“Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” is NBCs latest “high-concept drama” to hit television, a musical mashup meets tech explosion where actress, Jane Levy stars as Zoey Clarke, a computer wiz and coder that magically begins to hear people’s inner most thoughts through popular music. The Sentinel recently interviewed two of the casts’ stars to take a deeper dive into the show’s diversity and position as a platform for deep, personal expression.
Alex Newell stars as Mo on the show, the boisterous best friend who tells it like it is and isn’t afraid to convey how he feels in the form of song. As cis gender nonconforming gay person, Newell says that his role as Mo has helped him to explore the innerworkings of himself, birthing a new-found confidence and appreciation of his sexuality.
“Mo is that best friend you didn’t know you needed, that you need because we’re not about to have friends in our lives that aren’t telling us the truth in 2020,” Newell said. “It’s about how music is that expression that you can’t always express with just words, sometimes you’ve got to sing about it, You gotta pull out a Whitney Houston album, you gotta pull out Aretha, Patti, Chaka and let that song cry,” Newell added. “Put Luther on and get into your prayer closet and all you do is cry,” Newell said jokingly. “Mo is that confidant that is going to tell you the truth and not sugar coat it.”
Newell went on to say that being raised by a single Black mother taught him how to own the space he now walks in in the industry, attitude and all. “I grew up with a strong, independent Black woman who raised me by herself and lost the love of her life to cancer. I know how to take up space. I know that my mother sat silent, and I’m not going to sit silent. I’m going to own the space that I take up, and I’m going to have fun while doing it,” he said.
Learning from his character Mo’s outspokenness, Newell says that he’s “learning different nuisances” about himself that he’s grown to love. “I’m plus sIzed and somehow I’m standing here in front of you with a drop neck and the shortest darn skirt that I done ever seen,” he said.
“Everybody can be viscerally confident, but they don’t want to attack their own demons, they don’t want to attack what’s going on in the internal. I could put a wig on and make all the bit*** feel bald, but then, what does that say about me?”
Meanwhile, actor John Clarence Stewart is providing viewers with an intimate look at what grief looks like through a musical lense. Starring as Simon in the series, Stewart lends the polarity in his role as a subdued, yet high energy tech geek to his character going through something he’s all too familiar with.
“The character’s going through something that I know intimately. I lost my dad 13 years ago, and the character, Simon, is going through that kind of grief,” Stewart said. “And being a Black man, having the opportunity to portray a Black man that is navigating grief and relationships and life with the device of Zoey hearing what’s going on inside of my heart, I think it’s a gift, it’s a way that I get to be vulnerable and it’s built into the show,” Stewart continued.
Known for his roles in “What If” and “Marvel’s Luke Cage,” Stewart brings a fresh perspective to the show that is often overlooked for Black men in America, identifying the vocabulary for what’s going on inside. “I think it’s important for Black men to find those places where we can take off our masks, where we can open up our hearts and really communicate the complexity of the heart,” Stewart said.
And for Stewart, the versatility he brings as an actor is bigger than him. For the youth, for people of color, Stewart says “they don’t have to grow up without the ability to communicate their emotional life.” “As people of color, we need to hear the gamut of stories,” he said. “I think that we all have a story to tell, our lenses are all very different. If we empower ourselves to create, whatever it looks like, we can help everyone around us,” Stewart continued.
For more of Newell and Stewart, tune in to “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” on NBC.