Interview: Chris Colfer Talks Writing & Starring in STRUCK BY LIGHTNING
Chris Colfer is not a man who wastes time resting on his laurels. In the past four years, we’ve seen him sing and dance on Glee, win a Golden Globe® and two Teen Choice Awards, and become a #1 New York Times Bestselling Author thanks to his young adult novel, The Land of Stories.
And that’s not all. Colfer also managed to find the time to write a screenplay and star in the resulting film: Struck By Lightning.
Directed by Brian Dannelly (Saved!), Struck By Lightning stars Colfer, Allison Janney, Rebel Wilson, Sarah Hyland, Dermot Mulroney, Christina Hendricks, and Polly Bergen, with supporting performances by Allie Grant, Ashley Rickards, Carter Jenkins, Graham Rogers, Matt Prokop, Robbie Amell, Roberto Aguire, Angela Kinsey, and Brad William Henke.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Chris Colfer about writing Struck By Lightning and the experience of bringing his words to life on the silver screen.
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Screen Invasion: The first question I have to ask is, they say to “write what you know.” To what extent was this what you knew in high school?
Chris Colfer: Oh, God. To be able to say that…but I tend to write about things that I’m learning, rather than things that I’ve learned or you know for sure. I have no right to be writing about adult[hood] [or] life lessons and whatnot. I always try to write about the advice and the best lessons that I’ve been told, rather than what I’ve learned.
SI: Are there specific dark comedies or other teen movies that inspired your vision for Struck by Lightning?
CC: Yeah, there were a lot of movies that had the same really dark tone that I really was inspired by, like Election, and Saved!, which was amazing just to meet with Brian Dannelly and get him to do this movie. For the most part, I really wanted to tell a movie about a character that I thought never really had a film about them, about the overachieving, under appreciated kid. I thought that was a genre of kid that was never really touched on in high school movies before this one.
SI: There’s a lot of really intelligent humor in Struck by Lightning. Do you think your target audience will get it all?
CC: I think so. If not, the fans will, hopefully. I feel like, in a strange way, I’ve broadened my demographic from musical theater kids who watch Glee to really smart kids in high school that feel the same way I feel. Like, “Come on, we’re people too. Tell our story.” I think they definitely get the humor, but we’ll see. I hope there’s something in this movie for everyone.
SI: Director Brian Dannelly has said it was really important to have actors in the cast that were great at improv. To what extent did the cast improv while filming? Was anyone in particular given a lot of leeway in that regard?
CC: For the most part we followed the script really, really well. Of course, whenever we did things Rebel [Wilson] would go off on these ad libbing tangents that were just hysterical. I watched the movie and I cannot believe I held a straight face for half the scenes I’m in with her because she’s so funny. When the camera was rolling, we would make sure we got everything on script, and then…everyone would be as crazy and creative as possible. A lot of that got to the movie, so there is a fair amount of improv-ing in the movie.
SI: You’ve talked about how one of your high school teachers was so influential in the early stages in Struck by Lightning. Yet the world of the story is one where the adults have either failed or in some cases sabotaged the next generation. What inspired that disconnect? What’s the lesson there?
CC: I don’t know. A lot of it maybe just happened coincidentally. I just wanted to tell a story about people that were in different places in their lives and in their journey. For Carson, it was…he was always stuck in the present or a possible future that he wanted to create for himself. He’d go home, and his mom was completely stuck in the past. I grew up with so many people that were either/or. No one really got that it really was the present that mattered. That’s what I’m still learning. I’m still very impatient in trying to watch things. I’m always looking at who’s next, who’s next. I really thought I would tell a story that was mainly about people and where they were at, how they clashed, and how their opinions differed.
SI: Was it ever difficult to keep a straight face, or not want to cry, with some of the lines that Allison Janney says to you?
CC: Oh, no. Even though that they were really horrible, sad scenes, it was hard not to smile, because I’m like, “Yes, Allison Janney, be mad at me. Be mad.”…It was great. It was just hard not to smile the entire time, even in the sad, dramatic scenes. It’s so exciting for me to have someone like Allison Janney. She’s one of the most loved actresses in the business. I’ve been such a huge fan of hers for years. To see her say the words that I had written, it was crazy. That was the hardest part, was not being on cloud nine the entire experience.
SI: You told Entertainment Weekly recently that you were a victim in high school. Did you enjoy playing the total opposite, being the aggressor in so many cases?
CC: Yeah, it was a lot of fun. I don’t think, had I [not had] my connection with Glee and the whole bullying epidemic that swept the country, I don’t know if people would really associate this movie with bullying so much. He’d pick on and tease, but Carson never lets himself be the victim. He’s very…very vocal about…[the fact that] he doesn’t care about anyone’s opinion but his own. I was definitely the exact opposite in high school. I was very much picked on and I very much cared about what people thought about me, and then would try to adapt myself and hope for popularity and acceptance. Initially, a character like Carson—a character that just so didn’t give a crap—I thought that would be very beneficial for kids that were dealing with that.
SI: Do you think that maybe it teaches the opposite side of the bullying lesson? He victimizes some of the people that he encounters, tears them down. Do you think there’s anything that the audience can learn from that aspect?
CC: By no means is he a role model. [laughs] I don’t know. I think it’s just a kid who is constantly…fed up with it [all]. I think it’s good for kids to see a kid that wants to stand up for themself. I maybe wouldn’t recommend blackmailing the student body, but it is good to stand up for yourself.
SI: When you filmed in the summer of 2011, could you have guessed that so many of the younger members of the cast would have achieved such fame in your target demographic by the time that Struck by Lightning was released?
CC: Oh gosh, no. When we filmed it, Rebel had just been cast in Pitch Perfect. Ashley [Rickards] had just finished season one of Awkward. Sarah [Hyland] was a star already. But no, it was really great. Of course, I was so excited by it. Every time I’d get word or hear that someone was doing a movie, then I thought, “Oh great, this is more friends for my movie when it comes out.” There was not a single person in the cast, or a pair that didn’t get along. Everyone was very talented and smart. We lucked out so much. We had such a stellar cast.
SI: Is there one message, a sentence, that you hope the audience takes away from Struck by Lightning?
CC: Yeah. Hopefully, it will be different for everyone, but I really just hope that it inspires aspiration. I hope that by seeing all the potential that Carson was robbed of by tragically being killed, hopefully it will make people find that potential in themselves.
SI: What was your favorite part about this whole experience?
CC: I think, honestly, just getting to do it, being able to have something come from my brain, onto paper, then onto the screen was just incredible. Getting to work with some of the people that I got to work with, like Brian Dannelly, Allison Janney, and Polly Bergen. I spent hours talking to Polly Bergen, just picking her brain about the experiences that she had back in the ’50s filming live television and whatnot. The whole thing was an incredible, amazing experience.
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Jan. 11, 2013
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For a list of theaters showing Struck By Lightning, see the film’s Official Website.
Top Photo – Chris Colfer in Struck By Lightning. Photo by Suzanne Houchin. © 2012 Tribeca Film.