Chris Colfer, one of the stars of the hit TV show Glee, is known for his portrayal of Kurt, a confident and openly gay high school student (who also possesses pipes like a diva). In the new film Struck By Lightning, which Colfer wrote, he plays a very different character: Carson Phillips, an ambitious high school student who starts a literary magazine in order to get into Northwestern University. The character is arrogant and not exactly well-liked, so how does he collect submissions? By blackmailing the popular kids, of course.
The film is set in fictional Clover, Calif., whose name is not unlike that of the town where Colfer grew up — Clovis, a small town just outside Fresno. Colfer, who wrote the script while working 70 hours a week on Glee, says that while the film is not autobiographical, some major plot points ring true. How about that blackmail thing?
"That actually was a little close to something I might actually have done in high school," Colfer tells NPR's Guy Raz. "When I was in high school, we had this thing called the senior project where one senior was selected every year to have their own show. ... All the seniors before me always just did an SNL-like format with a bunch of skits and gags and songs, and I was the only student that ever was like, "Nope, I'm going to write a show, and we're going to do a full production.""
Colfer says when his classmates didn't want to participate, suffering from major bouts of senioritis, he may have used a few things against them to get them into his show.
One thing Colfer doesn't have in common with Carson, however, is a little more elemental: as we learn at the beginning of the movie, Carson is dead and sees his story in flashback. Asked why that's the structure, Colfer says part of it has to do with the way people talk about the dead. "One of the biggest things I wanted to do is have a character call these people out on their fake grief and mourning. I mean, how many times are we at someone's funeral and someone speaks at the podium, and we think, 'Oh my God, they're such a liar, they never knew them like I knew them, they weren't as close as they're saying they are.' I think one of my character's lines in the movie is, 'It's amazing how popular you become once you die.' I just thought it'd be a great way to tell a story, from the perspective of being dead."
But other than that little hitch, there are things about Carson that Colfer says he envies a bit, compared to his own experiences. "I really wish I could be like that and say exactly what I meant exactly when I felt it and not really give a crap what people thought. But I was the exact opposite — I really did care a lot what people thought of me. And I was not as manipulative or as smart and conniving as he is."
On Glee, Colfer was at the center of a major bullying storyline that he says hit home in a big way. Not only was he bullied himself when he was younger, but it got so bad that he was home-schooled. "When I was in seventh grade, I was home-schooled for the second half of my seventh grade year and eighth grade year because I was really made the target of by a lot of students, and I was having my locker vandalized and my PE clothes stolen and had horrible things written on it, and my mom and my dad finally got sick of it and just home-schooled me for the rest of junior high. But then I went back to high school, and I was thrown back into the world of public schooling."
Colfer is hesitant to take credit for how much his portrayal of Kurt has resonated with gay kids especially, giving much of it to the Glee writers, but he remembers having strong feelings about what he wanted to accomplish. "I was very, very nervous about playing a gay character and I kind of went into it knowing I wanted to make him more than just the punching bag that gay characters usually are on TV—the quirky best friend with the bitchy one-liners that we see on almost every other show." For one thing, when Kurt came out to his father in a widely praised scene, he didn't want it to be all about fearlessness that might ring false. "It's the most terrifying thing kids can ever do in their life, especially at an early age, so I really just wanted to make sure there was a lot of honesty in that scene and it wasn't so forced or arrogant, but it really was just this kid who was terrified of telling his father the truth."
In the end, Colfer says, his high-pitched voice — which caused him no end of trouble with bullies at school — has turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it allows him to perform numbers like "As If We Never Said Goodbye" from Sunset Boulevard on Glee. "It's crazy," he says. "A voice that was never wanted has become a voice for so many people who don't have one."
He doesn't expect, however, that that voice will necessarily last forever. "I would love to retire by the time I'm 25," he says, "because by then I probably won't be considered relevant anymore and no one is going to care about me. And I'm very very well aware that every actor has a shelf life, and I'm just trying to squeeze in as much as I possibly can while I can."
He's on track for now: Struck By Lightning is currently playing at the Tribeca Film Festival and will open wider later this year.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. If you watch "Glee," then you're very likely a fan of Chris Colfer. He plays Kurt, an openly gay super confident high school student who's a member of the Glee Club. Colfer is just a few years out of high school himself.
He grew up in Clovis, California. That's a small town outside of Fresno. And coincidentally, his new film "Struck By Lightning" takes place in a fictional town called Clover, California. Colfer not only stars in the film, he also wrote it. It's a dark comedy about an ambitious high school senior who starts a literary magazine and who blackmails the popular kids to force them to write for it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "STRUCK BY LIGHTNING")
CHRIS COLFER: (as Carson Phillips) As you all know, I am starting a school literary magazine.
SARAH HYLAND: (as Claire) You want us to buy your magazine?
COLFER: (as Carson Phillips) You, Claire, no. I would never expect you to recognize an intelligent publication, let alone purchase one. But your friends and families? Yes. Why? Because you're all going to be in it.
RAZ: Chris Colfer was himself the editor of his high school literary magazine, but he insists this film is not autobiographical, even though he knows a thing or two about the art of blackmail.
COLFER: When I was in high school, we had this thing called the Senior Project every year where one senior was selected every year to kind of have their own show. And all the seniors before me always just did like an "SNL"-type format with a bunch of skits and gags and songs. And I was the only student that ever was like, nope, I'm going to write a show, and we're going to do a full production.
And all my classmates had major senior-itis and didn't want to participate, so I kind of used things against them to get them to participate in my show. So that's kind of where it came from.
RAZ: I hope I'm not giving too much away here, but your character in "Struck by Lightning," Carson, dies right at the beginning.
COLFER: Right, right. Yeah. It's fun, isn't it?
RAZ: And then we sort of get the back story up until that point. Why did you decide to start it that way?
COLFER: One of the biggest things that I wanted to do is have a character call these people out on their fake grief and mourning. And how many times are we, like, you know, at someone's funeral and someone speaks at the podium and we think: oh, my God. They're such a liar. They never knew them like the way I knew them. They weren't as close as they're saying they are.
I think one of my character's lines in the movie is: It's amazing how popular you become once you die. I just thought it would be a great way to tell the story from that perspective of being dead.
RAZ: The character Carson is obviously sort of a precocious high school student. He's not very well-liked.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
RAZ: And he's, you know, doesn't hide his feelings, and he sort of tussles with administrators and fellow students. He's kind of manipulative, but he is likeable. I mean, does he, in any way, resemble the way you were in high school?
COLFER: Absolutely not. In fact, I was a major pushover in high school. And he really is the person I kind of created in my head that I wish I was. I really wish I could be like that and say exactly what I meant exactly when I felt it, but, alas, I was not.
RAZ: The character in the film "Struck by Lightning" is different from the character you play on "Glee," Kurt, but they are similar in the sense that both of them are bullied in school.
RAZ: And I know you've talked about this in the past. That's something that you actually kind of went through yourself in junior high and in high school, as well, right?
COLFER: Yeah. Yeah, when I was in seventh grade. I was homeschooled for the second half of my seventh grade year and eighth grade year because I was really kind of made the target of - by a lot of students. And I was having, like, my walker vandalized and my P.E. clothes stolen. And my mom and my dad finally got sick of it and homeschooled me for the rest of junior high. But then I went back to high school.
RAZ: I'm speaking with the actor Chris Colfer - he is the star, of course, of the hit TV show "Glee" - about his new film. It's called "Struck by Lightning." So let me ask you about your character on "Glee," Kurt. You were 19 years old when you were cast as Kurt in "Glee."
That role was actually written for you by the show's creator, Ryan Murphy. And a lot of critics and a lot of fans of the show have commented on the fact that it's really one of the first times on television where you have a gay teenage character who's three-dimensional.
RAZ: Who's not like a caricature.
RAZ: And I wonder how much of that is you and how much of that is the script.
COLFER: I don't know. I mean, I would hate not to give the completely deserved credit that the writers deserve for really building that character up. I know that when I went into the project, I was coming from such a very, very, very conservative hometown. I was very, very kind of nervous about playing a gay character.
And I kind of went into it knowing that I wanted to make him more than just the punching bag that gay characters usually are on TV, you know, the quirky best friend with the one-liners that we see on almost every other show. So I definitely, definitely wanted to make him more than what characters like him had been before. And I think thanks to the writing, I was able to.
RAZ: In the first season, Kurt comes out to his father, Burt, who is played by the actor Mike O'Malley. Let's hear a bit of that scene for a moment.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GLEE")
COLFER: (as Kurt) Dad, being a part of the Glee Club and football has really showed me that I can be anything. And what I am is I'm gay.
MIKE O'MALLEY: (as Burt) I know.
COLFER: (as Kurt) Really?
O'MALLEY: (as Burt) I've known since you were 3. All you wanted for your birthday was a pair of sensible heels. I guess I'm not totally in love with the idea, but if that's who you are, there's nothing I can do about it. And I love you just as much, OK?
COLFER: Going into that scene, there have been a lot of scenes like that in television before where kids come out to their parents. And for one, I love the fact that the father is accepting of it. I mean, that was groundbreaking right there. I also really wanted to take it from a very real perspective because a lot of times, the scenes, the kids, you know, are very - I'm queer, I'm here, and I'm proud of it, you know?
And that's not the case when kids come out to their parents. It's terrifying, especially at an early age. So I really just wanted to make sure there was a lot of honesty in that scene and it wasn't so forced or arrogant but it really was just this kid that was terrified of telling his father the truth.
RAZ: You are, of course, gay, and you came out to your parents, as well, in high school, I understand. Were your parents - did they accept it immediately?
COLFER: Oh, my parents would tell you that, like, from the minute I was born, they knew that I was different.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
COLFER: And, I mean, like, I joke now because now it makes sense that I wrote a screenplay, but that I would sit in my room and I would write for hours and hours while other kids were out and about. So they always just kind of let me do my thing. And there was never really anything that I ever had to ask for acceptance. I just was my own beast, and they just let me be.
RAZ: Last season on "Glee," you sang "As If We Never Said Goodbye" from "Sunset Boulevard."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GLEE")
COLFER: (as Kurt) (Singing) I'm coming out of makeup, the lights already burning. Not long until the cameras will start turning. And the early morning madness and the magic in the making, yes, everything's as if we never said goodbye.
RAZ: Now, I know that your whole life, your voice, the pitch of your voice, is something that you were teased for, bullied about. But of course, now, it's one of the reasons why you're able to sing this way and sort of be the character that you are on the show.
COLFER: Yeah. Thanks. It's crazy. A voice that was never wanted has become a voice for so many people who don't have one.
RAZ: Has it made you think differently about it?
COLFER: Yes. And actually, one of the best stories I've ever been told, I was told a story about a little boy with autism named Spence who thinks when people are speaking in lower tones that means that they're mad at him. And so he really, really relates to me and looks up to me because I have a high-pitched voice. So he thinks I'm happy all the time.
And that type of story, when you're affecting people like that, I mean, how can you be mad at your voice when it's affecting kids like that? I get a little choked up thinking about it.
RAZ: I read that you - now that you have this film out, you've been signed to a book deal to write novels for young adults. I mean, you're just 21, almost 22. What's your ultimate goal?
COLFER: I would love to retire by the time I'm 25, because by then, I probably won't be considered relevant anymore, and no one is going to care about me.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
COLFER: And I'm very, very well aware that, you know, every actor has a shelf life, and I'm just trying to squeeze as much as I possibly can while I can.
RAZ: That's actor Chris Colfer. He stars on the hit TV show "Glee," as well as in the new film "Struck by Lightning" which he also wrote. It's playing at the Tribeca Film Festival and will be released wider later this year. Chris, thank you so much.
COLFER: Thank you so much. Appreciate it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T STOP BELIEVIN'") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.