'Glee's' Max Adler on Karofsky's 'Incredibly Brave' Story (Q&A)
The actor tells THR what filming Tuesday's heartbreaking scene was like and what he hopes viewers take away from the episode.
[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Tuesday's "On My Way" episode.]
Max Adler's Dave Karofsky came full circle on Tuesday's Glee when his character attempted suicide after being outed and bullied by a football teammate at school.
For the character, it culminates a story line that dates back to Season 2 when the jock would harass and bully the openly gay Kurt (Chris Colfer) to the point of threatening his life, forcing him to transfer out of McKinley to escape the torment. Later, Dave forced a kiss with Kurt who realized that his tormenter is gay and struggling to come to terms with his sexual orientation.
For his part, Adler has used his recurring status with the Fox musical dramedy to speak out against bullying as part of the nonprofit organization City Hearts, and has joined the Trevor Project's It Gets Better campaign to encourage other LGBT that they're not alone. (Tuesday's episode also featured a PSA for Trevor.)
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Adler to discuss what went into the powerful episode, which also shines a light on the dangers of cyber bullying, as well as what he hopes viewers take away from the hour.
The Hollywood Reporter: What kind of responsibility to the LGBT community do you feel playing this role?
Max Adler: I've talked to many people that have said how real that character is for them and how they see themselves as a Karofsky or they know a Karofsky or they knew a Karofsky. There is a responsibility to play that role and it's just an incredible honor. For this storyline, I'm thrilled that the writers went there.
On Glee, I think people will be a little, "How can you do this in a comedy show?" But to me, it's the paradox that you're showing high schoolers with their wide-open future and optimism and hope and they can do anything, but you can't show that without showing the struggles, fears and anxieties that one has about not knowing the next step or not knowing who you are or what to do. It's necessary to go there and to show that on TV so that you can appreciate the other side of things.
THR: How much of Karofsky's storyline were you aware when you got the call to return?
Adler: There was never a discussion about the storyline. It's incredibly brave on their part to push the envelope and treat this character with the integrity and the honesty that he deserves and to show the struggle and then the outcome of hope when you see his life 10 years into the future with somebody who loves him for who he is. That's the important message to see: there will be somebody out there who will accept and love you for your true self and to not worry about society's limitations and what people expect of you; it's OK to be who you are and you can be happy with that.
Beyond relating to people who are bullied or are contemplating suicide, it was also important to show how teachers, peers and coaches all saw these warning signs but because of society's limitations and the fear of talking about things openly and freely, no one really stepped up. Even in the locker room, everyone teams up against him and if just one or two of those guys would have had Dave's back, it would have been a completely different outcome. We're all in this world together; let's drown out the negative voices and be positive and teach people that it is OK to be your true self.
THR: Considering your involvement with City Hearts and Trevor Project's It Gets Better campaigns, what was your first reaction when you read the script?
Adler: It was a complete rainbow of emotions when I read it. There's excitement of being able to send a message like this into the world when people really need it and need to be spoken to honestly. It comes with the fear of representing it honestly and accurately. There was a lot of work, prep, research and discussions with director Brad Buecker about the best and most honest way to tell this story. Before we shot the bedroom scene, it was a closed set; it was just me, the director and a few crewmembers and we sat down in the bedroom and looked at everything and talked about what this means and what this kid's going through and his mindset.
THR: Why was it important for Glee to acknowledge cyber bullying?
Adler: He sees his worst fears are realized in that [his sexuality is] out there now. In doing my work with City Hearts and It Gets Better, I'm finding that it's more harmful than face-to-face bullying. People behind a computer can be meaner with what they're saying because they're not seeing the repercussions face-to-face and they don't have to deal with seeing someone heartbroken and crushed. It's really scary and that's why they wrote it into the script: cyber bullying has become an epidemic.
THR: What was filming the bedroom scene like? How did your discussions with Buecker -- and the people you've met through your anti-bullying charitable work -- influence how you played it?
Adler: You go to a very dark place. Brad set up a few cameras outside of the room and watched Karofsky in his room for six or seven minutes. I don't want to say I was possessed, but there's this incredible feeling that comes over you and you start thinking about everything that you've gone through and how Karofsky can't express himself. For Karofsky, one door after another was slammed; he couldn't be his bully, bravado, macho self at McKinley. He tried the gay bar thing and that door was slammed in his face -- it was Sebastian in this episode. He tried the soft Valentine's Day gorilla-grams approach with Kurt and that door got slammed in his face. Then you see the Facebook messages and it's just you're trapped within yourself. There are no questions to ask anymore; there's no one to reach out to. If he wants to be sensitive, it's portrayed as a sign of weakness from society. To me, he's truly what Glee represents -- the underdog and someone who's very awkward with himself and he's not your typical jock.
I've heard this from fans, but there's a lot of times that gay people are portrayed on TV and movies as a very specific kind of way that you don't really see a burly dude usually represented as being soft and sensitive. He's very unsure of who he is, how he's supposed to act, what he's supposed to say and how he's supposed to look. So when you start thinking about all that, you get to a really interesting place in your mind and the tears kind of come out of you because it's heartbreaking. The line in the hospital scene with Kurt where he explains what led to his decision and how his mom told him he had a disease and that maybe he could be cured -- I read that and I was crying. It's your own parent not accepting you and telling you you have a disease. It's so gut wrenching and heartbreaking that it was hard not to live with that in that bedroom.
THR: Which gives Karofsky and Santana (Naya Rivera) that much more in common. Will Karofsky return after the hiatus?
Adler: There's been nothing said yet. This episode does leave you with a nice optimistic view and a hope for Karofsky's future that he sees there's happiness ahead. It will be a long and arduous journey, but at least he's on that journey now to realize that he can be happy and there are people that are there for him. So it could go either way.
THR: Karofsky inspires the Warblers and New Directions to put their differences aside and move forward. How will Karofsky's suicide attempt fundamentally change some of the other characters on the show?
Adler: This will open everyone's minds up and realize that we need to talk to each other. There's been a lack of communication that's happened over the last few years and everyone's kind of afraid to speak up and talk about things without getting fired or getting reamed by the principal or the school district. If one of those kids in the locker room had stood up for Karofsky and said, "Leave this kid alone. What does it matter?" but they can't because then they're afraid of being picked on. There are warning signs all along and if someone had just reached out to this kid and talked to him, there could have been a completely different outcome. That's the message of how everyone will be affected: seeing how serious this can be and how people do cry out for help. If we all stand up for one another and speak out against the negativity, it's a much stronger bond that we'll all find ourselves in in the world.
THR: The show as a whole has now told three coming out stories, all in varying degrees and all slightly involving bullying. What do you hope people take away from this storyline?
Adler: The message is that people will start talking about it now and seeing and watching someone experience what it really means to be brutally picked on and have society tell you that who you are is wrong. It shows that there is no wrong. That's the message of Glee:acceptance and equality. It's a dual message where victims of bullying can see that society is wrong, not them. They are completely OK with being who they are; there will be people who love them for who they are is the message. On the flipside, to everyone who antagonizes anyone they perceive as minorities that it's completely uncalled for. I feel like if they see what they're doing to people, it might make them think twice. If we can save lives with this hour of television or change people's ways of thinking, which I think we can, then mission accomplished.
What did you think of Karofsky's journey? Would you like to see the character return? Glee returns April 10.