Awards Daily’s Shadan Larki spoke to actor Alex Newell about bringing personal stories to Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist and what comes next — both personally and professionally.
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is a jukebox musical, a family drama, a workplace comedy, and an exploration of grief, all wrapped up in one. And pardon the pun, but the NBC series just wrapped up an Extraordinary first season of television.
The NBC series has had many bright spots in its 12-episode freshman outing, one of the brightest is Alex Newell who stars as Mo, Zoey’s (Jane Levy)’s neighbor, and eventual confidant.
Alex Newell has always been a singular talent. We’ve known that from the moment he appeared on The Glee Project in 2011, beating out tens of thousands for a spot on the competition series and impressing producers so much he earned a role on Glee (despite not winning The Glee Project).
In Zoey, Newell once again gets to showcase his showstopping talent but also gets to marry it with what has now become, in my mind, the signature Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist blend of wit, heart, humor, and vulnerability. A perfect example is the series’ fourth episode, Zoey’s Extraordinary Neighbor which focuses on Mo and the struggle between their faith and wanting to express themselves openly, and comfortably at church.
It’s a story that was drawn from Newell’s personal experience, which makes for an emotional and honest episode of television. And as I said, a beautiful showcase for a singular talent.
Read my complete interview with Alex Newell below:
Awards Daily: Can we just start by celebrating the fact that Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist has been renewed for a second season? I’m so excited! I can imagine you’re even more excited.
Alex Newell: I’m thrilled to keep telling this story. I think we all are, we love the show so much. It’s like, I’m a fan of the show, which is so great, I’m a fan of something I’m working on. So, I’m super thrilled, and happy, and excited, and all of good those things.
AD: I read a quote that you gave that I had to ask you about: “It’s very hard to bleed for your art in front of a camera and a roomful of people looking at you dead silent when you’re sobbing uncontrollably.”
Talk to me through what it’s like experiencing those intimate, private moments in such a public way. That’s an interesting experience that not many people necessarily get to have.
AN: Yeah! It’s one of those things where you’re telling a story that’s so close to who you are, and such a parallel to who you are, where the walls start coming down and you’re literally showing yourself. You can’t hide behind the character; your honesty and your openness have to tell the story. You have to let the story breathe and live through you. And you’re just crying. And all you see are these three people in front of you, just looking at you, and you’re just like, thank you, I guess? [Laughs].
It’s strange but I love it. I mean, I really do love it. I think since I’m playing a character that touches home, I get to dive in deeper than a role where I’m making it up, or thinking about it a lot and being meticulous. These are things that I’ve actually gone through, and it is kind of cathartic in a way, to kind of sit there, and just cry some things out in a safe space.
AD: You have said in the past that you spoke to (showrunner) Austin (Winsberg) about things that you had gone through in church, and that’s where the episode 104, ‘Zoey’s Extraordinary Neighbor’ comes from. Can you tell me more about that? What made you go, “I have to tell this story.”
AN: I’ve always wanted to tell this story, but I didn’t know how I would be able to tell this story. I wanted to talk about some of my experience at church and what it’s like because growing up I loved going to church. I really did. I enjoyed being there. I enjoyed the people. I enjoyed singing in all the choirs. I could’ve spent all day at church if I needed to. I had a great relationship with my faith and life… until I got older and things started to change within me, not change, but I started to realize things within me that were not adding up to what was being told in the pulpit.
And, you know, my church was never a church to condemn homosexuality in the pulpit. It was always subtler than that. You would never really notice it. And then as I got older; and I did The Glee Project (in 2011); I came out fully; I did drag for the first time on The Glee Project; my career was taking off, and I was more noticed — That’s when that subtlety turned into openness. It wasn’t until I was sitting at church, I’d been gone for a very long time, and I was living in L.A., and one of the members asked the pastor if I could sing a song because I hadn’t sung in so long at church. I’ll never forget—he opened the letter in the pulpit, looked at my aunt, who was minister of music, and shook his head, and said, ‘no.’ And I just walked out of the sanctuary.
He would always call upon me to sing when, apparently, he didn’t feel like the spirit was there, and then he would use me, and he would call me up to sing for that moment. I would just walk out of the church because you can’t pick and choose when you want to use me. That’s not how it works.
My Mother was pulled into his office and he said something along the lines of what I was doing was ‘wrong’ and was a ‘sin.’ It was those kinds of things. And I have always struggled with that because I know if I was going through it as a little Black gay boy, I know that there were so many others going through it. And it’s something that needs to be called out because we can’t sit here and preach, and teach love so often, and not exercise it.
I really wanted that to be on the show because that causes so much insecurity — when you have such a strong faith, and such a strong love for a place, and a community, and you’re not given that same love back.
AD: I really appreciate you sharing that with me. I appreciate how difficult it may be to relive those moments. If I can ask, how did you get to a point in your life where you felt okay enough to share your story? What has that journey been like for you?
AN: It’s gotten to a point, I know this doesn’t sound P.C., where I just don’t care. I don’t care anymore about people’s opinions of me. Not everybody’s going to love you, and you have to take that to heart sometimes because the people that do love you, will love you unconditionally. People that do love you will come in droves and will relate to you. You can’t hold yourself back for anybody else.
AD: I love that. Earlier on in the season one of the things that you said in your interviews was that you wanted to see Mo in a romantic relationship. You said that you were hoping that it would happen because you wanted to start conversations. By the end of the season, Mo does get a love interest (played by Patrick Ortiz). Where do you think that’s going? And have you had the conversations that you were hoping would come out of that?
AN: You know, Austin and I talked about it and we really want Mo to just be normal; not that one-dimensional character that we see so often that’s literally just perfect, that comes in, knows everything about life, can fix anything on a dime and gives the best advice ever. And I was just like, that’s fun and games, I can do that for years and never be challenged whatsoever as an actor. But, when it comes to a gender-nonconforming character and relationships, we never get to see the ugly in a relationship, or the bad with a relationship — we never really see gender-nonconforming characters on television anyways.
That’s a hard thing because there’s so much more that we’re going to explore, but I do want to see Mo in a relationship that’s not perfect, that’s not, ‘Oh my God, they get along so well.’ Oh my God, they are so perfect.’ No, there are struggles there. There are things that people go through, but there’s also still love there.
There are so many things that I don’t see on television. I don’t see a lot of plus-sized people on television thriving. I don’t get to see a lot of nonconforming people on TV thriving. I don’t see people of color and Black people on TV living their best lives often, not until this (current) resurgence of things. It’s nice to see that. And it’s refreshing to play that.
AD: I wanted to touch on Mo’s wardrobe and the way it’s used as self-expression. There are a lot of scenes where we see Mo putting on a wig, or putting on makeup, almost like armor for the day.
AN: You know, at the beginning of the season, I know that it was more of an armor. And it feels more like, ‘I need to put this on.’
I think it’s now more or less, a comfortability thing. It’s about sitting down and showing your self-expression in what you’re wearing, and how you’re feeling. I really think that now Mo is taking a mood from the clothing that they’re wearing
There’s such an array of things because there are some days where Mo is just in a caftan or a house dress chilling and doing things. There are other days where Mo is like, ‘I can’t be bothered, let me just flat iron this hair out really fast, and keep it moving.’ But yeah, it’s like a 50-50 kind of thing.
AD: When the news of the live-action Hercules came out there were so many people on social media wanting you to play Muse Thalia. You’ve said in the past that the role of Effie in Dream Girls is, pardon the pun, kind of a dream role for you. What are some other dream roles? You’re at such a precipice in your career, where do you want to go now that you’ve reached this new level of recognition?
AN: There are so many roles that I want, need, must, that I have to play. Growing up doing musical theater, I was only singing female songs because all the male songs were uncomfortable with my voice and they hurt to sing. And I was like, ‘Well, I can’t do it. Let me just sing these songs.’ And I found myself relating more and more to these roles as I was singing and what they meant in my life. Like, Effie always being the last one picked because you’re not skinny and pretty, but you have undeniable talent. I played Asaka in Once on This Island on Broadway, I would always relate to that, like this strong force of nature, quite literally of nature, a tour de force. Or Muzzy Van Hossmere in Thoroughly Modern Millie or Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, all of these different roles. I always wanted to dive into them and make them my own.
I am kind of stepping back from that. I’m just like, ‘How about we make something of our own?’ And make that be one of those strong iconic characters.
AD: Please do that! You know, I told people online, and in real life, that I was going to speak to you and the number one piece of feedback that I got was like, “We want more Mo in season two.”
Have you and Austin had conversations about what season two is going to look like? And outside of the romantic relationship we discussed, what are some other areas of Mo’s life that you want to explore?
AN: I haven’t gotten to talk to Austin yet, but, I want to see Mo’s family. I do because we did get a little glimpse of it in episode 104 when Mo says, “The only other person to make me feel special was my mom.” And I want to see that relationship. It’s really because I want Niecy Nash to play my mom.
AD: [Gasps]. That’s perfect!
AN: [Laughs]. I just want Niecy Nash to play my mom. I am a huge fan of Niecy, I’ve always been a huge fan of Niecy, and just her on Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist would blow my mind because she is every woman, it’s all in her.
I also want to see more family members of Mo’s if we dispersed them I would love Amber Riley to play my sister on the show. That’s a shameless plug because she’s my sister in real-life, essentially. (Newell and Riley co-starred together on Glee) I want to see those kinds of relationships, a family relationship, maybe a dad?
I do want to dive more into a job and kind of figuring out what Mo does for a living. In season one Mo didn’t have a job whatsoever. There was too much time on Mo’s hands. [Laughs].
I’m like, “Can Mo be a coder at SPRQ Point? I feel like Mo could pop out a design or be the publicist at SPRQ Point.
AD: I agree! Every time we saw Mo there visiting Zoey at work, they just fit there. Let’s make it happen.
AN: Honey I did! Mo even had on a little denim jacket with a yellow dress, looking like décor. [Laughs].
Alex Newell is Emmy eligible in the Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series category. Season one of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is available to watch On Demand and on NBC.com.