From show creator Austin Winsberg and inspired by his own life, the NBC series Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist follows Zoey Clarke (Jane Levy), a computer coder who suddenly finds herself with the ability to hear the innermost thoughts and desires of those around her – whether family, co-workers or complete strangers – in the form of popular songs that are often accompanied by full-on performance numbers. While the jury is still out on her ability being an unwanted curse or an incredible gift, Zoey finds herself connecting with the world in a way that can’t help but deeply affect her.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, the undeniably talented Alex Newell, who plays Zoey’s best friend Mo, talked about what drew him to this musical TV series, what Mo was like as a character before he signed on, the biggest challenge in bringing this character to life, how involved he is in designing Mo’s style, what he’d like to see for Mo if the show scores a second season, and much, much more.
COLLIDER: I absolutely love this show and think it’s just the most magical thing. Mo is one of the best characters on TV, ever.
ALEX NEWELL: Thank you.
You did another musical TV series with Glee, before doing Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. Because of that, did you ever have any hesitation about doing another TV musical, or was there just no way you could resist doing this?
NEWELL: Everybody gets scared of doing something that is similar to something that they’ve done before. I looked at the script and I read it. It was so different from anything else I’d done before that I said, “Okay, so just because I’m singing on it doesn’t mean that it’s me, sitting in a choir room, bursting out into song all the time.”
It seems like the concept of this show would sound crazy on paper. What was it about the show and the concept that really sold you on it and made you want to be a part of it? Did you have a lot of questions about how they could pull this off, on a weekly basis?
NEWELL: Yeah, there were questions but it made sense on paper. That was scary because, if there’s anything that makes sense on paper, it very rarely ever translates on screen or to real life because it seems too easy. But listening to how all of the songs are quite literally just coming out of a raw emotional place, whether you’re happy or sad, it drew me in. I read it and it was daunting, really. It’s daunting to see how music really does affect people, especially how it drives the plot on this show.
Does it make the performances a little less scary because the songs themselves don’t necessarily have to be performed perfectly, with it being more out of the emotion of it all?
NEWELL: I never have to worry about that, but I guess. It’s very nuanced. I know that’s what [showrunner] Austin [Winsberg] likes. He didn’t want everybody to be amazing singer, to make it more real, and I think that’s cool, in a way.
Were there things that most excited you about this character? Were there things you saw as the biggest challenges with this character?
NEWELL: The biggest challenge is trying to not make it trope-y and trying to not make it the sassy black friend, [but] making it tangible to something that’s very real and grounded and truthful. Anybody can twirl their neck and be Jiminy Cricket. The challenge was treading that line, every episode. The similarities are the easiest part. There are so many things that are Mo that are Alex.
This does seem like a character that is tailor made for you, and I can’t imagine anyone else playing the character. Who was Mo on paper, before you signed on to play this character? How much did Mo become what you wanted to bring to the character?
NEWELL: Mo was a 31-year-old bisexual black woman, and I have no idea what it’s like to be a bisexual. The paper Mo was a template. Austin said they saw over 300 women and it was nearing that thing that I was talking about, of the sassy black friend or the best friend character. Somehow, I brought something that was refreshing to it in a way.
In the beginning of their friendship, Mo was clearly a reluctant participant in Zoey’s life, but now he’s really become her closest friend, especially with all of her drama. At this point, what does Zoey’s friendship mean to Mo?
NEWELL: I think it’s ever-evolving. The friendship with Zoey is unexpected. The majority of our friends we’ve made throughout life are friends we didn’t think we were gonna be friends with. Very rarely do you find someone that is still best friends with their high school best friend or their college best friend. It’s one of those things. You have co-workers, where you’re forced into a habitat to be friends with a person. It means so much more to Mo because it’s not like I’m forced into something. I have to go out of my way to kind of ask how this person is, every day, see how this person is doing, and be interested in their day to day. In a normal world, Mo and Zoey would have never met. Every strong person needs a confidant, as well. I think that’s really what the end-all-be-all with Mo’s friendship with Zoey is.
I love Mo’s confidence, but I also love that we get to see Mo isn’t always confident. It makes the character that much more human and real. What do you love most about Mo and how does Mo inspire you?
NEWELL: My favorite part about Mo is the visceral. The outfits that I get to wear, each and every episode, I basically hand pick with our costume designer, Heidi Higginbotham. That’s number one, my favorite part. And just getting to be so carefree. I feel that in my world, I can’t be carefree as an actor. You have to do so many things and you have to worry about so many things, but Mo is that person that doesn’t have to do any of those things. That’s really what I gravitate towards, the effervescence of Mo. Mo doesn’t have a job.
Have you always gotten to be so involved with picking out Mo’s wardrobe?
NEWELL: From the day one, I got to pick and pull. During the pilot, I actually physically went to Nordstrom to pull clothes and take them back for a fitting as things I wanted to wear and would wear.
Mo’s style is certainly quite fabulous.
NEWELL: Thank you. It is. The hair and make-up department doesn’t always love me because I never wanted to wear the same hair and make-up in a scene. I didn’t care if it was the same day. I didn’t care if it was three minutes later in the shot. I was like, “It’s fine. Let’s change it. You can’t have this person with this amazing apartment, that is so eclectic and different, and not have their day to day model that.”
What can you say to tease this next episode [Season 1, Episode 11 “Zoey’s Extraordinary Mother] for Mo’s personal journey, and also for Mo and Zoey?
NEWELL: You get to see a little bit more insecurity from Mo. That’s really what makes Mo human, the insecurity that is always there, but is never really touched upon. I think it’s more so of an issue with their relationship, in general, but then Mo’s relationship with Eddie.
We’ve gotten to see the relationship between Mo and Eddie grow, but we also see them hit a bit of a rough patch. What have you most enjoyed about exploring that relationship. as it’s grown and playing with that dynamic?
NEWELL: Truly, it’s like real dating and what it actually is. It’s not like, “Oh, my god, I love you. I need you to be with me, all the time.” It’s not what you see on television. I like seeing the lows more than I like to see the good of relationships.
You also have a great performance number in the dance studio during Eddie’s audition. How long did you have to get that song ready and learn that number, and how long did it take to shoot that?
NEWELL: Oh, it was very short. I don’t take a long time. Glee was a boot camp mainly because I just knew how to do everything. I knew how to do everything very fast, from that show. On Glee, we would learn dance numbers, on the day. We would learn background vocals to songs, on the day. And I when I say on the day, I mean quite literally going to the dance studio, learning choreography from a skeleton crew, and then maybe the same day or the next day, doing said dance and then shooting maybe three music numbers in one day. It was quite literally a boot camp.
So, for Zoey’s, we were in the middle of a blizzard in Vancouver during this time. Anything where you see exteriors in that episode, they had to melt all of the snow away first. I said, “I can give you a day of rehearsals. I don’t need to do too much.” It was really simple. The dancers knew what they were doing. They knew to stay away from me, in the nicest of ways. If I was walking through the diagonal, they knew, “Okay, don’t go near Alex.” It took me about three hours to shoot one thing. The funny thing about that is I’ve never liked that song. I’ve never liked “Issues.” I don’t know why. It sounds so good when she sings it, but then when I open my mouth, I think I sound terrible singing it, but it’s me being my harshest critic, of course. Even filming it, I was like, “Do I have to do it again? Can we just skip it?”
You talked about having to perform a song that you don’t like, but have you had a personal favorite song that you’ve gotten to perform? Were any of these songs, songs that you have sung yourself a lot?
NEWELL: No, that’s the thing. My personal favorite was “The Trouble With Love Is” because it was super easy. I sang it in three takes and I did it live, and we were done. I think that’s why I loved it. It’s also just a phenomenal song. I love Kelly Clarkson. But a lot of the songs I didn’t really know going in. I had to listen to them, on the car ride to the studio, and just learn as I went. I did not know “The Great Pretender” at all. Nor did I know “Issues.” I didn’t know “Issues,” at all, because I didn’t like it, but that’s just me.
One of the things that I love about this show is just how different all of the musical numbers are and how the locations of them are all so different.
NEWELL: Yeah. One of the things that I love about this show is that my new best friend, Bernadette Peters, is on it. That’s all I have to say about it. I love her dearly.
With Mo having romantic drama and Zoey’s love life being a mess, what is next for them, in that regard? Will we see Eddie again, or is their future still up in the air? Does Mo have any thoughts on Zoey’s love life, at this point?
NEWELL: Of course, Mo has all of the ideas about Zoey’s love life. What it truly boils down to is she’s a mess and Mo loves that Zoey is a mess because it makes Mo’s relationship seem so much better. I think you’ll get to see Eddie more. We don’t know for sure. It’s all up in the air. But we’ll see where the drama ensues.
As much as I love Zoey and Mo together, it was also fun to see Mo and Max get to hang out a bit. Is there anyone else that you’d love to see Mo in a scene with, just to see how that dynamic would be?
NEWELL: Honestly, LG – Lauren Graham. I wanna see Mo and Joan go tit-for-tat. When you think about it, you have Mo, who’s Zoey’s confidant and mentor about life, and then you have Joan, who is kind of the same thing, but in her workplace.
I feel like there should be a duet there, at some point.
NEWELL: I love a pas de deux.
One of my favorite moments of the season was when Mo went over to Zoey’s and made Zoey and Simon dance it out. What was that moment like to shoot? How long were you dancing around, and did you actually get music to dance to, or it one of those situations where you had to dance around silently while pretending there was music?
NEWELL: No, they actually played “I Love It,” blaring. But that day was a very, very, very long day. There were a lot of scenes that day. I think it was a seven-page day. It could have been more, it could have been less. I was in my trailer for the majority of the Simon and Zoey stuff in her apartment, and I just come waltzing in at the end and hear all of this screaming and I’m just like, “Oh, we’re doing that.” But the dance portion of it took three hours. I swear, it felt like three hours. I felt like we were just dancing crazily, for three whole hours. We were exhausted, and then we had to film a whole scene after.
Along with just being a great character, Mo has also really an important character, giving voice to people who haven’t had representation on television and exposing people in the audience to someone they might not have gotten to see, in their own lives. What has playing Mo meant to you? Do you get a lot of fan feedback about this character?
NEWELL: It’s like what you said, we’re giving the character to people that normally wouldn’t see a character like this, in their normal life. My big thing is making different into normalcy. Being normally different, as I call myself because when you’re different you’re really just normal, we see things that are different as a threat sometimes, and when we see things that are a threat, we tend not to like them because we’re uneducated about them, or about the things that we think are different. So, to play this character, and to play another character like this in my career, and teaching people that we’re all normal, we’re here and we live. just like you do, is phenomenal. To have the feedback of people saying things like that to me is beyond what I could ever hope and imagine for.
Have you had conversations about what a second season for this show could be and what you could still explore with Mo? Do you have your own personal wishlist of things that you’d like to see for Mo?
NEWELL: I think I want Mo to have a job. I think that’s key. I would love Mo to work at a San Francisco fashion magazine or just do something to create a revenue. I also wanna see Mo’s family. I wanna see what Mo has outside of just being Zoey’s confidant.
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist airs on Sunday nights on NBC.