When I heard that actor Michael Urie (Group 32) would be the guest speaker at a Lunch With an Alum for fourth-year drama students, I was ecstatic. I had just had the pleasure of seeing him play the role of Prior Walter in the Signature Theater’s production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, and I was blown away by his performance.
Urie is an incredibly honest guy, and honesty is exactly what the fourth-years need. They are in the midst of putting together their fourth-year showcase, a chance for actors to strut their stuff in front of industry people in both New York and Los Angeles. The process marks the end of a yearlong shift from the art and craft of acting (the emphasis of the first three years) toward integrating the business side of the profession, and nerves were running high. These next few weeks will be an important step in their careers as working actors.
Urie leapt right in with tips from his own Showcase experiences. “Put your best foot forward, but also choose something they could cast you in now,” he told the group. He acknowledged that it’s a “tragedy” that agents don’t see the entire fourth-year season since the range that the actors demonstrate throughout an entire season far surpasses even the most well-chosen showcase scenes. But that led to the recurring theme of the lunch: “It’s a business. Some agents may have never read Shakespeare or Chekov. They’re looking for something they can sell,” Urie said. For someone who has struggled with being typecast after a successful stint as Marc on the hit TV show Ugly Betty, he was surprisingly optimistic about working as an actor. “The audition is the hard part. Doing the job is like vacation.”
The students seemed only slightly sobered by the gritty details; it was the faculty members who were asking questions, such as how Urie stays creatively satisfied during the dry spells. “You have to have side projects,” he said. For example, he is currently producing a documentary focusing on the world of competitive debate tournaments, which were a passion of his when he was in high school.
He stressed that to survive the uncertain life of an artist, with its inevitable dark moments, you have to rely on your inner artist—and keep your ambition in the forefront: “Trust your insight—and eat chocolate.” Grateful for his Juilliard training, Urie emphasized the rigor and discipline the program is known for. And he advised that on auditions, actors should be “confident, prepared, and responsible.” Even when his agent isn’t finding auditions for him, Urie’s drive propels him forward. “Remember, you’ll [have to] find 90 percent of your own work,” he said.
Other topics at the lunch included coping with rejection; juggling agents, managers, and publicists; and networking. But even while discussing the sometimes sterile topic of the business of acting, Urie’s generosity and warmth shone through. “Leave them thinking you’re pleasant, exciting, good to work with, and multitalented,” he advised—qualities that have helped him attain success. Ironically, he noted, even after a hit television show everything isn’t easier. “‘Noes’ come faster,” he said. “And [there are] a lot more ‘maybes’.” After a few years in the business, he explained, you’ve got to start convincing people you are more than just your last project. But having a body of work, like he does, allows casting directors to have easily accessible reference points. It’s a strange paradox that he summed up as, “You’ve got to be typecast before you are cast.”
As the lunch came to a close, I could tell that Urie’s candidness and enthusiasm had calmed the fourth-year actors’ concerns. He is proof that it’s possible to produce fantastic, inspired, thrilling work—and make a living at it.