Alex Newell Finds Inspiration in Whitney Houston, Billy Porter and ‘Dreamgirls’

It’s the line repeated every awards season — that it’s an honor just to be nominated.

But Alex Newell sounded pretty convincing last month as he discussed his Critics Choice nomination for “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.”

“I was like a toddler seeing Christmas for the very first time,” he said of his best supporting actor recognition for Mo, the self-embracing, gender-fluid building manager whose serious pipes reverberate through Zoey’s apartment wall. And sometimes in her head.

“When you’re in front of the camera, you don’t get instant gratification like you do on a stage, where you can control how the audience feels,” Newell, 28, said. “You just have to hope that what you’re doing is brilliant and resonates and makes somebody feel something.”

Alas, Newell didn’t win. But he has been making people feel a sweeping range of emotions since his performance on the reality competition show “The Glee Project” led to a guest spot that morphed into a recurring role (and for a season, a main cast credit) on “Glee” as Wade/Unique Adams, a transgender teen.

But by his early 20s, Newell had determined that life in Hollywood “was going to be just about my appearance,” he said. So he moved to New York in search of greater acceptance and not long after raised the roof in his Broadway debut as Asaka in the revival of “Once on This Island.” Jesse Green, the chief theater critic of The New York Times, proclaimed him “ferocious.”

Newell has since found a support system among his idols — some of whom, like Billy Porter and Tituss Burgess, grace his list of cultural essentials, which he elaborated on in a call from Vancouver, where “Zoey’s” is shot. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

1. Whitney Houston She was my all-time icon. She is the voice of a generation and those to come after her. She is a hot topic right now in my friend group with how we idealized the Fairy Godmother [in “Cinderella”] for so long. Her take on that role with such beauty and grace and vocal prowess was just wonderful. Even having that behind-the-scenes moment of her nurturing a talent like Brandy, when she was so young, was just everything that I strive to be for the generation coming after me as well.

2. “The Preacher’s Wife” That movie was such a staple in my household — with my mom and my dad and I watching for as long as I can remember — every holiday season. Seeing the Black church in such a palpable way, and the hardships of keeping a small church open in tough times. Also, my love of gospel and the Georgia Mass Choir that Whitney was singing with was amazing. I remember listening to them every Sunday with my dad as he was driving the church van. I lost him when I was six, and that heart of the memory is still topical with who I am.

3. “Dreamgirls” I am talking about the good old Broadway version with Jennifer Holliday, Loretta Devine, Sheryl Lee Ralph and Cleavant Derricks. I first discovered that musical right around the time that they were announcing the movie, and it really shaped who I am today. We all know the Supremes story that the musical is loosely based on. But when I read the synopsis and listened to the music, Effie White rang true to who I am. You see this beautiful Black woman who was passed over because she was not as thin or as commercial as her friend who she grew up with. And I’ve gotten passed over for a lot of things because I’m not as thin or not as commercial. I’ve had people tell me that I was too big to play a role. I’ve been cut out of scenes in musicals because I didn’t fit the costume plot. And it does take a toll on you. You do get very angry and jaded and spiteful because you see all of your own self-worth, but nobody else is seeing it. And then you feel that everybody’s turning on you. It’s one of those things that I watched in Effie — how you have to jump over the mental hurdle of that and find solace in yourself and the beauty in life.

4. Family Cookouts I loved family cookouts because it was when I got to see everybody for a good amount of time. To see family and to have so much food and laughter and love and joy around, even if it were just for one day — even the drama of it all — was always something fun to do to reset the year.

5. “The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963” by Christopher Paul Curtis I remember reading the book as a kid and just being so intrigued by it. My mother is from Birmingham, and she was a child around the time that the book took place. In reality, she was at a church down the street from the church that was bombed on that Sunday. And to think that that could have been her church, or that I personally couldn’t have been here had anything happened to her, is something that as an adult rings so much truer.

6. “Charmbracelet” by Mariah Carey The first album that I bought with my own money. Don’t ask me why it was that one, but I played that CD until I lost it. I think my mother took the CD and broke it. I still hold in the back of my mind that I sang Mariah Carey to Mariah Carey. I sang “Hero.” I don’t tell people because I hated the performance. But my mother has a picture of me and Mariah Carey after with her with this big smile and me being me. It was the whole full-circle moment.

7. Banana Pudding It’s this random connection that me and my mom have. Any time there’s a function where food will be made, banana pudding is what people ask both of us to make. I remember my mother making banana pudding from actual scratch in the kitchen, and I’d be like, “I don’t have the time to sit here and stir the pot for 20, 30 minutes while it’s on the stove.” If I told anybody I wouldn’t be famous anymore, but mine is the same exact recipe.

8. Billy Porter and 9. Tituss Burgess I remember when I heard Billy Porter’s voice eons ago when Billy was in “Grease” as Teen Angel, singing “Beauty School Dropout.” And I was first introduced to Tituss Burgess when he was doing “The Little Mermaid” on Broadway as Sebastian. The first time that you see someone that sounds like you and reminds you so much of who you are, you obsess and fawn over them and you learn how they sing and how they perform and how they act. And when you meet them and they’re all that you could have wanted and still human at the end of the day — and they lift you up and praise you — I say, “Thank you.” It’s just this mutual respect. I appreciate and adore both of them so much. They keep me wanting to strive for more daily.

10. Nell Carter My mother cultured me a lot by putting me in front of the television and letting me watch all of these old shows that she grew up with, countless hours of PBS performances. And I remember the replay of “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” which I had seen at my local theater a couple of years prior. Seeing this plus-size woman being phenomenally talented at singing and how light on her feet she was and her acting beats and the chops that she had. And how she could hold an entire audience in the palm of her hand with such confidence and control. And how she was just so self-aware of her body and who she was. The love that you could see that she had for herself was amazing.

Source: Read Full Article