The 20-year-old scene-stealer from ''Glee'' discusses how his outsider past paved the way for playing one of the most socially relevant characters on TV

Chris Colfer has always wanted to be a superhero. As a kid growing up in the California suburb of Clovis, he loved the genre — even in its cheesiest incarnations — and decided to do something about it when he hit high school. Inspired by the movie Elektra, Colfer trained himself in sai sword skills — or, rather, tried to. ”I bought the swords on eBay and I taught myself in my bedroom and in my living room,” he says. ”I broke lamps and my parents’ coffee table, which I still haven’t replaced. I’m a horrible son. It still has a huge sword imprint on it.”

Colfer may not have mastered the knife-fighting skills of a big-screen ninja, but he’s become a more realistic hero to a lot of viewers thanks to his inspiring (and Emmy-nominated) portrayal of out gay teen Kurt Hummel on Fox’s hit Glee. Whether taking the lead on Lady Gaga’s ”Bad Romance” or coming out to his mechanic father, Burt (Mike O’Malley), Colfer has turned into Glee‘s musical and emotional showstopper. ”He’s able to inhabit this role in a way that is so easy to act opposite him if you have any sort of empathy,” says O’Malley. ”Anytime I’m in a scene with him, all I have to do is put my attention on him and what he is going through in the scene and then the words just come out.”

Kurt has unequivocally become the heart of the series and, amid a recent flare-up in gay-teen bullying and suicides across the country, one of the most socially important characters on television. Says Colfer: ”With all due respect to my castmates, they don’t get the letters like I get — the letters that not only say ‘I’m your biggest fan’ but also ‘Kurt saved my life’ and ‘Kurt doesn’t make me feel alone’ from 7-year-olds in Nebraska. When I was growing up, there wasn’t a character like this. I think what makes Kurt so special is he’s finding himself in front of our eyes.”

Much like his character, Colfer had a hard time finding his place in high school. ”The best way I can describe myself in high school was that I was kind of like a social llama,” he says. ”Like, where does the llama go? A llama’s not a cow. It’s not a horse. It might hang out with the duck once in a while, but it really has no place to belong. I was a social llama. But I didn’t walk around spitting on things.” With his outcast status came repeated bullying by classmates, who would often taunt Colfer with gay slurs. The teen, not unlike Kurt, would fight back with his wit instead of his fists. Colfer recounts, ”One time I was walking and someone said, ‘F—!’ and I turned back and said, ‘Yeah, but can you spell it?”’

Colfer was just starting out at Fresno City College when Glee came calling. (The ardent Nip/Tuck fan remembers being starstruck by co-creator Ryan Murphy: ”Literally my whole teenage-rebellion experience was just me watching Nip/Tuck against my mother’s will.”) He first auditioned for the role of wheelchair-bound Artie, but producers were so taken with him that they created the role of Kurt (Colfer says his original contract even says ”Artie #2” on it). What the producers didn’t appreciate then, however, was how crucial Kurt would become as a way to ground the spectacle of Glee with heart — something they realized mere episodes into season 1. ”When we did the ‘Preggers’ episode, where Kurt tries out for the football team,” recounts Glee‘s co-creator and executive producer Brad Falchuk, ”that’s where I think we really understood who Kurt was and how much of an emotional anchor he was going to be for the show.” Luckily, Colfer embraces the heavy material: ”When it comes to dramatic stuff, those scenes are like candy to me.” And it’s precisely those charged moments (like Kurt’s coming-out scene in ”Preggers” and his recent heartbreaking rendition of the Beatles’ ”I Want to Hold Your Hand”) that have made the character a touchstone for fans. Says Colfer, ”I think the craziest thing for me personally — and this has happened like 150 times — is where someone will come out to me and they’ll tell me I’m the only person they’ve come out to.”

Glee‘s next episode, ”Never Been Kissed,” airing Nov. 9, will undoubtedly endear Colfer to even more viewers. In a timely decision, producers have opted to address the current rash of bullying through Kurt. Fed up with football players constantly harassing him, the New Directions member ventures off to spy on his glee club’s competition and meets another openly gay student, Blaine (Darren Criss). The new pal, who may become a love interest (producers haven’t officially decided), motivates Kurt to stand up to his tormentors. ”Had you told me when I was walking down the halls being picked on and harassed, in a matter of four years I’d be put in a position where the character I’d be playing on TV would be inspiring so many people in that same situation, it would have been mind-blowing,” says Colfer. ”Everything happens for a reason, so maybe it was good I went through all of that because now it all comes from a personal place.”

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