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While Fox's Glee has taken off as a prime-time phenomenon -- solid weekly ratings, massive downloads of the musical comedy's weekly songs on iTunes -- nobody has ridden the wave to stardom faster than Chris Colfer. At just 19, the kid who grew up in Clovis, Calif., a small town near Fresno, has risen to stardom playing Kurt Hummel, one of the few gay characters in prime time. And he can sing. With no professional training, Colfer so impressed Glee creator Ryan Murphy during initial auditions that a character was written specifically for him.
In his first gay press interview, Colfer sat down with Advocate.com to discuss his overnight success, growing up in a small town, and how important it is to be gay in prime time.
Advocate.com:Glee creator Ryan Murphy didn't go the typical route for casting the show. How did you connect with the show and what was your audition process like? What song did you perform?
Chris Colfer: It was very grueling and was probably the most stressful experience I've ever had to go through. Originally I was auditioning for the role of Artie [played by Kevin McHale] and I went in to the casting director and he liked me and put me through to the callback with Ryan and the rest of the creative team. The audition was OK; I was extremely nervous. I don't remember being truly there for the whole thing. Then I got a call from my agent saying that they didn't want me for Artie but they wanted me for this new character they were writing. At the audition the first thing that Ryan said to me when I walked through the door was, "Why do I have a feeling you've been in The Sound of Music?" And I said, "Oh, I was Kurt in The Sound of Music." So I get to the next audition and I discovered the new character that they just wrote is called Kurt. I was a little suspicious of the name and what kind of character it would be, but I was still reading the lines because the character hadn't been written yet. I went through the network auditions and the studio auditions and I got a call later from my agent, who said that I got the role and that the role had actually been written for me.
Did you have to sing during the auditions?
Yes, I had to sing in all of the auditions. In all of the auditions I sang "Mr. Cellophane" [from Chicago], which they also put in the show as well.
Was theater/acting/singing something you've always wanted to do professionally?
Absolutely. I'd always wanted to eventually do something on Broadway or do something on TV, but I never thought it would be a mix of both. I'm very fortunate.
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Did you have any professional training?
I've never had any professional training anywhere, just high school and community theater shows.
Your character, Kurt, is the show's fashionista and a key member of New Beginnings. How similar was your high school experience in Clovis, Calif.?
It was similar in the sense that I was definitely teased a lot in high school and I was definitely at the bottom of the food chain: total underdog, complete "Gleek." I was never like Kurt at all; I wish I was now that I watch the show, but I was never fashionable. I wish I was like Kurt in high school! [Laughs]
Were you in your high school drama club?
I was in drama, speech and debate, president of the writers' club, I was editor of our school's literary magazine ... I pretty much did everything.
You wrote, directed, and starred in a musical spoof of Sweeney Todd called Shirley Todd. What can you tell me about that?
[Laughs] The end of my senior year, my school did this thing for the seniors called the Senior Show where one senior was designated to do whatever he wanted for however much time on the stage -- they get their own show in a sense. All the other kids previous to me had done SNL-type skits and gags and that type of stuff. But I was dead serious that I wanted to do a show that would be funny and adult, so I wrote this spoof called Shirley Todd, which is Sweeney Todd except all the roles were gender-reversed, so I was Mr. Lovett rather than Mrs. Lovett, and it took place in modern-day punk-rock London. It was a lot of fun.
Were you out in high school?
Oh, no. People are killed in my hometown for that.
How much has Ryan Murphy, who is gay, helped you navigate Hollywood?
I would say he mentors me as much as he mentors everyone else in the cast. He's definitely like our stepdad, if you will.
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Do you have any say with him when it comes to song suggestions?
There actually is an episode where I told him this story about when I was in high school and there was a song I really wanted to sing -- "Defying Gravity" from Wicked -- I really wanted to sing the song in high school, but my drama department would never let me because I was a boy and it's a girl's song. So I told him about it one day -- I was sort of venting about it to him -- and the next thing I know, he wrote it into the show. That's the story line for the episode.
What's been your favorite song that you've performed on the show?
Oh, gosh. We did this number called "Hate on Me" [by Jill Scott] and it turned out really great. It wasn't fun to perform because I had this 15-pound Gucci sweater on and I think I lost like 15 pounds that day sweating from the sweater, but the way it turned out was great, and it's a lot of fun to watch.
If you could sing anything on the show, what would it be?
I really want the Glee Club to do "Time Warp." I think that would be so much fun. Like a Halloween episode where we could be all Rocky Horror characters.
Which Rocky Horror Picture Show character would you play?
Oh, I'd probably be Riff Raff -- absolutely, Riff Raff. [Laughs]
How challenging was it to learn Beyonce's "Single Ladies" routine?
That's probably one of the hardest things I've ever had to do but also the biggest self-accomplishment, because I remember watching her, on the American Music Awards, start dancing and I thought, Oh, God, some people in this world are just dancers, and me, I'm just not one of those people.Then I came to find out that two weeks later Ryan calls me in and says, "Oh, you're doing that in the show." So the fact that I got away with it is pretty cool and self-gratifying. It took a lot of work -- I think it took me like three weeks to get it down to what it was; three weeks, two choreographers, and one therapist! I'm kidding -- there was no therapist. [Laughs]
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What can viewers expect from Kurt this season? Any love interests?
There is a love interest, but it's sadly not reciprocated. It's Finn. In the second episode, when [Kurt] is at the car wash, he looks over at Finn and says that he's in love with someone else, and then Rachel [Lea Michele] stands up and Mercedes [Amber Riley] thinks it's Rachel. He definitely realizes he has a crush on Finn and does what he can to try to get Finn to like him back, but sadly it doesn't happen.
Is he going to stick with the football team?
He does for a while. He eventually leaves, but he does stick it out for a while.
A recent GLAAD report showed a 3% increase in gay regular series characters on prime-time TV and cited Glee as a standout. How important is it to have gay characters on prime-time TV?
Very cool! I think it's extremely important for gay youth out there to see that it's actually OK and that they are being represented in these shows. It's extremely important.
What about you personally -- how much has Glee changed your life?
It's changed my life from night and day. From being a weird, small-town kid to now being on a successful TV show. It's white and black, night and day. It's completely changed my world.