Lea Michele Opens Up About Leaving the Ryan Murphy Nest for ABC's 'The Mayor'

'The Mayor' (ABC)
Courtesy of ABC

Lea Michele comes to ABC after nearly a decade at Fox, where she starred in the network's musical comedy Glee and later the horror-comedy anthology Scream Queens. The latter was canceled in spring 2017 after two seasons.

One thing seems clear about Lea Michele's latest character, political consultant Valentina Barrera on ABC's freshman comedy The Mayor: you will not hear her sing. At least not well.

"I told [executive producer] Daveed Diggs (Hamilton) the other day, I think it would be hilarious if she was just a terrible singer," Michele tells The Hollywood Reporter.

The fact that the role doesn't lean on Michele's vocal abilities is intentional. After playing powerhouse singer Rachel Berry on all six seasons of Ryan Murphy's Fox musical dramedy Glee, the actress is hoping to expand the way audiences see her. "Not that I would ever want them to forget the work that I did on Glee," she says. "But as an actor, I think it's really important to be able to show people that I can play different characters with different tones and different colors."

With The Mayor, Michele has been handed another opportunity for post-Glee relevance, this time outside the Murphy-verse that made her a star. Created by Jeremy Bronson, the single-camera sitcom features newcomer Brandon Micheal Hall as Courtney Rose, an aspiring young rapper who runs for mayor of his small town to garner publicity. The problem: he wins. In steps Valentina, who lends her skills as a political operative to his cobbled-together administration.

"She's that grounded character in the midst of some of these wilder, bigger characters," Michele says of Valentina, whom she compares to Rashida Jones' Ann Perkins on Parks and Recreation and Jenna Fischer's Pam Beasley on The Office. "I think that's really going to be fun for me to play with."

Michele's previous attempt to challenge audience perceptions of her came with her role on Fox's short-lived slasher comedy Scream Queens — a series also created by Murphy — in which she starred as for two seasons as macabre, duplicitous sorority sister Hester Ulrich/Chanel No. 6. The show wasn't popular enough to diminish memories of Rachel Berry in any meaningful way, but Michele nevertheless views it as an important step on her career path.

"I knew, and Ryan knew, we all knew, that for me in particular, leaving Glee would be emotionally really hard," says Michele, whose co-star and boyfriend Cory Monteith died of an overdose between seasons four and five of the juggernaut. "I think that Ryan definitely wanted to create something for me so that I could jump into something right away to really help that transition."

While she and Murphy remain "good friends," Michele's move away from his world was a strategic attempt to prove she could make it on her own terms. Career-wise, she has grand aspirations. "I grew up being the biggest fan of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, and these women have had such incredible careers in television and comedy," she says, "and so I wanted something that felt similar in that sort of trajectory for me."

Given the current political climate, it's difficult to separate The Mayor's premise from the 2016 election, which also saw a political neophyte/sometime entertainer ascend to office in a shocking win (at this year's TCA, Bronson noted that he pitched the show in the heat of the presidential race). But when asked about her personal feelings on the political moment, Michele (who tweeted her support of Hillary Clinton during the election) was wary. On the one hand, says the actress, "we have to, at this point, be outspoken." On the other, she wasn't about to rock the boat — at least not in the course of this interview.

"I have to watch, because I feel like I'm quite an outspoken person, and I do need to sort of hold myself back, especially with talking about politics in general, just because I feel that it is such a sensitive subject, especially with what's going on in our world right now," she says.

Still, playing a political adviser seems to have inspired Michele to better educate herself on current events — at least to a point. "I'm not the most politically savvy person," she admits, before adding: "But playing this character, I've brushed up on my politics as much as possible. Although I can't even stand turning on the television anymore, it's like a circus." If nothing else, she said she hopes The Mayor's kinder, gentler look at the political process can function as a salve in difficult times.

As for returning to the Murphy fold sometime in the future, it's a possibility Michele won't rule out. "I believe that once you're in the Ryan Murphy family, you're in it for good," says the actress, adding that even a Glee reprise is conceivable: "When they want to revamp it on Hulu or something, I'm ready to go."

The Mayor premieres Oct. 3 on ABC. Watch the trailer below.