'Glee's Max Adler on Karofsky's Suicide Attempt in Bold Episode
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.
Do you have any indication that you'll be doing any more episodes?
All up in the air. I never have any clue until days before. I would certainly like to, but that's not my decision to make.
You had a powerful scene with Chris Colfer (Kurt) in this episode, and you've had a lot of them throughout the series. How was working with Chris on this one in comparison to others you've done?
I would work with Chris every day for the rest of my life. He's just a natural, genuine person. There's something when you're looking in his eyes in a scene and everything in life kind of goes away. You can completely surrender to the characters, the circumstance and the situation. We just get that about each other, there's something about our scenes where we live in the world of all the subtext and what's really being said in between the lines. I think that's what people have responded to, and it's so appreciated. Also the writers have done such a great job fleshing out these characters, and people can relate to them because they know somebody like one of these characters. Chris gives 100 percent, even when it's my closeup and there's no camera on him he'll be shedding tears, which obviously helps my performance. We both have respect and love for our craft and the message we're portraying. I think when he visits me in the hospital is one of the most powerful scene that we've shot, because Kurt realizes that Karofksy needs a friend. He's dangling off a cliff by a thread, and he needs someone on the other end to show him that it's going to be okay and that there's a future where people will love him for who he is. Kurt is the only one to step up for him to do that. It's one of the first times you see us on the same page as opposed to at war with each other.
How do you react to both the passionate fans who are in support of you, and the fans who are angry at Karofsky's redemption?
As far as being an actor on a TV show, it's flattering that fans are so connected and invested emotionally in these characters that they reach out and express themselves and their opinions. You can't ask for anything better, you'd rather have that than people who don't really care at all. As far as what they say, it is sad and tragic that people out there don't think that Karofsky can change. And there are those really awful Tweets or messages where they really want Karofksy to kill himself or harm himself just so Kurt and Blaine can be together. It's really sad, and it imitates life, where people are rooting for someone to harm themselves to protect their own beliefs. The question we should ask ourselves is why do we let it get to that point -- in the show you see there are Facebook comments where after people find out Karofsky survived they tell him to try again. That mirrors real life, I read article about that. I feel like there's such a fear in our society to let people truly be who they are, that we'd rather hold people down and live in some kind of a safe status quo because there's just his fear that if we're all ourselves we'd be these wild rabid animals. If you look at it, the people who really express themselves are the Einstein's, the Alexander Graham Bell's and the Picasso's. There's such potential in this world if we just did what we believed in. If we collectively stand up for one another and have discussions, we can save some lives and change people's ways of thinking. That would be a dream come true if we could do that with this power of "Glee."
Last episode it was revealed the Karofksy has feelings for Kurt, have you always chosen to play the character this way or was it a new development?
I think it was less of a romantic or a sexual connection, and more that he just needed a human connection. He needed someone to love and accept him for who he was, and so he tried to express himself as honestly as he knew how. He never really had anyone show him how to do that. He didn't know what else to do, and he'd rather take the risk than live in the fear. He was trying to take some step forward in his life and find something to latch on to, another key to another door, and I think when that door slammed in his face it was another heartbreak for him. He'd always respected and admired Kurt for being able to be who he is, and I feel like he was reaching out to Kurt to love and accept him for who he was, because nobody else will. I thought it was brilliant too, with the Gorilla suit, where metaphorically removing that suit he was stripping the bravado and the mask off of himself and standing there bare.
Interesting parallel between the Gorilla suit removal last episode and the dressing of himself in the suit in preparation for his suicide in this one.
I'm glad you got that. I feel like in that scene, in the suicide, Karofsky has been unable to control any elements of his life, the way people see him he hasn't been able to dictate. If he wanted to show any sensitivity it would be a weakness, so he's constantly masking who he is. Him putting the suit on is finally his way to control something, make his own image and be seen has how he wants to be seen. It's interesting that in his last moments is the only time he is able to control his decisions and his life.