Sometimes being famous is like attending your own funeral.
Chris Colfer learned as much at the ripe age of 18, when he was cast as the plucky gay countertenor Kurt Hummel on "Glee." Armed with a golden voice and an uncanny ability to cry on cue, Mr. Colfer became a poster boy for bullying issues and the show's breakout star.
But back in his hometown, Clovis, Calif., things got weird.
"People that I went to school with almost acted as if I had died," Mr. Colfer, now 22, said in a recent interview. Classmates who once treated him like toxic waste were now bragging on Facebook that they had been best of friends. "I thought, Wow, this must be what someone feels like at their eulogy."
That old Tom Sawyer fantasy is the basis of "Struck by Lightning," a film that Mr. Colfer wrote and stars in. After having its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, it was released on video on demand last week and opens in theaters Jan. 11.
Mr. Colfer plays Carson Phillips, a high school outcast who, in the hope of getting into Northwestern University, blackmails classmates into contributing to his literary magazine. The film is told in flashback: In the first scene, Carson is, indeed, struck by lightning and dies.
Mr. Colfer conceived the story when he was 16, well before landing on TV. He first performed it in high school, as a monologue for his speech and debate team.
But the movie isn't just deferred juvenilia. It's part of Mr. Colfer's bid to become a multi-platform showbiz hyphenate. In 2011, he signed a two-book deal with Little, Brown. The first book, "The Land of Stories," which came out this summer, is a young-adult adventure novel that upends classic fairy tales, in the manner of Gregory Maguire. (He's at work on a sequel.) He also published a companion book to "Struck by Lightning," written as Carson's journal.
Mr. Colfer's literary ambitions, coupled with his piccolo-voiced demeanor, underscore how unconventional his stardom is. Playing a flamboyantly gay TV character means that Mr. Colfer has faced a nagging interest in his own sexuality, as well as questions about his long-term casting potential.
But on this front, too, he has broken ground. Although Mr. Colfer is reticent about his personal life, he has never denied being gay. In an Entertainment Weekly cover article this summer, "The New Art of Coming Out," writer Mark Harris contrasted Mr. Colfer with slightly older gay celebrities such as Neil Patrick Harris and Zachary Quinto, whose coming-out stories, while tellingly understated, were still news.
"There are more and more actors like Chris Colfer, whose transformation from an unknown 19-year-old to a TV star in 2009 was accomplished without any 'coming out' moment at all," Mr. Harris wrote. "He was simply out, and therefore didn't have to manage or strategize any revelation once he became famous."
Still, it's possible to see Mr. Colfer's diversity of creative outlets as a kind of insurance policy. By writing his own material, he can circumvent casting directors and define his screen persona for himself.
In some cases, that means leaving things vague. His "Struck by Lightning" character is conspicuously asexual. "I wanted everyone to universally be able to be inspired by this character, so I didn't address it," he explained.
'An evil curse'
While not strictly autobiographical, the story stems from Mr. Colfer's fraught upbringing. When he was 7, his younger sister was found to have severe epilepsy. "She'd have these horrid, horrid epileptic fits in the middle of the night," he recalled. Mr. Colfer, who craved attention, was now deprived of it. Family friends would inquire about his sister's condition: "It was always, 'So when you grow up, are you going to come up with a cure for your sister?' I would say, 'Nope, I'm going to be an actor!' "
He came to see the unbalanced family dynamic as "an evil curse." Retreating into his imagination, he began writing fairy tales, which formed the basis of "The Land of Stories."
Things got worse in middle school. Mr. Colfer transformed from a skinny sixth-grader into a pudgy seventh-grader whose voice hadn't dropped. (It still hasn't, essentially.) Bullies vandalized his locker and defaced his gym clothes. He kept his travails mostly hidden. "I always assumed that my parents were busy with my sister," he said. "They didn't need any woes from me. So I never told them."
But he did confide in his grandmother. She alerted his parents, who pulled him from school and put him in a home-schooling program for a year and a half.
In the meantime, he kept writing. "Words were the only way I could get people to listen to me without them wondering what was wrong with my voice."
In ninth grade, he transferred to Clovis East High School, which had a strong performing-arts program.
Mr. Colfer acted in community theater productions and became president of the school writers' club. Not that there was much competition. At the homecoming parade -- this became a scene in "Struck by Lightning" -- he and the club's sole other member piloted a two-person float atop his father's pickup truck. "When we came around the corner, the crowd went dead silent," he recalled. "They felt so sorry for us."
At the same time, he became a speech and debate champion.
Nervous about 'Glee' role
With "Glee," Mr. Colfer originally auditioned for Artie, who was wheelchair-bound. But the series' creator, Ryan Murphy, conceived the role of Kurt -- a bully-dodging show queen who gives killer makeovers -- especially for him. At first, Mr. Colfer was hesitant about playing a gay character on national TV. "I was very nervous about people in my hometown," he said, recalling how he had seen local church groups campaigning for Proposition 22, a same-sex marriage ban.
He was also skittish about being typecast. "The first thing that was ever written about me was that I was fantastic in 'Glee,' but it would be the last and only thing I ever did," he said.
This season Kurt has graduated from high school and is pursuing his dreams in New York City. Freshly pompadoured, he shares an improbably large Bushwick, Brooklyn, apartment with Rachel (Lea Michele) and interns for a Vogue editor played by Sarah Jessica Parker.
The show's recent New York focus has meant shooting on location in Bryant Park and other high-traffic spots, which has drawn gawking crowds. One of the stranger aspects of Mr. Colfer's career is his relationship with his young fans, who mob him everywhere he goes.
None of this is unusual for a tween idol, of course. But Mr. Colfer's sexuality makes the situation curious. Surely, Kurt has served as a role model for countless gay teenagers. But the vast majority of his admirers, he said, are girls.
Certainly, the phenomenon speaks to the ubiquity of gay characters in popular culture, and suggests that Mr. Colfer's future as a crossover star is bright. But unlike, say, Robert Pattinson or Zac Efron, he is hardly a typical fantasy boyfriend, because he offers his female fans no logical hope of consummation.
What's in it for them?
"The new generation doesn't see people in black and white anymore," he said. "These girls identify with Kurt, because Kurt had something different about him. Who doesn't have that?"
He added, with a shrug: "I don't know too much about the female brain."