Kurt Hummel, the character that actor Chris Colfer plays on Glee, escapes from bullying at the TV show’s fictional high school by excelling as a show choir and music theater diva. The show mirrored Colfer’s real-life experience with bullying as a child, which became so brutal during middle school that his parents had to home-school him.
But long before Colfer, 24, became famous, he escaped from trauma into a literary world of make-believe. As a child, he was an avid reader of traditional fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, as well as children’s fantasies like Peter Pan, The Chronicles of Narnia, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz and the Harry Potter series. (He says he cried when he finished the series and spent months sleeping with a signed photo from J.K. Rowling under his pillow.)
“I hoped and prayed that a fairy godmother or magic book or wardrobe would take me off to a magic place where I could express my full potential,” Colfer says. “I loved, loved, loved fairy tales. I wanted desperately to fall into the book and meet those characters.”
Colfer’s success as an actor made his fairy-tale dream come true. He’s the author of the bestselling Land of Stories series, in which a twin brother and sister are transported into a magical kingdom where the likes of Goldilocks, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty struggle not just against evil sorceresses and dragons but against prejudice, preconceived assumptions and their own weaknesses. On July 13, Colfer will appear at Books & Books in Coral Gables to sign copies of A Grimm Warning, the just-published third book in the series.
Colfer fell in love with acting and writing when he was around 4, and he would find he desperately needed the escape they provided as he grew older. His family was focused on his younger sister, who had severe epilepsy. Meanwhile, her brother was suffering a different kind of attack. “I was teased and pushed around and made fun of because I was different,” he says. “I was small, I was way too smart for my own good — I was a huge history nerd who remembered every useless fact imaginable.”
Even before he came out in his teens, Colfer says that in the central California town where he grew up, being different and being gay were seen as equally intolerable. “Being gay was the absolute worst thing you could be at that time and place, when I was in middle school,” he says. “I do not know how I would have gotten through it without community theater performances to look forward to, or working on a script or a book.”
When he auditioned for Glee, Colfer’s story prompted show creator Ryan Murphy to develop the character of Kurt for the unknown 18-year-old actor. Although Colfer was out when he was cast, the prospect of playing a gay character on national TV was still intimidating.
“Suddenly I’m gonna be known for something that, for where I’m from, is the worst thing you can be,” he says. “There was still such stigma in 2008 for actors to play gay roles. People tried to brainwash me — ‘You’ll be typecast for the rest of your life.’ ”
Instead, the success of Glee and the appeal of Kurt, one of the show’s most popular characters, made Colfer a star — and a spokesperson for a cultural shift that has seen an accelerating acceptance of homosexuality, from pop culture to the widening legalization of gay marriage. In 2011 he was named to the Time 100 list of influential people, and he has been flooded with fan mail from kids struggling with bullying and intolerance.
“I guess it was validation and revenge, but more for the kids around the world looking up to me and that character,” Colfer says. “I never thought, ‘Now I’m gonna make everyone who treated me badly feel bad.’ ”
Fame could be overwhelming — Colfer went from being one more aspiring actor to causing mob scenes when he went out in public. But in 2010 it also brought an offer to write his autobiography. Instead, Colfer suggested the Land of Stories, which he had begun writing when he was 7 years old.
“Confidence had very little to do with it,” he says. “It was more like here’s my shot, I may as well do everything I can now.”
His first editor was his grandmother — as a child, he would bike over to her house with his latest chapter. “I’d watch her read it and she would write down grammar and spelling errors,” he says. “She also gave me the best writing advice I’ve ever received: “Christopher, I think you should wait until you’re done with elementary school before worrying about being a failed writer.’ ”
In the series opener, The Wishing Spell, 12-year-old twins Alex and Connor Bailey receive an enchanted book from their grandmother that sends them to a magical country where fairy tales are real. But the twins’ struggles and adventures reflect universal adolescent issues, while the characters get a contemporary twist — with the themes of tolerance, empowerment and identity that have been central to Glee.
Alex wrestles with her responsibilities to her magical powers and her first attraction to a boy, while Connor grapples with insecurity over his talented sister and his first crush. Mother Goose has a tendency to get drunk in bars at crucial moments. Goldilocks’ history of breaking and entering turns her into an outlaw. Community-minded Little Bo Peep ousts obliviously self-centered Little Red Riding Hood (known as Red) from her kingdom.
Colfer says that while the series is rooted in his original creation, his real-world experience has transformed the traditional fairy-tale dualities of good and evil. “The story of the twins finding the magical storybook and traveling into a magical fairy-tale world has been exactly the same since I was 7,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve added or changed a single character. But as I got older I could see them from a different point of view.”
For instance, the experience of being an unknown kid shooting into fame on TV shaped the portrayal of Cinderella. “Everyone refers to her story as a Cinderella story, but when she got to be queen and had to win over the kingdom she found out it was not all it was cracked up to be,” Colfer says.
Although he refused to write an autobiography, Colfer says there’s plenty of personal history in his fantasy. “Alex is my bookworm smart side, and Connor is my sarcastic, smart-aleck side,” he says. “The evil enchantress in the second book is me, and a lot of her past relationships are based on relationships I had.” His closeness to his grandmother means that grandmothers play an important role in the series, from the raucous Mother Goose to the benign but powerful Fairy Godmother.
Even the megalomaniacal general who is the baddie in A Grimm Warning springs from the author. “I was born with the drive to conquer and accomplish, and he represents that side of me,” Colfer says. “Of course, he’s much more evil, but I think it’s much more interesting to explore the villain in yourself. If a reader says to themselves, ‘I would have conquered a whole nation, too, if that had been done to me,’ then I think you’ve done your job.”
In fact, he has done it so well that writing may supersede acting in his job description. The first two Land of Stories books were on the New York Times bestseller list, and his publishing contract calls for two more. (He plans to incorporate more literary characters, like Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland.) Glee, heading into its sixth season, looks to be nearing the end of its run. And Colfer, who has received praise for writing, producing and starring in the indie film Struck by Lightning, says he is increasingly attracted to a behind-the-scenes creative role.
Meanwhile, the Land of Stories keeps providing escape for Colfer. At his first book signing, he noticed a young boy staring intently at him. When the boy got to the front of the line, Colfer shook his hand and asked his name. “He kept looking at me, and then he said, “Has anyone ever told you you look like that guy from Glee?”