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How to Be Barbra Streisand

Juilliard-trained actor Michael Urie chats with DuJour about the reactions to his one-man show Buy & Cellar

Michael Urie doesn’t do a Barbra Streisand impression. At least not really. What the 32-year-old actor does do is a full-length one-man show about a hypothetical situation in which an out-of-work actor lands a gig working in the shopping mall beneath a megastar’s home—just like the one the famously litigious Ms. Streisand owns and writes about in her 2010 book, My Passion For Design.

Over the course of Buyer & Cellar, written by Jonathan Tolins, Urie does a brilliant job of portraying the awestruck young man and, sort of, the woman he works for as they get to know one another in a most unusual way. The show’s been so popular that after its initial run, it recently opened for a second time at Manhattan’s Barrow Street Theater.

We caught up with Urie to find out about Streisand, the show and which celebrity homes have left him breathless.

Have you worried about what Barbra, who’s not known to like portrayals of her, thinks of the show?

Oh God, of course. Many, many times. At length. She does have such history with people being fascinated by her, and she herself is outspoken about certain things and never shied away from her personal opinion. I think that’s part of why we love her. A lot of people come in apprehensive about how I’m go to portray her and if we’re going to be mean to her. I’ve had a lot of people come after and say “Oh, I was so glad you weren’t mean,” or “I was ready to be angry with you.” We’ve taken great care to make her come off good. Of course, there’s drama and there’s conflict, but we want people to love her and still have fun with her. (But she does have a mall in her basement and she published a whole book about it.)

Have you heard from anyone who knows her about whether the show is on point?

We’ve definitely had people who have met her and spent time with her who have said, “Oh, my God, that’s just what she’s like,” but I don’t know how close we’ve gotten. I imagine some people have come who are pretty close. Everyone I’ve heard who has a tie to her or spent time with her says that they would definitely respond favorably back to her about it.

And how do you as an actor prepare to play opposite this phantom Barbra?

Well, for Barbra specifically I watched a bunch of movies and listened to a bunch of interviews and certainly kept her in my ear and tried to immerse myself in her as much as possible.

Even though I had to play both sides of every conversation, I really did approach each character the way I would normally approach a character as far as what’s between the lines, what’s happening within the scene and what are the intentions—all that nerdy actor stuff.

So, your character works at a mall. In a basement. What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?

I worked at Barnes and Noble. That was one of my jobs. I also worked at an audiobooks store called Earful of Books, where we only rented and sold audiobooks. Mostly rentals, surprisingly. People would come in and they’d rent a book and they would take them on their road trips and then return them. I also worked at a bowling alley for a little while and I was a party host. So occasionally, parents would come up and have problems with their kid’s birthday party.

And you must have spent some time in celebrity’s homes over the years. Anything resembling a mall?

I’ve been in some big, fancy houses, that’s for sure. Some beautiful places where people spend far too much money on things, but never anything quite to that extreme. Never anyone with not only one collection, but a collection of collections.

Not even Vanessa Williams’ house?

She has amazing stuff and beautiful pieces but nothing’s precious. There’s not a mall in her basement.

Is there anyone you’d want to work for like your character does? A celebrity whose odd whims you’d be happy to indulge?

I can’t think of any but Barbra. I bet Steven Spielberg has a fun closet of stuff. When I think about the people I completely idolized, they are Spielberg and Tim Burton and Jack Nicholson. Getting inside their heads, that would be an amazing fantasy for me. Part of what makes Buyer & Cellar work so well is that Alex was sort of an accidental fan of Barbra. I feel that I sort of stumbled into Barbra in the same way. Of course I was aware of her, I liked her, I wasn’t obsessed with her. But now that I’ve really gotten to know her, I am a little obsessed.