Alex Newell made history at the 76th Tony Awards as the first openly non-binary performer to win the Best Featured Actor in a Musical for their role as sassy whiskey maker Lulu in the musical Shucked. (Pal J. Harrison Ghee would become the first non-binary performer to win Best Lead Actor in a Musical just a few hours later).
Newell’s powerhouse vocals have been bringing down the house since they first made a splash on the competition series, The Glee Project, in 2012. Newell went on to star as Unique Adams on the musical series Glee and Mo on Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist. They also performed in the Broadway revival of Once on This Island.
The newly crowned Tony winner shares it all with EBONY, and why tries to steer away from "role-model" status.
Congratulations on your momentous win. What went through your mind when they called your name?
Alex Newell: I can't believe this is happening. Am I prepared? I hope I don't fall in my dress. How am I gonna walk up those stairs? Somebody, please help me. I'm crying.
Did you have a speech prepared?
I don't want to sound mean when I say this. I don't like prepared speeches. I think that some people need to be prepared or have their hearts and set their intentions. But I'm not a person that can write things down and say them, especially for a competition.
They say you can manifest an outcome.
I prayed, wished and wanted it, but my category was stacked with some amazing talent. Everyone was brilliant in their roles.
How do you connect to your character, Lulu?
The comedy of it all. I've done comedy, but not this kind of comedy. One of the characters says to her, “Lulu, I'll never be as strong as your whiskey or as dirty as your thoughts.” I think that to have this woman who can be smart, sexy and crass is something that we don't get to see so often. I compare her to Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones.
Was the character created specifically for you?
There have been many other women who have played this role before me. They’ve been building the show for over 10 years. So there have been different iterations. There was a whole song about Lulu’s breasts. I think was called “Jugs.” To see how the play has formed and come to where we are now is just a beautiful thing.
You and J. Harrison Ghee are both touted as the first openly gender non-conforming performers to win a Tony. How did it make you feel that you both won on the same night?
Wonderful because we're friends. Right before this I was texting J and asking if they had come down from the high of winning. And we’re both in the same place of like, “No, we still haven’t.” How lovely it is to have someone to go through this who is experiencing almost all the same emotions, feelings and experience of it all.
You’ve spoken before about how you entered the “Actor” category because you consider that your vocation. Do we need to make a change to make this more inclusive, so that all actors feel that they are represented by the name of their category?
I think that is a thing that needs to change, and is inevitably a thing that has to happen in general. It’s a big hot topic that everyone keeps asking me. But that's not my place. I think that these awards and organizations need to quite literally do a deep dive and really think all of this through, what it means and what it could mean.
Who was your gender-nonconforming role model growing up?
You're talking about things in the 1990s and the early 2000s where we really didn't have the vernacular, terminology or education to have something that truly exists, but doesn't exist in the same sentence. The only person that I can think of is Sylvester, but I didn't get to live at the same time that Sylvester was alive.
How do you feel knowing that you are now a role model for young people coming up and that responsibility?
I never want to be a role model. I want to be an example. I've always gone back and forth between what that is. As a role model, you start thinking I have to do this and it starts to become disingenuous. I want to be a shining light of how your life can be and what you can achieve. That comes with being able to make mistakes in my own life. Once you say “role model,” you instantly become perfect. You're pristine and untouched. No, I'm still human. We're all still humans going into this life one day at a time.
See Newell in Shucked, now playing at the Nederlander Theatre in New York City.