For such a tiny person, the five-foot-three part–Italian Catholic, part–Sephardic Jew Lea Michele is a major presence—big smile, big voice, big personality. Some of it might be the coffee; she drinks “a lot” of it. “A lot!” she repeats. But whatever the genesis, her bottomless pit of energy and enthusiasm is the perfect foundation for playing Rachel Berry, the hyperstriving, self-appointed star of the worst high-school glee club in Ohio in Fox’s satire Glee.
When I meet the 22-year-old Michele, née Sarfati, at a photo studio, she’s getting a spontaneous haircut. She’d gotten approval from Glee co-creator Ryan Murphy (Nip/Tuck), and now seemed as good a time as any. “Did my mother really walk out because she is so freaked out I’m cutting my hair? Ha, ha! Oh, my God!” says Michele between cheerily insistent instructions to the hairdresser (“Edgy, but sweet. I like layers in the front … just like that!”). When the scissors stop moving, Michele’s mother, Edith, who’s been “fetal” in the hall, returns, peeking through her fingers, then practically weeps her approval: “Now I can call Grandma and tell her it’s okay.”
Later, we wander through the meatpacking district, Michele devoting her considerable energies to locating a cup of what she calls “dirty New York crack coffee,” the kind she survived on while originating the role of Wendla, the tragically sexually uneducated ingénue in the Tony-winning musical Spring Awakening. (Michele grew up on Broadway, joining the cast of Les Misérables at 8.) She and her BFF, Jonathan Groff, who played Melchior, left Awakening on the same day, a year ago (“I never laugh as hard as when I’m with Lea,” Groff says), and Michele moved to L.A. to dip her toe into television. “My goal was a guest spot on Grey’s Anatomy. I’m still hoping to do that,” she says. Then she heard of Glee, a comedy about musically talented outcasts in a school that values only football and cheerleading. Michele, who was a champion debater at a public high school in Bergen County, felt a strong connection to Rachel—who’s essentially Tracy Flick. “Lea’s not a nerd like Tracy,” Groff says, “but she is determined and wants to succeed.” Something Michele would agree with. “Rachel is me when I was that age. She knows what she loves and who she is. She doesn’t get caught up in what other people think is important.”
With Flick-like determination, Michele made her agents get her a Glee audition, which, to her mind, was a disaster. “The piano player messed up the song, and they were laughing so hard I had to tell them it was a serious scene and ask them to stop laughing. Ryan called me that night to say I was great. I was like, ‘Really? That was awful!’ ” On the way to her final audition, Michele got in a car-totaling collision just outside the studio. “I had to leave the smoking car on the street. I had glass in my hair and nicks all over my body.” She also feared internal bleeding. But never mind, she got to the audition. “That’s why I play Rachel,” she says. “Because I’m the one who ran with shards of glass in my hair. She wouldn’t let anything stop her.”
Wednesdays, 9 p.m.
Fox. Sept. 9.