Lea Michele on the Scream Queens Red Devil Reveal and Why No One Writes for Women Better Than Ryan Murphy

Photo: Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic

Spoilers ahead.

For the past few months, Scream Queens has delighted viewers with its amusingly outrageous and bloodthirsty collegiate antics, as it was slowly revealed that not one, not two, not three, but four Red Devil killers were roaming the fictional Wallace University thirsty for blood and guts. While Dickie Dollar Scholars golden boy Boone (Nick Jonas), Gigi (Nasim Pedrad), and unrelated-to-the-central-narrative Pete (Diego Boneta) were unmasked as three of them — and swiftly killed — the question left on everyone’s minds was simple: Who was the final killer? As it turns out, the second “bathtub baby” from the unfortunate night at Kappa Kappa Tau in the ’90s was none other than Hester Ulrich (a.k.a. Chanel No. 6), played with great panache by Lea Michele. Hester, the neck-brace-wearing mastermind behind the whole plot, was trained by Gigi, her adoptive mother, alongside her twin brother, Boone, to avenge her Kappa mother’s ill-fated bathtub death, wreaking havoc specifically on the Greek system. Executing the perfect plan, not only did she get away with it, but she’s now happily living a life as an undergraduate Kappa sister — but not before severely puncturing her eye with a six-inch stiletto first.

Vulture snagged some time with Michele yesterday to discuss her time on Scream Queens, how Hester is the anti–Rachel Berry, and the Ryan Murphy universe.

First off, how early did you find out about your Red Devil status? And how did the cast react?
Well, I guess it was more of how late did I find out that I was going to be the Red Devil [laughs]. I literally found out with everybody when the script was released. I was in New York with Keke [Palmer] and Emma [Roberts] doing a press event. I asked them if they got the script, and Keke just said, ever so nonchalantly, “It’s you.” It was just a normal conversation. At first I panicked and was like, Oh my god, then I must die! And she was like, “No, you get away with it.” So that relieved a lot of my anxiety, because I love Hester and I think this was an amazing plot twist. I obviously didn’t want to see her die, so I really get the best of both worlds. I get to be the Red Devil and see Hester get away with murder and have her survive. But remember, at the end of the day, she didn’t really kill anybody. The only person she actually killed was Pete — he was killing people. So she was the mastermind behind it all. Having so many other people to work with, it was very easy for her to lay it on someone else or the Chanels. She had a little ammunition to work with to get away with it and live a normal life.

I’d argue that the mastermind is far more interesting and complex than the killers.
I think so too. If you look at the characters like Pete and Boone, their murderous tendencies make them loose cannons. The real fun for me was playing the really steady mastermind. It was really cool, I’d never done anything like that as an actor before. One of my favorite scenes was the one with Jamie Lee Curtis in the final episode by the memorial. There was a solid intensity that came with Hester, and at the later part of the season she’d been so over-the-top and theatrical, and this was such a grounded moment that she had. I’d been saying as an actor that this was the greatest role to play to work on my physical comedy and the chance to be funny and over the top — and then in the end, going ten steps further getting to play this really dark and manipulative mastermind killer. How cool is that?

What were your personal theories about the Red Devil clan before the reveals started occurring?
I was very, very convinced it was Oliver Hudson. Either him alone or him and Grace. Towards the end of the run people thought it was either me, Skyler [Samuels], or Oliver, so once we found out it was me I guess people weren’t too surprised, but we started really zeroing in on a few characters towards the end.

Was it a nice change of pace for you to play a slightly nerdier, more demure character in those initial few episodes?
Definitely! I didn’t wear any makeup, those were my natural curls. I basically fell asleep with my hair wet, woke up, and went to set. No makeup and baggy clothes. It was a great transformation for me going from playing Rachel Berry for seven years to playing this grungy, '90s light-goth look meets Hello Kitty.

And Hester’s bedazzled neck brace is fabulous.
[Laughs] I wasn’t so much of a fan because when I saw that the neck brace was coming back, I was like, noooooo. At least they sparkled it up.

Do you feel that your posture has actually improved from wearing it so much?
Ugh, no. It was so painful. It was not a spine straightener. It was more of, hey, I need like a hundred massages now. It was a torture device. It wasn’t comfortable at all. But it’s all for the love of the job! You do what you got to do. It was definitely worth the pain at the end of the day.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the outfits the Chanels wear are fantastic. Did you have any input with the wardrobe department?
Obviously the wardrobe is very over-the-top, but our costume department was absolutely incredible in creating this palette for these girls, and Ryan Murphy’s obviously very included in those decisions. For example they always had Abigail [Breslin] wearing a lot of pencil skirts, and Billie [Lourd] wore a lot of miniskirts, so for me I wanted to figure out what my “look” was. We did a lot of dresses; we did a lot of skirts with tighter tops — anything that didn’t resemble Rachel Berry. I’m personally very minimal when it comes to accessories, so the biggest challenge for me was wearing the right amount of statement accessories. Emma and I actually made a promise to each other at the beginning of the season. We said if we ever looked too crazy we would have to pull each other aside, and say, oh my god, girl, you look craaaaazy. [Laughs] And then we’d have to switch it up.

Narratively, the show strikes a great chord between gently mocking the Greek system as a whole, as well as bringing up valid concerns about its dark side.
Yeah. At the end of the day, our show is a comedy. What Ryan Murphy does really well in all of his shows, and he did this a lot on Glee, is that he takes issues, but he knows how to handle them in a way that’s good in humor, and doesn’t really get too political about everything. In the end, the show is really just about female empowerment and girls being strong. There’s a quote in the final episode that just says, “girls are better.” It’s about strong girls. Even in our dialogue, it’s fighty and it’s sharp, but there’s a freedom to that, and it’s so great and so empowering. Nobody knows how to write for women better than Ryan Murphy. For a man, he represents women in such a beautiful way and features women so incredibly. So as an actress to get to be on a show that’s built for us is really unbelievable.

The one thing that struck me with Gigi, Boone, and now Hester and Pete, is that it was still easy to sympathize with them despite their horrible acts.
That’s another great thing about this whole story line. There are so many layers to all of these characters. Even Chanel. There are moments in the show where you’re so appalled by her behavior, and then at the end of the day she does something and you completely sympathize with her. And that’s another representation of great writing. Although the show is highly comical and theatrical, the illustration of an incredible writing team is that you can write multilayered characters who on the one hand are so terrible, but then on the other hand you sympathize and you love them.

Hester says in the finale that her reign of terror is now over. Do you believe her?
I do, I really do. She did everything that she wanted to achieve and took care of business. We have to see if we get lucky enough to come back for another season, so I guess we’ll find out then what happens. But I think she really, really is happy with how everything turned out and what she’s done.

On a personal level, what have you found most fulfilling as an actress working with Ryan Murphy for all of these years?
Oh my god, where do I begin? It really goes back to what I stated before — he’s so incredible at writing characters for women. I’ve had the great honor of being on Glee for six seasons and then having the opportunity to come onto another show and play a totally different character. Ryan’s writing is so progressive and so smart. And as an actor, stuff like that is one in a million. To be on a show with great writing, great characters, and a great cast — honestly, you can’t really ask for anything more. I’ve said this for many years now: Ryan is the present and the future of television. He, in this current moment, is knocking it out of the park with all of his shows and continuing to be innovative and smart. And yet, you don’t even know the incredible things that he has under his sleeve. Anybody would want to be where the innovation is growing and creating, and that’s where I want to be. I want to be right where it’s happening. And Ryan Murphy is where it’s happening. So I consider myself incredibly blessed and lucky to know him, and to be part of the Ryan Murphy family.