Thursday, December 2, 2021

Reverend's Interview: Getting Merry with Michael Urie

The Hallmark Channel, Lifetime and other networks are awash in holiday-themed movies this month, pretty much running them 24/7. Too many of them share boringly similar storylines with nary an LGBTQ character in sight.

Thankfully, this trend is slowly starting to change. Last holiday season featured the premieres of three groundbreaking films with LGBTQ characters front and center: Dashing in December (Paramount Network), The Christmas Setup (Lifetime) and Happiest Season (Hulu). This year, we can add Netflix's new Single All the Way (debuting today on the streaming service) to this growing subgenre.

Desperate to avoid his family’s judgment about his perpetual single status, openly gay Peter, played by Michael Urie, convinces his best friend Nick (sexy Philemon Chambers) to join him in going home for the holidays and pretending they're now in a relationship. But when Peter’s mother (Kathy Najimy of Sister Act plus Hocus Pocus and its upcoming sequel) sets him up on a blind date with her handsome trainer James (the hot Luke Macfarlane, himself a veteran of several Hallmark Channel Christmas offerings), the plan goes awry. Despite this, Peter and Nick gradually draw closer to each other. The movie co-stars the one and only Jennifer Coolidge, Barry Bostwick of The Rocky Horror Picture Show fame, and Schitt's Creek's Jennifer Robertson. It is directed by out Tony Award-winner Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening).

Single All the Way is Netflix’s first gay holiday rom-com. “That’s a very special feeling; I’m not going to lie and pretend that’s not a big deal,” said Chad Hodge, the festive film's screenwriter. Hodge previously created the TV series Wayward Pines and The Playboy Club. He also wrote the book for the stage adaptation of Irving Berlin's musical Holiday Inn. “I’m lucky, and the experience I’ve had making this movie with Netflix has been very rewarding," Hodge continued. "But there are so many LGBTQ storytellers, so many brilliant writers and directors, so let this be just the beginning."

As star Michael Urie adds in the movie's press notes: “It’s the perfect Christmas movie because it’s a love story between queer people surrounded by a cast of queer icons who are doing everything they can to get these two friends to fall in love with each other.” Urie is well known to both LGBTQ and mainstream viewers. The out actor rose to prominence on TV's award-winning Ugly Betty as Marc St. James, personal assistant and "seeing-eye gay" to the bitchy Wilhelmina (played by Vanessa Williams). Since then, Urie has gravitated easily between TV, film, and the stage. He has also moved into producing and directing.

The ever-effervescent Urie recently spoke with reverend via Zoom from New York City, where he was appearing in the Broadway comedy Chicken & Biscuits.

REV: Congratulations on Single All the Way as well as one of my favorite movies of the year, Swan Song!
MU: Oh, thank you so much! Also a Jennifer Coolidge film. We didn't have any scenes together but when I arrived all of Sandusky, Ohio was abuzz that she had been there. And I have to say working with (cult movie star) Udo Kier and working with Jennifer Coolidge was everything you'd want it to be.

REV: That's quite the combo! So tell me, how did Single All the Way come your way? How did you get involved with it?
MU: Well, that's an interesting question actually. I guess it's OK if I tell the story. So, I received a request to make a self-tape audition for the role of Nick, the hot, rugged handyman (ultimately played by co-star Chambers). And I was like, "Guys, are you sure about this? Are you sure this is what you want? Because I see in the script there's this adorable, neurotic, gregarious Peter and I'm a Peter, not a Nick." And they said, "OK, yeah, let us look at the clips." Also, I know the writer, I knew Chad Hodge socially and I loved his work and we'd met a few times so I said, "You know, Chad knows me so if you just float this by him I think he'd be more interested in seeing me for this role." And they're like, "OK, don't make a tape; hold on." I told them I loved this script and I love this idea, and I would love to be in this movie, so just let me know. And so a few days go by and they're like, "OK, don't make a tape, I think they're going to just ask you to do it." And I said fine and it turned out that they just offered me the part. It's one of those weird things where like if I had made a tape for Nick, I'm not sure I'd be in the movie.

REV: Interesting! Now, had you worked with Michael Mayer before as a director?
MU: I don't think so... (pauses for a moment) No, we never had. We knew each other, we'd been around each other a few times and we may have done a reading together at some point or another. In the theater, there's lots of one-day gigs where you cross paths for a day and you stand at music stands and read a play. That may have happened at some point, and I know there was a thing in development that we were trying to get going. But I knew him and really liked him. I loved his work and we had a really great time together in Montreal.

REV: Awesome! I read you had worked with Kathy Najimy before but you hadn't worked with Jennifer Coolidge and how about Barry Bostwick?
MU: So, Kathy and Barry were both on Ugly Betty and Kathy and I were both on (the TV series) Younger, and Jennifer and I were both in Swan Song but I don't believe any of us had actually shared the screen before. I was very familiar with their work; it's hard not to be if you love actors. And if you're gay, they're even more important.

REV: I agree. They are god and goddesses. I've interviewed Barry Bostwick before and he's delightful just to talk to, very open and he was great.
MU: Oh my gosh, he's so charming and even though one would think he doesn't want to talk about Rocky Horror anymore, he still does! He's so proud of the legacy.

REV: Do I understand correctly that you filmed Single All the Way at the height of COVID? What was that experience like?
MU: Yep, we shot last year in Montreal and Quebec while both cities were shut down. There were curfews the entire time. Friends would recommend restaurants I should check out while I was there and I was like, "Guys, everything's shut down!" We had to carry letters with us saying we were essential workers, because Christmas movies are essential (laughs). We all had to stay six feet apart, and there was a COVID monitor on set to make sure no one was with anyone else for more than 15 minutes. It's amazing that, in the movie, it looks like we're all together and hugging and everything is perfectly normal. But that is a testament to Michael Mayer, because when 15 minutes were up and he yelled "Cut!", everyone scattered!

REV: Wow! You're right, everything looks totally normal in the finished film. Are there any moments in the film that parallel your personal holiday experiences or that you drew from?
MU: Hmm, that's a good question. My partner Ryan Spahn and I have been together 13 years. Ryan's family all live in the same town, while my family is more scattered. We alternate each year. The holiday dinners with Ryan's family are massive, like in the movie, and it's really easy for everyone to gang up on one person. Alliances change very easily. I also remember everyone in my family going to separate rooms to wrap gifts, like they do in the movie. I think Single All the Way reflects a lot of universal truths about the holidays. There is Christmas magic, and I find it interesting that traditions for every family are so unique while relatable. Christmas is unique. I mean, what other holiday has its own genre of music?

REV: I think that's the perfect way to end this interview. Thank you, Michael, and happy holidays!
MU: Happy holidays!

Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.