Some of the most fascinating people in today’s culture are distinguished not just by their craft, but also by their passions. We call them the New Alphas.
In 2011, after only one year on the Fox musical comedy Glee, Chris Colfer was being heralded by Time magazine as one of the most influential people in the world. But the Golden Globe-winner actor wasn’t celebrating. He was in his trailer doing something completely unexpected: writing a children’s book.
Now, at 24, the perennial overachiever (who also has a Grammy and an Emmy nomination under his belt) has published four books: three children’s novels in his The Land of Stories series and the YA novel Struck by Lightning: The Carson Phillips Journal. Colfer adapted the later into the 2012 film of the same name, which he also executive produced. And just last May Glee aired “Old Dog, New Trick,” the first episode scripted by Colfer.
“When I was younger I could never get my homework done," he told USA Today earlier this year. “[Now] I've been able to do eight jobs at once. I never thought I'd be able to do all this."
After Colfer first made his debut on Glee he suffered his share of doubters. As the actor told The New York Times in 2012, “The first thing that was ever written about me was that I was fantastic in Glee but it would be the last and only thing I ever did.” While the Clovis, California native may not have completely believed that, he wasn't about to sit around and find out. Colfer spent his nights, weekends, and time between set-ups on the Glee soundstage writing his next projects.
Colfer's artistic callings share a common thread: they are deeply personal and rooted in a challenging childhood. He was the subject of Kurt Hummel-level bullying in middle school; it got so bad for the diminutive Colfer that his parents eventually had to homeschool him. “I was very tiny,” he joked at the New Yorker Festival in 2011. “I spent most of my time stuffed into lockers. Thank god for cell phones, or I’d still be in there.”
Things got slightly better in high school. He became debate champion and, in a page right out Glee, staged a gender-bent Sweeney Todd parody called Shirley Todd his senior year. But he was still regularly picked on, thanks to a voice that never quite dropped, and the pain of those years stuck with him well after he found success on Glee. “I’m still very bitter,” he said of the bullying in 2010. “If I saw one coming up today, I’d run away probably still.”
Despite these difficult early years, Colfer has been able to keep the longview in focus. “He’s got really strong, ancient wisdom in him,” his Glee co-star Jane Lynch told GQ in 2010. “I call it his inner grandma.”
That probably explains how Colfer was able to turn a voice that made him the subject of bully’s torments into a powerful weapon, first with acting and then with his novels and screenplays. “[Writing was] the only way I could get people to listen to me without wondering what was wrong with my voice,” he told the Times. The twisted fairy tales came out of stories he would tell himself—and later dictate to his grandmother—to help cope with with younger sister’s severe epilepsy, and the fact that it commanded so much of his parents’ attention. “It’s all related to childhood traumas,” he said, only partially joking.
Colfer’s ability to share painful roots in a multitude of ways has helped make him such an iconic figure for millennials. And with big plans on the horizon—including playing a young Noël Coward in an upcoming film biopic and another book in his Land of Stories series—the dude with the inner grandma is pretty much just looking ahead. “It really sucks to be in your younger twenties,” Colfer told Esquire. “There’s just no respect, you know? So I’m looking forward to being older—like in my sixties or seventies. I want to get to that age where I can be the crazy old guy in the corner. I’m going to thrive in that period of life.”