As a fifth-grader, Dianna Agron traveled from her home in Texas to the Hyatt Regency hotel in San Francisco -- and stayed there for seven years. Her childhood memories include getting locked out by security because the president of the Philippines was arriving, and looking out her back window at a motivational-speaking seminar.
"Tony Robbins came once, and he did a fire walk in front of the hotel," says Agron, whose father was general manager of the Hyatt. "You could see it from our window. He was really tall and chanting into a microphone. I was so confused. I kept saying to my mom, 'Why would these people want to walk on coals?'"
Starring as Quinn, the conflicted cheerleader in the Cheerios squad in the hit television show "Glee," has been a wild ride for Agron, who also co-stars in the science-fiction/romance film "I Am Number Four," in theaters now. But her upbringing didn't lack excitement. Agron's "Eloise"-like childhood may have fueled her adventurous spirit -- which led her to postpone college and pursue an acting career in Los Angeles.
Sitting down for an interview at the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco -- her first time in that hotel -- Agron fondly recalls the past. Agron had been training as a dancer since she was 3 years old, but otherwise was a typical well-rounded high-school student. She didn't act in a school play until her senior year, appearing in productions of "Vanities" and "Grease.”
Working at a downtown Burlingame, Calif., boutique, Agron became interested in fashion. She shot photos for the Burlingame High yearbook.
The latter talent gets put to use in "I Am Number Four," where her character, Sarah, is an outsider high-school student who expresses herself through photography. She meets John (Alex Pettyfer), one of a handful of extraterrestrial survivors from a planetary genocide, being hunted on Earth by a warlike race of aliens. There's a lot more action than "Glee," where her character once dealt with a teen pregnancy but never had to drop out of a four-story building.
"I was so engrossed in the script, I hardly processed it," Agron says. "Eighty percent of the (film) took place at night. There was a lot of running and falling off buildings. But it wasn't until I showed up that it really hit me. When I read the script, it was almost like I thought someone else would be doing those things.”
"I Am Number Four" is directed by D.J. Caruso and produced by DreamWorks. Agron says she spoke to Steven Spielberg before taking the role. He liked her work on the TV show (Spielberg watches "Glee"?) and said she would be perfect in the role of Sarah.
"I was speechless," Agron remembers. "I hope whatever I said to him made sense, but I'm not sure. Something along the lines of 'You ... amazing ... all your films ... awesome ... thanks.' Just complete mumblings.”
The movie filmed last summer, during the break between "Glee" seasons. Agron says she appreciated the differences between Quinn and Sarah. (Along with being much more introspective, Sarah speaks in a voice that's deeper than Quinn's, and closer to Agron's natural register.)
When she left for Los Angeles after high school, Agron says most family and friends -- including her mother -- thought she was pursuing a dance career. A recurring role on "Veronica Mars" led to a bigger one on "Heroes." But nothing prepared her for the wild success of "Glee," a peppy, well-written Fox show about a high-school glee club that turned into the breakout hit of 2009.
Agron says she still hasn't completely processed the success of the show. But the actress is used to big changes in her life.
"I thought from 'Full House' that there were going to be palm trees everywhere in California," she says. "I thought everything would look like Santa Monica. Eucalyptus trees? And it's so cold here? I was very confused."