When Glee mastermind Ryan Murphy called Lea Michele, his belting savant of a muse, to offer her a new acting role last spring, she said yes before she knew the name of the project—or what it was even about.
“He didn’t give me any information,” she says. “I wasn’t sure if it was a new show or another chapter of American Horror Story. He said that he was creating this show with Emma Roberts on it and Jamie Lee Curtis and that he couldn’t say much more but was I in? And I said absolutely.”
It wasn’t until the press release announcing that Murphy was making a new horror comedy for Fox called Scream Queens—and that Michele would be a part of the cast—that the actress found out what she’d be starring in.
It’s a lot of blind faith to put in someone. But, as one spunky group of misfit schoolchildren once belted to the rafters, “Don’t stop believing.” And certainly not in Ryan Murphy.
After all, it’s a mantra that's worked well for Michele so far. So well, even, that in addition to premiering the first episode of Scream Queens on Tuesday, she’ll be releasing a self-help book titled You First, which she hopes will help her young friends also keep their dreams going on (and on and on and onnnnn).
A Broadway veteran best known for starring in the coming-of-age rock musical Spring Awakening, Michele’s career skyrocketed when she was cast as Rachel Berry—a small-town girl with a Barbra Streisand vision board—on Glee, a cover-happy musical series that, in its seven-season run, couldn’t have been a better showcase for Michele’s talents if she had dreamed it up herself.
“I would jump out of a plane for that guy,” Michele says of Murphy. “In this business, I completely put my career in his hands. I don’t think a lot of actors would say they would trust their careers in someone else’s hands but I trust mine in his through and through.”
And Michele’s performance on Scream Queens is quite the triumphant trust exercise.
The series explores what happens when a serial killer starts targeting members of a sorority. Michele plays Hester Ulrich, a pledge who’s desperate to be a member of the sorority even though its pajama parties typically end in murder. In fact, Hester’s mumbling, macabre obsession with death makes it all the more enticing.
Oh, and she wears a neck brace the whole time.
If you read the script for Scream Queens, you’d imagine that queen bee sorority president Chanel, whose name says everything you need to know about her character, would be perfectly suited for Michele. You'd never imagine that the star would be able to pull off—let alone be interested in playing—a character as quirky and dark as Hester.
Michele’s the leading lady. Hester is the scene-stealing supporting role, one that you’d imagine Molly Shannon playing in a bizarre sketch on Saturday Night Live. (“Mary Katherine Gallagher was a huge reference for me,” Michele says. “So was Gilly, Kristen Wiig’s character.”)
It shouldn’t work as well it does. But it does.
“Ryan was like, ‘This is your Monster moment,’” Michele says, referring to the film that won Charlize Theron an Academy Award. “Not wearing makeup. Not doing my hair…I definitely think this character is the farthest from me I’ve played thus far.”
It all sounds a bit extreme and hyperbolic. Monster moment? Jumping out of planes? But that’s Lea Michele. It’s why she was so good at playing Rachel Berry, a whirling dervish of “Let Me Entertain You” gumption and emotional hysterics. And it’s why her turn as Hester is so interesting, and rewarding.
Everything is a superlative for Lea Michele.
The Scream Queens pilot is “unbelievable.” She’s heard that it’s one “of the greatest pilots in a long time.” (For the record, she heard correctly. The last pilot that was this creatively exciting and felt this special was Glee’s.) Working again with Ryan Murphy and his creative partner Brad Falchuk is “the greatest opportunity,” because they are the “best in the game.” Being offered the role of Hester on Scream Queens? “The best thing that ever happened.”
And to be but a 29-year-old pilates enthusiast in the midst of so much erstwhile excellence, Michele is nothing if not humbled. Her relationship with Murphy is a “blessing.” So is having him write a new role for her. She’s “grateful” for so many things, too: the opportunity to prove she’s capable of more than Rachel Berry, having co-star Darren Criss write a song for her to perform as her last solo on Glee, and, of course, being blessed by Ryan Murphy.
There’s an endearing quality to the methodical platitudes with which Michele describes it all: her career, her life, her destiny to be a successful Broadway and television star.
It’s a pageantry politeness and perfectly enunciated cheesiness that’s so connected to the “theater girl” archetype—one that Michele was branded with when she starred as an aspiring teen diva who wears ambition on her sleeve in Glee, and all the way back to when she was the theater girl herself, on Broadway by age 8 as Cosette in Les Misérables.
Actresses plagued by names like “Hathahate” have learned that some people find such behavior grating or superficial. But anyone who’s known a theater girl—or been a bit of one themselves—knows that it’s all far more innocent than that. It’s an earned confidence colored by an eagerness to be liked. Michele is nothing but warm and sweet and full of hearty belly laughs during our conversation.
Her answers to my questions are broadly and blaringly positive. If anything, whether she’s singing the joys of collaborating with Ryan Murphy again or talking about how much fun she’s been having playing a character as truly weird as Hester on Scream Queens, she seems genuinely happy.
It’s the kind of happiness that comes from laying out a set of very specific goals and then actually achieving most of them. It’s the kind of happiness she wants to share with her fans. We're not just chatting to talk about acting in a neck brace. No, Lea Michele also wants to be your life coach.
Her second book, and her first self-help effort, will also be released Tuesday. Titled You First: Journal Your Way to Your Best Life, the book has Michele guiding the reader through journaling prompts meant to help them discover and then conquer their dreams.
“I’ve always used journals as a form of manifesting my goals and having a safe space to write down the things I wanted to achieve for myself without having to get approval from anyone,” she says. “It was a safe space where I could be accountable to myself.”
She really began getting into journaling when she was on Broadway in Spring Awakening. She started writing down the things she wanted for herself—to be on a TV show, to make an album—as well as things she’d hear that were particularly inspiring to her, and found that the more she wrote things down the more these things were actually happening.
Each chapter in You First begins with Michele explaining why the journal prompt she’s encouraging the readers to answer personally helped her. “I personally have been overwhelmed over the years by blank pages so I wanted to create a thing where you have these prompted questions to help you explore parts of yourself and ask yourself things that you wouldn’t maybe ask yourself on your own,” she says.
It should come as no surprise that a person who is writing a self-help book at age 29 has already released one memoir, last year’s Brunette Ambition. It featured charming stories about how she had a stipulation in her Spring Awakening contract that she would not have to show her breasts on stage any time her father was in the audience, and how she helped guide her then co-star and now-BFF Jonathan Groff to becoming the well-coifed, adorable out gay celebrity that so many fawn over.
“I can take very little credit,” she says, before taking a little bit of credit. “But I did get rid of that hair gel, that’s for sure!” Then after a good laugh, “I buy Jonathan clothes on his birthday and every single thing I’ve ever given him he wears all the time. It makes me so happy. He still wears the same pair of pants I got him for his birthday five years ago. But he uses them!”
You First isn’t as “in-depth” as Brunette Ambition when it comes to “the personal stuff,” she says. “But everything I write, whether it’s my music or my book, it’s my opportunity to have a one-on-one relationship with my fans.”
And though she’s big into Secret-ing her goals in diaries these days, there are still certain hopes and dreams she’s actually saying out loud.
Take, for example, what so many of her fans have for so long considered an inevitability: starring as Fanny Brice in a production of Funny Girl. “We were definitely working on it for a while,” but concedes that she got to perform so much of the material already on Glee that she “feels as if she’s already gotten to do that.”
That doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to do it again. In fact, she already knows how she wants to do it.
“Actually I’ll say it right now,” she says. “Let’s do Funny Girl at the Hollywood Bowl. That would be the coolest thing ever.”
Though there is perhaps just one other thing that would cause the star's fans enough excitement to spontaneously combust into clouds of glitter: Michele starring as Elphaba in a movie version of the musical Wicked.
“Well, I mean that has to happen,” she says. “I’m going to start painting myself green and walking up and down Hollywood Boulevard holding a sign.” Up and down the boulevaaaard, indeed.