Michael Urie Talks “Shrinking,” Menswear and Queer Representation
The actor peels back the layers of his character Brian and revisits his Met Gala look
Michael Urie knows a thing or two about making good entertainment; the actor who gained notoriety in his iconic role in Ugly Betty is as versed on the screen as he is on the stage. His latest role is Brian — an overly optimistic attorney on Apple TV’s Shrinking, alongside Jason Segel, Harrison Ford and Jessica Williams.
Urie is passionate about his craft — about the intersection of costuming and character development and about bringing queer characters to life that feel authentic. When we talked, Urie was in Dallas, where he’s directing a new play, Silver Foxes — written by Stan Zimmerman and James Berg — at the Uptown Players LGBTQ theater company. (“It’s not not a gay Golden Girls,” he says.) Urie and I chatted about what makes Shrinking and its depiction of mental health, therapy, grief and queerness unique as well as his collaboration with the show’s costume designer, Allyson Fanger.
InsideHook: I think what struck me about the show is it’s such an honest and still comedic portrayal of really heavy topics — therapy, grief, all of these things that we all experience. And one of the things that I really loved about the show was how many different ages and demographics of people were having these kinds of conversations.
Michael Urie: Well, I think that’s such an interesting point of view, the age thing and the demographic thing, because sometimes shows are about a bunch of the same kind of person, like friends that are in their 20s or whatever. It’s about a group of people who have the same issues and the same problems. And that can be really interesting. But I find on TV especially, at least in my experience on TV, when there are no two characters that are alike in a show, it sparkles so much more and it makes for such extremely cool combos. Any two characters put together will make for something new and different and interesting. And that is so true with Shrinking and something that I thought of when I read it, but especially when I met everyone… As we were working with everyone, I would have a scene with Jason and then I would have a scene with Jessica Williams, which are completely different energies.
That it’s also about mental health I think is really, really interesting because everybody in this show kind of finds their own sounding board from someone else. There’s three therapists at the center of the show, but they get advice from each other but also elsewhere when they need it. And then there are all of these people who get advice from sometimes the shrink and sometimes other people. And I think it’s really interesting who’s on the couch in any given relationship in any given scene. And it surprises you, and it surprised me as I was reading along.
What was your initial reaction to your character when you read the script?
When I auditioned, they gave me the material for episode one, and I read episode one, I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is amazing. Where does somebody like me fit into this world?” Here’s a very funny character. He pretends to be something he’s not. And he has this hilarious mantra, “Everything goes my way.” He seems to be like this sweet, happy-go-lucky guy. But having read the first episode and knowing that there’s a lot more to these characters than just comedy, this is way more than just a comedy. And knowing Bill Lawrence’s work, even a show like Scrubs has some real guts to it. I knew that eventually the layers were gonna peel away and that this guy who says everything goes my way is probably covering for something. And we’ll eventually get to that.
It’s so sharp and it strikes, I think, a really perfect balance between entertainment and honesty. It’s the first time I’ve seen a depiction of toxic positivity — like when Jason Segel says to your character “You wouldn’t let me grieve.“
Yeah. I love this “toxic positivity” term. I’ve never heard that before. That’s so good. That’s exactly who he is.
The show expects a lot of the audience. It doesn’t hold your hand, it doesn’t give you a ton of like, connective tissue. You have to put things together yourself. And I love that. Because I heard this quote that Tony Kushner actually said, that there’s this theory that you’re supposed to write to the dumbest audience member or something. And he said that’s not the way it goes, actually. You should really write to the smartest person. And everyone else will join you. And I think this show kind of expects that of people, and I like that.
Your character wears such incredible clothing in the show. Talk a little bit about your work with costume designer Allyson Fanger.
Allyson is extremely collaborative. Her fittings are very fun, but they’re also very serious, and we have a lot to cover and we have a lot to sort of discuss. What I love about Allyson is she doesn’t shy away from storytelling in the costume. Like for me for example, I didn’t think about this, but my character’s sort of athletic or pretends to be athletic. I play pickleball. I’m hiking a lot. And she saw an opportunity there for great athletic wear. I, personally, I exercise and stuff and I wear whatever to the gym. I don’t ever think about putting on an outfit or spending money on the clothes that I wear to exercise. I think, “It’s gonna get dirty. Why would I put something on that’s expensive?” But this guy, [his] athletic wear really pops on a hike or on a pickleball court, especially next to Jason, who is wearing regular old schlubby clothes. So that was something that I didn’t really think about going into it, that she was able to sort of enlighten me and help me. And it told me a lot about my character, told me a lot about who Brian was. He’s the kind of a guy who likes to be active and loves to look great while he’s doing it and loves to think about what he’s going to wear. So that was really fun.
And then he’s a lawyer, so then that means suits, and I love suits. We had a pretty quick and easy shorthand with how we wanted a suit to fit, how we wanted a suit to look.
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What was that?
I can usually basically wear a sample size, but I’m a 40 regular, my arm’s a little bit long. My shoulders are wide. Usually, it works. Sometimes we need to bring it in a little bit or to lengthen a sleeve or something like that. Give the pant a hem. But generally, not a lot. And sometimes people, when they see that, they’re like, “Oh, you’re fine. You don’t need anything.” But a well-tailored suit, a well-fit suit, really does need a couple of little [tweaks.] Everyone needs a little something; they’re meant to be fit.
And I didn’t know anything like that until I was on Ugly Betty. And they would tailor things within an inch of their life. They would tailor things so that literally no one else but me could wear them ever. I don’t think that’s necessarily for the normal person. I think that was for people who literally work in fashion. And I would say with Brian, we don’t go to those extremes, but I learned every little thing from that show.
And when I started working with Allyson, we had the exact same sensibility of how to make a suit specifically fall just right. And it’s a little bit in the shoulders, a little bit in the sleeves. And then for me it’s, if you’re gonna button it or not, and how does it fall if you’re gonna button it or not? And so I always try to know in this scene that we’re fitting for, will I be standing or sitting? Will I be walking or stationary, are you gonna see it unbuttoned or not? And it makes a huge difference.
What about off-duty Brian?
Well, there’s a party…[Brian] throws a party. That’s sort of my party. She had these amazing shirts, great pants and we’re talking about the hair and makeup department, like what could we do differently for this than we do when we see him working or just casual. And then we were in the fitting, and I was like, “You know what I would love?” I was like, “I’ve started doing this in my life and I just love that men are wearing jewelry that they wouldn’t have worn before.” And not just queer people, but men are wearing pearls. And they’re beautiful, and I’ve worn pearls, and I just think they’re wonderful. And they don’t scream feminine to me; they’re actually just kind of beautiful. And literally she touched her neck and she was wearing these beautiful pearls, and she took them off of her and put them on me. And that’s what I’m wearing in the show.
I’d never had that happen before. They were right before me in front of my eyes, and they were perfect. And it was awesome. And I love that we were able to find his queerness together.
Talk to me a little bit about that — the significance of your character’s queerness in this show.
I wanted to make sure not only that it was authentic and modern and current and up to date, but individual. I feel like we’re at a point now where when we make shows about queer people, we don’t have to represent the entire community. When I was first starting out, there was a real sense of, “There’s so few of us represented on TV. We have to make sure we’re representing everyone every time.” And now I think we all realize that’s impossible, and a queer character can just be themselves and doesn’t have to somehow be everybody, and every queer as it were.
Are there parts of Brian’s wardrobe that you’ve brought home with you, literally or metaphorically?
I have actually started wearing more functional clothes at the gym. I used to just wear whatever short and whatever shirt, and then I would sometimes wear shirts that were tank tops that were actually too tight. And I realized, “Well, that’s not right either.” I thought, “I need to wear the tightest thing possible just to see all the definition that I’m creating.” And so I actually learned to dress more functionally and better at the gym. I haven’t spent a lot of money on things like he did, but I’m also a real person, not a TV character.
What about parts of you that permeated Brian?
I really spend a lot of time thinking about the ways in which a queer person in a heteronormative situation would make decisions and not making the flashiest boldest choices, but making the realest choices, the most natural choices for them. So that’s sort of like, these are queer characters, but we’re not trying to do Drag Race every week. And we’re not trying to do the Met Gala every week. Even when it is a special occasion, let’s be real about what these characters, how this character would approach that.
But that’s something also that I don’t think I would’ve been able to do, granted, when I was in my 20s. The world was very different when we were doing Ugly Betty. But I also think I know myself better and I’m okay with myself in a way that maybe I wasn’t in my 20s and 30s. I’m sort of like, “This is it. I’m not done learning. But maybe I’m okay with who I am.” And I guess just something about my 40s is that I’m okay with what I don’t know and what I do know, as opposed to my 20s where I thought I knew everything and in my 30s where I thought I knew nothing. Now I’m like, “Oh no, I know a thing or two, and I also don’t know other things, and I’m okay there in between.”
Is there a fashion moment in your own life that stands out as the most memorable?
I feel like I got so lucky with the Met Gala. Christian Siriano was such a genius and came up with such an amazing thing, and I was so nervous to go. So when I got invited to the Met Gala and Christian was willing to dress me, I felt so taken care of. And then the crazy thing happened. You know how when you go to the Met Gala everybody’s looking to see if you understood the assignment. So I was terrified, thinking about “Did we understand the assignment?” And actually, you have to bring the invitation to the Met Gala with you physically. You have to show the invitation.
And I didn’t look at it. I had it, but I didn’t look at it. I didn’t really open it and look at it until I was on my way. And I was getting dressed. I was doing a play at the time, so I was getting dressed in my dressing room at the theater and there was a hair/makeup person or there were people from Christian’s team. And I was getting dressed and then I was like, “Oh, oh, let me get my invitation.” And I opened it, and on the outside of the invitation there was just a silhouette drawing of a figure who was dressed half man and half woman.
And this is the icon they chose for the Met Gala for the year that they’re doing camp. And it was mind-blowing. And that gave me so [much confidence.] Even if there were people out there who say I did not understand the assignment, Anna Wintour says I did because she put on the invitation a silhouette of me not even knowing that that’s what I was going to be.
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