It's 10 a.m. on a Wednesday in the middle of a cavernous soundstage at Paramount Studios, and while the world outside is bathed in sun, everything inside is dark -- everything, that is, except for the warren of classrooms and offices that make up the set of Fox's "Glee."
A dozen cameramen, grips and assistants are squeezed into Principal Figgins' tiny office as four of the cast's regulars try out their lines. They're rusty at first, as you might imagine given that today is their first day back from summer hiatus.
Two of the main characters are having an argument.
"Finn was just trying to help out his handicapable friend!" Will (Matthew Morrison) yells.
"He was insubordinate -- twice!" a large, intimidating woman played by Dot Marie Jones shoots back. "I am the captain of the USS Kick Ass, not the USS Back Talk!"
She stumbles slightly on the line.
"Let's try it again," urges Brad Falchuk, one of the show's executive producers, who's also directing.
She does -- and again -- and then she nails it, storming out of the room for dramatic effect as a wave of relief suffuses her and everyone else.
Welcome to the world of "Glee," Fox's monster hit that returns Sept. 21 for its second season. The stakes are sky-high for everyone, not least Jones, the veteran actress who debuts as a formidable female football coach and rival to Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch).
Jones is just now being thrust into the rollercoaster ride that "Glee" has become -- not to mention plunged into a cast that has bonded in the cauldron of publicity that consumed them this past year.
"I was nervous," she admits. "[But] I was also excited."
A few months ago, she was standing in the fruit and vegetables section of a Whole Foods store in the San Fernando Valley when she ran into Falchuk. She had guest starred for him and fellow executive producer Ryan Murphy on FX's "Nip/Tuck."
"'I love "Glee." I wish I could be on it,'" she told him. "Two weeks later, I got a call from my agent saying that Ryan was writing something for me. I was like, 'Holy cow, this is unreal!' "
Unreal may be an understatement.
Today, Jones is surrounded by young actors who have become overnight celebrities. One by one they traipse in and start milling around -- first Morrison (Will), then Lea Michele (Rachel), then Chris Colfer (Kurt) and Cory Monteith (Finn). Only Lynch is absent on this first morning back -- she had laryngitis the night before -- and the big soundstage feels strangely empty without her.
Just 12 months ago, "Glee" didn't even have a soundstage of its own. Now it has two and a half to call home.
For the 20-plus actors and crew swirling around, expectations are enormous -- especially with 19 Emmy nominations that could result in a sweep Sunday night. The pressure is palpable.
"The first day is [about] making sure everyone is OK," says Murphy, a man whose serious manner contrasts with the joyfulness of his work. "People are nervous. I get nervous, because I'm like a proud papa who wants the kids to knock it out of the park."
The network wants that, too. But Murphy is resisting pressure just to repeat what "Glee" did its first season. "The obvious choice would be to make it bigger and bolder -- I mean, 10 numbers," he says. "Instead, we're going quieter and more intimate. We are doing the exact opposite of what people think."
An hour later, Michele proves the point.
She's sitting glued to a chair in the choir room, tackling one of those intimate scenes as she's interrogated by Will, Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz) and Mike (Harry Shum Jr.). They're all furious at her for sending a new rival, Sunshine (played by YouTube phenomenon Charice Pempengco), into the city's slums.
"[You're] an ambitious little freak," Tina snaps.
"I love you all so much," Rachel sobs.
Then she stops cold and turns to Falchuk, sitting by a monitor.
"Should I stand at this point?" she asks. "Should I walk around the chair? Is it better if I lean into Matthew?"
To anyone unfamiliar with the rehearsal process, Michele could come across as demanding. But the more time you spend with her, the more you realize it's all about perfection. "If I give her direction even about a word, she will take it and change the whole sentence, and make it so much better," Falchuk says.
Later, taking a break from work -- though not from her phone, which she uses to text back and forth endlessly -- Michele seems uncertain.
"It's kind of tough getting back into the groove," she admits.
The groove is so different from anything she's known before. Michele was a Broadway actress who'd never had any long-running role on television, and was constantly being rejected either because she wasn't a classic Hollywood beauty or because she was too ethnic -- or for myriad other reasons. Now she's a mega-star.
In real life, she is smaller than one might think -- tiny, in fact. She looks every bit the part of a high school student, dressed in the kind of garb which will surely start a fashion craze for teens: a short skirt and funky yellow-and-blue knee socks, one of her two costumes for the day.
She goes over and over her scene, worrying about whether to play it this way or that. Falchuk says he wants Rachel to seem humbled, but Michele would like to try it a few different ways. She pecks out a few more text messages. Then heads back to shoot.
In the choir room, she faces her accusers. Only, she's not humble, she's defiant. "I was wrong before," she says in the scene. "I didn't want anyone coming in and messing up the dynamic. Mike, Tina, I did it for you."
She lets the words hang for just a moment. Perfect.
It takes the crew an amazingly short time to set up for the next scene, with Colfer at a piano, especially given all the hugs and backslaps as the cast and crew reunite. Colfer, who plays the openly gay Kurt, is among the most popular people here.
We sit down for a few minutes before he begins a scene with Michele. He's wearing a long white sweater with a big black bow.
"It's very cool, very girly," he says.
Would he ever wear it himself? "Hell no!" he laughs. "I only wear point zero, zero of his [Kurt's] clothes. I am a jeans-and-T-shirt boy."
This jeans-and-T-shirt boy, until recently, was living in Clovis, Calif., a world removed from stardom.
"Being gay was the worst thing," he says. "I was teased constantly in school and it was almost like a joke to everyone. So I was terrified when I first got the script and found out they decided to make the character gay."
Colfer hesitated to take the part -- until his practical nature took over. "I figured I would rather be typecast," he says, "as opposed to not being cast at all."
This season, Murphy plans to give Kurt a boyfriend, who's being cast as we speak. "I didn't participate in the casting process," Colfer says. "That would feel like I was on the gay 'Bachelor.'"
Murphy envisions them as prom kings, which, Colfer says, would be "groundbreaking."
"I am shocked by the reaction to Kurt," he says. "You'd think the gay kid on the show would have such a narrow demographic, but it's everyone -- grandmothers, teenage girls and boys. One of the biggest demographics for him is older dads. This is the only show where [being gay has] been accepted 100% and people love him for it."
The cast clearly loves Colfer. Until recently, he, Ushkowitz and Amber Riley (who plays Mercedes Jones) all lived in the same complex.
"It was like a big 'Glee' dorm," he remembers. "I was always at Amber's, watching a movie, and every time she would watch a scary movie I would have to go to her place and sleep on the couch because she was afraid! It was fun."
As he's called to sit at the piano and begin his scene, he's happy to be back.
Last night, Colfer says, he couldn't sleep, he was so excited. "This is what I live for."
It's what Morrison lives for, too.
It's afternoon now, and we're sitting in Principal Figgins' office, whispering because they're shooting a scene next door.
He's thrilled to be back, he says, but also upset because one of his pals is no longer on the show: Jones has replaced Patrick Gallagher (Coach Ken Tanaka). "He's a buddy of mine," Morrison says. "I don't know, should I call him? It's not my place."
Morrison's character, Will, is the heart of the show, and casting him was pivotal.
"I saw Matt sing in New York," Murphy recalls. "He had all the right ingredients: a masculine guy who could be vulnerable, a dude who could sing and dance. I always wanted to find my Gene Kelly, and I did."
When he hears this, Morrison laughs.
"Ryan cast me for one reason," he quips. "He's a fashionista and he liked the boots I was wearing!"
Despite the lightheartedness, he takes the first day back very seriously. Like Colfer, he says, "I didn't sleep at all last night. But it's a lot better than last year; the nerves went away really fast."
Even more than his own character, he identifies with Monteith's Finn, the jock who can sing and dance.
"I grew up in Orange County and went to the Orange County High School for Performing Arts. I did children's theater, but I was also a big soccer player. In my junior year, I was torn between going down the soccer route or going into the arts."
A teacher made the choice easy. "He said, 'I just see something in you and I really think you should follow the musical path.' And that was my moment. And that's why I relate to Finn."
When "Glee" first aired, Fox was worried it would appeal only to women. But Morrison says there's feedback from men all the time. "I get a lot of very hetero sports guys who come up to me, look around first, and they're like, 'Hey man, your show is great!'"
He found out just how great the day those 19 nominations were announced.
"I was in New York. I'm an insomniac, so I got up and took a seven-mile run around Central Park to clear my head. The sad part is that, when something like that happens, you don't get a moment for yourself because the phones start ringing right away."
He adds, "The next time, I think I'm going to turn my phone off so I have a little time to soak it in. It's weird. I'm 31 -- and I'm a Tony nominee, a Golden Globe nominee and an Emmy nominee. It's been such a great ride."
The ride is just beginning for Jones.
As her work day comes to an end, she plunks herself in a director's chair, wearing her football coach costume, black Lycra shorts, size 13 tennis shoes (she's 6-foot-3), a new hairdo and bright red lipstick.
In Murphy and Falchuk's last TV venture, "Pretty Handsome," an FX pilot that was not picked up, she played a transgender character. This time, she's breaking ground as TV's first-ever female football coach, who, she says, will go into the locker room.
The very thought of what she's about to accomplish awes her.
This morning, she says, "I wanted to cry. I have been in this town for 18 years and worked my butt off to get something like this. And when it happens, it's nothing but amazing."
She tears up. "This is a dream come true."