Amanda Edwards/WireImage
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June 14, 2018 at 04:16 PM EDT

“Without Glee, I probably wouldn’t be talking to you right now,” Blake Jenner says, “because that’s what started the whole journey for me.”

Jenner was just 19 when he competed on — and won — the reality series The Glee Project, thereby earning a role on the Ryan Murphy mega-hit. “You’re there for like 11 weeks,” Jenner says of his experience on the reality program. “Every week, you’re only allowed to make a 10-minute phone call, that’s recorded, and you can’t say anything about what you’re doing. We were so hidden from society that I walked out and One Direction was already big and famous, and I didn’t know who the hell they were.”

His new movie Billy Boy (opening Friday in select theaters) seems about as far from Glee as it can get: The film, which Jenner wrote, follows a violent youth who deals with grief and trauma after a carjacking goes wrong. “He’s an angry kid,” Jenner says of Billy. “He’s learned how to compartmentalize pretty well, but he uses violence with his friends as therapy because he wouldn’t even know a therapist is an option. He’s been abandoned by his father, and he lives in a broken home with no support, so I think it’s natural to search for an identity with a questionable group of people.”

The role aligns well with Jenner’s role in American Animals (in theaters now), in which he plays one of the students caught up in the Transy book heist. “As grateful as I was to work, I was just getting the opportunities of the jock or the golden boy, and I think a lot of those characters are interesting, but I didn’t want to play that too much. I didn’t want to wear myself out to an audience just playing the same thing.”

Jenner, now 25, couldn’t go on playing a high schooler forever: “Imagine how much money I would waste on moisturizer.”

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