MrPorter, Jul 2012
From Glee-full beginnings to global fame, we catch up with the young actor that danced his way to the White House.
Photo by Blair Getz Mezibov
Also at Mr Porter
He looks perfectly calm on the face of it, sitting there with his Tintin quiff, all skinny and tall, digging into the chips and guac in an otherwise empty Mexican café in West Hollywood. But here’s the thing – he has no right to be. Because Mr Chris Colfer has a lot more on his plate right now than tortilla chips.
“Yeah, by the end of next week – well, a bit after that – I have to write a novel,” he says, in his trademark high pitched voice. “I haven’t started yet. I’m not even joking.”
He’s best known as the actor who plays Kurt Hummel, the gay soprano on Glee, one of the most talked-about shows on television. Last year, when show creator Ryan Murphy arranged for Kurt to be bullied at school, Mr Colfer’s portrayal was so rapturously received that he received a Golden Globe, was invited to the White House and was declared one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. That’s the Mr Chris Colfer that people know.
And yet, it turns out, the 22 year old is also this insanely prolific writer.
“I’ve written one book already, it’s for children,” he says. “Land of Stories. Comes out in July. I’m also simultaneously writing the sequel which hopefully will come out next year.” During season one of Glee, he wrote a movie, Struck By Lightning, which he produced and starred in, alongside Christina Hendricks of Mad Men among others. “It’s a dark comedy for teens. And I’ve written another movie, this time definitely R-rated about a 1930s asylum.”
One might think that Gl-
“Oh and my agent asked me to adapt this children’s book into a feature for Disney. I wrote that one in a weekend. Yeah – a 90 page screenplay in two days. It was insane.”
A screenplay in two days? No wonder he’s not panicking about his novel. One might think that Glee was plenty of work on its own, what with all those song and dance numbers. But the truth is, life on set involves an awful lot of sitting around between scenes. “Whenever we were between scenes or takes, or if they were changing the lighting or whatever, I would just go sit somewhere and write,” he says. “My castmates refer to – lovingly of course – as ‘Chris’ Genius Corner’.”
Perhaps his next book ought to be about time management?
“I’ve actually just banged that one out while we’ve been talking,” he grins. “I’ve been writing it under the table!”
It’s a frenzied workrate for a young man of 22. But Mr Colfer senses acutely that the clock is ticking.
“It’s the story of the ant and the grasshopper,” he says. “The ant gathers food all summer while the grasshopper’s playing, and then the winter comes… Well, I’m the ant. I’m always afraid that winter is upon us.”
By winter, he means, the end of his celebrity, this glorious platform that Glee has afforded him. “Every actor has a shelf life,” he says. “Next year, I could go from being this spearhead of this huge movement, to the kid that used to be on Glee.” So all he’s doing is making hay. He’s seizing his moment – and who could deny that this is indeed Mr Colfer’s moment?
In a year in which gay issues were at the front of the national conversation – issues like gay marriage, and the bullying of gay teenagers – Glee was arguably the gayest show on television, and Mr Colfer was playing arguably the gayest character on Glee. And all of a sudden, he was meeting the President. Was it a surprise, the way things played out?
“Oh totally,” he says. “It was incredible. I think what started it was the episode when Kurt came out to his dad and his dad accepted him. And I remember when I first saw that script I was mad. I wanted to play all the emotions of being kicked out of the house, all the tears and the drama. So I was like, damn it, come on! I’m never going to get an Emmy now!”
Things snowballed quickly. Today he gets 500 letters a week, many of them heartwrenching – from misunderstood teenagers who have run away from home, or friends of young people who have committed suicide. “I have stacks and stacks of them,” he says.
But on the lighter side, he has rubbed shoulders with many a childhood idol. “In the beginning I was telling my friends that I met the person who did the voice from Scooby Doo. Then those stories turned into: ‘Meryl Streep kissed me on the cheek.’”
Wait – what?
“We were at an awards show, and we sharked her. As soon as she stood up, the whole cast surrounded her like piranhas and took a picture with her.”
It’s a cliché but it’s true: Mr Colfer has to pinch himself sometimes. To walk the red carpet, as the son of an electrician and a nurse, from the small farming town of Clovis in northern California, is a big deal. He called himself a Cinderfella at the Golden Globes last year, and it still feels that way.
Clovis wasn’t the ideal environment for a boy like Mr Colfer. “It’s kind of a cowboy, rodeo town,” he says. “Every year, my mom and dad would dress me up in buttoned up cowboy shirts and jeans and hats, and I just had to sit there and sweat while someone wrestled a cow. It was hell! Do you know what mutton-busting is?”
“It sounds perverted, but what they did was, at the half-time show, people would get their 5 year old children, strap them to the back of a sheep and send them on their way.”
It still sounds perverted.
“Whoever could stay on the longest won a pair of cowboy boots. My parents tried to force me, but I stood my ground. Then my parents’ friends tried to bribe me by saying they’d buy me the sheep. They thought I wanted a sheep!”
And when it wasn’t rodeo week, Mr Colfer was getting bullied at school. He was a star in the school theater, but that didn’t matter. He had a high pitched, helium-like voice. And he was a fat kid to boot. “I was harassed at school every day, called ‘faggot’, I had things taped to my back,” he says. And when he went home, he didn’t want to burden his parents with his problems. They had their hands full caring for his younger sister who suffers from a harsh form of epilepsy, sometimes fifty seizures in an hour.
“For most of my adolescence I was in my bedroom writing or watching things I shouldn’t be watching on TV, like Nip Tuck [another Ryan Murphy show]. And I was obsessed with superheroes. I had this thing where I wanted to be rescued. The other kids wanted to be Superman, but I thought Lois Lane kind of had the best deal.”
And he was rescued, eventually. From the age of 14, he would come down to Los Angeles to audition for “every part for a high school kid that came up”. But every time he would get rejected. He’d been through four years of this by the time he read for Glee. “I was auditioning for the part of Artie, the kid in the wheelchair,” he says. “And I didn’t get it. Obviously. So that was it.”
He didn’t get the part. But Ryan Murphy saw something in Mr Colfer – he saw that in many ways, he was one of the Glee kids, a young gay teenager who loved theater, and who’d been bullied.
“So they invented a character for me. They created Kurt specifically.” He blinks and shakes his head. “There are two experiences in my life that I just cannot wrap my head around. That’s one. And the Golden Globes was the other. I just cannot believe they happened.”