Glee's latest graduate laughs all the way to Hollywood

Lea Michele leaps from TV to movies in the starry 'New Year's Eve' but is too upbeat and driven to let the strain get to her, says Kaleem Aftab

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For all the talk of how television shows have gained cachet over the past decade, with shows from The Sopranos to Mad Men and Glee winning fans globally, and directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese directing TV episodes, it still seems as hard as ever for a small-screen star to make it big in cinema. There are exceptions, such as George Clooney and Will Smith, but look at the struggles of the Friends cast, or more recently Mad Men star Jon Hamm's failure to land that killer movie role, and it soon becomes apparent that television and cinema are still, even in this golden age for the TV series, largely separate entities.

The latest actress to be taking tentative steps to jump out of television is Glee's Lea Michele. She's landed a part in the Pretty Woman director Garry Marshall's ensemble drama, New Year's Eve. Marshall's romantic plot finds us in New York at the end of the year, when resolutions are being made and love is being lost and found. The cast includes Robert De Niro, Ashton Kutcher, Hilary Swank, Katherine Heigl, Sarah Jessica Parker and Zac Efron.

Michele's scenes are mainly with Kutcher, who has been making headlines since his split with Demi Moore. Michele, 25, has also just split from her beau, the Broadway actor Theo Stockman, though she is quick to state that they remain on amicable terms. Playing in a star-laden ensemble is a smart move for the actress as she starts to think of a post-Glee career. In New Year's Eve, the attention will not just be on her – there's none of the focus that would have come had she played a leading lady. She has already shown she can promote herself in the way she talked up her on-screen kiss with Kutcher, and revealing that he flashed at her on set.

Michele saw the incident as funny. Indeed, when I meet her she displays a propensity to see the funny side in almost everything that has gone on in her life, ever since Glee's creator, Ryan Murphy, saw her on Broadway in Spring Awakening and began writing the part of Rachel Berry for her.

Now Glee is an institution. As well as the shows being watched by millions around the world, the songs and albums have become best-sellers, and the concerts sell out. Of course, the major caveat is that the cast records only cover versions.

Michele specialises in the songs of a fellow New Yorker, Barbra Streisand. Given that the part of Berry was written for the Bronx-born actress, it is perhaps no surprise that Michele admits she and Rachel have many similar personality traits. "I think we share more characteristics with our on-screen roles than we are willing to admit sometimes," she says. "I am a big Streisand fan, I come from Broadway and I love performing on stage, very similar to Rachel. But not only that, I understand her drive. If you watch Glee, and the last two episodes of season two, she says, 'I'm going to New York and I'm going to be a performer'. And I was and am very much like that. Very driven.

"I knew what I wanted to be and I didn't let other people influence me or change who I was to fit a certain mould. Like getting a nose-job, for example. I didn't want to get a nose-job, because other people said you should, because everyone else in my high school [Tenafly High School in New Jersey] was doing it, and that's what I love most about Rachel and what I relate to."

Michele's nose has become a bit of a trademark. She claims that her mother Edith, an Italian-American Roman Catholic nurse, would always tell her growing up that Streisand never went under a knife, so nor should she. She calls Italians "my people" despite her father, Marc Sarfati, a delicatessen owner, being of Spanish-Sephardic Jewish origin.

The actress faced more difficult questions about another body part when her weight seemed to nosedive in 2010 and talk of her being anorexic began to surface. However, a year on and in person she doesn't look thinner than any other actress in a strenuous role. Michele puts her weight-loss down to a jaw operation.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with the nose of the dark-haired star, one of Glee's poster girls. She says that filming in LA and being away from the Empire State is the only drawback to her career on Glee. "The only hard thing about my job is that I'm a New Yorker through and through, and my family is from there, so filming in New York is always my wish."

She landed her first part on Broadway at the age of eight, as a replacement young Cosette in Les Misérables. Having also appeared in Ragtime and Fiddler On The Roof, her love of Broadway is clearly stronger than her love of film. She admits that one of the highlights of working on Glee was "New York", the episode filmed on the stage of Wicked.

"We were crazy kleptomaniacs running around thinking what can we steal," she recalls. "We couldn't because everything was massive or chained down – they probably knew that we were coming."