Lea Michele Talks Hannibal Hester, Scream Queens, and How She Learned to Be Funny Watching SNL

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Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer / Stringer

Spoilers ahead for the season premiere of Scream Queens.

Lea Michele spent six seasons on Glee as the Tracy Flick of McKinley High’s New Directions. The lovable try-hard with perfect pitch. The hopeful heiress to Barbra Streisand. Then, in one season of Scream Queens, she burned that character to the ground and built a new signature role in its place, the back-braced-up, unsocialized, slightly murder-y orphan named Hester Ulrich, who asked a sexually overcharged frat boy in a graveyard if he was man enough to attack her crack in season one. Emma Roberts might play the mean spirit of Ryan Murphy’s slasher comedy, but Michele’s Hester is its weird core, the camp that balances out the cruelty of the miscreant Chanels. 

At the end of season one, Hester thought she had gotten away with her plan to take vengeance for the death of her mom and rid her immediate surroundings of bullies. But a totally free and clear Hester would have made for a boring season two, and in the time that’s lapsed since the finale, she’s been put behind bars for the murder of her brother, Boone (Nick Jonas), and helped mastermind the murders of almost two whole Greek houses at Wallace University. Vulture checked in with Michele to talk about the crazy she brings to Hester, what it’s like to star in Scream Queens with a real Scream Queen, and how she found her way to the dark side through Murphy.

Scream Queens premiered this week, and I wanted to love it, but the lack of Hester in the premiere was distressing. Where is she? 
She is locked up. We saw in the premiere that, finally, Denise Hemphill was able to solve the mystery of who really was the Red Devil, and we find out in the end that it was Hester. She gets taken away, and so I spent the last few days of production and filming in my fabulous glass cell. Very Silence of the Lambs. It's been such a great story line this season. I had the best time last year getting to play Hester, basically in three different roles. I was Hester with the neck brace. I was Hester as a Chanel, and then I got to play the real Hester, which you see growing up with Gigi and Boone. Now, on the same television show, I'm getting to play another version of this character in a mental institution, and honestly as an actor, as an actress, to have such amazing material being given to me that I can just play with every season is a gift. This season, because now what happens once the killer starts to kill more of the patients, the girls realize that the best way to figure out the mind of a murderer is to talk to another murderer.

Hannibal Hester.
Exactly. So they come to me for some insight, but I won't be locked up for long, is what I will say.

So where does the physicality of Hester come from as you're building it? Are you considering how you're going to talk first or are you considering how you're going to move and live as this person? Because there's so much backstory to everything that you're doing.
Just putting that neck brace on was the first step, because even the slightest movement in that neck brace looked hilarious. I did spend a lot of time in the mirror looking at what looked funny and what looked over-the-top. I think there's a lot to be said about making a lot of a very simple movement. I grew up watching Gilda Radner, Cheri Oteri, even Molly Shannon, and then more recently Kristen Wiig, how she plays Gilly. These SNL characters — I was obsessed with female comedians. Even male comedians, I watched every Jim Carrey movie growing up. That's really where I picked up how to be funny in physical comedy and find that fine line between over-the-top and being really hilarious. I was able to draw upon a lot of that playing with Hester and working with this prop, working with the neck brace, then the combination with the incredible writing and the fantastic cast. Emma Roberts is one of the most talented girls in the game. Doing anything with her is like playing tennis with Serena Williams, so you better be on your game, and you better be good. We just had so much fun playing off of each other.

Having re-watched the first season, my favorite part of the entire thing is your physical reaction to drinking the dirty hand water that Emma Roberts uses to wash her hands in the second episode.
Oh my God. That was so funny.  I'm very grateful that Brad [Falchuk], Ryan [Murphy], and Ian [Brennan] really gave me so much creative license with this character. Who would've thought, at whatever point of Glee they concocted this crazy genius idea for Scream Queens, who along the way said: “We're going to take Lea Michele, who's playing one of the most sweet and beloved television characters in history, Rachel Berry, and now we're going to make her a psycho killer, overly sexual and vain, in a neck brace, Hester.” As an actor, do you know how incredible that is? To have people that believe in you and believe in your talent that they can see far beyond what you're playing right now and challenge you, and then to get on set and really be given the creative license to stretch my craft and have fun with this character. That scene in particular, where I drank the poo water or whatever it was, and they just let me do whatever I wanted. Sometimes I would come up with some crazy ideas, like when I would squish my boobs together and look down at them, or anything that Glen and I did, they let me have fun. That, as an actor, is a dream.

That sounds a lot like what Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown just said in their Emmy-acceptance speeches.
Ryan is a force to be reckoned with in this world of television right now. We are in what I believe to be the extreme golden age of television, where the best performances and story lines are on the small screen, but that forefront is Ryan Murphy. It's unbelievable. Most importantly, the diversity of his casts as well as the roles he gives for women. To be included in that family is a gift, and to have someone as brilliant as Ryan Murphy believe in you and keep creating roles for you is the greatest accomplishment in my life — that someone of his high esteem sees that in me. It makes me believe in myself more. It makes me want to try harder because he sees things in me that I didn't even see in myself, and because of that I can reach goals and heights that I never even dreamed of in the business.

Have you always been drawn to the darker roles, or is this something that Ryan has teased out in you?
I didn't know I was playing Hester until the last season of Glee, and Ryan called me and it was one of the best moments of my life, because here I was thinking that Glee was ending and not quite sure what was next. And to get that call saying, “I'm writing another part for you. You're in a neck brace, and you're going to work along with Jamie Lee Curtis and Emma Roberts,” I pinched myself. I have so many things that I want to do, and getting to play a darker role like this was obviously on my list. There's definitely a part of me that feels like this is something that I can do and do well, but the fact that Ryan saw this in me — I wear no makeup. I don't even put a brush through my hair before playing this character. But I'm grateful for that because it's helped me to grow so much. I would be happy to work with him for the rest of my life. To get another call saying: “This is what we're doing.” But I would love to play Hester for as long as possible, because she's just brilliant.

And performing with the Scream Queen, Jamie Lee Curtis, must be pretty outstanding.
It's been really wonderful, and she's a dream to work with. Not only that, but Jamie Lee is the best leader we could ask for. There's not a day we don't come to work where Jamie hasn't brought us a gift or a note. We're all in a group text, the entire cast, every morning. It's a great family, and I really do believe that that translates onto the screen when you have that type of unity, and you see it in the work we all do together.

So are you filming Scream Queens right now?
Yes. I'm starting episode five tomorrow. I just wrapped episode four. It was just me and Emma late, last night in the hospital working together. It's been so amazing. I really can't stress enough how much I love my story line for this year. Bringing in John [Stamos] and Taylor [Lautner] was so fantastic. Kirstie Alley, I love.

I'm so looking forward to more Kirstie Alley.
She's great. So yeah, it's going to be a really good season. I just can't wait for everyone to see more of the crazy shit that we do.