Lea Michele for Nylon (September 2013)

It’s not super surprising that when Lea Michele hosts you for dinner at her place, it feels like you’re sitting in the studio audience of a cooking show. The actress is, after all, famous for her showboating character Rachel Berry on Fox’s runaway hit Glee, and the parallels between the effervescent 26-year-old and the overachieving high school student she plays on TV aren’t a secret. “When I was little, I wanted to have a cooking show,” admits Michele, flitting between a grill, a stove, and a cutting board in the breezy outdoor kitchen of her house in Hollywood. I tell her it’s not very hard to imagine. “Right?!” she shrieks, turning from the grill, where she’s been poking at a pizza crust warming over the flame. “But I’d have to watch my mouth,” she says. “I’d be like, ‘Oh God, this fucking pizza’s so good!’” She goes back over to the stove with a giggle and douses a pot of broccolini in apple cider vinegar.

The truth is, when Michele was a child she was already too busy acting to be pitching televised cooking tutorials. Before she had finished middle school, she was already performing in Broadway musicals like Les Misérables and Ragtime, and though her parents had traded the Bronx, where she was born, for the nearby suburb of Tenafly, New Jersey—a nicer place to raise a kid, they figured—it wasn’t long before they were renting another apartment in Manhattan and shuttling their only child between class, home, and her jobs on Broadway. “I was a weird kid,” Michele (who drops her last name, Sarfati, professionally) concedes with a laugh. “I was eight years old saying”—she affects the tone of a child respectfully declining to clean her room—“‘I don’t want a day off. I’d like to work every day, please.’”

Indeed, it’s easy to unearth little gems like her appearance on a 1995 episode of Sally Jesse Raphael titled “I’m a Kid & Already a Star!” as a spangly, gap-toothed nine-year-old. But the role that led Michele from precocious child star to actual star was that of Wendla, the female lead in the Broadway pop-rock musical hit Spring Awakening, which she played from 2006 to 2008. It’s also, in a roundabout way, what lead her to Glee—the show that has turned her into a full-blown supernova—but more specifically, to the series’ creator, Ryan Murphy, who, after developing the character of Rachel, decided right away that there was no other actress fit to play her. 

“I always thought she was very original. Then I heard her sing and I knew there was nobody like her. She’s a very rare talent–she’s very specific and unusual and yet also familiar. She’s in that canon of the great singer-actresses—there’s not many of them,” says Murphy. “I think she was worried about coming out to L.A. I don’t look like the girls out here, I’m not 5-foot-10 and blond with big boobs. I always thought she was beautiful, and she is beautiful. But I think she was worried that the people in the industry or the town wouldn’t ‘get’ her. So, it’s a real privilege to be the person who said, ‘I get you and other people will get you, too.’ I’m very proud of that.” It’s a comforting thought, and one that Glee has banked on since the beginning: No matter how large the L on your forehead may seem, if you surround yourself with people who understand you, it can change your life. “I know what the last scene of the show is, whenever that happens,” adds Murphy, as we wrap up our call. “And it does involve Lea. I’ve always known that.”

This is Michele’s first proper hiatus from Glee since it premiered three seasons ago (there were the “Glee! Live! In Concert!” tours between filming the actual show) and she’s not letting the downtime between filming season four, which premieres September 13th, go to waste. Before the last season wrapped, she purchased this house—a modest two-bedroom ranch on a bosky street off Sunset, that’s calm and cozy in a Restoration Hardware kind of way—and moved all of her things into it post-haste. She’s taking care of all the doctor appointments she might need to have for the rest of the year (she had some dental work done this morning and the wisdom teeth are coming out next week). She just took a whirlwind European vacation that included sitting front-row at Paris Fashion Week and some public canoodling with boyfriend with Cory Monteith, who also plays her love interest, Finn, on the show.

During the few hours we spend together, her hair is unselfconsciously slicked back with a deep-conditioning treatment. She zips around the kitchen shaking bags of greens, stirring pots, and tending to the grill, narrating each step in her best no-nonsense chef staccato. On the menu tonight, we have bruschetta, sautéed broccolini, lentil salad (her “pride and joy”), and a radicchio and truffle pizza–despite the fact that Michele’s only having lentil soup because of her morning in the dentist chair. At one point, her knife slips off a block of Parmesan and hits the wooden cutting board with a thud, interrupting an impassioned monologue. “This is so jarring,” she says with a laugh. A little jarring, sure, but her industriousness, more than anything, is a wonder.

“I’m sort of converted to L.A. now,” sighs Michele, pushing the sleeves of her cream Helmut Lang knit sweater up to her elbows and settling into one of the chairs lining the long wooden dining table on her lattice- and vine-covered patio. “Which breaks my heart, it really does.” She surveys her backyard, which includes a little green lawn and a small pool that’s glittering in the evening sun. It becomes obvious pretty quickly how much of Michele’s identity is tied to being a New Yorker. The structure of filming Glee is tailor-made for a high-energy city kid like Michele: When she’s not shooting a scene, someone in production will whisk her away to learn choreography or record a musical number. And the comedy’s relentlessly forward-thinking—and occasionally warm and gooey—moral center is also perfect for how a childhood spent around adult Broadway performers might condition one to be.

Has there ever been a social topic on the show that she didn’t feel prepared to handle? “No way,” she says, emphatically. “I grew up in a very, very different world than a lot of people did. Everyone I knew was gay—the weirdos were the straight people. Obviously we don’t just deal with homosexuality on Glee, but nothing shocks me. Nothing.” She cackles a bit. “As a matter of fact, I feel like I’m the type of person who likes to shock people a little bit, too.” This seems to come as something of a revelation, and she grows excited. “For example, when I was in Spring Awakening, every night I had to do this nude scene. I always loved to find the one person in the audience who I knew was going to be uncomfortable—who throughout the show was cringing in their seat—and when [co-star] Jonathan Groff would undo my top, I loved it! I was like, ‘Take that!’” she shouts, thrusting her index finger at an imaginary prude. “How uncomfortable are you right now? I want you to be uncomfortable!” She drops the pose and turns back to the counter where a vegetable needs chopping. “I just really love the challenge,” she says. “And I think people should be challenged.”

Michele’s challenge upon storming Hollywood in a show big enough to earn 34 Emmy nominations, spawn 18 full-length albums, more than 200 Billboard Hot 100 singles (a world record), and its own rabid fanbase of “Gleeks,” may have been taming the exhaustive press that has surrounded it. Many initial stories ran with the “just like her character” narrative and tacked-on rumors of Diva-Like Behavior and Type-A prickliness. I mention one article that seemed particularly harsh—in which the interviewer asks her if she pees in the shower, then depicts her as uptight for not answering—and she responds in a low, foreboding tone, “Woof.” Does Michele’s bright-eyed enthusiasm and child-actor past make these characterizations especially easy? Yes. But to pretend it’s the whole of her is reductive. Not to mention that in a culture diluted by a squadron of famous-for-nothings, it doesn’t seem like the best idea to rally against our most overtly dedicated and talented of celebrities for being exactly that.

“I think I got hit with some pretty hard things at the beginning that were not good representations of my personality, and people put a label–I think they like to do that–and it really got to me,” she elaborates. “And I think I was fighting so hard to change that, that I was not really being myself. [But] I came to a place where I’m much happier personally in my life and because of that I really don’t feel like I need to explain anything or be anything. I’m really proud of who I am.” When I ask Michele how things have gone with the paparazzi, it’s a little sad to hear that she feels more at ease dealing with them—three are currently parked outside, cameras ready to document the riveting details of her next nail appointment— than she does with professional journalists. “I’m sorry, but it’s so strange. I always feel now that people only want to get the worst out of sitting and talking to me,” she says. This is slightly awkward, with me sitting and talking to her and all.

“I feel a weird thing where it’s like, Do you just want to find out something bad?” We should cheers, I segue brilliantly. Lea brightens and yelps, “Yes!” before refilling my glass with red wine. “Do you want to have some?” she asks, gingerly gesturing to the untouched pizza on the table. “You can literally have one bite and that’s it, andI promise it’s fine.” I take a bite and dutifully (and truthfully!) report on its deliciousness. “If I read this article and you’re like, ‘She made me the nastiest meal,’” she warns with a grin, “I swear to God, I will come and find you.”

We decide to play a game in which she is tasked with describing some of her cast-mates in one word, and the spangly nine-year-old instantly re-emerges. Dianna Agron: “Beautiful,” she says, wistfully. Chris Colfer: “Aww,” she says. “Genius.” Amber Riley: “That’s my mom.” (Not one word, but we’ll let it go.) Matthew Morrison: “You’re killing me,” she says. “I want to say ‘star,’ but he’s also like my brother. Brother-Star! He won’t be happy with that.” She chuckles. Jane Lynch: “Hilarious. And I would definitely put ‘fucking’ in front of that if that’s OK.” Now for the main event. Cory: “Oh,”she says, wilting a little. “You can’t make me pick one word for him. That’s not fair. We could talk about that in detail.” A smirk and a swig of wine.

And with that, the mood feels right for the admittedly naïve, non-actor question I’ve been saving. (And–spoiler alert–those who haven’t watched the season three finale, please see yourselves to the next paragraph.) Was it weird to pretend breakup with your real-life boyfriend for the show? “We were Finn and Rachel before–I feel like they come first,” she says. “I was really nervous to do it because I didn’t want to go there as an actor–sometimes you’re just like, Oh my gosh, I don’t wanna feel that. And I’m not someone who can just do that on the surface, I will listen to sad music for, like, a week prior. I will cry on every take. But truly, we went into it thinking, How are we going to make this great?” Michele and Monteith were able to play that particular scene so well that it only required one take, and that take is a doozy. “When it was over, we were driving home and I was like, ‘I need something right now!’” she says, then laughs a little to herself. “And we pulled over at the gas station and ate Subway in the car with big, big Diet Cokes and chips and just sat there like we’d been through a war.”

Rachel Berry will no doubt experience further growing pains during season four, which premieres with an episode titled “The New Rachel.” She’ll be leaving the relative comfort of McKinley High School in Ohio for the New York Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan, where she’ll be studying with a sea of triple-threat types just like her. (Kate Hudson is slated to play her dance instructor.) It’s a pivotal moment for the series as a whole, too, since this type of transition on a high school-set show can be crucial to its continued relevance. Michele, of course, is more than ready for it. “You know, when the show first started I knew immediately that it was so special. But so much was happening for us so quickly that it was very much a whirlwind. And I don’t know what happened, but when this third season finished, I fell madly in love with it again. I listen to the music on my iPod.” She laughs. “I love it. I’m obsessed with the show as much as the [viewers] who love it are,” she finishes effusively, holding a bottle of truffle oil up to her chest like a tiny trophy.

Michele has plenty of reasons to love Glee as much as she does. For one, though shows like Smash have popped up in its wake, when the show launched it was the only thing on television that could utilize her full range of abilities. And her talent has clearly resonated—Michele has become an authentic American Idol. Soon, she’ll start work on her first solo pop album. When she relays this information, her excitement is apparent, her wine glass only partially obscuring a grin. “I want to make songs where girls can just roll down the windows of their car or dance around in their rooms in their underwear, like, I hate my ex-boyfriend! or I’m so in love!” she says with a laugh. “Because that’s what I want [to hear]–girl-power songs.”

The sun is now long gone, and we’re clearing plates from the table in the chilly evening air. Michele’s Halloween-colored cat, Sheila, is growing impatient without attention, and skitters into the kitchen. I prepare to leave, then realize that the Lea Michele Cooking Show is not over. Michele pulls a little plastic tray containing a few delicate fruit tarts from the refrigerator and presents them to me. You’re such a good host, I say. “Am I?! OK, good,” she says a little incredulously, then smiles a big, dimply smile.