Cory Monteith, a Canadian actor who was best-known for his role on the television program Glee, was found dead in a Vancouver hotel room over the weekend. He was just 31. Maclean’s national correspondent Jonathon Gatehouse spoke with Monteith in 2010, when the star was into the second season of the hit television show. Here’s that interview, from the Maclean’s archive.
The first time Cory Monteith ever sang for a live audience was at the White House last Easter. The second occasion was later that same week on Oprah. By the time he and his cast mates from the Fox TV hit Glee completed a live tour with five sold-out performances at New York’s Radio City Music Hall in late May, it was becoming old hat.
Less so, the kind of teenybopper adulation that saw the 28-year-old Victoria native get chased down Fifth Avenue. Or the buzz-name status that convinces tabloid editors to turn a night out bowling in L.A. with a group including the singer Taylor Swift into cover stories about their “romance.” But that’s the kind of thing that happens when you’re one of the stars of the hottest thing on television. A multi-platform commercial juggernaut that draws 12 million viewers a week, Glee has spawned more charting singles on Billboard’s Hot 100 than the Beatles, sold five million albums, 13 million digital downloads, and launched a clothing line at Macy’s. It’s a campy satire about a high school choir that has improbably convinced millions of teens worldwide that singing show tunes and classic rock ballads is cool. A show that is only six episodes into its second season and is already a certified cultural phenomenon.
So, it’s a surprise when Monteith shows up for Sunday brunch without a handler, or even sunglasses. That he’s just standing there on the sidewalk in L.A.’s Studio City neighbourhood. That the restaurant he’s chosen is one where you have to stand in line to place your order. And most of all, that over the next two hours no one approaches for an autograph, despite the impossible-to-ignore reality that everyone knows that’s Finn Hudson tucking into an omelette.
“L.A.’s actually one of the best places. There are lots of celebrities, and everybody has a too-cool-for-school attitude about it,” he says between bites. “But if I run into somebody’s 15-year-old daughter, they go a little crazy.”
Fame has come suddenly for an actor who has spent the bulk of his career playing roles like “Lip Ring” and “Windsurfer Bob” in a succession of syndicated series and feature films. In 16 months, the gawky six-foot-three baby face has gone from being the guy people mistook for American Pie’s Chris Klein to the covers of Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and now this month’s GQ. (A controversial photo shoot with scantily clad co-stars Lea Michele (Rachel) and Dianna Agron (Quinn), he seems about as comfortable discussing it as say, hemorrhoids, or maybe the side effects of Olestra.)
If all that attention—good and bad—has changed him, it’s hard to tell. Monteith may be hosting this weekend’s Gemini awards in Toronto, but he’s still living in a rented house in Culver City with four non-actor roommates, and trying to learn to like baseball and college football since no one else shares his passion for the Vancouver Canucks. The fancy car, an Audi S5 (modest by Hollywood standards), is leased. The money is going in the bank—just in case this is all some sort of mirage. “I think that’s why they pay you a lot of money to do this stuff, because it implies the very real possibility of not working for a while when it’s done,” he says.
And as a good Canadian kid, the stories he tells about his new-found celebrity are heavy on awe, and uniformly self-deprecating. Like the one about Elton John’s Oscar bash last March. A little shy by nature, he was hanging back, having a drink with a friend, when co-star Michele found him and insisted he come meet their host, a “big fan” of the show. But their timing was a little off: Sir Elton and his partner David Furnish had just sat down to eat. Standing awkwardly in the middle of a dining room filled with industry movers and shakers, Monteith went for the laugh, leaning in over John’s shoulder and pretending to be a waiter. “Is there anything I can get you sir? Another beer?” Maybe he was too convincing, since the pop star just said, “No, thank you,” and never looked up from the chicken. So Monteith, flop sweat gathering on his brow, tried again. “Are you sure? Some water, perhaps?” Just a shake of the head this time. It wasn’t until Michele tapped Sir Elton on the arm and explained who was looming over him that he finally made eye contact. “He just gave me a what-the-hell look, shook my hand and went back to his dinner. It was one of the most embarrassing experiences of my life,” says Monteith. “And you’ve got to put it in print. It’s the funniest story ever.”
You don’t have to be a doctor to play one on TV, but the decision to cast Monteith as William McKinley High’s troubadour-quarterback sets a new standard for Hollywood chicanery. The actor is not only more than a decade older than his character, he is an affirmed non-athlete. He couldn’t sing. He still can barely dance (in a meta-moment from season one, a glee club choreographer dubbed him “Frankenteen,” now Monteith’s Twitter handle). And he dropped out in the ninth grade. “I don’t think I was ever physically in a high school, to be honest,” he says. In fact, he was barely ever in his Victoria junior high, which went to Grade 10.
A military brat—his dad was a rifle sergeant in the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry—Monteith’s life went a little off the rails after his parents split when he was seven. “I didn’t have an easy run,” he says. “There were a lot of negative things going on. It sort of multiplied in school.” Trouble concentrating. Trouble learning. And then, just trouble. He drank and ran with a bad crowd. There was some petty crime, and generalized rebellion. “When I was 13 or 14 I couldn’t handle playing by the rules so I would just go out on my own,” he explains. “I would find myself sleeping under a bridge, or in a tent in the park behind the mall.” (Monteith is working with Unite, the Virgin Group’s non-profit foundation to establish a youth homelessness awareness day in Canada.)
By 20, he had a resumé filled with McJobs—Wal-Mart greeter, roofer—and little else. Living in Nanaimo, B.C., and working in a call centre, he spent his days dealing with infuriated people who couldn’t connect to the Internet. A buddy enrolled in a beginner’s acting class at a local studio—more stealth literacy initiative than career training—and he tagged along. Monteith couldn’t even afford the tuition.
Andrew McIlroy, the Vancouver drama coach who flew in each week to teach the course, let him take a couple of sessions for free. “Cory was like an orphan showing up, wearing five hoodies and three black coats, and really shy,” says McIlroy. “I thought, this is a kid who is trying to save himself.” A couple of weeks later, he did a monologue that made his teacher take notice. “I got that one moment,” says McIlroy. “The truth. Compassionate imagination. I said to myself, okay, actor.”
Monteith packed his few belongings in some garbage bags and moved to Vancouver. He found a job waiting tables at night, and took classes, and later auditions, during the day. He eventually graduated from walk-on parts to feature roles in crappy made-for-TV sci-fi movies—a devious deckhand in Kraken: Tentacles of the Deep, a security guard/wolf boy in Hybrid. In 2007, he landed a part on the Vancouver-shot ABC Family show Kyle XY, which led to an L.A. agent, and a stint as the drummer/ex-boyfriend on MTV’s Kaya, a drama about a rising rock star. (This was far less adventurous casting—Monteith has been playing drums since he was little and, for a time, was part of a modestly successful alt-rock band.)
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