Tonight at 8 p.m. ET on Fox, Glee airs its final two-hour installment. The first half flashes back to 2009, while the second pushes forward 5 years into the future.
One of the constants throughout Glee‘s six years has been star Lea Michele, who plays the ambitious Rachel Berry. Michele, who’s currently in New Orleans shooting Fox’s Scream Queens—from Glee creators Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan—looked back with EW on the impact of Glee and what it’s meant to her life and career.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Do you remember your audition?
LEA MICHELE: Of course. It might have been six years ago, but it wasn’t 100 years ago. You can’t forget the thing that was the start, and the moments that began the most important thing of my life so far. I had a very memorable audition—as everyone knows I got into a car accident heading to Fox to meet with the network. I was reading [the script] for the first time, thinking about how amazing it was and how funny and smart and touching. We were all reminiscing last week, during the last week of the show, of what the first week of rehearsals was like. It was just me, Kevin [McHale], Jenna [Ushkowitz], and Amber [Riley] before other people came. There’s so many memories. It’s pretty unbelievable. It was honestly such an incredible journey.
What are your memories of shooting that pilot?
I remember my first day. I remember feeling really nervous. I’d never done television before. I know that on my first day, Ryan [Murphy] said that it came really naturally for me, so that gave me the confidence to shoot the rest of the pilot and all of that. I remember shooting “Don’t Stop” with all of the kids. It was sort of the first time that we really connected as a group, and we all were fooling around so much. We were like, misbehaving. We were all hysterical laughing, kind of messing around, and then Ryan came up to us and he was like, “Matt Morrison has to cry in this scene and you guys are misbehaving.” It was the first scolding that we got, but it was also the most amazing moment, because everyone knew it—Ryan knew it, we all knew it, Matt knew it—that we were like best friends. That relationship that we created amongst that original group, and then continued on to everyone else who came after, is what made the show great. We all were really friends. We all ready had emotional investments with everyone.
Did getting slushied get any easier?
I had to have it done I think three times in this season, in our final season. It definitely doesn’t get better. You become less afraid leading up to it. I remember the anticipation the first and second time. That got a little bit better, but I definitely don’t think anyone should—it’s like being bitchslapped by an iceberg.
Are you off slushies for the rest of your life?
You know me—do you think I eat anything like that?
When did you know that first season that the show was a phenomenon?
I’m pretty sure everyone else will say the same thing. We had two moments early on. I think it was when we were in New York for our upfront, and I don’t even think the show had aired yet. We flew to New York for the upfront, and that night was the American Idol season finale as well as the Glee pilot premiere, because they were airing the pilot right after American Idol. So we were all in New York, and then we all flew home for Idol, then all drove back to me and Dianna’s house and watched the pilot together. The first moment was in New York for upfronts: We were all at Ruby Foo’s having dinner and TMZ was outside. We were like, “Why is paparazzi outside for us?” And we all linked arms and literally did a conga line outside of Ruby Foo’s.
The other big major time was when we went to Australia in September 2009. The show had only had one episode air, and we were doing a mall tour. We went to Australia, and I think something like 3,000 kids showed up for us—on the other side of the world, for a show that hadn’t even aired yet. There were just moments at the beginning. And then obviously, later on, we were singing the national anthem at the World Series, and then Oprah, and then Obama. After a while, it became very clear that this was something super special. At the beginning, there were like these little moments that we were sort of like, “That’s strange. What’s that mean?”
What’s the Gleek encounter that’s burned into your memory the most?
There’s definitely a lot of the tattoo situations. I think we’ve all had fans want to tattoo our names. We tried to persuade them not to do that. But look, to pick one thing is really difficult, because like I said we’ve really been blessed to have the most incredible following. I know that it was just the extreme devotion of our fans that made the show as successful as it was. I think that I have really great encounters with people who have said how much seeing Rachel on the show being raised by two men meant to them. I know that Chris Colfer has had a lot of people who were really saved by Kurt.
Do you have one favorite number?
That’s so hard. I don’t think anyone can really stop and pick their one favorite thing. I think that “Somebody to Love” was really great. Obviously the original “Don’t Stop” was really, really great. I loved “Don’t Rain On My Parade.” My favorite episode is the end of season 2, when we all go to New York. I loved that. The numbers in that one are also some of my favorites, like singing “For Good” with Chris at the Gershwin Theater was one of my favorites.
Is there one song you never got to do that you sort of regret not being able to do?
No. Honestly, I was so thankful that even at the end, when they were like, “What do you want your last song to be?” it was hard to figure it out because they were so, so, so great in helping me to have the freedom to pick things that I wanted to do. I’ve gotten to sing every Celine that I’ve wanted to, every Barbra. I’m personally very satisfied.
Which was the most difficult number to do?
I think shooting into the night doing “Thriller”—I’m not a night person, so that was hard for me. “Jump” was really hard because we were so hot. It was like 100 degrees in this mattress store in the valley. Even the swimming pool number, that was fun. We always had some sort of challenge in the moment. But the fact that I’m not sitting here being like, “That horrible number!” …I think that’s a good sign. We’ve always had interesting things to work up against, like the mattresses or late at night or choreography. I would say that definitely “Thriller,” for me—it was super fun, but we were shooting that at like 4 in the morning, 5 in the morning, and I was like “I cannot do this.”
And you had crazy makeup, too…
It was actually really funny, because I needed to have an exit plan—I planned that night to a T because I was so anxious about it. I’ve never pulled an all-nighter or anything like that. So I actually was like, “No prosthetics on my face because I wanted to be able to just leave.” So I actually wore all my regular clothes—like pajamas—underneath my costume with my own shoes. I just put the dress over. I had a wig and my hair was just in a bun underneath. And for my makeup, they just used makeup—it wasn’t any prosthetics. So literally when they said, “That’s a wrap,” I pulled my wig off, took off my dress, wiped off my makeup and I was in my car I think within five minutes. I think I called my dad on the East Coast to stay on the phone with me because it was probably like 8 or 9 his time. We were driving home from Long Beach and I was like, “Okay, what if I fall asleep?”
What was it like on set that last day?
No one can really understand what that feels like. I personally am still processing it I think it’s going to take a long time. We had a very emotional week—the whole week leading up to Saturday was a lot of “lasts.” Like, my last scene with this person, and my last solo, and my last recording session. Each thing was sad. By the time we got to Saturday, I think all of us were emotionally drained. The whole day was sort of a blur. It was sort of like we couldn’t believe it was really happening as it got closer and closer and closer to that last shot.
But at the end of the day, the last people in that room were me, Jenna, Kevin, Chris, Darren [Criss], Amber, Chord [Overstreet], Becca [Tobin], and Matt Morrison in the choir room. And those were the people—we were the kids who were always there, the originals. To have those people in that room, and then they yelled “Cut” and me and Jenna and Amber and Kevin fell into this ball together, crying. Luckily I had my best friend Jonathan [Groff] there to sort of take care of me. It was really sad.
At the end of the night, we all went to the auditorium, that group with [co-creator] Brad Falchuk—we just sat in a circle and we went around and each said something special about what the show meant. We said goodbye, and that was it. We really honored the last day and made sure everyone was very present and aware of what was going on. We really honored the entire experience in that last day. But it’ll take a long time to still figure out how it feels.
Can you qualify for what this show meant to you personally?
I mean, there’s so much to say. It’s by far the greatest experience I’ve had in my life so far. The ups and downs—it was the most incredible journey that we all got to experience and I couldn’t be more grateful. The one thing that we all said that night was that we were always just so happy to come to work. And I think that says a lot for people who spend so much time together for seven years. We genuinely loved our jobs. I think that time gets perspective. We finished a full season, which is exhausting, so I think in a couple of weeks when we realize that we’re not going back… You know, when I’m on the set of Scream Queens and I’m like, “But wait, I have to go back to Glee,” and they’ll be like “You’re not going back.”
What do you think Glee’s legacy is?
I think that not only did it bring music into people’s homes on a television show, which people hadn’t done successfully in a very long time,— think we’ve managed to be a comedy television show that made people laugh, but at the same time made such a difference in our culture and for this generation. Not only with the advancements and awareness that it brought to arts education, but to opening up conversations in homes amongst parents and their kids. As well as giving children role models of people that look like them or going through things that they were experiencing. I think that it’s very rare to have a show that can be as entertaining as it is important. And I think that’s the number one thing that made it such an honor to be a part of Glee.