Michael Urie has a knack for portraying men at the bottom of the professional food chain, like put-upon fashion assistant Marc St. James in TV’s “Ugly Betty.” Urie is currently playing Alex More, an out-of-work actor who takes a job in an underground mall at Barbra Streisand’s house, in Jonathan Tolins’s Buyer & Cellar. The one-man show is currently touring to Chicago’s Broadway Playhouse (May 6–June 15), Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company (June 20–29), Los Angeles’s Center Theatre Group (July 9–Aug. 17) and Toronto’s Panasonic Theatre (Nov. 12–30).
Alex More has a pretty insane job in Buyer & Cellar. What’s the craziest day job you’ve ever had?
I participated in a medical research study for the effect of marijuana at Columbia. [Laughs] I would smoke pot and take these tests, and it paid really well! That was probably the strangest money job I ever had.
What were the results of the study?
I don’t know! Good question. They were trying to prove that it didn’t make you stupid. That was about 10 years ago, and it’s not quite legal yet. So I don’t know! But it was crazy to be in a hospital smoking a joint.
That might be crazier than Alex’s job in the show.
Well, his job is pretty crazy, because it comes with role-play.
Right! And you have to do an impression of Barbra Streisand as well. How did you perfect that?
I watched a lot of her movies. I really needed to get into the fun side of her that you don’t see so much in interviews or in concerts—there’s more of that in Funny Girl and What’s Up, Doc? and more recently in Meet the Fockers.
Did she see the show?
[Laughs] No, she definitely heard about the show! I do think that she might really like it! But it wouldn’t be fair for her to have to sit in an audience of people. She would deserve either a command performance or a filmed performance.
The idea of this underground mall at Streisand’s house is from her book, My Passion for Design. If you had an underground mall, what would be your favorite shop?
I have very fond memories of my childhood going to video stores and spending an hour trying to pick a movie. Now, it’s such a different experience renting a movie. You already have every movie at your disposal. So I think I would have a full-on Blockbuster Video in my mall.
With VHS and everything?
Oh, absolutely. VHS and DVD, why not? I remember renting The Towering Inferno, which was a two-tape experience.
What was your favorite movie growing up?
Batman—the original with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson—was a huge movie for me. It came out when I was nine years old. That was when I was like, “I want to do movies.”
You’re at a different point in your career than Alex is in Buyer & Cellar, but do you identify with his struggles?
Oh, sure. There’s a line in the play, funnily enough, where he says, after he gets fired from Disneyland, “Now I’ll have plenty of time to do L.A. theatre, which is exactly as tragic as it sounds.” I did some L.A. theatre, and it’s not as tragic as that, but then I go on to say, “I dreamed of working at the Taper or the Geffen, which is like this totally closed whatever.” And that is true! Granted, we’re playing Buyer & Cellar at the Taper, and now I have gotten in, but it was only after being in an Off-Broadway hit that I was able to do it.
What is the craziest thing that happened during the New York run?
There’s a funny moment when I say that I was supposed to be in a play with Doris Roberts, but she ended up not doing it because she read the script. [Laughs] And I pause before I say “read the script,” and two different times when I paused, someone in the audience guessed what I was about to say, and they called out “died!” Two different times! Luckily, it wasn’t loud enough to completely highjack the evening, but I heard it, and it was hilarious, because she’s still alive! In fact, Doris Roberts came to see the play. Luckily, I didn’t know she was there, and no one tried to guess what happened to Doris.
What would you do if you weren’t an actor?
Oh, that question’s crazy! It’s such an existential question. I actually wanted to be a high school theatre teacher for a little while—which is kind of a lame thing to say. But I still think I would be good at it.
If you could only take three things with you on tour, what would you take?
My two-VHS-tape set of Towering Inferno! No, I’m just kidding. I would say my iPhone and my self-massage thingy. It’s called Body Back Buddy.
Where is it from?
From the Internet! I don’t know. And my third would be [my partner] Ryan. Or maybe the dog. Forget Ryan, it would be the dog.