‘Actor Is A Genderless Word’: Tony-Nominee Alex Newell Says Change In Broadway Is Coming
For Alex Newell, making history is tiring work. Less than 12 hours after the Shucked actor walked the white carpet at the 2023 Met Gala became the first nonbinary actor to be nominated for a Tony in the Best Featured Actor in a Musical category. There were tears and press and still no sleep as the actor headed immediately back to her dressing room at New York’s Nederlander Theatre to prepare for Tuesday night’s show.
“It’s very hard to process,” she tells Rolling Stone. “I’ve only cried three times. I’m a little stressed out. A little flabbergasted. All the emotions are running the gambit right now.”
In the musical comedy Shucked, Newell stars as Lulu — an independent, don’t-need-no-man, whiskey distiller in Midwestern Cobb County. When the town’s corn crop (and its biggest means of money) begins to fail, Lulu’s cousin Maizy leaves town to try and rescue their livelihood. But when the man Maizy brings back is more con than corn, Lulu and the entire town must learn that sometimes help comes from unlikely corny places.
Newell’s nomination comes at a time when award organizations like the Tonys, the Oscars, and others have started to reckon with their gendered categories — and where that leaves nonbinary competitors. One Broadway performer this season, Justin David Sullivan in &Juliet, withdrew from consideration entirely rather than choose a gendered category.
Newell, who is gender nonconforming and uses he/she/they pronouns, chose to be included in the Best Featured Actor category — which she tells Rolling Stone is less about choosing a side and more about leaning into the genderless nature of the term.
“Acting is my craft. I am an actor,” she says. “Actor is a genderless word. It truly is. And the last time I checked, we didn’t say plumb-ess for a plumber. We didn’t say I’m going to see my doctor-ress.”
Identity has been a major part of Newell’s career since audiences were first introduced to her show-stopping, standing-ovation-every-night voice in the hit teen drama Glee. After publicly auditioning through the reality series The Glee Project, Newell played fan-favorite Unique Adams — one of the first openly transgender main cast members on a primetime network TV series. In 2017, she made her Broadway debut in the Once On This Island revival as Earth Goddes Asaka — and performed at the 72nd Tony Awards. In 2020, she played Mo, a genderfluid DJ in the NBC musical series Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. And now, Broadway’s hit musical Shucked. But while Shucked will be Newell’s first time in the Tony audience as a nominee, she tells Rolling Stone that being nervous isn’t in the equation. After all, she still has a job to do.
“I think my nerves are at home right now,” she says. “Because the first time that I did Once On This Island, there was such an air of respect from all of my Broadway idols. Especially when a nomination wasn’t in the cards back then, they all really did a rally around me. And so now having this nomination, it’s truly just a whole other thing. I really don’t feel nervous about it. I just feel safe.”
Rolling Stone called Newell before curtain call to chat about her growth as an actor, Broadway’s slow march toward change, and why, if she wins, she doesn’t plan on letting anyone hold her Tony.
How does it feel to be nominated for a Tony, especially for a role that you’ve worked on for so long?
It’s crazy because I’ve dreamed about being on Broadway my entire life. My first go-round I already performed at the Tony’s and that was a giant dream of mine. But to be acknowledged for your work and what you’ve tried to do, the stress of it all, the learning the lines and not seeing your friends, being away from your family and your dog, all that work, it pays off at the end.
What are some of the lessons you’ve gotten out of this majorly successful originating role? What are some similarities you share with your character Lulu?
I think our similarities are the straight shooting-ness of her mannerisms. I go straight for the truth and the jugular of it all. And I like to see the grand scheme of things over everything else. What I’ve learned from playing this character is your independence is also your weakness as much as your strength. Because sometimes the most powerful person also needs someone else to balance that out.
You started acting and singing at a pretty young age. How do you think you’ve changed since your first projects?
I know myself more than I did back then. I was 18 when I started a big part of my career. When I started Glee I was a junior in high school. So I’ve grown and learned so much about what I don’t want to do and what I do. Not just in my career, but even in my personal life, my expression, my identity, and all of that good stuff that makes the human a great human. So I think that much like a fine champagne, I’ve just gotten better.
Was it daunting to approach a project with such long hours and musically challenging songs?
No. One thing about me as a singer: If I can’t sing the song hungover, I can’t sing the song ever. I love my job. I love acting. I love singing. But you can still have a life while you’re still doing theater. I think a lot of the mannerisms and mentality is that the show comes before everything else in your life. Since I’ve done that year after year after year and I watched myself kill myself trying to keep up with that mentality, I said this time I’m not going to do it that way. I want to see my friends, see my family, to see my dog, to go out and have a drink after the show with friends and not worry that I’m not gonna be able to sing it tomorrow.
There are some actors who wouldn’t want to do a long Broadway run. What are some things you’re saying no to?
I don’t think that I could ever do a horror. I don’t want to cry for that long. I commend people for it and I think that they’re great at it. I get too wrapped up in my tears. I’m very in tune with my tears. Once they start, it’s hard to get them to stop.
That’s really interesting! Especially because when people hear your solo in the show, you get the standing ovation, you get the tears. It’s very powerful. Does it feel weird to be so anti-tears like that when your performances almost always invoke that in others?
It is weird to hear that back because that’s more of a rational statement. And I’ll have to talk to my therapist about it, so thank you. I’m not anti-tears. I just remember I was doing the Glee ‘If I Were A Boy’ scene (where Newell’s character struggles with their gender). There was one take that I literally could not stop crying. We had to like stop because I personalized it too much. And I personalize everything. I think that’s my favorite thing about acting: I know how to make it about me.
Ahead of the Tony nominations, there’s been major discussions about how the organization approaches nonbinary and gender non-conforming actors and the currently gendered categories. So how did you as a gender-fluid actor approach nominations and having to pick a lane?
When I chose my category that way, I really wanted to lean into the fact that the term actor is a genderless word. And I understand and hold space for why we created actress — to give women in general a fighting chance to win in this cis white male-dominated field.
How do you balance those feelings with the fact that some of the other nonbinary actors have decided to not compete until they feel they don’t have to choose a category?
I truly do respect that. I think it’s very admirable. And I think that it’s their truth. And that is something that is a part of the conversation. These talented people shouldn’t have to recuse themselves.
Do you feel like Broadway’s relationship with progress in the gender binary is changing?
It’s slow but steady. My favorite quote from a musical is from Carolina, Or Change [by Tony Kushner]. “Change come fast and change come slow but change come.” It’s gonna take a while. I love Broadway, but we haven’t changed in a very long time. Even down to our union, the relationships that producers at the Broadway League have with equity, and how you’re treated as actors behind the stage.
How does it feel, as a kid who grew up having Broadway idols, knowing there are probably kids growing up right now watching you succeed and feeling inspired by it?
It’s wonderful because I didn’t have a me. I had to grasp a lot of me’s and put them together. I was growing up watching Jennifer Holliday and listening to Nell Carter, Billy Porter, Audra McDonald, and Lillias White — having these brown people that all sounded like me and had different colors of who I was. It’s lovely to sit back and know that there is some little plus-sized child that looks like me, that is on the gender spectrum, and sees that they can reach and do what I’m doing. And that anything that they want in this life is tangible if they really want it.
Have you already started thinking about your speech? If you win the Tony, where will you keep it?
I have no idea. If I can get through words, that’d be great. If I win the Tony I’m keeping it at a theater for a while. I’m gonna get a shelf. But in my house, I’d probably put it in a glass case right outside my front door, just so people knew before they walked in. At night, I’d probably roll it in. But there’s no holding. I don’t think I can let anybody hold it. Much like when I have kids. “Please don’t touch my child.”