From Ugly Betty to his new sitcom, Partners, it's hard to imagine actor Michael Urie having enough time to direct and film the documentary, Thank You For Judging. During the 2007-08 tournament season, the former NFL D.I. National Champion took a film crew to his alma mater - Plano Senior High School in Plano, Texas - to follow the team on their path to the state tournament. After traveling through the documentary film circuit, the film is now available to download for $4.99, with additional packages offering bonus features including supplemental videos, buttons, hoodies, and even a Skype session with co-director Michael Urie.
Of the team members featured in the film, one senior would go on that same year to become the national champion in Oratory at NFL. Hoàng Ngoc Nguyên, Jr. (You can call him Mario, though, "it's easier to pronounce.") charmed audiences with his speech, "I'm a Tom Girl," which you can purchase for download alongside the documentary. We caught up with the speaker to find out more about competing with film crews, important life lessons he learned from speech, and what life had in store for him after the cameras stopped rolling.
How did you get involved in forensics?
I technically competed in my first speech and debate tournament in the third grade. There was only one tournament a year, it had poetry, prose, and an extemp-like category, and was held by district. I was so nervous in the final round that I asked to start over, yet, (somehow) I won. I was so young I didn’t even know it was actually speech and debate I was doing. Later, I started doing theatre in the sixth grade, but was always disappointed with the roles that I was given because of my physical appearance (e.g. beggar #2, someone’s child). It was when a language arts teacher told me that I should join the speech team that I finally did. I intended on doing debate, but then I found individual events and there was no turning back.
What events did you do in high school?
In high school I did Humorous and Dramatic Interp, Original Oratory, Duo, and Impromptu. Oratory and HI were undoubtedly my favorites. I particularly loved OO because it gave me the opportunity to articulate the issues that personally affected me. And as a 17 year old, the chance to have people listen to you can really empower you to believe in yourself. For example, my OO my senior year was basically a catharsis for me finally coming to terms with my sexuality. The topic focused on the double standard in gender bending, and how women were more easily allowed to take on traditionally masculine traits than men who are given less flexibility in doing so.
How did you choose that topic?
I wasn’t a particularly masculine guy growing up, particularly because of my size (5’4”) and I had wanted to address this in my OO. My coach and I had been searching for ideas, and after tons of looking for something that personally affected me, my coach had gone home and chatted with her husband about it, and the beginnings of this idea started. Over a series of meetings following we developed it until it became what it became.
What do you remember about performing in finals of Oratory at the 2008 NFL National Tournament?
For the national performance, I was devastatingly sick. I had caught a desert cold (Las Vegas) and would have been unable to perform the day before, which is when finals for OO were supposed to be scheduled, but for the first time (for some strange reason) they were scheduled the following day. So when I went out on stage, I spit out my cough drop, blew my nose, and was on two different medications. But, I made sure I did the one thing my coach told me, I took it all in. Before I started I remember looking at the entire crowd, all waiting for me to speak, and I thought, “I’m just happy my message gets to reach this many people.”
What is the documentary about?
The documentary, Thank You for Judging, includes a clip of me winning nationals, but it primarily focuses on the state tournament of that year. My team, and about two or three others were followed around all year and up until that tournament, and the film basically takes you through a state tournament and everything that goes into that. I think that the experience made everyone at the state tournament feel valued, like we were getting the attention we finally deserved. And we all competed harder because of that.
It’s been a long time since the documentary was shot, and a lot has happened since then.
What have you done in the time since you graduated high school?
After high school, I went on to compete in college forensics at Western Kentucky University. There, I was really transformed into who I am today. Thanks to the university’s guidance, I am currently living in México City on a Fulbright grant and deferred to one of the top 30 law schools in the nation.
How has participating in forensics contributed to where you are now?
I honestly am very blessed and owe a huge thanks to Forensics. Forensics taught me how to articulate the pain I had felt all my life. I was a gay, first-generation American, with an undocumented immigrant mother who was divorced from my Vietnamese war refugee father, with four other siblings living below the poverty line. Yet, I didn’t know how to put all of that into words because it was just my life. Forensics showed me how to deal with all of that, use it as motivation, and to believe in myself, and people like me. Most importantly, it gave me a voice and the power to believe I was capable of enacting change -that I was worth something. And that is the very core of who I am now, and why I am where I am. My big hope is that some kid out there reads about me and realizes that they have the strength to fight whatever it is they’re going through because they can relate to me.
What is the best advice you received before going into competition?
I think the best piece of advice I received before competing was from my high school coach. I was at a tournament my senior year and terrified because I walked into a round with a judge in full military coveralls. I thought for sure I was getting a six and figured I might as well not even try. But my high school coach told me that there was nothing I could do to control that, all I could do was deliver my message because I had no idea who needed to hear it. And that’s something I try to do in my everyday life. It just so happened I ended up getting a one in that round, and the judge wrote some amazing comments about my speech. And it’s that lesson that’s my advice to anyone struggling in Forensics, or in struggling to decide what to do after you graduate, or anything in life. Even if the odds are against you, commit and own who you are. Don’t let anyone define who you are, or who you should be.
Still want more Mario? Visit his website for more information!