It was his L.A. rep who put him up for Glee. Elena Kirschner, Monteith’s Vancouver agent, submitted a video of him drumming up a storm with some pencils and Tupperware containers. Ryan Murphy, the show’s creator, thought it was cute, but pointed out he was supposed to be singing. A shaky rendition of REO Speedwagon’s Can’t Fight This Feeling earned him a spot at the L.A. cattle call. Fox executives weren’t impressed enough to spring for the airfare, so he drove the 20-plus hours, singing along with Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits and the soundtrack from Rent. The vocal skills were weak, but he nailed what the casting agent later described as the most elusive quality, Finn’s “naive, but not stupid” sweetness. Murphy and company made Can’t Fight This Feeling the song Finn is singing in the locker room shower when he is “discovered” by Mr. Schuester (Matthew Morrison), the glee club adviser. The pilot, which aired in May 2009, had more than 10 million viewers.
Why Glee works is a question Monteith has been asked over the past year. There are a lot of answers—sharp writing, characters that appeal across a wide spectrum, fortuitous timing. However, he’s pretty certain he knows how it works.Why teens around the world have embraced their inner outsider and are clamouring to join choirs. It’s the same sensation he felt that day in the acting studio in Nanaimo.“I was like a lot of kids, looking for something to be interested in. Something to be passionate about,” he says. “All you need is permission. Not only for Glee, but for anything in life.”
A typical week begins with a 6 a.m. Monday call on the Paramount lot in Hollywood. The Glee shooting day lasts 12 to 14 hours. And when the cast aren’t on set, they are rehearsing dance numbers, or in a nearby recording studio laying down tracks. It sounds more like vaudeville than television. Each of the season’s 22 episodes takes about eight days to complete. Weekends are reserved for photo shoots, press and promotional tours.
The chemistry that makes the show work so well on screen has been honestly earned, like the esprit de corps fused in a boot camp. The cast are tight—on and off set. “Not only are we there all the time, but our lives have simultaneously changed,” says Monteith. At work there’s a lot of teasing and what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here joking about their shared celebrity. It helps keep everyone real.
In the early episodes, Monteith’s singing was so poor that his performances frequently had to be autotuned. Not anymore. “I don’t think I’m a great singer, but I think I can sing,” he says. And out of all of Glee’s sudden stars, you can make a pretty good case that he has had to work the hardest for his fame. Lea Michele was already a Broadway star. Kevin McHale—the wheelchair-bound Artie—was in a boy band. Harry Shum Jr. (Mike Chang) is a professional dancer. A couple of years of intensive coaching have taught the B.C. actor to not only hit the notes, but how to be dynamic. In the recent Rocky Horror-themed episode he was fairly belting out the “like you’re under sedation” line in Time Warp. For the “Grilled Cheesus” episode he laid down a version of REM’s Losing My Religion in two hours. “Often, I’m in the recording booth literally holding the lyric sheet behind the mike, learning the song as I go,” says Monteith.
The Finn Hudson role may not come with the dramatic challenges of the glee club’s openly gay Kurt Hummel, played by Chris Colfer, Quinn’s pregnancy, or even Mr. Shue’s pathetic love life. But making the befuddled foil sympathetic and believable week after week can’t be easy. “You’ve got to be incredibly smart to understand how dim Finn can be,” says McIlroy, his former acting teacher. In the GQ interview, Monteith expressed frustration about the show’s “convenient dumb-guy writing,” but he’s far more diplomatic over brunch. “I think every actor wants to be stretched. But it’s also important to realize that whatever we’re doing works.” He is getting pushed—just maybe not in the desired direction. He spent a month shedding 20 lb. for a shirtless scene in the Rocky Horror episode. An odd twist given a plot line that saw the quarterback struggling with body image.
Still, Monteith takes pains not to come off as an ingrate. “I realize that this happens to an actor about once every 10 lifetimes,” he says. “To be on a show that’s this good, it’s rarified air.” He’ll happily stick around into season 12, he jokes, playing Finn as the creepy janitor. Glee has already been picked up for a third cycle, and now occupies five soundstages on the Paramount lot. Musicians are now more than eager to license their songs. Coldplay, a rare refusal from season one, made a public apology, and threw in Gwyneth Paltrow (front man Chris Martin’s wife) for a spot in a future episode. Paul McCartney sent Murphy a couple of CDs of past hits and a pleading note.
In his few down weeks this summer, Monteith took on a role in Monte Carlo, a romantic comedy starring teen queen Selena Gomez, that will be released next February. Asked who he hopes to model his career on, Monteith rattles off the names Depp, Law and Clooney—Hollywood heavyweights who all started off in slight television roles. He hasn’t actually met any of them yet, but he did get to see Law play Hamlet in New York.
Truth be told, Monteith is famous, but he’s not that kind of famous. Nor does he want to be. “Being a celebrity is not my vocation,” he says. “I like to stay home, hang out with my friends, play video games, burp and eat pizza.” Last summer, he did post a picture with Prince Harry on his Twitter feed. (They met backstage at a music festival in London’s Hyde Park. Monteith, on an off weekend from the movie, flew to the U.K. for his first-ever visit, and volunteered to do promo work so Fox would pay for his hotel.)
But the social media moment the 28-year-old seems the most chuffed about is the Facebook message from his long estranged father. Last summer, Monteith travelled to New Brunswick for a visit, the first time they had laid eyes on each other in 15 years. “It was a powerful and wonderful experience. I learned a lot about him.” Would it ever have happened if not for the success of Glee? Monteith stops and considers. “It was definitely a big part of it. But that’s cool.”
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