Samantha Ware was 23-years-old when she first stepped onto the set of “Glee.” A few years prior, she chose to leave college, where she was studying to become a music teacher with a minor in journalism, to audition for “The Lion King.” She booked the role of Nala in the Las Vegas stage production, then landed a starring role in “The Book of Mormon” on Broadway, followed by the Chicago production of “Hamilton.”
When she left New York for her first-ever TV gig on “Glee” in 2015, Ware – a longtime fan of the show – was ecstatic to join the hit series in its final year, as one of the “new kids” in Season 6.
After she had completed filming her first musical number, “Tightrope” by Janelle Monáe, for her first episode in the series, Ware says she felt sidelined by the show’s lead, Lea Michele.
“I knew from day one when I attempted to introduce myself. There was nothing gradual about it. As soon as she decided that she didn’t like me, it was very evident,” Ware tells Variety in an exclusive interview. “It was after I did my first performance, that’s when it started – the silent treatment, the stare-downs, the looks, the comments under her breath, the weird passive aggressiveness. It all built up.”
According to Ware, on another occasion, Michele threatened her job in front of a large crowd of extras, dancers and the cast.
Ware says she never officially reported the alleged behavior to the network or studio because she had not considered, or even knew, that filing a complaint was an option. But Ware says Michele’s prima-donna behavior was no secret on the set.
“Lea’s actions were nothing new, so I guess since it was such a common thing, my case didn’t seem like that big of a deal,” Ware says. “I remember the first day I actually spoke up and unfortunately no one did anything. They just shrugged it off, like ‘That’s her.’ No one was stopping these things, which is an issue because the environment was helping perpetuate this abuse.”
Last week, Ware made headlines by calling out Michele in a tweet that has now gone viral.
“Remember when you made my first television gig a living hell?!?! Cause I’ll never forget,” Ware tweeted in all caps. “I believe you told everyone that if you had the opportunity you would ‘s— in my wig!’ amongst other traumatic microaggressions that made me question a career in Hollywood.”
Ware’s post was in response to Michele’s tweet, “George Floyd did not deserve this. This was not an isolated incident and it must end” with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.
Ware’s Twitter response elicited former colleagues of Michele to chime in, including Yvette Nicole Brown, who worked with her on ABC’s “The Mayor,” and “Glee’s” Alex Newell. The domino effect brought up horror stories from trans model, Plastic Martyr, who claimed when she saw Michele in the restroom at an Emmys ceremony, she yelled at her for being in the women’s bathroom, and actor Dabier Snell who said Michele wouldn’t let him sit at a table with her when he had a guest role on “Glee” in 2014, stating he “didn’t belong there.” A former child actress, who worked with Michele on Broadway in the ‘90s, shared on social media, “She demeaned the crew and threatened to have people fired if she was in any way displeased…She was 12. She was terrifying.”
In sharing their accounts of Michele’s problematic conduct, a number of people did not categorize Michele as racially-motivated. “I’m not going to say that Lea Michele is racist,” Amber Riley of “Glee” said in a recent interview. “That’s not what I’m saying. That was the assumption because of what’s going on right now in the world and it happened toward a Black person.”
In the aftermath of the backlash, Michele lost an endorsement deal with HelloFresh; the grocery-delivery service cited a zero-tolerance policy of racism and discrimination in terminating its relationship with the actor.
Ware says that during a large scene shot in an auditorium, Michele threatened she would get Ware fired. Ware suspects that she had unintentionally offended Michele.
“When you’re shooting a scene, sometimes the camera is on you and sometimes it’s not, but you still have to be in the scene,” Ware says. “The camera wasn’t on us, so it’s not like we had to give a full throttle performance, but apparently, I was goofing around when the camera wasn’t on me, and she took that as me being disrespectful to her.”
Ware says no one voiced any concern with her, not even the director of the episode, so she was shocked when Michele called her out and reprimanded her.
“She waited until the scene was over and she stopped in the middle of the stage and did a ‘come here’ gesture, like how a mother does to their child,” Ware explains.
Michele demanded, “You need to come here right now,” according to Ware, who says she politely refused to walk to the center of the stage because she was already publicly humiliated in front of a crowd of extras and dancers. “I said ‘no,’ and that’s when she decided to threaten my job, and said she would call Ryan Murphy in to come and fire me.”
Ware has no reason to believe that Murphy would have even been made aware of the incident, and states that Michele was likely using his name as a threat and scare-tactic. According to sources close to production, by the time “Glee” had reached the sixth and final season, Murphy was not running the series and had no active involvement in the show. Representatives for Murphy and 20th Century Fox Television, which produced “Glee,” declined to comment.
When “Glee” debuted in 2009, the show was widely credited for sparking a larger conversation of diversity on television, both on-screen and behind-the-camera, with Murphy casting minority actors in major roles and positively portraying characters with special needs and of all sexual orientations. The show was honored with a Peabody Award, and numerous GLAAD awards and nominations.
When Michele threatened Ware’s job, she was terrified. “It’s scary. For the full week, I was thinking I’m probably going to get an email and I might not be able to do the last three episodes, or I might not be able to sing another song.”
After the incident, Ware says she had a chat with Michele, who reminded her of her clout on the set.
“When I tried to speak up for myself, she told me to shut my mouth. She said I don’t deserve to have that job,” Ware says. “She talked about how she has reign. And here’s the thing: I completely understood that, and I was ready to be like, ‘This is your show. I’m not here to be disrespectful.’ But at that point, we were already past the respect and she was just abusing her power.”
Representatives for Michele declined to comment on Ware’s allegations for this story.
Variety has learned that after attempting to get in touch directly with Ware through a mutual connection, Ware declined to provide her personal contact information to Michele, instead asking her to contact her representatives, who received a personal email from Michele on Jun. 3 with an apology letter.
Elaborating on her tweet – in which Ware wrote that Michele made her work experience a “living hell,” and said she would “s—t in my wig” – the actor says Michele made the comment during an intimate cast screening during a lunch break on set.
“She had an issue because I had laughed [when watching a scene] and that’s when the ‘I’m going to s–t in your wig’ comment happened,” Ware recalls, adding that Michele made the comment loudly so that others could hear. “Some chuckled and some gasped. It was mortifying. The whole point was for her to embarrass me. People heard her, but no one was going to stand up to her.”
Even if unintentional, for Ware the comment was racially charged, pointing out, “Black women historically are known for their wigs.”
Whenever Ware confided in her colleagues and peers, she says they shared that they didn’t feel comfortable to speak up against the star.
“Everyone minded their business or said, ‘I’m sorry, I wish I had the power to stop this, but this is just the way it is, and this is just how it’s been’ – which means I wasn’t the first person to have been in that situation,” Ware says.
This past week, “Glee” series regular Heather Morris admitted the cast witnessed Michele’s behavior and didn’t do anything to stop it. “It’s also on us because to allow it to go on for so long without speaking out is something else we’re learning along with the rest of society,” Morris said on Twitter.
In regards to her viral tweet, Ware says that she does not does not support so-called “cancel culture,” and she believes everyone should be given a second chance. But when Ware saw Michele’s post about George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, she could not stay silent.
Last week in an interview, “Glee” star Riley said she hadn’t spoken to Michele in two years, but that Michele reached out to her after Ware’s tweet. Riley said she is proud of Ware for speaking up, and noted the influx of DMs she has received over the past week from “black actors and actresses telling me their stories…letting me know they have dealt with the same things being on set, being terrorized by the white girls that are the lead of the show.” Riley said non-white actors are always cast as sidekicks to white leads, and are told they are “expendable,” while white girls “know that they’re not fireable.”
Since “Glee,” Ware has had guest roles on HBO’s “Barry,” NBC’s “Chicago Med,” plus “Bull,” “God Friended Me” and “NCIS: New Orleans” on CBS. She had starring roles on the web series “Margot vs. Lily” and the Netflix thriller, “What/If.”
Ware is typically one of the few black actors on a set, and she says that she has never worked on a production where a person of color was in charge. Even when there are a large number of black men and women in the crew or in the writers’ room, Ware says their voices aren’t necessarily being showcased.
“You can put color in the room, but if you don’t let them talk or speak or share their side, we’re not getting anywhere,” she says. “There are such imbalances of power and structures that have been fully embedded for years that just need to crumble at this point. Everyone needs to feel heard and be validated.”
Ware, who is from Lincoln, Nebraska, says she has been told on auditions that, essentially, she does not sound black enough.
“I was born and raised in the Midwest, so I don’t have a southern accent or I don’t sound like I was raised in Brooklyn or Harlem. I sound like what a lot of people will say is a white woman, so those are the roles that I’m given,” she says. On “Glee,” she played a private school student, and in other productions, she has played characters that include an adopted daughter, a doctor and an English teacher.
“The projects that I’m a part of are predominantly white so I’m fitting into their world; they’re not necessarily coming into mine,” she says.
The past three years have seen slow progress in Hollywood, particularly with the #MeToo movement, which pertains specifically to survivors of sexual abuse, but works towards the overall improvement of workplace safety and equality.
Harvey Weinstein’s 23-year sentencing is a pivotal moment to “get these conversations going,” Ware says, adding, “Now with George Floyd, people are talking. It’s sad that at the expense of trauma and abuse we are now looking, but somebody had to take the stand.”
As for Michele, Ware sees her tweet as a learning opportunity.
“It shouldn’t have to take my tweet. When you tweet, “Black lives matter,” that would mean you have an understanding of what that hashtag means, but it’s clear that it doesn’t,” Ware says. “Does Lea even know what a microaggression is? I don’t know. All that her apology did was affirm that she hasn’t learned anything. Am I calling Lea a racist? No. Does Lea have racist tendencies? I think Lea suffers from a symptom of living in this world in an industry that is tailored to white people.”
Ware hopes that her white colleagues will become true allies by educating themselves further.
Although she’s not in a position of power in the industry, Ware is doing what she can to promote equality by using her voice. Along with Riley, Ware has launched a social media movement with the hashtag #unMUTEny, which encourages people of color who have felt silenced within the workplace to share their stories.
“I would love to be someone behind the table and at the table making room for others at the table,” Ware says. “Even my skin and my presence is an act of liberation and defiance and joy, so for me to be in a room that I was never intended to be in is enough. I believe I do good work, and I believe that I try to give as much love and respect to the people around me.”