“No personal questions” is the caveat before getting on the phone with Lea Michele, TV’s Rachel Berry. It’s an acceptable exception given the “Glee” star’s painfully tragic last year: Her on- and off-screen boyfriend, Cory Monteith, died suddenly on July 13, 2013 from a drug overdose.
Recorded around the time of Monteith’s passing, those feelings of loss are still raw on “Louder,” Michele’s debut album. The singer dedicated “You’re Mine” to Monteith, and the crushingly beautiful “If You Say So” was inspired by his last words to her. “I can’t believe it’s true,” she laments on the latter. “I keep looking for you.”
How much of “Louder” is a reflection of your life and your own heartbreaks?
I did not sing one word on the record that I could not incorporate into some experience in my life. Whether it be current or past, every single song that I recorded is about me. It’s a peek into my life, past and present. Maybe it’s coming from my theater and performance background, but nothing felt right unless I could relate to it. I think it comes from being an actor too. It had to be real for me. And not every song is about a current relationship or a current moment – I have songs on the album that I wrote about past relationships and past memories – but they all mean something to me.
The album is a throwback to an era when it was just about the voice, when Celine, Mariah and Whitney ruled the world. Were you inspired by any of these women while recording it?
I don’t think I’ve gone a day in my life without being inspired by Celine Dion. If you would’ve seen me at her concert in Las Vegas – like, I’m surprised I didn’t get kicked out. I was literally sitting at the edge of my seat like the happiest girl in the entire universe. But no – I’ve always been inspired by female performers and artists who really surround who they are around their voice. For me, it’s always been about the voice. I wanna hear someone just sit by a piano, on a stool, and just sing – and that’s it! It’s never been about anything other than that for me. I always really wanted to make an album, and it was so important to me that I could be current and relevant and still fun, but at the same time show that I’m a singer – that’s what I pride myself on first and foremost.
Some of your closest relationships are with gay men. You work with Chris Colfer and Ryan Murphy on “Glee,” and Jonathan Groff, who’s also starred on “Glee,” is one of your best friends. What is it about gay men that really jibes with you?
I don’t see anyone as being different than anyone else, whether you’re gay or straight or whatever – everyone’s the same. That’s how I was raised. I lived in New York my entire life. I worked in theater and I was exposed to tons of different types of people, and from a very young age there was never anything that was black and white for me. Everyone was always accepted and always around me ever since I was a little girl. I’ve just been really blessed to have great people in my life, and among them just happen to be people like Jonathan and Ryan – but not “because” they’re gay. Just because they’re amazing people.
What does the support of the gay community mean to you?
It means so much. I was working for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS ever since I was a little girl. I’ve always been in theater, and so the gay community – that was my world. That’s where I come from, and so it just feels like a part of who I am. To be where I am right now, and to still have that support and to still have that safety net, it really just means a lot to me.
So Broadway really is as gay as people say it is?
(Laughs) Uh, I mean, I don’t know about that!
Jonathan said he wants to get you on his HBO show “Looking.” Would you be up for it?
Oh my god! First of all, I went to San Francisco when they were filming the show and I ate dinner with all the guys and with Andrew (Haigh), their director, and before anything I said to them, “You guys, let’s get me on the show,” and then I watched the entire series because Jonathan gave me all the episodes.
Right – he said you watched it with your mother.
Well, first I watched them with Jonathan when we went on vacation and then I watched them with my mom. And she’s so obsessed, it’s crazy! Once I saw the entire series, I emailed Andrew Haigh and I was like, “Look, I loved it before, but I love it even more now. You gotta get me on the show. I’ll do anything. Anything you want me to play, even if I’m in the background, I’ll do it.”
Can we get you on there as a lesbian?
What kind of lesbian would you be?
I mean, I just wanna get to work with Jonathan. I love Jon. I feel like everything that we’ve gotten to do together, whether it was “Spring Awakening” or working on “Glee” together, I just love working with him. Every time we get to play different characters together it’s so fun, so I’ll do anything that they want.
Since the beginning, “Glee” has been such a friend to the gay community. How does it feel being part of a show that’s so bold in how it addresses issues regarding the gay community?
What I’ve always loved about “Glee” the most is that while we’re making people laugh – and while we’re singing and entertaining people – we are delivering a very important message and opening up people’s minds, even though they might not know it’s happening. I get letters from fans, parents and kids. “Glee” has really helped a lot of people, and I’m not just saying that. It really has.
I’m so honored to be a part of a show that has made a big movement not only for the gay community but also for kids who just love music and have a passion for doing that. It’s opened so many doors for girls and boys that don’t look like everybody else – to make them feel beautiful in their skin no matter what they look like or where they’re from. There are so many aspects of the show that have been really amazing, and I’ll forever be grateful to have been a part of “Glee.”
I really believe the significance it’s had in the gay community will be part of its legacy.
Cory, who played Finn, really had a big part in that – he became one of the show’s biggest allies. How do you reflect on him as an ally to the gay community?
Look at the relationship between Finn and Kurt – how it grew over time, that they became brothers. There’s a really interesting episode where Kurt and Finn move in together, and (Kurt) decorates the room and Finn says the “f” word (“faggy”). Kurt’s father defends him and really kind of puts Finn in his place and, for me, that was such a pivotal episode for the show and just their relationship alone.
One of my favorite episodes of “Glee” was “Preggers” – our fourth episode – and it’s where Kurt joins the football team. The way he gets on the team is by doing the “Single Ladies” dance, and he ends up kicking the winning football goal – it’s such a great episode. There are lots of relationships throughout “Glee” that have been really big turning points, and it just makes me even more proud to have been involved in the show.
How much pressure did you put on yourself knowing that you’d be slipping into Judy Garland’s ruby slippers to voice Dorothy in the upcoming animated film “Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return”?
Honestly, to get to be Dorothy is so cool. I didn’t go a day in my childhood without watching “The Wizard of Oz.” I watched “The Wizard of Oz” in my house so much that my mother had to hide the videotape at one point. I wore my ruby slippers, and I have this crazy Christmas video of me where every year for 10 years I’m still wearing my ruby slippers because I thought I “was” Dorothy.
What’s your favorite chapter in your upcoming memoir, “Brunette Ambition”?
Oh my god, well, the book comes out in May and I’m really proud of it. It’s a really crazy story of how I went from Broadway to being on this television show, and how I was told so much throughout my life that I wasn’t pretty enough and I wouldn’t make it to television – all of these people telling me what I could and couldn’t be. It’s about how I really overcame that and gave a big middle finger to those people and made my way to Los Angeles onto a television show.
The book really is about harnessing your tenacity, your drive and your ambition and getting to where you wanna be despite what people say you can or can’t accomplish. Also mixed in there are really fun chapters on beauty, health and fitness. I love it. I think it’s a fun book. I have some copies in my office and my girlfriends will pick it up and they’ll be like, “When can I get a copy of the book? I want to make your pizza!” Because there’s recipes in it. I’m really proud of it and I think, whether or not you’re a Lea Michele fan, people can pick up the book and really get something good out of it.
Do you give everyone who calls you a diva the finger too?
Oh no. I applaud them when they call me a diva!