Q&A: Actor Michael Urie on Barbra Streisand’s Mania and Merch
“Buyer and Cellar,” the new off-Broadway hit starring Michael Urie and written by Jonathan Tolins, begins with a caveat. A big caveat. “This is a work of fiction,” says the protagonist, a struggling actor named Alex More. “The premise is preposterous. What I’m going to tell you could not possibly have happened with a person as famous, talented, and litigious as Barbra Streisand.” What is real and undisputable is that in 2010 Streisand shared with the world her extravagantly appointed Malibu compound in a coffee-table book, “My Passion for Design.” What caught the eye of Tolins, right there on page 190, is the fact that the legendary performer had transformed her vast basement into a shopping mall in order to display her sizable collection of art, costumes, furniture, antiques, and assorted tchotkes. It is a veritable “main street” a la Delaware’s Winterthur or Anaheim’s Disney.
What germinated in Tolins’s imagination was a fantasia: what if the superstar hired a sales person to man the shops? Enter the “preposterous premise.” If the mood struck her, Streisand could then haggle over the price of her own stuff, like some rug merchant in a Middle-Eastern bazaar. Bizarre, no? Yes. But also lots of fun due to Tolins’s absurd cleverness and a charming performance by Urie, best known for his role in the TV series “Ugly Betty.” The New York Times’s David Rooney praised the show, which is currently at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in Greenwich Village, as a wonderful solo vehicle for Urie. He wrote, “Juggling both sides of every conversation, including Alex’s tete-a-tetes with la Streisand, he brings a supremely light touch and a droll detachment to situations of ‘Twilight Zone’ oddness, but also welcome suggestions of tenderness.” ARTINFO spoke with Urie about the privileges and pitfalls of being Barbra Streisand, someone that talented, that rich, that famous, and that adored and hated.
Wasn’t taking on an icon like Streisand a fairly loaded prospect?
When I first read the script, I thought, “Wow, this is risky.” Who knows how people will take it or how Barbra would take it when she found out about it?” But I also knew our intention was pure. It certainly wasn’t an attempt to make fun or skewer her. We wanted people to laugh, at her expense, but at the same time enjoy her. If you don’t leave the theater loving her more than when you went in, I failed.
What were your perceptions of her before this and how has this experience changed them?
I always knew her as a wonderful talent and a super-successful renaissance woman. And I knew something about her design sense. I happened to catch the show about her book on “Oprah.” But something I didn’t expect was that I now find her very relatable. That’s not something you get from just reading interviews. But when you become immersed in her, the interviews, the movies, the onstage banter, you can find the real her. It’s out there.
And that is?
Someone who cares deeply about the work. Who loves the process of it.
Apart from that, if you could meet her, what would you want to know?
Why don’t you do more? Why don’t you make more movies? I think I know the answer maybe because I’m doing this play. She says herself that she’s lazy. But the fact that she’s such a perfectionist provides the answer.
Do you think it’s also a heightened anxiety over failure?
Maybe. Could be. But that is in a way a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more you do, the more success and failure that you have. If she did more, it wouldn’t matter as much. And you learn so much more from your failures than your successes. But because she works so little, when she does do a movie, especially if she directs, all eyes are on her.
Creating her own version of Marie Antoinette’s Le Petit Trianon is a little nutty. In what way do you think of this play as a cautionary tale?
I think all of us who get on a stage or get in front of a camera crave attention in some way. Some people are completely obsessed with it but she’s not like that. She does crave attention in her own way, but she spends a lot of time alone. She’s almost reclusive. It’s her way of preserving herself, preserving her privacy. I do think, in my tiny way, when “Ugly Betty” first hit and it was the biggest show on TV for a hot second, we were instantly famous. We were at these big parties, the Emmys and the Golden Globes, with people screaming our name, wanting autographs, and taking our picture. And I would go home at the end of the night to my studio apartment in a city I didn’t know and it was an intensely lonely feeling unlike anything I’d ever had before. You’re alone as you can possibly be. And that’s just a minute example of what she goes through on a much more intense level.
In the play, Tolins touches on her need to control her world.
He does a little bit. She says herself [in the play] there’s all this excitement and it’s fun but everybody wants something and expects something and you expect more and more until you go crazy and you think you can’t stop without the whole thing crashing down. It isn’t necessarily from something that she said, but it’s interesting and true. There are certainly stars out there who keep making the same mistakes and you wonder who’s close to them telling them it’s OK to do this? Who’s telling Lindsay Lohan it’s okay for her to keep doing this? Or, more likely, telling her that it’s not okay?
Why do you suppose she was such a gay icon and there may now be a new generation of gay men who could care less?
In the play, she says, “My God, there are so many of you. I know it’s supposed to be like 10 percent of the population. But in my life, it feels more like 70.” John Epperson [the drag artist Lypsinka] is a friend who I asked to come and watch the play and let me know if I was on the right track. He did a talkback for us and this question came up. I’m paraphrasing his theory but he said, women like Barbra and Judy Garland and Madonna or Natalie Wood, they’re freakish in their talent, their vulnerability, and beauty. For John, growing up in the south and feeling like a freak, he felt that he could relate to these women. That’s a big part of it.
So as gay men become less “freakish,” they are less in need of these icons?
Perhaps. That’s probably very true. We still have them. Lady Gaga or even Beyonce. But the times are changing and there’s a sense among young people that you don’t have to glom onto them. Alex in the play doesn’t have a Judy or Barbra thing. He’s savvy about that. He says, “I appreciate that this stuff is part of my gay birthright.” But some people don’t. Some people push back against it.
Why do you suppose Streisand incites as much animosity as devotion?
I guess it’s jealousy. Anything that’s overly touted, overly praised, overly beloved will get resistance from naysayers. That’s what Barry, my boyfriend in the play, represents. Cynical dissatisfaction and this sort of attitude that I’m not going to waste my time, I would rather tear them down than jump on a bandwagon. A certain backlash sets in.
Do you think that people are turned off by her need to do everything on a project? Even her design book credited her with principal photography.
Maybe. As Barry says about “The Mirror Has Two Faces,” her movie, “She didn’t write the screenplay, she only stars, produces, directs, and take credit for the love theme. But it’s all her so don’t even blink.”
Did you find her to be an object of pity or sympathy? After all, she says in the play that she married James Brolin in part because she could never figure out what to do on Sunday and he could. Seems like a poor reason to get married.
She has more money than anybody in the world, she could buy and sell any of us but it is a lonely place to be. She trusts very few people. Perfectionism can be admirable but it can also hurt others and breed criticism among your collaborators. But I actually admire that in her. I think she’s a true artist who never settles. Even putting out this book about her insanely expensive house. I heard that she’d been working on directing a film. And when that fell through, she started on this. She “directed” a house instead.
And the producers haven’t heard from her lawyers?
As far as I know they have not. I think we’re legally square. And I think enough people have said it’s a loving portrayal. It’s affectionate.