Getting a superpower that allows you to know the thoughts of those closest to you by watching them perform the song of their hearts at any given moment sounds pretty awesome (especially for musical theater fans). However, as Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlistpoints out, that power can be overwhelming if you don’t have a musical whiz to help you decipher exactly what these songs mean and what to do once you hear about them.
Enter Mo (Alex Newell), Zoey’s (Jane Levy) gender-fluid neighbor and music aficionado who not only helps hapless Zoey figure out what songs people are singing to her, but also figures out the rules and limits of this new power. For the first few episodes of Zoey’s freshman season, Mo is like a music referee who helps the audience understand the world we’ve just jumped into with Zoey. However, in Episode 4 the tables are turned and Zoey realizes that the uber-confident Mo is putting up a front to hide from some serious insecurity issues.
It’s at that point that Zoey realizes it is her turn to return the favor and help her guide. Through Zoey’s missteps as an ally, we learn so much about Mo, his past, why there are certain places — like church — where he feels like he can’t be his true self, and realize that even the people who seem to have it the most together need a little help sometimes. (Alex Newell is gender-fluid but prefers he/him pronouns.) Once that backstory is delivered, Mo shifts from being Zoey’s mentor to being her best friend, and the audience gets the pleasure of seeing a gender-fluid series regular character explore love, life, and loss in ways that we haven’t seen on a broadcast drama before.
TV Guide spoke with Newell about the game-changing episode, why he’s so happy to be playing someone like Mo, and the big wish he has for the character in Season 2.
We meet Mo in the pilot, but we don’t really get to know him until Episode 4. How much of Mo’s backstory was inspired by your personal experience?
A lot of it was. I remember talking to Austin [Winsberg, executive producer] about where’s the crack in the facade for someone with so much confidence. The confidence is the crack. The confidence is the facade. What I’ve always had a lot of insecurities stemming from was not being accepted by my church and the religion, and just my faith — being able to know that it teaches and preaches so much love, but that at the end of the day, they don’t always love unconditionally like they’re supposed to.
How did your approach to Mo change after that much was revealed about the character?
Newell: [My approach changed] because the power shift happened. [Before Episode 4] I was the one that was always helping Zoey and I never needed any help. I let down that guard to open up to a true friend. And knowing that, it’s like, you have this relationship that isn’t just, “I know everything. I have everything I know the keys and like answers to life.”
We are having a lot of conversations as a society right now about what it means to be a true ally to someone, and I feel like that episode really speaks to that. What do you hope people take away from Mo and Zoey’s story in that regard?
You never really know what a person is going through until you ask them and you take a step back and look at it, not in like an opinionated way. You learn and you access a different truth and you reflect on it and see what [Zoey] has done wrong, or how it affects you, because it always does affect you. You can’t think that it doesn’t.
I made my parents watch the show and Episode 4 is when they really dialed in to how special Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is.
My mother called me as soon as the episode aired and was like, “This episode gave me so much insight in to you, and you’re my child.”
Another amazing thing about this season is that we get to see Mo fall in love, and all of the complications that go with that. What was it like playing Mo with those insecurities in juxtaposition to how confident he is?
That’s just pulling from life, really, and how insecure I can be in relationships. I’d rather end the relationship before I end up getting hurt, because it always stems from being hurt so many different times. I know that’s exactly what Mo went through throughout the journey of the relationship. It’s normal. A lot of people do self-sabotage so they don’t get hurt and that’s that artificial confidence.
What thrilled you the most about getting to explore Mo in the early stages of a relationship and seeing those layers?
The Mo-type character isn’t a character that you see that is a series regular or invested in. Normally, it’s a one-and-done, or like a brush-gloss over. To show the normalcy of a non-conforming human going through that and working through it, and it being so normal and not like a gimmick or schtick, and showing what true people go through — it’s like, “Thank you!” Finally, I don’t have to play a trope, really, because it’s like the story needs to be told, and it needs to be told in the normal way.
What does it mean to you to get to play a character like Mo on a broadcast network TV show and introduce people to someone like him if they don’t have a Mo in their own lives, or at least aren’t aware that they do?
I think that person is in everybody’s life, they just, as you said, don’t know it. It’s such a great thing. I was saying this at a Comic-Con panel about how we’ve been telling the same exact stories for so long in Hollywood, like the same ones over, and over, and over again. We’ve been very silent about these stories that we’re just now “discovering,” even though they’ve been around forever. It comes back to just the social unrest in life. If you’re not telling these stories then you’re compliant. By saying that they don’t exist, [you’re saying] they’re not worthy of being told. To finally get to tell a story that hasn’t been told for so long, it’s a wonderful kind of blessing. I’m so happy and here for it.
What are your hopes for Mo in Season 2?
Newell: I do want to see Mo with relationships and navigating that. I really think that stems from like a family place. Seeing Mo have a job, because Mo didn’t have a job this season, not that I know of and I’m playing the character. I definitely want to see Mo’s family as well and see what that dynamic is like…We had a glimpse of it by saying that the only person that made Mo feel special was Mo’s mom, so I would love to see that. Hello. It’s right there. It’s clear as day.
Who would play Mo’s mom?
Newell: Oh, my goodness…I’m so gung-ho. I’ve been saying it everywhere about making Niecy Nash play my mom on the show. I’m literally on like this [tirade] of like trying to get her and force everybody to make it happen. I want like a duet between Mo and Mo’s mom. That’s really what I want.
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist has been renewed for Season 2 at NBC. Season 1 is now streaming on Hulu.