Some of the most gut-wrenching and arresting scenes from "Glee" have featured Max Adler, the 25-year-old actor who plays Dave Karofsky, the McKinley High bully figuring out his own sexual identity. Most times when he's called in for an episode it means the phrase "Very Special" should probably be tacked on to the title -- his first big splash came in "Never Been Kissed," last season's standout episode that introduced Darren Criss to the popular consciousness and featured an unexpected locker-room kiss between Karofksy and Kurt Hummel, the out and proud gay student played by Chris Colfer that the bully had spent previous episodes tormenting. From there Karofsky has reappeared as Prom King to Kurt's Prom Queen shocker, leaving him in the lurch when their coronation song played. This season he appeared at Lima's local gay bar to talk to Kurt about his progress at his new school, and most recently he donned a gorilla suit in the Valentine's episode to play secret admirer to Kurt, resulting in a jock from his new school overhearing the admission of his crush on Kurt that set his plotline in motion for this Tuesday.
Adler's biggest challenge on "Glee" came this week when LGBTQ teen suicide took center stage. In the episode, the overheard conversation turns the bullying tables on Karofksy, both in person at his school and online, driving him to attempt to take his own life in desperation. We talked to Adler, who outside of "Glee" is involved in various charity work (including the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the It Gets Better Project and City Hearts), about the episode, Dave Karofksy as a character, and working with Golden Globe winner Colfer so intimately.
How far in advance did you know about the story going in this direction and how much prep did you have?
I didn't know too far in advance. I found out in early January that I'd be back on the show. As usual we get the script days before we filmed, and none of that had ever really been discussed with me. I'm lucky that Ryan and Brad and all the writers have treated this character from the beginning with such integrity and honesty. As far as preparation time there wasn't too much, but I was actually very excited that they chose to tell this story. I think it's incredibly important. In my portrayal of Karofsky this entire time, I felt it was a great paradox with what was happening with other characters -- we're showing the hope and excitement and possibility for the future, but on the other side with Karofsky you're showing the anxiety and fear for the future. The fact that they took it there was so brave, and I think it's a powerful message to tell, not only to the people who are being bullied, but the people who are doing the bullying and those who choose to stay quiet to protect themselves.
How did you react to the script when you got it, especially the suicide scene when you found out the method would be hanging, which has been in the news a lot lately? It was shocking as a viewer to see that, how did it feel as an actor to get that script?
Very real. A year and a half ago I went to Washington, DC and spoke at the Anti-Defamation League at the Kennedy Center, and one of the stories I told there was about this boy, Justin Aaberg. He had done the same exact thing in real life. He was bullied and he had chosen to hang himself. As you can tell by the news, it happens a bit. It was very real and shocking, and the thing that I really liked was it illustrated the desperation of where Karofsky is at. He's tried every outlet to express himself he has -- bullying, which didn't work, then kind of hiding and laying low, which didn't work, then he tried to be cute and do the Valentine's gram, and that didn't work. I feel like you get to such a point that you're hiding from yourself, there's nothing else to do and the only way to free yourself is to remove yourself form the world. When you do that, you're not really thinking of everyone else's reactions, your family, your father finding you, how you siblings are going to be affected. You're so in the moment and need to escape the torment that you're feeling. The scene where Karofsky's father finds him, screaming and trying to resuscitate him, it's so tragic, and I feel like that's an important message. You do something like this, and your family is going to have to discover this. You scar them for life. I did a lot of research about suicide and talked to people. I found out more women use pills, and more guys use guns, which was a kind of strange fact to find. Obviously Karofsky doesn't have a gun, he resorted to what was in his room at the time to get out of the situation he was in.
How much of the stage direction and emotion was written in, and how much of your performance did you work out that day with the director?
A little bit of both. The scripts are always brilliant, and it does lay out the motions, the directions were all there. As far as the feeling and the mood, or deciding when Karofksy really decides this is it and his decision is made, that was up to me and director to talk about, as well as where he's at. Brad Buecker was the director, who also directed me in "Never Been Kissed" and "The First Time." He comes from an editing background, and has a really keen eye for trying many different takes and feelings. We have a great synchronicity with our creative spirits, and we talked for about an hour before we shot about motivation and where Karofksy is at. The script was the blueprint, and then it was up to me and the director to fill in the meat and substance.
Do you think Karofsky's at a point of desperation?
I feel like it's a way to escape. I feel like with technology, I came to the conclusion it's the difference between hand-to-hand combat and a sniper. What Karofksy was doing was hand-to-hand, he was right there in Kurt's face, he felt what Kurt was feeling and has to live with that. But now with cyber bullying people can push a button from a different country and crush someones spirit, and because it's all on the Internet you're desensitized and you don't feel it, like a video game. For me, I feel like the locker room scene is heartbreaking and crushing, and if one of those kids stepped up and defended him it could have made a difference. However once he saw the Facebook posts, that's the point where decision was made and he had to commit suicide. It takes on a life of its own; it's the sniper analogy; it's coming from all these different directions, you don't know where it's coming from, you just want to crouch down and hide. At that point it's just a way to remove himself from the situation he finds himself in. Any human being needs to express themselves to be healthy, and Karofsky couldn't express himself and the guy that he is without being publicly mocked. The only way to express yourself becomes to take your life. There's only so much pressure he can take.
Did you listen to the song (Darren Criss performing Young the Giant's "Cough Syrup") that was the soundtrack to the scene before filming?
Darren and I are great friends; he killed the song in my opinion. I enjoy listening to that more than Young the Giant's version. I listened to it when I got the script and I thought it was so brilliant. I loved Ryan Murphy from "Nip/Tuck" because of these kind of scenes where he'd play some amazing song that would inter-cut with an emotional scene. I thought this song was perfect, where it's not too sad or depressing of a song that is forcing the way you think, but has that anger and rage to it that has a sense of something building and something mounting. Darren had emailed me the song the morning of shooting that scene, so I listened to it a few times in my trailer. I thought it was a brilliant performance on his part, and a brilliant choice on the writer's part.
You have a background in singing and dance, but you still haven't gotten a chance to shine in that arena on the show. Will you?
I have no idea. I'd always like to, it sounds fun, but then I get scripts like this and the meat that they've given me to chew on, the internal depths to me equals any song they could have. It's a dream for an actor to get to tackle a role like this. I do sing, I do dance, so would it be fun and a nice way to cross that off the list? Yes, but for me it would really have to make sense for the character or the storyline. Everything they've done so far has been perfect.