Born in the Bronx and raised in Tenafly, New Jersey, Lea Michele debuted on Broadway at age eight in Les Miserables. From the time she was 14 until she was 20, she starred in Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik‘s musical adaptation of Spring Awakening, garnering a Drama Desk Award nomination in 2007 for her performance.
Tonight Michele makes her official transition to the small screen, starring as the Tracy Flick-ish, hyperactive Glee club member Rachel Berry in Fox’s much ballyhooed comedy Glee. Set in the small town of Lima, Ohio, the hour-long show from the creator of Nip/Tuck blends comedy with singing. But unlike, say, the opening rounds of American Idol, the fictional Glee captures the underdog spirit while playfully pitting the various characters’ neurotic tendencies against one another and delving into the self-contained worlds of high-school drama.
We recently spoke with Michele via phone from Los Angeles about Spring Awakening, shifting to the small screen, and her favorite place in New York.
You packed up your New York life and moved to L.A. last year, right?
I did. I finished my most recent Broadway show, which was Spring Awakening, which was May of last year. I came out to L.A. because I was cast as Eponine in Les Mis at the Hollywood Bowl–something like a four-to-six week engagement. I figured I’d come out and try L.A. for a month or two after that, try out for some pilots or some guest spots for TV shows. Glee was the second audition that I went on and I was cast in the show. Without knowing the future of the show, I just decided to move here and live here for a while. But I still have a place in New York.
If you could’ve transplanted one thing from New York to L.A. that you obviously can’t, what would it have been?
Okay, thinking big.
[laughs]. Yeah, I’m thinking big. I’d bring Central Park and my best friend Jonathan. My parents will probably be mad to hear that I wouldn’t bring them, but I would want to be able to bring him and be able to walk around. That’s what I miss the most about New York.
Can you talk to me about how Spring Awakening helped develop your voice?
I did every conception, every workshop of that show from when I was 14 years old. I brought it to Off-Broadway, then Broadway. It’s a rare thing that starting at such a young age, someone would continue in a project for so long. Generally, kids will outgrow the part, or they’ll want to try someone new. But I really grew into this role; my voice grew a lot. I started off as a quiet soprano, but over the years, my voice opened up to a legit belter, kind of. That really helped me; I think they always liked the purity of my voice, but as I got older, I was able to deal with the weight of Spring Awakening. It’s a very dark play. As I got older, I could deal with those issues, and I think they felt more comfortable as the years went on in taking it a bit further. Obviously, when I started, scenes such as the hayloft scene, which is the famous sex scene–weren’t as intense when I was 14 as it was when I was 20. It was really great that [director] Michael Mayer grew the part with me the entire time.
Did you do any recon work for this role in actual Glee Clubs?
I was never in a Glee Club in high school. Being that I was working since a young age, I used high school to do other things and see what else I liked. But all it did was reconfirm that I wanted to be an actor and get out of high school as quickly as I could. But if you YouTube “Glee Clubs,” some of the things you’ll find so many high schools that are amazing and insanely competitive.
Your character has a line in the pilot, “There’s nothing ironic about show choir.”
Yeah, the [clubs themselves aren’t] that popular on the East or West coasts. Like I say, in Lima, Ohio, where the show takes place, this is definitely a big deal to all of them.
I haven’t been in high school in awhile. But I’ve been trying to figure out the pecking order in terms of the band geeks, the glee club geeks, the regular geeks.
I think every school has a different caste system. But as Sue Sylvester [the undermining cheerleading coach played by Jane Lynch] says, the Glee Club is definitely in the sub-basement at William McKinley High School.
The other line that in the pilot that I thought was great, was “Being anonymous is worse than being poor.”
Yeah, if you watch television, people want to be on television so bad. Fame is the most important thing in our culture; people are searching for their shot in the spotlight.
Were you a little bit nervous in gunning for a comedic role after Spring Awakening‘s dark ages?
[laughs] Yes, I really wanted it. Every night [Spring Awakening co-star] Jonathan Groff and I would come off stage; I’d be covered in his sweat because he sweats profusely on stage. Tears and sweat from these intense scenes. And I’d say, “Next thing for us, I want to do a comedy.” And now I’m in Glee and I get to have Slushees and fettuccine alfredo thrown in my face, so I got what I asked for.