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Alex Newell Lives His Truth in NBC's Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist

Newell tells TheaterMania about how his life influenced the story arc for his latest role.

Jane Levy and Alex Newell in NBC's Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist.
(© Sergei Bachlakov/NBC)

"I've bled out a lot for this character," Alex Newell says over pasta at La Pecora Bianca on Manhattan's East Side. Newell is referring to Mo, neighbor and confidant of Zoey (Jane Levy) on NBC's new musical series Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist. While the world has learned bits and pieces about Mo in the three episodes that have already aired, the fourth — titled "Zoey's Extraordinary Neighbor" and premiering March 1 — cracks the character wide open.

In the series, Zoey, a coder at a tech firm, realizes she can hear other people's private thoughts expressed through music. When she hears Mo's inner subtext singing the Platters' 1955 single "The Great Pretender," Zoey discovers that gender nonconforming Mo is hiding something big. After following Mo to church, where he's a standout singer in the choir, Zoey sees that Mo presents very differently in the house of worship than at home.

Once the series got picked up, Newell says, creator Austin Winsberg (Broadway's First Date) and his team had a conversation to discuss where Newell saw the character going over the course of the season. "They said, 'It's such a strong, confident character, so where are the flaws? What could Mo be struggling with?' And I told them that the strongest person is always the weakest person at heart, because they're putting on a façade. They don't want anybody to see their insides." The episode follows Mo's internal struggle to decide whether he's going to dress as his true self while singing during Sunday services.

"A majority of that storyline is my own," Newell adds, "having grown up in the church, been uncomfortable in the church because of who I am, being a little more effeminate than any other chocolate drop at church, and dealing with how my gender identity and my sexuality and my faith have always conflicted with each other. When Mo feels something or says something in this episode, it's a lot of me." Winsberg says he was "blown away" by Alex's "honesty, rawness, and emotional depth" in telling this very personal story. "His bravery, vulnerability, strength, and truth shine through in every frame."

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist is Newell's second musical television series (he played Wade "Unique" Adams on Glee after becoming first runner-up on the Glee Project casting series), but the music functions much differently here. "We use music literally, rather than as an expression. I'm not putting on a show for you like Glee was. I'm putting on the literal song that works best for what I'm feeling right now." Hence, "The Great Pretender." "Mo is that pretender," Newell adds.

Living his truth onscreen wasn't any easier — "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," Newell says with a laugh — but it was for the greater good. So was his encouragement for the creators to give Mo a love interest in future episodes ("You never see a nonbinary person's dating life on television"). "I just hope it starts conversations," he concludes. "That's my biggest thing. We're so wrapped up in our phones that we rarely sit down and talk to people. We're not really asking how people are anymore. I want this show to start conversations."