That sex appeal helped him rise fast among the song-and-dance men on Broadway. He landed a starring role in Hairspray and was nominated for a Tony for his performance in The Light in the Piazza in 2005. But there were lean months, and even years, when he didn't have a paying gig. And there was 2002, that lost year spent as a member of the knock-off boy band LMNT. "I've never been so unhappy," he says. "I wasn't myself." He went to L.A. every year for five years to try his luck during pilot season, but none of the shows he appeared in were picked up. And then he tried out for Glee. Morrison kept his expectations in check, he says: "I didn't really think this was the one that was going to make it."
Ryan Murphy auditioned dozens of actors for the role of Mr. Schuester, but they all lacked the empathy needed to hold the raucous band of Glee misfits together. Then Morrison came in and played "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" on his ukulele. And just like that, he had the career-making part. "Matt's the star of the show," Murphy says emphatically. "The show rests on his shoulders—everything revolves around him."
For Morrison these days, everything revolves around Glee. Cruel paradox: You work your ass off to land on a hot property, and when you finally get the starring role the job consumes you. Morrison says he's had to turn down movie parts and numerous other opportunities because of Glee's grueling schedule—15-hour days, nine months a year in lockdown on Stage 14 on the Paramount lot. The massive hangar of a building hosts every corner of the McKinley High School set—room upon room of lockers, desks, hallways. Today Morrison is filming a scene with several members of New Directions, the show's Glee club.
Dressed in jeans, a soft gray cashmere cardigan, a fitted red flannel shirt with a black wool tie, and suede desert boots, Morrison wanders onto the set and high-fives one of the grips. The kids—Lea Michele, Dianna Agron, Chris Colfer—show up. They stay in a tight huddle away from the crew, practicing dance moves, twirling hair, lying in one another's lap.
Morrison is not the only member of Glee's cast who's teetering on the edge of stardom. But the issue of who will be the first seems to be a quiet dogfight. They are all ambitious. Jane Lynch, who plays Morrison's nemesis Sue Sylvester, says Morrison's career seems charmed. "You get the sense he knows he can write his own ticket," she says. "If I were going to come back as someone, I'd come back as Matt Morrison."
Everyone's looking over their lines now, rehearsing dance steps— except Lea Michele, who keeps staring at me as I observe Morrison. Every time I look up, I catch her looking my way. It seems she knows I'm a reporter and wants my attention.
When Morrison brings over a laptop to show me a movie treatment he's been working on, Michele crosses the set, stands next to me, and starts talking to the show's publicist. "I have a lot of interviews to do," she says. "There's that AIDS blast and..." She turns to look at me. "Oh, hi."
Within minutes the publicist asks me to leave the set. I'm a distraction.
"I am a teacher to them," Morrison says of the younger castmates he refers to as "the kids." "I've taken a few under my wing. I don't want to say they idolize me, but..." he trails off, realizing how this might sound. He's careful about what he says and wishes some of his colleagues were a little less publicity-driven. "Yeah, I find myself learning a lot from the set. I do look at stuff people on the show are doing, and I don't judge them, but I question it. I say to myself, keep quiet. Fame, you know, it's like a handgun—in the wrong hands, it's dangerous."
Working 15 hours a day, Morrison doesn't have much time to enjoy the fame he has earned. When he comes home, he pours a glass of wine and rehearses his lines for the next day before collapsing in front of a movie, alone. "It's been a while," he says when the conversation turns to dating. "Meeting people, you wonder, 'What does this person see in me?' " That's not where his head is at. "I'm not a good friend right now. I'm not a good boyfriend. It's not that I'm selfish. I'm just focused."