The high-heel fits, and Alex Newell is wearing it. Unabashedly.
The Lynn native is enjoying a wave of adulation for his portrayal of Mo, the quippy, sarcastic, gender-nonconforming neighbor and confidante on the NBC musical dramedy “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.” But this heel fits especially snug on Newell precisely because Mo, known for his colorful and bold style and feminine fashion choices, is directly inspired by the actor and his own personal journey.
Indeed, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist,” which was renewed for a second season in June to the delight of its diehard fans, may be a high-concept fantasy in which the show’s title character (Jane Levy) improbably hears people bursting into song to express their innermost thoughts and feelings. But Mo is very much grounded in the reality of Newell’s own life, including a season one story line in which the character grapples with the tensions between his faith and his sexuality.
“They changed the character to make Mo more like Alex,” says Newell, who turns 28 this month, in a recent phone conversation from his home in New York City. “And it’s been a strange but fun thing to play a heightened version of myself and to play around with that idea in my performance.”
The art-imitating-life hall of mirrors came about after “Zoey” creator Austin Winsberg felt dissatisfied with the casting process for Mo, who was originally envisioned as a 31-year-old bisexual black woman, and decided to widen the search. “I just felt like it wasn’t popping,” Winsberg says. “Then Alex came in the room, and suddenly I felt the part come alive.” It didn’t hurt, he adds, that Newell has “this otherworldly Whitney Houston voice.”
Newell says he immediately related to the character’s “effervescence.” “So I took my love for music and my confidence and my carefree mentality to walk through life, and it really showed through in my final callback for the show. I really connected with the essence of the character,” says Newell, who rose to fame as transgender student Unique Adams on “Glee.”
In the season’s fourth episode, Mo goes from sidekick to center stage as Zoey starts to hear his inner monologue, which is not as fabulous and upbeat as his outer shell would suggest and reveals his insecurities and loneliness. She learns that Mo sings in a church choir but has been hiding his sexuality and gender-fluidity from his fellow parishioners. While Mo’s progressive pastor accepts him, Mo has nagging doubts about the open-mindedness of some members of the congregation and fears he will be rejected and ostracized. (The show’s first season can be seen on Hulu and NBC’s new streaming service, Peacock.)
The story was culled from Newell’s own personal journey as he wrestled to reconcile his sexuality with some of the messages coming from the pulpit on Sundays. When Newell came out as gay on national television after winning a spot on “The Glee Project” while still in high school, not only did he feel the stares and judgments from some parishioners of his church in Lynn, but Newell says the pastor told his mother that her son “wasn’t right with God.”
“That was my experience in church — never really feeling very comfortable being there and having the conflict between faith and your identity and having the pastor say that who you are is an actual sin,” Newell avows. “But I thought the Bible says that ‘God is love.’ So Austin took that part of my story and put it in the show because it is something that a lot of people who are part of the LGBTQ community and have strong faiths go through.”
Filming the episode and reliving those feelings and insecurities wasn’t easy, but Newell says “it was definitely cathartic” when Mo finally embraces his true, fabulous self and finds acceptance. Newell’s roof-raising rendition of “This Little Light of Mine” was a highlight of the season.
Despite those early difficulties, Newell says, “My mother’s always been my biggest champion. When my father died, she raised me on her own with a very strong community of strong Black women and people that were at my church that loved me as if I were their own child,” says Newell, who was 6 when his father died. Newell impulsively came out to her at age 17, shouting the words to her right before bed. “She told me, ‘You’re my only child. We only have each other in this world. I love you regardless.’ I wish more kids got that affirmation from their parents.”
When “Zoey” premiered last winter, Globe television critic Matthew Gilbert applauded Newell for reimagining the familiar archetype of “the sassy best friend.”
“I hate trope-y characters,” Newell says. “If I end up being the stereotypical Black next-door neighbor, then there’s a danger of [Zoey] having a white savior complex, where she thinks that she’s making Mo better. But when Mo sings his ‘heart songs,’ it’s Mo figuring it out on his own, and it’s really a conversation piece between [them].”
In season two, Winsberg reveals that we’ll see Mo embarking on a new business venture, and Newell says they hope to introduce viewers to his mom at some point. (His dream casting? “Claws” star Niecy Nash.)
Newell works closely with the show’s wardrobe, hair, and makeup teams to come up with Mo’s look. And while the actor shares his character’s love of unconventional fashion — and a breezy, buoyant, quick-witted personality — he insists he’s more restrained and guarded than Mo. “I’m not always overtly confident in every walk of life in my day to day,” says Newell, who made his Broadway debut in 2017 playing Earth goddess Asaka on “Once on This Island.”
Stardom, though, is something that Newell has embraced with gusto. In fact, he’s seemed poised for the limelight ever since he wandered away from his mother at the Topsfield Fair when he was 2 and wound up onstage with a microphone in hand, singing a gospel anthem without missing a note. During his junior year at Bishop Fenwick High School in Peabody, he took a leave of absence to audition for “The Glee Project,” the 2011 reality series that gave hopefuls a chance to join the cast of the hit high school musical series “Glee.” Newell finished as one of the runners-up and earned a two-episode stint, which he later parlayed into a regular role as Unique Adams, one of the first teenage transgender characters on television. (Newell himself is not transgender.)
It wasn’t easy carrying that mantle, but the reactions from fans made it worthwhile. “I had many parents come up to me and say things like, ‘You really helped me understand my child better,’ ” he says. “For someone who is like Mo or Unique or me, it has to be inspiring to see a reflection of themselves on a larger platform. I never thought that there was a place for me on television. So it was so heartwarming to know that what I was doing affected people in such a big way.”