Words by Mr Freddie Campion
The first time I met Mr Matthew Morrison was at a dinner in New York in August 2009. Unassuming, and keeping himself to himself in what was a big group of people, all I was able to garner about the then 31-year-old actor was that he'd made his name on Broadway (he played teen heart-throb Link Larkin in the original production of Hairspray, and had been nominated for a Tony Award for his role in The Light in the Piazza) but had just returned from Los Angeles, where he'd been working on a new TV show called Glee: a camp musical comedy series about a group of singing and dancing teenage outcasts. (Mr Morrison would play Will Schuester, the hapless Spanish teacher who takes on the task of whipping them, and their fictional high school's flagging theatre club, into shape.) The pilot had already premiered in May to much acclaim, but it was still unclear if it would find a mainstream audience once the full season began.
Among the pessimists, it turns out, was Mr Morrison himself, who, after a 10-year-long career plagued with false starts, was still practically unheard of outside the insular New York theatre world.
"I had done something like six pilots at that point and none of them ever went," he recalls when we meet again, post-shoot, over green tea in a downtown Manhattan hotel. "To be honest, I didn't think this one was going to go either. I mean, it was a FOX show about a group of singing and dancing high school kids. I didn't think anyone was going to be into it."
A show about a group of singing and dancing high school kids? I didn't think anyone was going to be into it
In a post-Glee world, in which the so-called "Glee effect" has sparked a whole subgenre of similarly tongue-in-cheek musical comedies, this kind of analysis now seems unthinkable. By early 2010 the show was a full-blown cultural phenomenon, with a die-hard fanbase ready to catapult any song that passed through its cast's lips to the top of the iTunes chart and Billboard Hot 100. And it wouldn't be long before a host of high-profile magazine covers, a worldwide stadium tour and peak audiences of more than 13.5 million viewers nationally would follow.
Even today, with the show's popularity waning somewhat, Mr Morrison still feels its effects wherever he goes. "Last night I was at dinner with my girlfriend and there was this table not too far away trying to get pictures all night," he says with his familiar amiable half-cracked, sideways grin. "Every time I took a bite I had to check over there to make sure they're not going to get a shot of me shoving food in my mouth."
It doesn't bother him too much, however. "It is what it is," he says, thankful that all this attention is coming now when he's already into his thirties - unlike his cast mates. "I was able to go through life and make mistakes when there weren't cameras on me," he says.
Although he doesn't elaborate too much on his past, given the nature of Mr Morrison's upbringing in southern California it seems apt that he will forever be associated with precocious theatre kids. As a teenager he attended the Orange County School of the Arts: a 1,500 pupil-strong glee club, if you will, where, even among a school full of musical theatre devotees, he gained a reputation as a leading man. "I have grown up being on stage and that has always been what I've wanted to do," he says. Mr Morrison's passion brought him to New York University's Tisch School of the Arts to study drama, but he dropped out when, after ignoring the school rules about students not being allowed to audition for outside jobs, he was given a small part in the 1998 Broadway revival of Footloose - a lukewarm hit, but a Broadway play nonetheless. (Tisch has since forgiven him, awarding him the Distinguished Alumni Award last year, despite the fact that he never actually graduated.) He spent much of the next two years bouncing between bit parts and off-Broadway productions until 2000, when he was offered what looked like his first real big break: a role in a new Broadway revival of The Rocky Horror Show.
Unfortunately, Mr Morrison didn't see it that way at the time, turning it down instead for a new boy band, which had offered him a spot in the line-up. "It's one of the biggest mistakes I've ever made in my life," he says. "It was at the height of *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys, so I really thought I was going to make a lot of money being in a boy band." He soon found himself looking for work again ("Singing and dancing to stupid, ridiculous songs didn't feed my soul," he says), but luckily fate had already stepped in. "After it didn't work out, Rocky Horror heard and said they had a role for me in the ensemble if I wanted it. I was like, 'Absolutely, I need a job!'"
Joining a boy band is one of the biggest mistakes I've made in my life. I really thought I was going to make a lot of money
When that show's choreographer went to work on a Broadway adaptation of Mr John Waters' camp 1950s pastiche Hairspray in 2002, he invited Mr Morrison to take part in one of the final workshops. "From there I got the lead," he says, "and the rest is history."
Mr Morrison still has the charm of a Broadway matinée idol: he's smiley, soft-spoken and, like his character in Glee, unflappably positive. It actually makes the times he's not mincing his words easy to miss. While trying to explain why he was so successful as a dancer, for instance, he fumbles around the idea that he's more "instinctual" than your average cast member, before eventually just bluntly coming out and saying it: "I lead with my d**k." Or, as he goes on to explain: "Sometimes you see a guy up there and you think, 'I don't believe it, I don't think that guy wants to have sex with that woman.'"
Similarly, although he's not disgruntled about the amount of time Glee still takes up, it's clear that playing the same role for the past three years with no chance of working on projects in-between has taken its toll. Ironically, having spent so long trying to break into TV, he's now desperate to get back on stage. "We shoot more than 10 months of the year, so I don't have time to do a proper show," he says.
From right: Will (Mr Morrison) introduces Matt (Mr Dijon Talton) and Puck (Mr Mark Salling) as the new members of McKinley High's Glee Club in the show's first season, 2009
The Red Carpet
Mr Morrison attending the 69th annual Golden Globe Awards, LA, January 2012
What to expect when you're expecting
Mr Morrison and Ms Cameron Diaz in the 2012 film
©Lionsgate Home Entertainment UK. All rights reserved
The workload has "forced my hand", as Mr Morrison puts it, and today he spends his spare time also carving out a career as a recording artist. His second album, a collection of Broadway standards, is out in February next year, and he's just started touring what is known as the "symphony circuit": a network of 2,000-seater theatres around the country, which provide housewives and Broadway devotees a chance to see the likes of Ms Kristin Chenoweth, Ms Idina Menzel, and now Mr Morrison, live in the flesh.
"I'm trying to do something different by incorporating dance," explains Mr Morrison. "I'll sing for a bit then there'll be an instrumental break and I'll just bust out a whole dance. I want to be like Michael Bublé mixed with Gene Kelly."
Gene Kelly, leading with his d**k?
What to Expect When You're Expecting is available to buy and rent on DVD and Blu-ray.