Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist captured my heart from its first episode, it’s one of my favorite things on TV, and I’ve been lucky to interview many members of its talented cast and crew.
Zoey centers on a quirky, coder (Jane Levy) who develops the ability to hear people’s ‘heart songs’ in the form of musical numbers (beautifully choreographed by Mandy Moore). The show requires a lot from its actors—singing and dancing, with a side of comedy, and a heap of real, heartfelt emotion.
And so I came into my interview with Alex Newell as a fan of the show with lots of questions. But the one thing I really wanted to know was how Newell manages to pull off vocally showstopping musical performances nearly every week —and pairs them with a character that is layered, warm, surprising, and a constant delight.
I didn’t walk away with a definitive answer, Newell is far too humble, but I suspect it comes down to a whole lot of raw talent. And Zoey‘s not-so-secret ingredient—empathy.
Awards Daily: Congratulations on your Critics Choice nomination! I’m so excited for you!
Alex Newell: Thank you!
AD: I follow you on Twitter; you had the most incredible reaction. How gratifying is this moment of recognition?
AN: It was gratifying. I always say that you never know what you’re doing on television and film or in front of the camera because there is no instant gratification to any of it. I mean, yes, you have the crew around you, and yes, we have the director, but you’re so in it that you don’t really trust it most days.
You are your own harshest critic, no matter what, even in the moment when you’re moving so fast, you’re just like, I don’t even know what I just did. I hope it’s good. To come to the flip side of all of that and be recognized for those unsure moments, it’s so gratifying. It’s so amazing. And it’s otherworldly, truly.
AD: When you and I first spoke, you were mid-way through Zoey season one. Now you’re mid-way through season two. I wanted to check in, how’s it going? How do you feel about the show now that you are a bit more settled into it?
AN: It’s always going to be the same in the middle of the season, eyeing the end of it all. It’s hard this season with a pandemic outside of our walls, and we’re in this fake world. The show is trying to explore everybody else. I keep saying it—the first season was really us going into Zoey’s world, and now it’s her coming into our worlds.
AD: What can you tell me about the back-half of season two and what’s in store for Mo?
AN: Mo starts dating again and is finding a new version of love. We’re exploring the opening of the restaurant, being a business owner, the hardships of that, and balancing a personal life at the same time.
AD: Zoey’s Extraordinary Reckoning was a hallmark moment for the series and an aptly named episode in dealing with Zoey’s reckoning of racism in the workplace. I loved that Mo just told it to her straight, basically saying, If you want to be a true ally, it’s not my responsibility to do the work for you. And I think something that a lot of people need to hear. What were your thoughts on that whole episode, and specifically, Mo’s role within it?
AN: It was really a giant episode for systemic racism in the workplace. And since Mo’s not in SPRQ Point, it needed to be understood that Mo isn’t just your queer best friend—that you have to open your eyes and see that this queer best friend of yours is a person of color, is a black person. And they walk in this life in a black world. And it’s hard for them to be the punching bag and the emotional support that we are expected to be because we’re not truly seen all of the time. It does need to be said. I can’t do the work for you. We can’t do the work for you to be awake and present in the world and the gaze of it all. And I think more people should tell their friends that.
AD: I love that Mo got to be the person to say that to Zoey because, as I said, Mo’s always been the person to tell it to her straight and doesn’t coddle her.
AN: Yeah, I think it is one of those moments that it is a come-to-Jesus moment, you have to be a straight shooter, and you have just to have to say what you mean without sugarcoating things sometimes.
AD: It’s been interesting to see Zoey and Mo’s friendship deepen and evolve this season.
AN: We tried not to make them fast friends at the beginning. And with being really good friends and best friends, there’s a level of trust. And what that level of trust is about is showing yourself in different options and in various places. Showing a little bit, then testing the waters, telling a little bit more, then putting in your knee in, and then putting your leg in, and then jumping into the friendship in general.
The arc of that friendship was a very subtle touch to everything because they couldn’t have been fast friends because when you’re fast friends, you’re quickly not friends as well.
AD: And, as far as this racial reckoning that we saw, I hope it’s not just this one-off episode. Do you know if that is something that’s going to continue to be shown and explored?
AN: You know, it goes without saying that it is such a prevalent thing. I know that we’re still trucking along here [with season two]. And I think that it is going to be something that we revisit in the future.
AD: I wanted to ask you about Mo as a business person. It’s so fascinating because we see so much of their natural talent come through. The restaurant is another avenue for their creativity.
AN: It’s strange, there was an argument between Mo and Max, and Max [thought] that Mo wasn’t doing their part. And sometimes, in even developing the story, I was like, I have no claim over this restaurant. Mo has no stake in it. Also, what is my purpose in even opening this restaurant with Max? And it was brought to my attention that some people have to be the face, and some people have to be the behind-the-scenes of it all. Mo is so suited for being the face of an establishment and being creative and designing the space in general. It’s another extension of the artistic mind that is Mo.
AD: When we spoke previously, it was all about, Okay, what do you want to see for Mo in the future? And as you continue with season two, what do you hope to explore? What new layers have you discovered? I’m curious if your approach to the character has changed in any way?
AN: Obviously, things change when you go away from something for four months. You’re not coming back with the same mind that you did four months prior, you’re coming back with fresh eyes and a new approach on everything. And having a different writers’ room guiding things in different directions.
This season is forcing Mo to literally grow up. Truly, between being a business owner and breaking up with Eddie at the top of the season—signing a business agreement at the beginning of the season and what it took to get there. The stakes are lending themselves to growing up.
AD: You’ve done many musical performances in your career. With Zoey, acting is very much a part of the performance. The musical numbers are all about emotional expression. How does that work as an artist? How do you refine that and continue to find all these different layers to each performance? It’s just fascinating to watch.
AN: You know, storytelling will always be storytelling. Before we had TV, we told stories around fires; before that, we were drawing them on walls. Coming from such an extensive background in musical theater, with all of my singing training and all of that other stuff, I don’t have to worry about singing. Most days, I can focus on just telling the story. I don’t have to think about, Oh, am I going to hit this note? Am I going to do that? Am I going to do this? How am I telling the story with my voice? How is my head connected to my heart, connected to my throat to get this performance? It just always comes out of me that way. And I internalize a lot of the lyrics that I sing. When I first started recording music, I thought that it was just singing. And I was just singing the notes, and it was fine and dandy. And then something clicked, and I felt what I was singing while I was singing it. It all just started to sound even better. So when it comes to my approach to this show, it’s all second nature, and it’s easy in a way because I get to have this abundant amount of options as to how each story is told. And my education is also there.
AD: I know that you all get asked this question a ton, but really, are there any songs you want to perform that you haven’t yet? What are some things that you haven’t done yet that you’re excited to explore? What are you looking forward to?
AN: I don’t know. I get to do so much on the show. I get to do just everything. So I think that the want is…I don’t know what the want is. I’ve been doing so many numbers, and I’ve been doing so many different types of scenes, different variations of things, and finding new nuances to it all.
I don’t know what it would be—especially with music I sing far too much in my personal life. And you know, I’ve gotten to do Whitney [Houston] already. I have gotten to do so many different singers that it’s just like I’m living the dream now just singing.
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist returns to NBC on Sunday, March 28 at 9/8c. You can read all of Awards Daily’s interviews with the cast and crew of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist here.