Cory Monteith, who died suddenly last Saturday at the age of 31, was everything everybody says about him: an open, warm-hearted soul who was considered the heart of the TV show Glee, a romantic who seemed to be having a great time with Glee castmate Lea Michele, and a guy with an unhappy past that bedeviled him to the very end.
I only met him once, in 2010, during Glee‘s second season, and it was clear even then that he was troubled. Nice as he was, appealing as he was, he also held a lot of stuff back and was maybe not as happy and upbeat as he often seemed to be. “When I first moved to L.A., I didn’t like it,” he told me. “But now I think it’s a pretty cool place. I blend right in here. I like it. It’s a city of chameleons. Whatever I need to be, I am, and it’s me, and it’s not me.” He said he was okay with that, but it had to be tough, especially when so many of his childhood issues remained unresolved.
A cause of death has not yet been determined. Hedegaard’s 2010 encounter with Monteith is available below.
Cory Monteith pushes open the doors of the Guitar Center on Sunset. Though Canadian, he looks entirely all-American, tall, enthusiastic, with an open smile and easygoing brown eyes; in a crowd of a thousand good-looking guys trying out for a Gap ad, he would be one of them. Seconds later, he does something that seems to set him apart and say a lot about him that’s good and honest and pure. Intent on testing out some drums, he instantly offers the clerk his driver’s license as surety against loss, theft, destruction, whatever. The clerk refuses, but the point is, Monteith offered. And then he plays, in a style that is breezy but determined.
Out on Sunset again, he gets into his souped-up Honda Civic, with dark-tinted windows, and zooms off alarmingly fast, toward his favorite West Hollywood breakfast nook. At this point, we know only a few things about Monteith. As Finn on Glee, he’s a jock who stands up to his snorting, eyeball-rolling football teammates in order to join the Glee club, has a problem with sexual suddenness and is none too bright. What first got Monteith noticed for the job was a mailed-in audition tape that consisted of him playing a goofy drum solo on some overturned Tupperware containers. He is 27 and the oldest of the Glee kids. He grew up in Victoria, British Columbia, where he was raised by a single mom, dropped out of school in the ninth grade and held jobs as a roofer and a Walmart greeter, before pinning his hopes on the acting racket.
“I have a kind of checkered past, if you will,” he says, and starts talking about how he began drinking in his early teens and gave it up at 19. Previously, he had been many things, a kung fu guy, a rock-drummer guy and a born-again Christian guy who spoke in tongues and wanted to be a preacher. As a teetotaler guy, he decided to cement his newfound sobriety by moving up north to the town of Nanaimo. That’s where the roofing came in. That’s also where he took his first acting class, which convinced him to move to Vancouver, where he spent the next few months crashing on his acting coach’s floor and taking bit parts in anything he could find. Then came the tape he made for the Glee audition. “I looked like a dork, making all these faces, banging on Tupperware like an idiot,” he recalls. Off the tape went, and back came a call from a Glee casting director suggesting that Monteith get himself down to L.A. this very instant. “It still shocks the hell out of me,” he says. “I still think any minute I’m going to get fired and be shipped back to Canada in handcuffs for stealing that car stereo.”
“Stealing car stereos?”
He sighs. “Look, I dropped out of school when I was 14 to go fuck around with my friends and live a lifestyle of crime and pay no mind to authority figures.”
“Were you ever arrested?”
“For criminal enterprises or drunk-and-disorderly enterprises?”
“All of the above. I mean, I wasn’t killing people. I didn’t hurt people.” That’s good to hear, of course. Killing people would be going too far, probably. Still, a few more details would be nice. “Were you breaking windows to get that car stereo?”
“Specifically,” he says, “I just can’t remember. But you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, man.”
Then he grins, and it’s a sly, almost oily grin. It’s kind of shocking to see. For some reason, it makes Monteith look not like the boyish, good-natured Monteith of Glee but like a different Monteith, an unknown Monteith. It all happens in a flash, though. Almost instantly, he’s back to his usual apple-cheeked, wholesome-looking self.
“Were illegal substances involved?”
“At the moment, I’m affiliated with Glee, and I think it would detract from the show to have that conversation.” Then, again with that grin.
And it’s suddenly quite apparent that there’s a lot more to pretty-boy, drum-playing Monteith than maybe meets the eye. A few minutes later, we ask him to entertain us. He smiles that smile again, this time like he’s been prepped for the request by some tattletale. He turns over a couple of glasses and uses a knife and fork to bang out a version of his Glee audition. It’s disappointing, but we let it go. We have other questions for him. The very same kinds of questions that Glee’s writers might ask while trying to dream up story lines.
“Have you ever made out with any of your Glee-mates?”
“No. Can’t mix business with pleasure.”
“Ever made out with a guy?”
“No! That’s intense, man. That’s a question I was not expecting.”
“So, are you making the rounds with the ladies?”
“No, man. I try to stay out of it. I try to behave maturely.”
“Were you some kind of hustler as a kid, like a con kid?”
There’s a great big pause. Monteith seems to be struggling with something.
“Lots of kids in situations like mine are,” he says finally. “You bend yourself from a young age, you’re a chameleon. Whatever environment I was in, I adapted. When I first moved to L.A., I didn’t like it. But now I think it’s a pretty cool place. I blend right in here. I like it. It’s a city of chameleons. Whatever I need to be, I am, and it’s me, and it’s not me.
“You know what’s funny about being a chameleon?” he goes on. “If you speak convincingly with some razzle-dazzle, a large portion of the population will believe you, even if what you say is complete and utter nonsense.”
But here’s the thing. Among the cast and crew, Monteith has a nickname, Frankenteen, given to him by Murphy. “It’s because I’m huge and awkward,” he says, “and I’m not a teen, but I’m playing a teen. I’m like the assembled teen.” And you know how in the beginning, at the Guitar Center, Monteith so quickly offered up his driver’s license as collateral for the drumsticks? It seemed then like the gesture had something to do with purity and honesty. Now it seems like it’s what he expected would be asked of him and he wanted to beat the guy to the punch. So he was wrong. He’s not perfect. Franken-anythings never are. It’s OK, though. It’s even OK when, right before dropping us off, he says, “I’ve always been a chameleon, but I stopped and now I can just be myself.” What a great big load of complete and utter Glee-worthy nonsense. He’s a Frankenteen, a soul assembled, and always will be. We watch him turn his hot-rod Honda around, then glide it down the hill, not going fast this time. He’s had a tough life. He seems to mean well. Finally, he turns a corner and is out of sight.