Glee Project Champ Blake Jenner on Bathroom Crying, Parrot Prison and…a Brittana Triangle?
How excited is Blake Jenner about winning Season 2 of Oxygen’s The Glee Project and scoring a seven-episode arc on the Glee mothership? “I feel like doing a million of the Superman jumps that I did right after I found out that I won,” says the 19-year-old Miami native, who moved to Hollywood two years ago this September to live the life of a struggling actor. “A really, really struggling actor,” he adds with a laugh.
But don’t cry for Jenner about his lean years of going to fruitless audition after fruitless audition.”I feel like a lot of people, when they come out to Los Angeles and they get their first [role], they might take it for granted,” he offers. “I’m happy that I know what it’s like to struggle, because then you know how to appreciate everything.”
TVLine caught up with Jenner to talk about his lack of overtly compelling backstory, his hot chemistry with fellow contestant Nellie Veitenheimer, and the moment that he wound up sobbing in a backstage bathroom and avoiding the glare of the Glee Project cameras. Oh, and Jenner also has some thoughts that might strike fear (or LOLs) into the hearts of Brittana fans. Read on for the whole enchillada!
TVLine | Before we talk about your path to victory, I have to ask: What you were doing before The Glee Project?
I was working at a parrot shop, trying to make ends meet. Before the parrot shop, I had worked at a fast-food restaurant, I worked as a waiter, I worked at a retail store. I was having Ramen for dinner, and then some Chef Boyardee, just fighting to survive, really. Also, I was going to auditions. You think you’ve got something, and you don’t even get a call back.
TVLine | Did you say a parrot shop?
[Laughs] Yeah, it’s really scary. You had to take the parrots by the hand, and you can’t show fear to them or else they’ll try to bite you. It was pretty crazy. In the back, all the parrots are there in cages, so it feels like you’re in Shawshank Redemption, like they’re in a jail. You’re changing their food, their water, and parrots can be really dirty, man. Sometimes it wasn’t too pleasant.
TVLine | So I just spoke with [Glee Project mentor] Robert Ulrich a little while ago, and he shared a story about the first elimination of the season, and how he was unable to go into the bathroom because there was a contestant locked inside, crying, and how it turned out to be you. That surprised me, because you came across as someone who had a pretty good grasp on your emotions, who seemed fairly cool and collected throughout the process.
I had watched all of Season 1, so I knew what was about to come. And it was really tough for me because I had been said no to so many times, and I just really, really wanted it. Every audition I would ever go to, it was about making my dreams come true, but it was also making the dreams come true of Blake when he was a little five-year-old boy. With all of that hitting me, I just got very emotional, and I ran in the bathroom. That’s definitely why you didn’t see it on TV, because I didn’t want to show that. I was just bawling.
TVLine | Having watched Season 1 of The Glee Project, when you first got on the show and found yourself with your 13 fellow contestants, did you ever have back-story anxiety, like maybe your struggle wasn’t as interesting as the person next to you? That can be a big part of the show and the casting process.
Oh yeah. You look at Tyler, or you look at Abraham, or you look at Aylin or Ali or Shanna, and everybody had these very, very compelling stories. Michael and I, we probably seemed to have the most normal, average stories. When it came to the finale, I was really, really, really nervous, just because I was up against two girls that probably have the best, most compelling life stories of everyone in the competition, and here I am, the whitest half-Cuban ever. That’s all that I had. When you look at me, I’d have to tell you what I’ve been through; with Aylin and Ali, you could know some of what they had been through just by looking at them.
TVLine | Early on, during Vulnerability Week, a lot of the contestants talked about their experiences being bullied. You touched on the subject, but can you explain how that was that an issue for you as a kid?
In junior high, I was picked on for being the small skinny kid who enjoyed being in drama. All the drama kids, we were looked at like we were aliens, and people would call us names and say, you know, it’s stupid to be in drama. They would say a lot worse things, to be honest. I’d get pushed, and I was in no position to defend myself because I didn’t have much self-esteem, and I was the smallest kid. It was a hard time, and that’s why it was hard to talk about. And as I said on the show, there was a time when I saw this one kid being beat up, and I couldn’t do anything about it because I didn’t have that confidence. From that moment forward, I’ve wanted to fight against [bullying], and I wanted to be there for people, giving advice and help.
TVLine | I bet those bullies wish they had your hair now.
TVLine | Yes, you have a pretty enviable head of hair. How much work goes into that? That doesn’t look like a roll-out-of-bed situation.
[Laughs] I honestly don’t do anything to it. I take my hair, and I just play with it. I’ll just take my hand, I’ll mess with the front, and then I’ll just pat it on the back, and that’s it. I promise you, I don’t use hair spray, I don’t go crazy with products. I just wake up, flip it, and boom, I go bowling.
TVLine | That’s cosmically unfair, but I digress. Okay, so getting back to the competition, you exhibited a lot of chemistry with Nellie during the “Milkshake”/”Moves Like Jagger” mash-up, and especially in your last-chance duet with her. That one — “I’ve Been Waiting for a Girl/Boy Like You” — was almost like a mini-Glee episode right there on the stage. Did you guys talk about getting into character before you did that duet? Because it felt episodic, it felt dramatic, it didn’t feel like just two people singing a song on a stage.
Obviously, Nellie is a very, very pretty girl. We both had a passion for the competition and our friendship. We’re totally good friends, and we can definitely trust each other enough to portray a romance when we need to. For the last-chance performance, we talked about it. We were giving and taking. We were going with each other’s ideas. We definitely wanted to make it like our baby, our performance for Ryan [Murphy]. We wanted it to be a story rather than just a performance. We wanted to engage each other as if it was a scene, make it just like how Glee is. They’ll be singing, but you really see the emotion, and you really see the story behind it, whether it’s Finn and Rachel singing to each other, or Santana and Brittany singing to each other. You see that romance, and you see that love for each other.
TVLine | During Tenacity Week, you guys were faced with a physically brutal video shoot — doing everything in one continuous take — but you had to go first. So no matter how many takes there were, you had to run up and down the bleechers. How exhausted were you from that? Were there moments where you thought, “if we have to do another take, I might not actually get through this”?
Throughout that video shoot, I was fighting with myself to just focus on the positive side. For as long as my body would let me, I thought of it as the first take each time, so that my mind didn’t get too tired. When we were done, everybody was in the room talking, and I was just on the couch. I had never been that tired in my entire life. I was just chugging water and feeling terrible.
TVLine | The first time you ended up in the bottom three giving a solo performance, your competitors were Shanna and Aylin. How freaked out were you, because I think there was a consensus that the three of you were the front-runners in the competition at that point?
Oh, it was weird. Here Aylin was, incredibly talented, with a story that Ryan loved, and Shanna, she was just invincible. Her voice could do anything she wanted it to, and here I was, just this guy. I was really scared because first of all, I got “Losing My Religion.” I knew Aylin and Shanna were going to get to belt and sing high for certain parts, and while “Losing My Religion” is a great song, it’s also mellow. I honestly thought that week I had a good chance of going home. Ryan said that he needed to see something other than the nice-guy exterior. It just seemed like I had to show him so much more, and I felt like with Shanna and Aylin he already knew who they were as people and as [potential] characters.
TVLine | It may have been the only time that you seemed shaken in the competition. When you started that performance, you could see and hear the nerves.
I’m not so trained in singing. I’d never really done a performance of a song by myself in an auditorium in front of people who are judging me. So having Nellie the first time as a duet partner, it was very comforting, and I was focusing on her. [With "Losing My Religion"], I was looking at the mentors and at Ryan, and those were real nerves. I mean, me screwing up my words at the beginning, and breathing heavily, and then forgetting the song title. I cracked up when I saw that on TV, but in the moment, I was like, crap, did you really just forget the song you’re singing?
TVLine | Tell me about Actability Week, where you improvised scenes as a villainous football quarterback dubbed Darth Blake. I thought that was the week that you might have sealed up the competition. Were you excited to get that opportunity? Tell me how you got into the right frame of mind to play this nasty guy.
Obviously, I hate to be mean to anyone. But as an actor, to get to play someone that you’re not? That’s just the best. That’s the juice right there, for acting. I was nervous on the inside just because I wanted to do a good job, and I wanted to portray my character honestly but not push too far. I played the villain in a seventh-grade play in middle school, but this was the real deal.
TVLine | Robert Ulrich told me that you have a background in improvisation, so perhaps that helped prepare you to improvise the dramatic scenes in that challenge?
In Miami, I was studying improv as well as acting. Improv is a great tool to have, just for the comedic timing that you get. When I moved to LA, I started taking classes with The Groundlings, and I loved it. I’m definitely in love with improv and comedy.
TVLine | Is there a funnier side of you that we haven’t gotten to see on The Glee Project?
When I first wanted to be an actor, it was when I saw Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber, so I grew up wanting to be an actor/stand-up comedian. I don’t think a lot of people have really seen my sense of humor. They’ve gotten little flashes of it, like when I won my first homework assignment on the show, and I said [uses funny voice] “oh, I won this, and I won that, and I won this, and I won that.” I think that with Glee, if my character does have a sense of humor, that people will be surprised.
TVLine | Let’s talk about the finale. You went in knowing the judges wanted to see something different from you, something that might set you apart. I was surprised when you chose “I’ll Be” for your last-chance performance. To me, it didn’t really seem unexpected. And then Ryan asked you if throwing your mic from one hand to the other, if that’s what we hadn’t seen before. What did you feel as he said that to you?
When I chose “I’ll Be,” I definitely wanted to show who I was and stay true to that. I’ve loved that song since I was a kid. I listen to it at the gym. I listen to it when I’m in the car. I listen to it all the time. That song is definitely a part of me. The lyrics are, “I’ll be your crying shoulder,” and that’s totally me for all of my friends, my loved ones, my family. Whenever they need me, I will definitely be there for them. When Ryan made that comment, I did, for a second think, “Oh man, maybe he’s not happy with the song.” But then I had the poem.
TVLine | I didn’t see that coming. Tell me the thought process of writing a poem and performing it for your final time in front of the judges.
I’ve written poetry since I was a kid. As the years went on, I got into writing stories and screenplays, but I always, always kept up with poetry as well. It was just a way for me to vent my feelings, because I love being there for everyone, but I never ask for anything in return. And my way to vent is to create poetry, to write a story, or something like that. So poetry means a lot to me, and I wanted to show my poetic side.
TVLine | At what point did you decide to write a poem?
It was the night before. I was thinking “Here it is. Here’s the moment that I’ve been waiting for. I’ve finally got my chance. I’m in the finale. What do I have to do because I’m up against two amazing girls that have really compelling stories?” I just figured, “Let’s show my poetic side. That’s something that [Ryan] hasn’t seen yet because I haven’t had a chance to show him. And if it’s my last moment in front of him, I want to show him everything that I am.”
TVLine | How long did it take you to write it?
I didn’t want to sell it short. I mean, anybody can take a piece of paper and be like, “roses are red and violets are blue” and all that stuff, but I really wanted to show who I was through the poem. So it took me the entire night. I went to bed pretty late, while everybody else around me was asleep. I had my light on by my bed, and I was just writing, making corrections, scratching out lines that I didn’t like, and I was just really perfecting it because I wanted it to display the real me.
TVLine | Before the finale, Ryan Murphy Tweeted “Who will win THE GLEE PROJECT 2? Writing such a great role for the winner! And just wait until you see who they are dating…” Who is it? Will we be surprised?
I know nothing. I saw what Ryan Tweeted, and honestly, I can’t wait to see who I will be dating. Every actor wants to have a romance for the character, wants to have complications, wants to fight for what they believe in with their character. I don’t know who it could be yet. I thought maybe it could be Brittany, since Santana has graduated, and maybe Brittney is lonely in high school. Maybe my character starts getting close with Brittany? But it’s going to be just as much of a surprise to me as it will be to everyone else.
TVLine | That could be great because not only is Heather Morris hilarious, but then if Santana returns home, you could have some confrontations with her. She’s a tough, tough character, so…
Exactly, and my character, he would be legitimately scared for his life. So I say let’s do it. That would be awesome. And also I grew up doing Michael Jackson dances and studying how he was moving, but I’m not as good as Heather or Harry or anybody on the cast. So I’d love to see my character try and keep up with Brittany. It would be funny to watch. Awkward, but funny.
Excited about Blake’s Glee Project win? What kind of character do you want to see him play? Sound off in the comments, and to get up-to-the-minute alerts for when my Q&As post with Glee Project runners-up Aylin and Ali, plus head mentor Robert Ulrich, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!Follow @MichaelSlezakTV