On NBC’s new musical series, the Glee alum plays Mo, the neighbor and confidante to Zoey (Jane Levy) who’s been helping her figure out her newfound superpower of hearing other people’s secret thoughts and desires through song and dance. So far, Mo has served as the snarky, confident, wise sidekick who pushes Zoey when she needs it most. But in this Sunday’s episode, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Neighbor,” the tables are turned when Zoey starts to hear Mo’s inner thoughts via musical performances… and they’re not as cheerful and fabulous as he constantly acts.
Mo goes from being the sidekick to the star of his own story, and it’s about time. The episode takes a deeper look at Mo’s background and how he struggles with the intersection of his faith and sexuality, and Newell says the story line hits very close to home for him.
“I always knew that they wanted to give me something that personal to me,” the actor tells EW. “When [the show] got picked up [to series], I had a meeting with Austin [Winsberg], the creator, and he asked me, ‘With someone so confident, where is the flaw? What could they possibly struggle with?’ And I said, ‘Well, my faith and my sexuality have always been something that I’ve struggled with at church.’ I really wanted to depict that in an honest, truthful form.”
With Newell’s help, Winsberg set about developing the character of Mo. “The role itself is modeled after me,” Newell says. “I am so different, so it’s nice to make it personal. It’s a story I always wanted to tell. Every actor wants to play themselves in a way, and it’s really hard to play yourself. And I’m not playing myself, but a version of myself. It’s hard to be that honest and open. The differences between Mo and I are I’m not as carefree as Mo is, I also do not DJ. I am a little bit more private and reserved. I can be non-outgoing at times. Mo is like the heightened, best version of myself. There are literally no regrets when playing Mo.”
Newell laughs, then adds, “I can’t live my life like that.”
But this week’s big Mo episode is ripped straight from Newell’s life. “What happens to Mo essentially happened to me: I had a pastor that told my mom that I wasn’t right with God and that something was wrong with me,” Newell says. “He was the leader of the parish that my mother still attends, and it rubbed me the wrong way. I had given that church everything. I gave them a part of me throughout my entire life. I grew up in that church. It was the only church I had been a member of since I was born. Struggling with that and my sexuality and my gender representation has always been difficult.”
With Mo dealing with the same kinds of issues in the episode, it took Newell right back to that tough moment in his life. “When I’m saying these things as Mo, it’s really me reliving all of those things,” he says. “I’m ready for people to see the final scene. I think it’s so cathartic. You get so much of a reward at the end of it to see what true acceptance is.”
Newell has always been a trailblazer when it comes to inclusive representation on TV and opening up conversations about gender identity. He starred on Glee as TV’s first openly transgender high school student, he played a historically cisgender female role on Broadway’s Once on This Island, and now he’s playing a religious, gender non-conforming character on Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. “For me, the story of representation and inclusion always comes first,” Newell says of picking roles and projects. “I’ve been very fortunate and blessed that all the roles I’ve played have been molded for me and who I was and who I am. I can’t shy away that all of these roles ring true for me. I’ve learned so much about myself through these roles, and I hope that other people are able to do the same.”
That’s why Newell thinks now is more important than ever for a character like Mo — a black, gay, gender non-conforming person — to exist onscreen. “Representation! My thing with this show is I want people to see that my type of person exists in the world,” he says. “My type of person should be accepted. I want my type of person to be seen as a normal person that isn’t looked at as some special thing, but just another person that exists in the world.”
And Newell is thrilled that all sides of Mo’s (and his own) life are going to be represented on Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. “What I wanted to show, other than the church aspect of my life, was the love life that I have,” Newell says. “We very rarely ever see black, feminine, non-binary love on television, or just non-binary love on television, or any kind of not-type-A kind of love. We always just see the same gender norm or role narrative on television, and I wanted to show that chunky, plus-size people are sexual and are hos as well.”
Even with all his confidence and wisdom, Newell still wants everyone to know “that I still struggle with it, day to day.”
“It’s a hard thing,” he adds. “It’s not like I’m this magical person who has the answers to everything. I’m figuring it out just as fast and slow as everybody else is figuring it out.”
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.