"Performing is always thrilling, in any facet," says gender nonconforming star Alex Newell.
"Performing is always thrilling, in any facet," says Alex Newell. Credit: Jimmy Fontaine
Pop Culture
6 min

Actor and singer Alex Newell is just getting started

The ‘Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist’ star discusses his latest role and life since ‘Glee’

The last 10 years have been something of a whirlwind for Alex Newell, at least from the outside looking in. The actor-singer-everything man went from competing on the reality television show The Glee Project for a part on Ryan Murphy’s hit series Glee, to a major role on NBC’s Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist—with a not-so-minor stop on Broadway in the Tony Award-winning and Grammy-nominated musical Once on This Island—all before his 28th birthday.

“I don’t see anything in time,” he tells me over the phone from his New York apartment, marveling at the decade that’s passed. “Looking back, I don’t think that it’s been that long. I’ve done everything, but I don’t feel that I’ve done everything that I’ve wanted to do.”

Despite being first runner-up on The Glee Project, he still landed a two-episode role on the show’s third season as Unique, a trans teen with an unparalleled voice. The role grew, eventually making Newell a main and popular cast member through to the series’ end three seasons later in 2015. That role led him to collaborate with a number of musicians, including Clean Bandit and electro duo Blonde, before going on tour with Adam Lambert and releasing his own original music. Then came the opportunity to play one of his dream theatre roles: Asaka, Mother of the Earth, in the Broadway revival of Once on This Island.

“I think of it as an uphill battle of not knowing what the hell I’ve been doing and just making things up as I go and making them work,” the Massachusetts native says. “The one thing that’s kept me going for 10 years is I’m willing to learn everything.”

Obviously, more is to come. I mean, how many reality show contestants are still relevant 10 years after their debut? That Newell has remained so with apparent ease—along with a face full of makeup and stiletto pumps—makes him a notable model for gender nonconforming people everywhere.

Newell and I recently chatted about his latest role on Zoey’s (episodes of its freshly-wrapped first season can be streamed on NBC’s website), what life has looked like during quarantine and his audition video to be one of the muses in Disney’s forthcoming live-action feature Hercules. We also discussed when the world will finally get his album, since he recently-released two singles.

How did you land the role of Mo, the genderfluid neighbour on Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist?

It was pilot season last season and I got this breakdown for a 31-year-old bisexual Black woman. I was like, “All right, sure, let’s do it.” I was reading the script and I was like, “Oh my God, this is me.” They just wanted to test me for the role, period, because the person casting it was Robert Ulrich, who also cast Glee. What made me want to do it was that the role was borderline who I am as a person. It’s this free loving person who loves music and knows all the things that music can be: the good, the bad and the ugly that comes from music. That’s why I was so drawn to it.

Considering they changed the role for you, what have you enjoyed the most about playing Mo?

It’s going to sound selfish, but what I really love is that anybody can just show up to work every day and let everyone tell them what their hair is going to be like, and try to tell them what their makeup is going to be like, and tell them what they’re wearing—but I get to be so hands-on with all of that, and I’ve never had that opportunity.

One of my favourite episodes is episode 4, where we get a little bit more of your character’s story of being Black, queer and gender nonconforming, but also wanting to go to church as their full self. That storyline was inspired by your own life as well. What is the experience of putting so much of your personal story into a character?

Well, it’s scary. You’re sharing so much of yourself to a large number of people; whether you want to or not, you’re choosing to. You have to do that at face value and be as honest as you can.

Would you say it makes it more difficult to just be able to do the job that you’re being asked to do?

It does make it more difficult because you’re sitting there, and you don’t get the luxury of hiding behind the character and then shunning away from it when the camera’s not rolling. You actually have to sit there and reflect on it because you’re like, “Shit, this is actually my life.”

Many of your TV characters have been like this. Would you ever want to do the opposite? Would you want to play a character that’s against-type?

Absolutely. It’s a blessing and a curse. When you’re so good at being very honest, people just want to see that a lot. At this juncture, I want to play somebody that’s a total bitch and call it a day. It’s so different than what I’ve always done—I’ve always been the strong, confident one that really doesn’t have any flaws but has so much heart it hurts.

There’s also something to be said about being someone who’s gender nonconforming and playing gender nonconforming characters. We really don’t see a lot of that on TV. 

When it comes to something that people deem so different, we have to humanize it and make it normal and show the actual things that they go through—that we go through—and that people don’t necessarily get to see. Because it’s not being represented on television or in a large forum, we have to make it a normalcy.

I’ve been a fan since The Glee Project. You’ve gone on to do a number of TV shows, films and then Broadway, and you obviously love music. What aspect of the industry makes you come alive most?

There’s nothing like singing on a stage and having that cathartic moment and instant gratification. That’s always thrilling. Performing is always thrilling, in any facet. Singing eight shows a week and doing that even when I don’t want to do it is brilliant. Getting out on tour and singing the same set over and over and over again in different cities gets monotonous, but you love it. Being on a set and never wanting to leave because you’re having so much fun and you’re playing and experimenting… I guess performing in general makes me come alive.

The role you just completed on Broadway, Asaka, was one of your dream roles. How was doing that show eight times a week?

Awful. Terrible. The hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It was a time, as they say. But I wouldn’t have traded it for anything; I’d do it again in a heartbeat. As hard as it was, it taught me so much and it gave me so much that I can’t even begin to voice how much I loved it. It was always a dream of mine to play either Effie [in Dreamgirls] on Broadway or Asaka. I got one and now it’s just the other one that’s left.

We’re putting that into the universe and manifesting it! How has this quarantine moment been for you?

I feel like I quite literally haven’t stopped doing work. Being at home, it’s awful. My mother sent me this little meme where it said, “Twinkle, twinkle little star how I miss the effing bar.” And I was just like, “Honestly, yes!” I miss seeing my friends, I miss going out, I miss being a human again. But I built a whole virtual concert yesterday; I’ve been doing charity events left and right, singing for them. There hasn’t been a day that I haven’t sung in this apartment. My poor neighbours—I feel so bad for them because I start at noon and I don’t end until seven. To sit down starts to scare me after a while: I’m a workaholic. I think I’m trying to force myself into doing any and everything that I can so my mind isn’t dwelling on the lack of things that I would have to do otherwise.

Speaking of singing, you recently released a couple of singles, “Mama Told Me” and “Boy, You Can Keep it.” For people who aren’t familiar with your sound, how would you describe it ? It gives me Sylvester tease.

Well, it is just that. The disco era was just a blip in time: It happened so fast, but it was so monumental. Then it all just went away very fast. I want to bring that back because it was such a good time. Thinking about the disco era and everything else that was happening around us and why people loved this cardioid music. No matter what, when they heard a song, everything else just melted around them. Could have been the drugs, but I’m going to say that it was the music.

So where’s the album?

Honestly, when I have time to just dedicate to that. She works. I’m always doing something. When Glee ended, I did a tour with Adam Lambert. After that, I went back to L.A. and I was just like, “This city is trash. I love it so much but I have to be going.” I moved to New York and then did regional shows just to be busy. But then I booked Once on This Island. I was out of commission for a year and a half and really couldn’t record music because I was singing eight shows a week. Then as soon as the show closed, I got Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.

Booked and busy.

Booked, busy and blessed. But it’s coming. I know it’s going to come. It’s really just finding the right sound still. I can put out bop after bop, after bop, after bop, but it’s about the cohesion of it all. It’s been seven years that I’ve been signed to Atlantic, so it’s definitely coming.

I have to ask about your audition tape to play one of the muses in Hercules that you posted on Twitter. The internet wants it.

That was literally just a joke. The internet is going vapid for it and I love it. Honey, I’m trying to get my little pudgy self [out there] [laughs]. We all know that I am the tall, leggy, statuesque, lead muse.