'Glee' Finale: Original Star on Tear-Filled Final Day, Saying Farewell, Cory Monteith (Guest Column)

Jenna Ushkowitz recounts the show's meteoric rise and losing a star in an emotional essay for THR.
Adam Rose/FOX

Fox's Glee ended its six-season run Friday with an emotional two-hour finale that flashed back to the past and looked to the future to reveal the origins as well as what happened to its beloved characters. In an effort to get an inside look at what parting ways with the series was like, The Hollywood Reporter asked original Glee star Jenna Ushkowitz to recount saying farewell to the series and share what the Fox musical has meant to her.

As I sat in the choir room, in-between takes of Matthew Morrison singing a song to us as Mr. Schue for the last time, I realized that this moment — with these people, at this very time in our lives — would never happen again. It all came down to this and now here we were. At our request, our fearless director Brad Buecker came in to warn us that this was our very last take so we could soak in all the joy and love one last time.

The whole day felt like a circus. There was literally a carnival that Paramount threw for the cast and crew at lunch to thank us for the six great years we took up real estate on their magical little lot. There were food trucks all day long, coffee trucks in the morning and In-N-Out to fill us for dinner. Posters were being passed around and gifted Glee yearbooks being signed. It felt like the last day of senior year — except with a crew of more than 100 grown adults who had families and other jobs to move on to. Will we stay in touch like we say? Will we ever work together again? These were the questions that were being thrown around in our heads for weeks. I guess that was my biggest fear … not seeing everyone whenever I want; knowing they would be there when I chose to drop in on a random day or have an episode to shoot, where I got to spend a whole eight days together.

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I am obsessed with the gifted people who spend morning, noon and night trying to make the most beautiful looking and feeling episodes of our show that they possibly could. Our incredibly talented steadicam operator Andrew Mitchell, always our Glee mascot who counted every single musical number so we could keep track of the momentous occasions when we reached 100, 200, 300 … 700 performances. Penny, the awesome dog-loving focus puller who loves to dance around with us during musical numbers while still getting her hard job done. Babs, our amazing script supervisor and continuity magician/Glee director … Joey, my fellow Yankees fan who would keep me up to date on the scores while we were on set. These people make it all worthwhile, during those long 14-hour days, knowing that we were all there in camaraderie.

Having Tina Cohen-Chang attend Brown University meant she wasn’t in every episode in the final season. She wasn’t in Lima working with Rachel (Lea Michele) and Kurt (Chris Colfer) on the daily. So for me, that meant not being at Glee everyday. I got a small taste of what it meant to not be living, breathing and eating Glee for essentially the first time. I got used to it, I knew I would survive and that I could pop in anytime I wanted to get a quick hug and everyone would be there singing and dancing their faces off. There was something very settling knowing that it was always there. I prepared myself and began a new routine … auditioning, finding new projects to develop, creating a foundation, going to the gym, making dinner plans (because I could now!) and executive producing a documentary. Fun times, new adventures; I was ready. Then, I got the call to come back for the final episode, 613 [the first half of Glee's two-hour series finale].  I would get eight more days filled with gratitude to have the opportunity to close it out with the people I call family.

We have been through so much together. From the itchy costumes, long days, on-set pranks and freezing cold slushies … to the opportunities where we got to meet our amazingly dedicated fans on mall tours and sold-out stadium/arena concert tours. We’ve spent a thousand plane rides together, got to meet the president and first lady, went on Oprah and experienced hearing her saying our names in that iconic yell, “Jennnaaa Ushkkkoowitttzzzz!!” (Yeah, checked that off my bucket list!)

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And of course, losing an incredible soul and amazing friend [Cory Monteith] along the way. It’s those kinds of things that bind you for life because there’s no one you’d rather be with when you’re going through something like that than those experiencing it, too. Where you feel comfortable enough to feel and act in whatever way that’s necessary to grieve and heal from something so tragic. We never would have gotten through all of it without the support of each other.

So here we are, the last take. See, the whole day we would laugh and then one of us would tear up and it would be like emotional dominoes (an emotionally exhausting day to say the least). I thought that when the cast and crew gathered together in the choir room post our final “CUT! CHECK IT!” and toast to our seven years together that I was ready [to say goodbye]; I thought I would keep it together. I put up such a defensive wall that morning that there was potential I wasn’t going to cry at all … that’s comical because Lea and I both cry a lot. But when you see a grown man like Matt Morrison cry or to see tears come down Chord Overstreet's face, that’s heartbreaking. Adult men on the crew were losing it left and right throughout the day and it makes me very emotional, even now.

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They cleared out the room of everyone except for the core cast and then Matt began to sing his song from across the room as he had been doing all evening. Then, unbeknownst to us he changed the blocking and made his way toward us as he sang and played his ukulele, with Chord accompanying him on guitar. We huddled close into a group hug while Andrew continued to shoot with the steadicam, most of us weeping at this joyous and bittersweet occasion and then bursting into fits of crying laughter, hysteria and pure bliss we spent together. The cast later decided to join together on the stage in the auditorium where we spent most of our time singing, dancing and plotting. There were more tears shed, words shared, jokes made and love all around. We didn’t go out and get crazy like some would expect. That’s not the kind of group we were.

What will I take from all this? Being surrounded by these amazing, talented and loving individuals for the past seven years whom I call my friends has taught me to be a stronger woman, unafraid to think differently, to speak up for what I believe and most of all, to believe in myself. They allow me to take leaps of faith and know that it’s OK to fall.  They have shown me how to be kind to everyone and to appreciate the eyes, ears and two legs I get to dance on everyday (or in Kevin McHale’s case, that he can get up out of the wheelchair everyday after shooting as Artie). We were on a speeding train, looking out the window at the beautiful landscape flying by us and now that the train has hit the station, we are able to stop and take it all in. I am forever grateful for the gifts they have given me and I will never forget this incredible journey we started together. I am so lucky.