Audiences may remember Michael Urie best as Marc St. James, the sassy assistant to Vanessa Williams’s tough-as-nails Wilhelmina Slater on TV’s critically acclaimed “Ugly Betty.” But this seasoned thespian is also a familiar face to theatergoers.
Through March 4, 2018, Urie reunites with his former Juilliard drama professor, Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Michael Kahn, who directs a modern production of “Hamlet” in a setting that feels eerily familiar. In between rehearsals, the Texas native took a moment to answer a few questions about the play, his appreciation for the capital, and what’s next for him.
What do you like about D.C.?
The audiences here are the greatest—smart, lively and very much want to be at the theater.
When you have the time, what’s your favorite way to explore the city?
I’ve been absolutely loving the Capital Bikeshare. What a perfect way to see this gorgeous, intimate town.
How does playing Hamlet in D.C. affect your perspective of this character?
The politics are thrilling, and Michael’s production highlights them in a very cool way. Denmark is under a new leader, who has changed the way things are run. Now, surveillance is everywhere, and no one can be trusted. In our version, set in a modern world, it manifests as security cameras, iPhones, wearing wires. Naturally, this town is familiar with that kind of drama.
Many of your recent roles have been comedic. Why Hamlet, and why now?
Because it’s Hamlet and Michael Kahn! I’ve wanted to play this role since I knew about it and have wanted to work with Michael since I was his student. That it’s happening at the Shakespeare Theatre Company is my perfect storm. No other job I’ve had since graduating Juilliard will call on as many of the skills I learned under Michael and his faculty. It’s been a thrill to utilize so much of their fantastic training.
How would you describe your version of this character?
Hamlet thinks quickly and changes dramatically before our eyes. My approach has been to play each moment as clearly and spontaneously as possible. The language is thrilling and the stakes are life or death. I want to make each turn in Hamlet’s brain and heart crystal clear to the audience. I had a few big ideas about the role before we started, and of course Michael had them, too. I’d guess I’ve thrown out 90 percent of mine. Michael threw out some of his, too, though fewer. The best stuff is what we’ve found in rehearsal.
What was it like to work with your former teacher?
It’s like having a historian, a dictionary and a psychiatrist in the room at once. He’s tireless and collaborative.
At Juilliard, you and classmate Jessica Chastain did a scene from “Hamlet” for Michael. Outside of class, you left love notes for Jessica, which she used in the scene. Did you have any similar creative moments here?
Keith Baxter, the wonderful actor who plays the ghost of Hamlet’s father, had the idea to wear something that looks like what he might have [died in]. After Hamlet sees the ghost, I wanted to reappear wearing something that looked like it might have belonged to his father. Michael had the brilliant idea to put a seal of the late King Hamlet on both garments while the new king’s new seal is showing up all over the place.
Many actors view Hamlet as the ultimate role. Do you agree? What other dream role would you like to take on?
After this, I’m retiring. Just kidding! This certainly has always been a dream role for me. I’d like to be in any Tennessee Williams play, and there’s so much more Shakespeare I want to tackle (“Much Ado,” “Richard II” and “Richard III”). And I’d so love another regular gig on a cool TV show.
Which do you prefer, TV or theater?
Hard to say, they’re both amazing. Every role is a new and different set of challenges and rewards. And even though acting on stage versus for the camera utilizes different skills, it’s all about the role. Playing a character like Marc, who grows and changes over the course of years, is constantly stimulating and joyous. Having an audience sitting in the same room, though, there’s nothing quite like that.
What’s next for you in your career?
I’ve got a couple of gigs coming up, which I’ll be very excited to share when I’m allowed to!
Favorite place in the world to visit?
I’ve been dreaming about Palm Springs... So warm...