Michael Urie (Ugly Betty) Talks About 911 and His Breakout Film Debut in ‘WTC View’
After screening the fine indie film WTC View directed by Brian Sloan which is being re-released on iTunes March 3rd, I spoke via phone with Michael Urie (Ugly Betty, Drama Desk winner for Buyer and Cellar). Urie enjoyed his breakout film debut in WTC View which was released in 2005. Michael Urie originated the role of Eric in the play WTC View at the Fringe. Like the play, the film WTC View is about Eric who places an online ad in the Village Voice for a roommate to share his spacious two bedroom apartment in Soho. It is Sunday evening, September 10, 2001. The next day the earth shifted on its axis and none of us were the same again. When Eric is able to return to his apartment which is below 14th street in what was the “frozen zone,” he comes back physically ready to interview and show the apartment to prospective roommates. Emotionally and psychically he is suffering and barely able to cope or deal with the situation. He is in denial and struggles as the days pass and no one rents the apartment which has a view of the World Trade Center’s smoking debris cavern. How Eric eventually is helped and who helps him is a tour de force sprinkled with humor, poignancy and powerful performances by the ensemble cast with Urie as the brilliant, masterful actor at the helm.
Pat Addiss adores your work as your producer on Buyer and Cellar. I am friendly with her and will send this interview over to her when it is up. She will appreciate it. I really loved you in Buyer and Cellar and I love you in this film.
Thank you so much.
You’re hearing it all the time, I’m sure, Michael. (I laugh)
It never gets old.
You remind me of what Emily Blundt said to me when I said she was superb in The Young Victoria, then apologized for being tiresome. She said, “Well, it’s much better than saying ‘I hate you.’
You auditioned for the play WTC View and you originated the character of Eric. Were there any challenges when you did the play and then when you switched over to filming WTC View?
Well, it was a big part and he was in every scene. In the play there was a lot to carry. It wasn’t anything compared to Buyer and Cellar (It was long before Buyer and Cellar). It was a hard play. It was a really hard play to do. Emotionally, physically there was a lot…a lot going on. But it was a great experience, extremely rewarding. The play really meant a lot to people. It hadn’t even been two years since 911 when we did the play. So it was still very fresh in people’s minds, especially in New York. And 9 months later we made the film, which is crazy. It is so rare that things like that happen that you do a play and then it is turned into a film and you’re in both.
But doing it on stage even in the little theater we were in, it was called The Bottle Factory Theater which has 15 seats or something, even in a theater like that sometimes people are 20 feet away from you and you have to turn what’s happening to you, especially in my character who does so much listening to other people’s stories, I had to turn what I was feeling into behavior for the stage so that people could get it. Then when we made the film, such behavior could be read just by looking at me in the eye. That is the idea of the film. You don’t have to turn what you’re feeling into behavior because it could be read on your face because the camera picks it up. So I had to learn that. It was challenging. I trusted Brian Sloan the director and the DP. And of course, you have to trust the editor to pick up the right emotions and looks and make you seem truthful.
Well you were truthful in the film and there is a complex range of emotions. There’s everything from humor and comedy and whimsicality and then of course the emotional scenes when you break down. I thought this arc of emotions you did really, really well.
It’s amazing because when I saw you in Buyer and Cellar, of course, the arc was different as the character was different. But you are an actor of nuance and I was seeing that in WTC View. What did you learn from the experiences of the play and the film to carry that over to something like Buyer and Cellar.
When I did Buyer and Cellar, I had to relearn how to maintain that energy and sustain it, you know to keep the ball in the air, because that was so much of my job in the play in WTC View, to keep the ball in the air, and to keep the momentum going forward. It was really Eric’s story and he also facilitated the story of all the other great characters. And so when I did Buyer and Cellar, more so than any other previous experience, I was back to my WTC View memories and those muscles, that muscle that keeps you up and keeps you inflated, for want of a better word. You have stay in it, stay a part of, you have to stay in the moment, stay emotionally connected and keep the audience with you following you, excited and thrilled. There weren’t that many similarities between the two projects but I would say that would be the big one.
In what way do you think that Eric might be an Everyman?
He is kind of an Everyman. That is an interesting way to put it. I think he represents… we get to know a lot of characters in WTC View, but Eric is the only one we spend time with privately. I think that is a wonderful way to bring someone into a character; that is to spend time with them privately…certainly in the film. We spend a lot of time with him alone and we get into what it is that he is going through. I think because of that, he feels like all of us and also because he is going through what all of us really went through after 911. We all felt frightened and alone and in need of comfort after 911 whether we had loved ones nearby or not. I think we all went through that. I did certainly.
I thought it was an amazing point of character that he was so reactive to various things that are commonplace, like loud street sounds, like the sirens which would set him off.
Yeah. And that paranoia that we were all feeling, maybe not to the same extent that Eric was feeling in the play or the movie but he kind of represented that for us and I feel that people can really relate to that. And for people who are not old enough to remember 911, I think that the film is a great way to see what it was like. Of course anybody who was not around for 911 still knows all about it. You know what happened. You can watch the videos, but you don’t know what it was like being a citizen of the world following it. How things changed, especially in New York. The play/film is really a microcosm of what it was like to be in New York after 911 and what it was like to deal with and relate to strangers.
Is that one of the most vital points of the film, do you think?
I think so. It’s that we took care of each other. Everyone felt isolated and paranoid, but we came together and took care of each other, even strangers. And in the end, he does have one of his closest friends try to help him. But other than that, everyone in the film that he meets is a stranger, except for his closest friend played by Liz Kapplow who is wonderful…Josie. But I think what the film says about strangers is that sometimes a stranger can be more beneficial than a close friend or loved one. In the film, it isn’t Josie, ultimately, who helps him…not really. It’s others. He really grows and changes and learns and recoups thanks to the kindness of strangers, not so much from the people that are closest to him. I guess because what we knew wasn’t really helping us. What we knew wasn’t helping us to avoid 911. The known wasn’t helpful. It was the unknowns that we had to rely on. I think that’s part of why strangers became so important to us.
Where were you Michael when the 911 attacks happened. Were you at Julliard?
Yeah. It was my second day of my third year and I was actually living in Queens. I was on my way to school when I noticed on TV that one plane had hit. I went ahead to the subway, knowing that when I got to the platform it would be above ground and I would be able to see the World Trade Center. And when I got there and looked both were on fire. So between leaving my house and getting to the train the second plane had hit. Somebody turned to me on the platform and said they got the other one. That was the first time I realized that it was intentional.
Where in Queens? Astoria?
(I receive a signal that the interview time is up.) Michael, it was great talking to you.
Give Pat Addiss a squeeze for me. (Pat Addiss is producer on Buyer and Cellar which Michael is starring in at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London from March 12-May 2nd)
I will! Well, thanks so much and good luck in all of your projects and with the re-release of the film WTC View on iTunes (March 3rd). By the way, I love your web series (What’s Your Emergency).
Thank you. We’re going to do another season, hopefully.
Well, all Right! Director, producer, actor, what more can you want? (Michael laughs.)
10th Anniversary First-Time Digital Release
WTC View is available now on iTunes. Click here for purchase or rental.
This interview first appeared on Blogcritics.