If Fox’s new high-school show-choir comedy, Glee (which airs its much-anticipated second episode tomorrow night) has a breakout star, it’s New York City’s own Lea Michele. The plucky, petite Broadway vet — she got her start in Les Misérables at age 8 and more recently originated the role of Wendla in Spring Awakening — plays the show’s Tracy Flick character, Rachel Berry, a socially-ostracized firecracker with a killer voice. Michele won the role after berating the producers — including co-creator Ryan Murphy of Nip/Tuck fame — for laughing during her first audition, and showing up to her second one on time despite having totaled her car outside the studio and being covered in broken glass. Recently, Michele popped back home for a few days, where we caught up with her as she got a haircut, took a stroll along the High Line, and a enjoyed a very unnecessary cup of iced coffee.
How would you describe your character, Rachel Berry, to people who’ve never seen Glee?
Rachel is self-proclaimed star of the McKinley High Glee Club, probably the worst show choir in Ohio history. And Glee is their story to, hopefully, success. We don’t know how far we’re gonna get. She’s extremely determined, driven. And she’s talented. And she loves her glee club.
She’s basically Tracy Flick from Election.
Rachel is very much inspired by Tracy Flick, for sure. I think she also has a little bit of Charlotte from Sex and the City. Not the sex part. But I think the way she sometimes says things that people don’t quite get. You know, in her mind they’re right and they make sense, of course, but other people don’t quite understand.
Was the role written for you?
I met Ryan and he told me that he’d always had me in the back of his mind. I wish he’d told me that before my audition because I would have definitely been a lot less nervous. But it’s good that I didn’t know, because I really fought for it.
What research did you do for the role?
Ryan gave me a couple of movies to watch, like Election. I watched a lot of classical musical theater. I watched Cabaret. I watched Funny Girl with Barbra Streisand over and over again. But I also got really into watching old movies, because I felt that with Rachel’s dads, that would definitely be what was on the television at all times. So I watched Sunset Boulevard. I watched On a Clear Day, because I thought that those would be the movies that Rachel would have definitely grown up on, being raised by these amazing two gay men.
What about using your stage voice? Do you have to tone that down?
Um, I think that so far playing Rachel, the same amount of projection that you would use on a Broadway stage is how she is even in a small choir room. So as far as that, I haven’t really had to change much.
What happens in episodes two and three?
Well, at the end of the pilot, Finn chooses to do both football and glee club, possibly affecting his reputation. There’s an obvious attraction between Rachel and Finn, and he has a girlfriend, so we’ll see what happens there. And I think we’ve finally realized that the glee club has potential.
What are the musical numbers?
We do Kanye West’s “Gold Digger.” We do a little Salt-n-Pepa. And then the episode ends with me doing a fantastic R&B song [Rihanna’s “Take a Bow”]. The great thing about Glee is I get to sing so many different types of songs. There’s one episode where I go from a Barbra Streisand song straight into a Rolling Stones song. It’s awesome. As a singer, it’s the coolest thing to get the opportunity to sing different stuff like that.
But it seems like Rachel’s heart really belongs to musical theater?
No, she’s great. But I’m sure that her idea of heaven is just a stage with as much sheet music as possible.
You moved to L.A. from New York a year ago. How do you like it?
I love the lifestyle of just nature and going on hikes and eating good food out there. That said, I am a New Yorker. Every pore, every hair on my body is a New Yorker. And whenever I get to come back here, it’s like, “Ah, I can breathe again.” I love the noise. I love the dirt. I love the smell. I love crazy people. I love every single thing about New York. It just makes me me.
You got in a car crash on your way to your Glee audition. Is it because, like most New Yorkers, you can’t drive?
I’m a pretty good driver. But there was construction and confusion. I hear you have to crash your car once in California before you can be initiated as a true L.A. resident. So for me, I don’t consider it a problem. I consider it, “Okay, good! Got that out of the way. Now I live here.”
Have you started hitting the Hollywood party scene?
No, not really. I’ve been to a couple parties and I gotta be honest, I have the most fun on the ride home and when I get home. I am THE most happy when I am in my house in my little bedroom that I’ve decorated that I love, or taking a bath in my bathroom and imagining that I’m in, like, Italy because my bathroom has these, like, weird green-and-cream tiles. I don’t think that that’s, like, my scene. I’m not a really big partier. I’d rather go sit and have an incredible dinner and eat my face off or something like that.
Can you eat your face off now that you’re on TV?
If anyone tells me I can’t eat, then I’m going to tell them to you-know-what themselves.
Is the cast of Glee friends?
The Glee kids, they’re my family in L.A. Each one I go to for a different thing. Amber [Riley, who plays Mercedes, the sassy black girl], she’s my tough love. Chris Colfer [who plays Kurt, the fey kid with amazing vocal range] will make me laugh, like, any day. I love him to death. He’s also great if you’re having a bad day and you want to cry over two pints of ice cream while watching Medea Goes to Jail. Yes, we’ve done it, and it was the greatest night of my life. Jenna Ushkowitz, who plays Tina [the goth Asian stutterer], was in Spring Awakening, and I’ve known her since I’m 8 years old and she’s my soul sister. I live with Dianna [Agron, who plays celibate cheerleader Quinn and Rachel’s arch-nemesis]. Cory Monteith [who plays Finn, the hunky football player with a heart and killer pipes] is hysterical and my technology guru. The poor guy, it’s constant with me. “Oh my God, the cover fell off my phone. I don’t know how to put it back on.” Like, all the time.
You and Dianna play arch-nemeses on the show — how do you work as roommates?
We have these smackdowns at work and come home and are like, “Wasn’t it so funny when we were fighting today? Let’s make cookies!” It works out. We’re both vegans. Well, I was. I slowly dipped back into cheese. Don’t tell her, though.
Related: Choir Girl [NYM]