Just because The Glee Project‘s Ali Stroker is paralyzed from the chest down doesn’t mean she always has to play the saint.
“I’m in a wheelchair, but there’s so much more to me,” says the 24-year-old actress, who got to show off her bitchy side, her sexy side, and more on her way to a co-runner-up finish on Oxygen’s competitive casting call for a role on the Glee mothership. “It’s always been my goal to make people see beyond just the storyline of having a disability. What if the audience had a chance to question if they actually liked the person in the wheelchair?”
TVLine caught up with Stroker to talk about her Glee Project run — from a scary incident with some poolside slushies to her romantic scene with eventual winner Blake Jenner. Read on for the whole enchilada!
TVLINE | I wanted to start by asking you about what you were doing pre-Glee Project.
I’d just moved back to New York. Prior to that, I had been living in L.A., auditioning for TV, film and voiceover work. The reason I moved to Hollywood after going to NYU and studying musical theater was actually because I wanted to be on Glee.
TVLINE | Seriously?
Yeah, I auditioned for the first season of The Glee Project, and I was invited to the callbacks, but I couldn’t go. I’d been doing a production of the [25th Annual Putnam County] Spelling Bee musical, and it was opening that same weekend. I was really bummed, but then I was like, “I believe everything is meant to be.” So when the second season came around, I auditioned again in New York and got to meet [Glee Project head mentor and Glee casting director] Robert Ulrich at the casting call.
TVLINE | You were a little bit under the radar early in the season, and to me, you first really broke out during Adaptability Week, when you did your last-chance duet with Abraham on “Last Friday Night.”
I was actually really excited for that, because live performance, stage performance, is where I have the most experience. “Last Friday Night” has a lot of words, though, so that was a little nerve-wracking. But I think it helped me because it showed that I’m able to pull off a character, it showed what I can do on stage, and it gave me a chance to show Ryan [Murphy] a little more of myself.
TVLINE | During Fearlessness Week, you got slushied to the point where you had a pretty scary physical response. Were you worried beforehand that might happen or was it worse than expected? Did you feel like if the rest of the cast had to strip down to bathing suits and get hit with slushies, that you couldn’t be the only one who declined?
I was nervous that day. I have really extreme responses to temperature, especially extreme temperature, and my intuition was telling me that this was going to be a pretty brutal challenge. I actually went last that day, and when it finally happened, it was pretty scary because I had never felt that kind of cold, ever.
TVLINE | Were you fearful for your health at that point? Was there a moment when you weren’t sure that people knew you were having problems breathing?
As soon as I got hit, the minute I got slushied, I tried to take like a deep breath and I couldn’t breathe. And so I started to cry, and I was like, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” So I sat on the edge of the pool and had towels around me, and then finally I realized that the pool was really warm, and it was probably best to just dive in. But yeah, I knew immediately that my body was not happy. [Laughs]
TVLINE | In later weeks, you showed some chemistry with Blake, particularly in Romanticality Week. During that particular video shoot, you were pretty adamant about getting out of your wheelchair during your makeout scene. Why was that important to you, and how did you feel the scene looked when it was finished?
I really wanted to get out of my chair because I felt like it was important for people — and for the mentors and Ryan — to see that just because you need a wheelchair, you are not confined to a wheelchair. In real life, if I were with somebody [in an intimate situation], I would get out of my chair. Showing that side of my sexuality and romanticality is important because I don’t think it’s displayed that often on TV or in theater for people with disabilities. I felt really strongly about it. Blake and I really worked together well because there was a lot of trust there, and we have grown really close as friends. He wanted to take that risk with me. There was so much trust that it came off as really excellent chemistry.
TVLINE | Another strenuous shoot was during Tenacity Week, where the entire video had to be shot in one unbroken take, and they gave you a lot of work to do, including ending the scene by nailing a basketball shot backwards over your shoulder. My initial reaction was, “What are they doing to Ali? Are they trying to drive her to a breakdown?” Tell me what was going through your mind during that shoot.
The truth is, the competition is not about sports. So when I had to make the shot backwards, without looking, I think it was a real test to see if I was going to give up. And I didn’t. Then, halfway through I had this idea, “Why doesn’t the whole group all together pick my chair up, and then I can shoot it in?” And they loved that, and it actually brought the group even closer, because then we had to come together and help each other.
TVLINE | Plus, if you hadn’t had that brainstorm, you might still be in that gym today, seeing how I’m not sure any of you were qualified to make a backwards basketball shot.
Exactly. It’s not like we were trying out for American Gladiator. [Laughs]
TVLINE | Another moment that stood out to me was the homework assignment where you all sang “Survivor,” and Amber Riley not only gave you the win, but said you actually moved more than any of your fellow contenders. What was it like getting that feedback?
It was really exciting. I decided to wear something for that homework assignment that made me feel like a young girl, because as a little girl, I really had to find a lot of inner strength and be really tough through all my physical therapy and through the harder moments. Everything in that performance [of "Survivor"] came from a very deep, deep place. I really connected with the song and with the feeling. And all of a sudden, my body just really engaged, and I think it showed where that was coming from and what that meant to me.
TVLINE | So you make it to the final five, and everyone had to do a last-chance performance. You were assigned “Here’s to Us.” How much pressure was there going into that performance? Did you guys have an inkling that Ryan might cut more than one person, and what did you think of Ian Brennan’s inspiration to write a character for you who would be a promiscuous bitch?
The most thrilling part was hearing Ryan and the writers weren’t interested in just writing about me being in a wheelchair. I loved that they thought that I could be the bitch, because how often do we get to see that kind of character in a wheelchair? What if the audience didn’t just feel sympathy or compassion for them? I like the idea that the audience gets challenged. It’s really important for America and the world to see that someone in a wheelchair can be sexual and romantic and be in a relationship.
TVLINE | I liked that for the finale, you chose your own song, “Popular” from Wicked, and you said your reasoning was to extend the idea of this character that they had percolating in the backs of their minds for you. Given that on Glee Project, you’re auditioning not for a specific role, but instead to inspire the writers to create something for you to play, that seemed like a smart bit of strategy.
The song was perfect for me, and it fit with the character I’d already been working on that week. And ultimately, that’s the goal: To be playing a character. I wanted to do something for Ryan and the other writers that could’ve actually been a performance on the show. Why not give them what they’re looking for?
TVLINE | What was it like watching the finale on TV, and getting amazing comments from people like Darren Criss, who seemed to be very much Team Ali.
I was so flattered. I couldn’t believe it. I was speechless. To have people that I respect so much, who are on the show, saying those things about me, it meant so much to me. They weren’t just looking for my story about being in a chair. They saw me as a performer, and that is the greatest compliment.