“Life comes at you fast,” we’re told in Struck By Lightning, a bold new film from the Golden Globe Award-winning star of Glee, Chris Colfer, 21. “It hits you and tries to escape and be expressed in any way possible. In a way, it’s a lot like lightning,”
The story is based on a one-man speech and debate piece that Colfer originally wrote at age 16. It’s told in flashback, and Colfer plays Carson Phillips — a sharp, determined high school senior who, as he puts it, is involved, but not exactly popular. He’s the editor of the school newspaper and president of the Writers Club (despite it only having one other member) and he lives with his mother — a walking case study in disappointment played by Allison Janney (in an award-worthy performance).
For as long as he can remember, Carson’s only desire has been to attend Northwestern University so he could leave his small town — a place he refers to as “the corner of nothing and nowhere” — and finally get his life started. Despite his superior academic record and extracurricular activities, he’s advised to go that extra step in order to ensure his acceptance at Northwestern. He creates a student literary magazine, but troubles arise when no one else wants to contribute to it. Never underestimate the will of a young man on a mission, though, particularly once Carson begins to blackmail all the popular kids into writing for his publication.
Yep, everything seems to be going according to plan, but life seldom turns out the way you expect, and suddenly our hero meets his demise via a bolt of lightning while walking to his car in the school parking lot.
Like the character he plays here, Colfer is well-spoken, and he’s enthusiastic about this venture, which he has held near to his heart since back in those school days. Besides being the film’s writer and star, Colfer is its co-producer and driving force. Speaking with him, one is immediately taken by his maturity and centeredness.
Stressing that this is not at all an autobiographical piece, he does grant that many parts of it were loosely inspired by actual places and events (“but my mom and dad are happily married!” he interjects).
He says that although he may have been very ambitious even then, he was not nearly as outspoken.
“Carson was definitely someone I wish I was in high school,” he says. “I was very shy and internalized everything, whereas Carson does not let himself become a victim. He really wears his guts on his sleeve and he vocalizes his opinion right there in
Sarah Hyland of TV’s Modern Family costars as Claire — the school’s head cheerleader, resident mean girl, and one of the popular crowd whom Carson pressures into contributing to his magazine.
Hyland herself is a sweet-natured young person who isn’t a bit fazed by the high-stakes fame game surrounding her – she is delightfully unlike the self-centered character she portrays. Having attended a performing arts high school, Hyland observes that she never actually had to deal with the whole “cheerleader aspect” there.
Yet there‘s more to Claire than simply your average bitchy cheerleader, she cautions: “Claire has to make the most of high school! She knows she’s not the nicest, but she’s put herself in that top spot and she has to remain that way to keep her power.”
Given that there seems to be a “Claire” everywhere you turn these days, how does she deal with such less-than-agreeable individuals in her own life?
“I got some really great advice from my mother when I was younger in dealing with a ‘Claire,’” Sarah reveals. “It’s just to give them enough rope to hang themselves. As long as you don’t say anything bad about them and remain the classy one, eventually their true colors will come out.”
A book based on the film is also being released this month. Colfer says this is one case where the film came first, then the novelization.
“I always wanted to do the movie and I never even thought it would make a good book,” he says with a chuckle. Colfer was already a published author — his children’s book, The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell, came out in July. He says that upon seeing the film during its official premier at the Tribeca Film Festival, his publishers immediately asked him to consider adapting Struck By Lightning into a novel.
He ultimately decided to fashion the novel as the main character’s private diary.
“It’s a very intimate version of the story, rather than the movie, which is told from an outside perspective,” he says.
The book also features a copy of Carson’s magazine — including all the poems and essays that his contributors have supplied. The final pages are devoted to an obituary from the local newspaper bearing the fateful headline “CHS Student Killed: Struck By Lightning.”
With Struck By Lightning, Colfer easily joins the ranks of Matthew Broderick, Justin Long and other leading men who made their names in classic screen teen comedies. In opting to shoot his film independently rather than pitch it to a big studio, he demonstrated his wisdom and business savvy.
“Certainly, there were many options in the beginning of going with a big studio,” he allows, “but I knew that if I’d gone that route, the movie then certainly wouldn’t be what it is today. I really wanted it to be about ambitions and dreams and goals — not sex, drugs and popularity. With a studio, it’d probably be about Carson losing his virginity, and I would not be in it!”
Colfer didn’t make Carson specifically gay. In fact, he doesn’t really make him much of anything sexually. While those who know can content themselves in interpreting the signs, those who can’t, won’t. In playing it this way, he doesn’t raise any potential walls between his audience and the potent statement that he’s trying to make. True, Carson does blackmail two closeted gay kids — but he blackmails everybody, regardless of who they are and what they may be into. By the same token, even in forcibly acquiescing to his demands that they write about themselves, they in turn gain greater self-awareness and esteem.
At Carson’s funeral, these same gay kids sit proudly beside one another — both a little more confident for having been coerced into being a part of his project.
“I hope this inspires aspirations,” he says, emphasizing that one of his biggest motivations to do it was the many fans of Glee he’d connected with.
“I’ve met so many kids across the country with all these hopes and dreams, who were saying ‘I really wish I could do this, but such-and-such,’ when in reality, everyone has a ‘such-and-such.’ It’s knowing you can get over it that gives you the drive to go out there and fulfill your dreams!”
Colfer urges: “Don’t let your imagination be discouraged by the lack of it in others!”