Who are your comedic influences?
I used to watch Gilda Radner, and I’d always be trying to imitate her when she’d do Roseanne Roseannadanna. I was a really spastic child. It helped that I come from a very colorful Italian family and a very colorful Jewish family, and they let me be as crazy as I wanted to be. I would sit in front of my mom and play Barbra Streisand or Fran Drescher on a talk show — and I’d play both the host and the guest. My mom always told me, “If you had different parents, your mother would be Natalie Wood and your father would be Jim Carrey.” It’s funny, though, I’ve never considered myself a comedic performer, ever. For so many years, I was in “Spring Awakening,” where my character was beaten every night and then dies of an abortion.
In the vitamin D episode of “Glee,” it looked like you got to let loose.
Oh, my God. I practiced talking manically for days. I kept thinking, How manic is the right amount of manic? What would Rachel be like on uppers? What would she sound like? It was insane. And then doing the “Halo” / “Walking on Sunshine” mash-up in that state? So much fun.
Do you find that there are any similarities between you and Rachel?
I draw a lot of inspiration from myself when I was very young. I was very much like Rachel when I was, like, 8 or 9. I always wanted to perform. Every Christmas video is me standing in front of my family singing “Santa Baby” and putting on a mini-concert for my whole family. But I do pull a lot from “Election.” Also Leighton Meester’s Blair Waldorf on “Gossip Girl.”
Blair? How so?
She is shady, but you still love her. She’s still vulnerable. That’s what I try to do with Rachel. Rachel will never be popular because her looks aren’t considered beautiful, and when I was in high school it was the same for me. I didn’t get a nose job, and every single girl around me did. Therefore, I was out. I was not cool. What’s so great about “Glee” is that it shows you how that kind of stuff hurts, but it doesn’t matter: You can still be who you want to be. And in four years, high school will be over and all of that crap won’t matter anyway.
The musical “Spring Awakening,” about the sexual awakening of teenagers in 19th century Germany, was very much an underdog in its early days. The same can be said of “Glee,” yet both have become hits.
You never feel like, “Oh, my God, we’re a hit!” Being at the Tony Awards, performing on ” David Letterman,” no matter what we did, it never felt like we’d made it. It wasn’t until the day of my last performance, when people camped outside for tickets and I got a standing ovation from the entire audience, that I thought, OK, maybe. . . . And it is similar to “Glee” in that way. We do it because we believe in the show so much, but I still don’t think any of us feel how big it’s gotten.
You’ve got a big, all- Madonna episode coming up next year?
I’m doing six Madonna songs, some of which will be mash-ups. We’re doing a lot of her most popular songs but ranging all the way from early Madonna to most recent Madonna. Amber [Riley] and Chris [Colfer, who play Mercedes and Kurt] are doing something really cool together, but I can’t give anything away.