Cory Monteith’s Free Spirit
Cory Monteith didn’t know he could sing before he started work on the hit TV show, Glee. “I didn’t even have a clue,” says the actor, who once called Nanaimo home. “But with practice and training, I learned, and the more I sang, the better I became.”
Monteith says the central lesson has nothing to do with innate talent. “This isn’t about the fabulousness of me,” he says. “I don’t think I am extraordinarily talented. To me, it’s a testament to hard work, and the idea that, if you get a break, you can do anything. I really mean it: If I can do it, anybody can do it.”
They are undeniably humble words, and you can tell he’s not just posing the way some wannabes do in the hopes of making themselves look noble. He really means it.
“That’s the most exciting part: It’s true. It proves how amazing we all are as people, and how much potential we have as human beings.”
As a central star of one of TV’s most successful and revisionary shows, Monteith has every right to crow. But he doesn’t. Instead, the actor uses his tiny window of free time to further his own creativity, and enable the artistic vision of others.
Sisters&Brothers is a perfect example. The latest feature from the West Coast’s most prolific director, Carl Bessai, Sisters&Brothers is a multi-pronged story of siblings – probably the most contested area of all family dynamics.
Rivalries of all kinds spring up in this documentary-style mash-up. From a story of two half-sisters struggling with ego, to a brother and sister struggling to cope with mental illness, Bessai approaches the topic without apparent judgment or prejudice.
“There was no script to speak of,” says Monteith, who plays big brother to Rory (Dustin Milligan), a kid who just came back from Africa and is hoping to spur social change. The two brothers seem like friends, but it’s soon apparent they are living in different worlds.
Justin is a famous TV star. Rory is a social activist. The only thing they have left in common is a profound affection for their mother, but they fight over who’s really taking care of her.
Although Monteith plays a young actor feeling the surge of success, he says Justin is nothing like him.
“He’s actually more of a cautionary tale,” he says of the egocentric blabbermouth. “I’m definitely not that guy, but it’s fun to play that guy.”
Monteith says he’s seen what that first brush with fame can do to people, and it’s often tragic.
“There are a lot of people who aren’t even working or making money, and they’re still that guy. You don’t even have to be famous or rich to be that guy,” says Monteith. “He is everywhere.”
He says people turn into jerks – regardless of their profession – when they’re afraid of another’s success.
“Ultimately, it’s fear,” he says. “Petty selfishness and self-centeredness usually come from a fear about not having a place in the world. For Justin, he fears not being famous enough, or not having a girlfriend who is pretty enough, or not having been with enough girls. And people who feel like that usually create this ego to protect themselves,” he says with a sigh.
“It’s the kiss of death, too. It’s such a silly way to live.”
Indeed, Justin could have been a fully tragic figure, but Monteith says he wasn’t seeking epic notes. He says he took part in Bessai’s improvisational experiment to broaden his own creative lexicon, as well as reconnect with old friends.
Monteith, who’s now 29, says he and co-star Milligan used to be roommates a decade ago, when they were both working Joe jobs and sharing a Kitsilano apartment.
“We were both acting students, and had the same coach, Andrew McIlroy. That was 10 years ago, when I had just moved from Nanaimo to Vancouver,” says Monteith. “I was 20, and I think Dustin had just turned 18. I got him a job at True Confections, cutting cakes and pies,” says Monteith.
“We’d rehearse our lines behind the counter. . . . It was the whole actor cliche.”
Because Monteith has such a profound affection for the thespian craft, not to mention the human capacity for creation itself, he says he wanted his character to remain accessible.
“I didn’t want to make (Justin) a monster. I mean, he still addresses his assistant with respect. He still tries. But he’s definitely lost, and emphasizing that element was the most important thing, in terms of story, and what Carl was setting out to capture: He’s a lost soul.”
Monteith says he’s been fortunate in every respect of his professional life, as well as his personal one, because he’s never felt conflicted in the wake of his rise to celebrity status.
“My family and my friends keep me grounded,” he says, “especially the friends I made in Los Angeles before my life changed. It’s important to keep those people close to you, because they know who you really are, and they remind you where you came from.”
He’s got a safe harbour, but when he looks around at his peers and the lifestyle they’re coveting, he worries.
“We’re being sold on the idea (celebrity matters). That’s what the mass-media images are telling us. And they’re selling it as reality. But it’s not real.”
The only thing that’s real is how you feel about yourself, says Monteith. And one of the best gifts he’s ever received has been the confidence to sing out loud, and express his inner truth in song.
“When the music hits, you feel no pain, to quote Bob Marley,” he says. “But it’s true. It’s like all art and creation: You’re completely in the moment, and you just feel free.”
Sisters&Brothers opens in Vancouver on Friday, March 23; may expand later.