In conversation with Glee’s Cory Monteith

The Victoria native went from dropout to teen idol

by Jonathon Gatehouse

Chris Pizzello/AP

Cory Monteith, a Canadian actor who was best-known for his role on the television program Glee, was found dead in a Vancouver hotel room over the weekend. He was just 31. Maclean’s national correspondent Jonathon Gatehouse spoke with Monteith in 2010, when the star was into the second season of the hit television show. Here’s that interview, from the Maclean’s archive.

The first time Cory Monteith ever sang for a live audience was at the White House last Easter. The second occasion was later that same week on Oprah. By the time he and his cast mates from the Fox TV hit Glee completed a live tour with five sold-out performances at New York’s Radio City Music Hall in late May, it was becoming old hat.

Less so, the kind of teenybopper adulation that saw the 28-year-old Victoria native get chased down Fifth Avenue. Or the buzz-name status that convinces tabloid editors to turn a night out bowling in L.A. with a group including the singer Taylor Swift into cover stories about their “romance.” But that’s the kind of thing that happens when you’re one of the stars of the hottest thing on television. A multi-platform commercial juggernaut that draws 12 million viewers a week, Glee has spawned more charting singles on Billboard’s Hot 100 than the Beatles, sold five million albums, 13 million digital downloads, and launched a clothing line at Macy’s. It’s a campy satire about a high school choir that has improbably convinced millions of teens worldwide that singing show tunes and classic rock ballads is cool. A show that is only six episodes into its second season and is already a certified cultural phenomenon.

So, it’s a surprise when Monteith shows up for Sunday brunch without a handler, or even sunglasses. That he’s just standing there on the sidewalk in L.A.’s Studio City neighbourhood. That the restaurant he’s chosen is one where you have to stand in line to place your order. And most of all, that over the next two hours no one approaches for an autograph, despite the impossible-to-ignore reality that everyone knows that’s Finn Hudson tucking into an omelette.

“L.A.’s actually one of the best places. There are lots of celebrities, and everybody has a too-cool-for-school attitude about it,” he says between bites. “But if I run into somebody’s 15-year-old daughter, they go a little crazy.”

Fame has come suddenly for an actor who has spent the bulk of his career playing roles like “Lip Ring” and “Windsurfer Bob” in a succession of syndicated series and feature films. In 16 months, the gawky six-foot-three baby face has gone from being the guy people mistook for American Pie’s Chris Klein to the covers of Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and now this month’s GQ. (A controversial photo shoot with scantily clad co-stars Lea Michele (Rachel) and Dianna Agron (Quinn), he seems about as comfortable discussing it as say, hemorrhoids, or maybe the side effects of Olestra.)

If all that attention—good and bad—has changed him, it’s hard to tell. Monteith may be hosting this weekend’s Gemini awards in Toronto, but he’s still living in a rented house in Culver City with four non-actor roommates, and trying to learn to like baseball and college football since no one else shares his passion for the Vancouver Canucks. The fancy car, an Audi S5 (modest by Hollywood standards), is leased. The money is going in the bank—just in case this is all some sort of mirage. “I think that’s why they pay you a lot of money to do this stuff, because it implies the very real possibility of not working for a while when it’s done,” he says.

And as a good Canadian kid, the stories he tells about his new-found celebrity are heavy on awe, and uniformly self-deprecating. Like the one about Elton John’s Oscar bash last March. A little shy by nature, he was hanging back, having a drink with a friend, when co-star Michele found him and insisted he come meet their host, a “big fan” of the show. But their timing was a little off: Sir Elton and his partner David Furnish had just sat down to eat. Standing awkwardly in the middle of a dining room filled with industry movers and shakers, Monteith went for the laugh, leaning in over John’s shoulder and pretending to be a waiter. “Is there anything I can get you sir? Another beer?” Maybe he was too convincing, since the pop star just said, “No, thank you,” and never looked up from the chicken. So Monteith, flop sweat gathering on his brow, tried again. “Are you sure? Some water, perhaps?” Just a shake of the head this time. It wasn’t until Michele tapped Sir Elton on the arm and explained who was looming over him that he finally made eye contact. “He just gave me a what-the-hell look, shook my hand and went back to his dinner. It was one of the most embarrassing experiences of my life,” says Monteith. “And you’ve got to put it in print. It’s the funniest story ever.”

You don’t have to be a doctor to play one on TV, but the decision to cast Monteith as William McKinley High’s troubadour-quarterback sets a new standard for Hollywood chicanery. The actor is not only more than a decade older than his character, he is an affirmed non-athlete. He couldn’t sing. He still can barely dance (in a meta-moment from season one, a glee club choreographer dubbed him “Frankenteen,” now Monteith’s Twitter handle). And he dropped out in the ninth grade. “I don’t think I was ever physically in a high school, to be honest,” he says. In fact, he was barely ever in his Victoria junior high, which went to Grade 10.

A military brat—his dad was a rifle sergeant in the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry—Monteith’s life went a little off the rails after his parents split when he was seven. “I didn’t have an easy run,” he says. “There were a lot of negative things going on. It  sort of multiplied in school.” Trouble concentrating. Trouble learning. And then, just trouble. He drank and ran with a bad crowd. There was some petty crime, and generalized rebellion. “When I was 13 or 14 ?I couldn’t handle playing by the rules so I would just go out on my own,” he explains. “I would find myself sleeping under a bridge, or in a tent in the park behind the mall.” (Monteith is working with Unite, the Virgin Group’s non-profit foundation to establish a youth homelessness awareness day in Canada.)
By 20, he had a resumé filled with McJobs—Wal-Mart greeter, roofer—and little else. Living in Nanaimo, B.C., and working in a call centre, he spent his days dealing with infuriated people who couldn’t connect to the Internet. A buddy enrolled in a beginner’s acting class at a local studio—more stealth literacy initiative than career training—and he tagged along. Monteith couldn’t even afford the tuition.

Andrew McIlroy, the Vancouver drama coach who flew in each week to teach the course, let him take a couple of sessions for free. “Cory was like an orphan showing up, wearing five hoodies and three black coats, and really shy,” says McIlroy. “I thought, this is a kid who is trying to save himself.” A couple of weeks later, he did a monologue that made his teacher take notice. “I got that one moment,” says McIlroy. “The truth. Compassionate imagination. I said to myself, okay, actor.”

Monteith packed his few belongings in some garbage bags and moved to Vancouver. He found a job waiting tables at night, and took classes, and later auditions, during the day. He eventually graduated from walk-on parts to feature roles in crappy made-for-TV sci-fi movies—a devious deckhand in Kraken: Tentacles of the Deep, a security guard/wolf boy in Hybrid. In 2007, he landed a part on the Vancouver-shot ABC Family show Kyle XY, which led to an L.A. agent, and a stint as the drummer/ex-boyfriend on MTV’s Kaya, a drama about a rising rock star. (This was far less adventurous casting—Monteith has been playing drums since he was little and, for a time, was part of a modestly successful alt-rock band.)

It was his L.A. rep who put him up for Glee. Elena Kirschner, Monteith’s Vancouver agent, submitted a video of him drumming up a storm with some pencils and Tupperware containers. Ryan Murphy, the show’s creator, thought it was cute, but pointed out he was supposed to be singing. A shaky rendition of REO Speedwagon’s Can’t Fight This Feeling earned him a spot at the L.A. cattle call. Fox executives weren’t impressed enough to spring for the airfare, so he drove the 20-plus hours, singing along with Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits and the soundtrack from Rent. The vocal skills were weak, but he nailed what the casting agent later described as the most elusive quality, Finn’s “naive, but not stupid” sweetness. Murphy and company made Can’t Fight This Feeling the song Finn is singing in the locker room shower when he is “discovered” by Mr. Schuester (Matthew Morrison), the glee club adviser. The pilot, which aired in May 2009, had more than 10 million viewers.

Why Glee works is a question Monteith has been asked over the past year. There are a lot of answers—sharp writing, characters that appeal across a wide spectrum, fortuitous timing. However, he’s pretty certain he knows how it works.Why teens around the world have embraced their inner outsider and are clamouring to join choirs. It’s the same sensation he felt that day in the acting studio in Nanaimo.“I was like a lot of kids, looking for something to be interested in. Something to be passionate about,” he says. “All you need is permission. Not only for Glee, but for anything in life.”

A typical week begins with a 6 a.m. Monday call on the Paramount lot in Hollywood. The Glee shooting day lasts 12 to 14 hours. And when the cast aren’t on set, they are rehearsing dance numbers, or in a nearby recording studio laying down tracks. It sounds more like vaudeville than television. Each of the season’s 22 episodes takes about eight days to complete. Weekends are reserved for photo shoots, press and promotional tours.

The chemistry that makes the show work so well on screen has been honestly earned, like the esprit de corps fused in a boot camp. The cast are tight—on and off set. “Not only are we there all the time, but our lives have simultaneously changed,” says Monteith. At work there’s a lot of teasing and what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here joking about their shared celebrity. It helps keep everyone real.

In the early episodes, Monteith’s singing was so poor that his performances frequently had to be autotuned. Not anymore. “I don’t think I’m a great singer, but I think I can sing,” he says. And out of all of Glee’s sudden stars, you can make a pretty good case that he has had to work the hardest for his fame. Lea Michele was already a Broadway star. Kevin McHale—the wheelchair-bound Artie—was in a boy band. Harry Shum Jr. (Mike Chang) is a professional dancer. A couple of years of intensive coaching have taught the B.C. actor to not only hit the notes, but how to be dynamic. In the recent Rocky Horror-themed episode he was fairly belting out the “like you’re under sedation” line in Time Warp. For the “Grilled Cheesus” episode he laid down a version of REM’s Losing My Religion in two hours. “Often, I’m in the recording booth literally holding the lyric sheet behind the mike, learning the song as I go,” says Monteith.

The Finn Hudson role may not come with the dramatic challenges of the glee club’s openly gay Kurt Hummel, played by Chris Colfer, Quinn’s pregnancy, or even Mr. Shue’s pathetic love life. But making the befuddled foil sympathetic and believable week after week can’t be easy. “You’ve got to be incredibly smart to understand how dim Finn can be,” says McIlroy, his former acting teacher. In the GQ interview, Monteith expressed frustration about the show’s “convenient dumb-guy writing,” but he’s far more diplomatic over brunch. “I think every actor wants to be stretched. But it’s also important to realize that whatever we’re doing works.” He is getting pushed—just maybe not in the desired direction. He spent a month shedding 20 lb. for a shirtless scene in the Rocky Horror episode. An odd twist given a plot line that saw the quarterback struggling with body image.

Still, Monteith takes pains not to come off as an ingrate. “I realize that this happens to an actor about once every 10 lifetimes,” he says. “To be on a show that’s this good, it’s rarified air.” He’ll happily stick around into season 12, he jokes, playing Finn as the creepy janitor. Glee has already been picked up for a third cycle, and now occupies five soundstages on the Paramount lot. Musicians are now more than eager to license their songs. Coldplay, a rare refusal from season one, made a public apology, and threw in Gwyneth Paltrow (front man Chris Martin’s wife) for a spot in a future episode. Paul McCartney sent Murphy a couple of CDs of past hits and a pleading note.

In his few down weeks this summer, Mon­teith took on a role in Monte Carlo, a romantic comedy starring teen queen Selena Gomez, that will be released next February. Asked who he hopes to model his career on, Mon­teith rattles off the names Depp, Law and Clooney—Hollywood heavyweights who all started off in slight television roles. He hasn’t actually met any of them yet, but he did get to see Law play Hamlet in New York.

Truth be told, Monteith is famous, but he’s not that kind of famous. Nor does he want to be. “Being a celebrity is not my vocation,” he says. “I like to stay home, hang out with my friends, play video games, burp and eat pizza.” Last summer, he did post a picture with Prince Harry on his Twitter feed. (They met backstage at a music festival in London’s Hyde Park. Monteith, on an off weekend from the movie, flew to the U.K. for his first-ever visit, and volunteered to do promo work so Fox would pay for his hotel.)

But the social media moment the 28-year-old seems the most chuffed about is the Facebook message from his long estranged father. Last summer, Monteith travelled to New Brunswick for a visit, the first time they had laid eyes on each other in 15 years. “It was a powerful and wonderful experience. I learned a lot about him.” Would it ever have happened if not for the success of Glee? Mon­teith stops and considers. “It was definitely a big part of it. But that’s cool.”




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In conversation with Glee’s Cory Monteith

  1. I love Cory Monteith, Thank you for the interview!! Next time please include video :) (just kidding…kinda)

  2. I love him too. My son looks so much like him, he could be his double, except for blue eyes instead of brown. Seems like a lovely typical Canadian guy, and I'm happy for his success, and wish him more of it.

  3. Great article. As a fellow Victoria lady, I was suprised to read that he was from Victoria. Quite an amazing rag to riches story if you ask me.

  4. I LOVE Cory but I loved him more with the extra 20 lbs.

  5. Nanaimo killed him. You can run but you can’t hide from Nanaimo.

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