable productions of Angels in America, How to Succeed… and the upcoming Broadway transfer of Second Stage’s Torch Song.
Classical theater has always been on Urie’s radar. Currently playing the titular role in Hamlet at Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington DC, Urie’s boyish effervescence is in full bloom as he discusses his approach to one of theater’s most sought-after roles.
Michael Raver: How did this play come to you?
Michael Urie: Well, Michael Kahn was my teacher at Julliard and I had a great experience with him then. We always got along really well. He liked me and I liked him. We stayed in touch. He came to see me in a play at The Labyrinth Theatre Company down in the West Village in 2016. He waited in the lobby and asked me “Do you want to play Hamlet?” And I said yes right then and there. It was an easy decision. It was a role I’d always wanted to play. I couldn’t think of a better place or time to do this play in that I’m getting Michael Kahn at the end of his time at The Shakespeare Theater. He’s done this play twice before and has taught it for years. I could have no better guide through playing the role than him.
Raver: How did you celebrate getting cast?
Urie: Right away I read the play again and was excited. I knew the play really well but I’d never read it knowing I would be doing it. If I know I’m up for something, I don’t like to look at it or read it. Because you can get excited about it and then it can end up not working out. Once I knew we were absolutely doing it, I was immersing myself in the text.
Raver: What was something about the role that surprised you?
Urie: I’ve had ideas about Hamlet, but once I started working one-on-one with Michael Kahn (director) before rehearsals started, I was surprised at how many of the answers to the big questions in Hamlet are in the text. It is just taking the leap. Hamlet takes leaps. He’ll spend an entire scene throwing Ophelia around and then a page later and give advice to the players, which is extremely funny. He can go from rage and despair to levity and silliness on a dime. It was the fact that I could make those big shifts without some big idea justifying them that kind of opened my mind to what Hamlet was all about.
Raver: Tell me about your Hamlet.
Urie: He’s a guy in crisis at the beginning of the play. He doesn’t know if he wants to live or die. He does not want to be king. He just wants to go back to his old life but he’s compelled to stay and avenge his father’s death. In doing so, he grows up. He becomes a man. By the end of the play he realizes that the could have been king and probably should have been king, but that his opportunity has been missed.
Raver: What do you ideally want from a director?
Urie: A collaborator. I’ve worked with directors for whom everyone’s a puppet and it’s all about the vision. That can work and can be really exciting. But what I love about Michael Kahn is that he’s a collaborator. He had a lot of ideas. He an idea for every problem and if he didn’t he’d be the first to say “I don’t know. We have to figure this out.” He was also open to our ideas. He wanted them and encouraged them. It was a dialogue. It was an open atmosphere so we could come up with the best idea in the room.
Raver: What is it about Hamlet that gives it its power over audiences?
Urie: The speeches about life and death that I have in this play are beautiful in terms of the poetry and incredibly insightful in terms of the psychology. The fact that we’re having these same conversations with ourselves over four hundred years later is thrilling. Not all plays from that period of time are that lasting obviously and not all modern plays have the same psychological depth and accuracy that Hamlet does.
Hamlet is currently playing at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall for a limited engagement through March 4th.
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit: http://www.shakespearetheatre.org/events/hamlet-17-18/
As an actor, Michael Raver has performed at Lincoln Center, The Pearl Theatre Company, Tony Randall’s National Actor’s Theatre, regional theaters across the country and in film and television. As a writer, his adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray was produced by Sonnet Repertory Theatre at the Signature Theatre Center in 2012. A reading of his pre-WWII adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull, featuring Judy Kaye, was presented by the Pearl Theatre Company. His play, Fire on Babylon, was nominated for The Robert Chesley/Victor Bumbalo Foundation Award for Playwriting, as well as being named a semifinalist for The O’Neill Conference in 2015. Babylon went on to receive two workshops in 2016, first at Great River Shakespeare Festival and then at The Fresh Fruit Festival in New York, where it went on to win Best Actor (Jeffrey Hayenga) and Best Director (Paul Mason Barnes) Awards from All Out Arts. His short play, Evening, was a two-time finalist for Red Bull’s New Play Festival. Quiet Electricity was named a semifinalist at The O’Neill Conference in 2017. His work has been presented by The Pearl Theatre Company, Sonnet Repertory Theater, Orlando Shakespeare Theatre, The Martha Graham Company, Playhouse on Park and many others. He served as a judge for the Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction for three years and regularly contributes cultural arts journalism for Classical TV, NYC Monthly, Hamptons Monthly, Playbill, Dance Magazine, CoolHunting.com, The Huffington Post, Art 511 Magazine and Nature’s Post.