McKinley High's fashionable soprano is comfy both performing in 10-inch-high Lady Gaga heels and coaching the football team on how to put a ring on it. He's the group's lone, self-assured outcast, virtually free of self-pity and most content in Alexander McQueen.
Colfer says he, on the other hand, was more of a "social llama" in high school.
"Like, where does a llama go? It's not a horse. It's kind of a camel, but it's not a goat. It's just on the farm, and people point and gawk at it because it has funky hair. That's how I've always pictured myself," he says. "The llama tries to hang out with a duck and the duck freaks out and runs away. The cows are mean to it. That's what it was like for me."
But that was then, and while he won't be parading around in pumps any time soon, Colfer's inching his way toward becoming more confident à la his younger alter ego. The night before he and his Glee co-stars were scheduled to face thousands of shrieking Gleeks at Comic-Con last month, he partied in a sea of celebrities in downtown San Diego, hands in the air, dancing like he just didn't care.
"It would have embarrassed a blind man watching," he says of his uninhibited moves, over breakfast the next morning. Colfer, who turned 20 in May, can geek out if wants to; he has plenty of reasons to be excited.
Fox's Glee has earned 19 Emmy nominations for its first season, including one for Colfer in the best supporting actor in a comedy category. The high school musical-comedy has also spawned five chart-topping soundtracks, a sold-out concert tour, and arguably TV's most rabid fans.
Colfer now knows the perils of being too popular. "I was recently held hostage in an elevator by a group of women. I think they were a little drunk, granted, but they would not let me out until I took pictures with them," he said. "It was funny, but I was terrified... It was like the Aldonza rape scene in Man of La Mancha, if you get my drift. That's kind of how I felt."
Just two years ago, Colfer felt trapped for very different reasons. He had graduated high school and knew he wanted to pursue acting, but living in the small, conservative town of Clovis, Calif., his dreams felt far away. Then, his biggest claim to fame was Shirley Todd, a spoof of Sweeney Todd he wrote, starred in and directed in his senior year.
He spent the rest of his high school years making the four-hour drive from Clovis to Los Angeles a few times a month for auditions that never paid off. "I was always auditioning for Nickelodeon and Disney Channel stuff, and all the kids had to be loud and obnoxious and I was so internal. Like, 'Where art thou, Yorick?' with a Mickey Mouse skull, right? Which isn't quite what they were looking for."
When Colfer graduated, performing arts schools were out of the question — "My parents made too much money for me to apply for scholarships, but not enough money to send me there themselves," he says — and he panicked. "'I'm stuck here. What am I going to do? I can't settle for something else at this point,'" he recalled thinking. Then the audition for a high school show set to song came along, and it was a match in every way.
After reading the script, "I thought, "Oh my God, I'm one of these kids. I know 'Sit Down, You're Rocking The Boat!' And what's this? Someone else knows about A Chorus Line?!'" Colfer recalls. "I really, really wanted it." Glee co-creator Ryan Murphy, in turn, really wanted Colfer, and especially wrote the role of Kurt to suit the high-voiced, apple-cheeked actor. (Kurt's last name, Hummel, comes from the figurines of the same name.)
Colfer has since made the role his own, and reveals that Kurt's diva front is based more on his own childhood pet cat Simon than anything else.
"Kurt is so my cat. Simon thought he was so superior to everyone else. He would look down and frown upon them," Colfer says, arching an eyebrow to demonstrate. "He used to stretch and count his claws in front of us and he was just so grand and had the biggest head. I picked up on all of that."
Kurt also has a vulnerable side, and Colfer is getting attention and accolades for his sensitive portrayal of a teenager coming to terms with his sexuality. In the fourth episode of Glee, Kurt came out to his dad Bert (Mike O'Malley, also Emmy-nominated for his guest-starring role), and their closely observed relationship continues to yield some of the show's most affecting scenes.
In a later episode, Kurt deliberately throws a sing-off with Rachel (both want the solo in Wicked's "Defying Gravity," which is typically sung by a female) to spare his dad harassment. And when he becomes frustrated by an inability to bond with his dad, Kurt delivers a rant as only Glee can: with "Rose's Turn," from Gypsy.
Colfer said he was gay in December in response to a question from late night talk show host Chelsea Handler. He joked that before he came out, he used to say he was "as straight as every other actor in Hollywood." Colfer has not spoken at length on the subject in the media, and says he's still adapting to the pressure to be a role model.
"Sometimes the stories people want from me, I just don't have them," he says. "They want me to tell inspirational stories about being gay in high school, but I don't have those. I was an outcast because I was weird, not because of sexual orientation... I think how I carry myself and how I behave from now on will speak for itself."
Colfer's co-stars aren't surprised Emmy voters took special note of his work, even among a large ensemble. Harry Shum, who plays Mike "Other Asian" Chang, says "Chris is what Glee is all about. He is a breakout. He's the underdog the show celebrates. He came up at such a young age with no professional work at all — and look at him. He just shines."
Jenna Ushkowitz, who plays formerly speech-impaired goth girl Tina, says Colfer now carries his high school hardships "in the best way possible."
"There's a lot of Chris' honesty in Kurt, and I think people really took to that," she says. "The voice, the wit, there's no one like him. He shows that sometimes the most different and unique thing about you is often the most beautiful."