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Glee’s Jayma Mays on Why She Makes Sure Not to Dress Like Emma

After two prominent TV gigs playing girls named Charlie (on Heroes and Ugly Betty), Jayma Mays parlayed her quirky redheaded charm into a role on Glee playing Emma Pillsbury, the embellished-sweater-loving, germophobic guidance counselor. (And she parlayed that into a co-starring role in the upcoming Smurfs movie.) After spending season one of Glee pining after Will Schuester, Emma is showing a newly confident side thus far in season two — perhaps owing to her hunky new dentist boyfriend, played by John Stamos. Mays (who has a slight Southern twang Glee-watchers won’t hear) spoke to Vulture about Emma’s gradual development, her Stamos-coined nickname, and how filthy prop Smurfs get by the end of a shoot.

In last week’s episode, Emma really gave Will a talking-to that he needed, to the point that many of us thought he seemed kind of lame by the end of the episode. How do you think Emma views Will right now?
For Emma, she’s always going to have that attraction to Will — I don’t want to lead people to believe that she doesn’t have feelings for him anymore. But I think she could sense in him that he was becoming detached from who he really was. Right now, I think, she’s just focusing hard on trying to be a better Emma and wanted to see that in Will, too, and instead she saw someone else entirely. So I just think she thought, Oh Will, you’re just trying too hard. At the end of the episode they always give Emma these great moments of clarity, which I really appreciate for the character. It’s one thing to see a girl who just has OCD and germophobia, but to see that other side of her and that she can pull it together — it shows she’s well-rounded.

So, does John Stamos have the power to make even ladies feel less pretty than himself?
Yeah, I definitely feel like there was some drooling from both men and women the first day he was on set. You don’t understand how someone can get better looking with age, but he does. But he’s wonderful to work with; I admired him before, I knew he’d done Broadway, and I actually think he’s a wonderful actor. I love that he’s always trying to come up with nicknames for us all. What is he calling me now? Maybe "Jaymamazing." He calls Matthew Morrison "Matty Fresh."

Now that Emma has a boyfriend, will we be seeing any differences in the way she dresses? Fewer sweater clips, perhaps?
Well, I definitely don’t think the sweater clips are ever going away. That may be attributed to an illness — it’s always going to be a part of her life. But in our first fitting back for the second season, I felt like a bit of the quirkiness is being toned down. For instance, she never had anything black in the first season, and I will be wearing a black, fitted pencil skirt and a black-patent-leather belt coming up. A little more sophistication.

In season one, one of Sue’s best insults was calling Emma “a mentally ill ginger-pygmy with eyes like a bush baby.” So, how’d you take that?
It’s one of my favorite lines, too! My husband calls me a ginger every single day of my life, so that I’m completely used to it, and I’ve come to see it as a term of endearment. But it’s so funny, I was like, what exactly is a bush baby? So I looked online and the first image that popped up was a cute little creature, but a creature nonetheless, hanging in a tree, and I’m thinking, Oh my gosh, that’s what people think I look like?! But I love that [the writers] pick on us. I applaud it whenever they can come up with anything funny about me.

Emma’s OCD has been treated pretty gracefully thus far, though it’s a thin line to walk for both you and the writers, I’d imagine …
Obviously I would hate to feel that someone who has OCD would feel I was making fun of them, that would absolutely destroy me. But I think we all have some sort of issue they’re dealing with, and I think it’s okay to make fun of that sometimes. In last week’s show, there’s the scene where she’s neatly organizing the pamphlets on her desk, and I feel that’s just what she would do. I understand that it adds comically to the scene sometimes, but I think it’s a wonderful part of her. I hope she can relax a bit, but it’s part of Emma Pillsbury being Emma Pillsbury.

Have you noticed any of Emma’s habits trickling into your real life?
You know, I do keep Purell in my purse now. But if anything, I think it’s made me be more messy at home. If I catch myself straightening things I’m like, Aaah, I’m being Emma! And I’ll stop. And when I put on cardigans now, my husband tells me, "You look too much like Emma." So no more cardigans for Jayma Mays.

You sang a lovely rendition of “I Could Have Danced All Night” last season. What kind of musical background do you have?
I don’t really have one. That’s why it’s always very exciting and nerve-racking for me to do a number on the show. Growing up I played piano and I sang at a lot of weddings; I grew up in a very small town, a little coal-mining town in Virginia called Grundy. And my family was very sing-songy at home. And that was really it until I came out here. To be honest, I kind of winged it. You get the script and you’re told you have to sing a song, and you literally have to do it the next day. But Adam Anders, our kind of musical director, he made me feel so comfortable and worked with me for a little while while we were recording that song.

Will we hear Emma sing again anytime soon?
I do sing in the Rocky Horror episode. It’s a very Janet song. I don’t know what I’m allowed to give away, so I’ll just say that.

Please explain the experience of working on a Smurfs movie. Do you interact with actual Smurfs?
I will give you the rundown. Most of my stuff was either with a metal stick or Neil Patrick Harris. I’m not even going to say which was better. I think my first two or three weeks were alone, just my scenes with the Smurfs, and the first day Neil got there I was so excited another actor was going to be there and that I’d have a scene with a person, I just remember hugging him really tightly and thinking he’d think I was a crazy person. But it was definitely a challenge in a different way for me; I’d never had to do CGI work before. They had little kind of gelatinous Smurfs they could move around for you to rehearse with, and also wonderful voice actors reading the Smurf lines to delineate between the different Smurfs. Though the little Smurfs got a little grubby by the end; things started to stick to them.

Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images