'Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist' Star Alex Newell Opens Up About Pride and Seeking Racial Justice (Exclusive)

Alex Newell
Maarten de Boer via Getty Images

The actor talks to ET about LGBTQ visibility on TV, why the tide is turning and speaking out against problematic people in Hollywood.

For Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist star Alex Newell, the past several weeks have been filled with highs and lows. Amid the coronavirus pandemic and the continued fight against systemic racism and discrimination, Newell admits it was hard in the beginning to find the energy to march on.

"At first it was really hard to wake up in the morning -- and I would wake up in a terrible mood. I'm now at a place where I'm super happy that I can feel a brewing change in the air," Newell tells ET. "I'm not saying there's change swarming through the air, but a lot of people are waking up to a lot of things that have been going on for a very long time. And that's when you actively make yourself aware of your surroundings and the tone, and if you can just read the room, honey, you understand what's happening."

"I'm really happy that a lot of people are waking up for the first time and not sitting in their own ignorance anymore," he acknowledges.

Celebrating Pride this year is a different experience for Newell and the LGBTQ community. Newell, who broke through as Unique Adams on Glee, has been quarantined at home since March, and has cooked dishes like fried chicken, jerk chicken and lasagna with nutmeg to decompress.

Still, Newell continues to utilize his platform to fight for racial equality and in a chat with ET for Pride Month, he discusses the recent Supreme Court ruling protecting LGBTQ workers' rights, playing a singular character like Mo on Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist and why he's not surprised some Hollywood stars are getting called out for past actions and comments.

The Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of protecting LGBTQ workers' rights. What is your reaction to the decision?

Alex Newell: It's amazing. There's still so much work to do because I think that it only protects people in larger companies and not small businesses. Some people in America, they work in small businesses, especially kids that are just now coming out and getting first jobs. We're seeing small businesses still finding themselves and finding their footing as well. There's so much work to do, but it's a step in the right direction, or maybe I should say, a leap in the right direction.

And congratulations on season 2 of Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist! How happy are you that you'll get to continue on a show that has been so well received?

I'm super excited. I can't not say that. To keep telling the story is just wonderful and to work with such amazing people. In my life, I never thought that I'd be working with Lauren Graham or Mary Steenburgen or Peter Gallagher. Never thought that. But to work with them is outstanding and lovely. And the story, it's so good. At first, I was going, "It's so quirky, how's it going to work?" And then watching it and then investing in it, it's a great part.

How did the role of Mo on Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist come to you?

It's strange. I was ending my run on Broadway -- the show closed a month before pilot season. I went to Chicago to do a guest spot on another show and when I got back, there was, "Hey, so you have this audition for this pilot, blah, blah, blah." And I was like, "Cool." So I'm reading it, I'm reading it, I'm reading it and then 10 minutes later it was like, "No, never mind, that audition is canceled." And I was just like, "OK." An hour later they were like, "We're taking you straight to test." And I was like, "Oh! Wonderful." "If you're right, you're right for it. There's no need to keep going back and forth forever and ever." The role started off as a 31-year-old, bisexual black woman. I was like, "I got like two of those things!"

I remember flying in for the test in L.A. and having conversations with Austin [Winsberg], the creator, and Rich [Shepard], the director of the pilot. They asked me, "What do you think about this character?" Oh, you want me to tell you about the character that you made? OK, cool. As I was sitting there and I was talking, there were so many parallels of the role of Mo and me. I mean, I dated a DJ. But with that, I have such a love for music and Mo has such a love for music. All the things that Mo was saying, "A good song to make you feel things that words can't," and all of that, I believe that with my heart of hearts because sometimes I turn on a song just to get the emotion faster because I can't be more expressive in words. I think that's how the role was won by me.

Was it nerve-wracking being vulnerable, sharing your past and having that incorporated into Mo?

Yeah, it is. I think the hardest thing for a person to be is quite literally themselves onscreen. It's like sitting there reading your diary in front of people and they're just staring at you the entire time. It's super awkward and strange, but at the end of the day, it's so cathartic. It's so great to go back and relive these things and process them in a different way and find a new meaning to why you went through with it and learn from it essentially.

You've talked a lot about the episode in which Mo confronts his relationship with religion and the church. Was there a storyline or episode inspired by your life experiences that was difficult for you to film?

That was the hardest. We didn't want to make fun of bullied teens, the church, all of that. But at the same time, we did have to shine a light on it. And also, it's so close to home. I still attend the church that I grew up in. So there were still many other variables in that, but that was the hardest because at the end of the day, half the church would be watching it anyways. I wanted to do it with taste. I think that's why I had some reservations.

Mo is such a singular character on television. What responses have you gotten from viewers?

I don't think people have seen a Mo. We've had glimpses of Mos and some other Mos are just guest stars where they'll come in for an episode and then you'll never see them again. Or we see them being one-dimensional and perfect and never flawed and they have all the answers to everything. I think that's truly what sets Mo aside from so many other characters with that kind of a template.

We saw Mo in a full-fledged relationship with Eddie this season. With the show returning, what are your personal hopes for season 2?

I will say it in every interview that I give, I want Niecy Nash to play my mom. Because the line out of [episode] four is, "The only other person that makes me feel special is my mom." And that line hit home to me. My mother wasn't always around because she was working a lot just to provide for me. But she was one of the only people to make me feel special when times were really hard because I didn't have a father. So that line hit me when I said it -- and I want to see that relationship. I think Niecy Nash would be brilliant as my mom.

We're also at an interesting time in the entertainment industry, where people who have behaved badly in the past or have said questionable, controversial things are getting called out. Has it been interesting to see that unfold?

My mother always said, "What's said in the dark comes to the light. No matter what you do somewhere, somehow it's going to be exposed." And it's not shocking. It's not surprising. A lot of people have always been very scared to say anything because of fear of losing a job or not having a career anymore. Those stigmas really start to affect people long-term where you feel like if you say anything, you could be fired. If you speak out on anything, you're then difficult to work with. Anything that's against the grain, you're seen and deemed as a nuisance or trouble. And we're taught that we can be replaced. In the back of an actor's mind, there's always someone younger and prettier and more talented right behind you to take your job away. You have that engraved in your mind. And so, you sit in your own silence. Amber Riley started this new movement called #unMUTEny and it's about telling your story and telling what you've gone through, mainly people of color. I always say karma is a big old b***h and she comes to collect her debt.

Hopefully, the tide is turning where things like this aren't open secrets anymore.

Yeah, but it's more so of just having a comfortable workspace. That's it. That's all we want is a comfortable workspace. I think that's all anybody wants. We all just want to come in, play make believe, tell a great story and exist in the same space.

What does Pride mean to you?

Reflecting where we've been and where we're going and coming together. It's not about parades and going to the Abbey. It's not about going to Mickey's. It's not about going to the New York bars like the Ritz or Industry. It's not about Posh. It's literally celebrating the way you are right now and how comfortable you are in your own life -- sexuality, orientation and all of that other good stuff -- and as a community coming together to see the changes that we've actively been making and that we're making.

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