How Mo Became the Best Dressed Character on Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist
Alex Newell and the show's costume designer, Heidi Higginbotham, take us through the fun, collaborative process of planning out these looks.
There's a lot to love about NBC's Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist: The quirky characters, the captivating storylines, the singing and dancing, and that overall joyful feeling you get while watching it all unfold. But we can't discuss the hit show - the season finale of which airs Sunday, May 16, at 9 EST - without mentioning all the fabulous fashion. The outfits, right down to every colorful, solid sweater, play a major role in bringing this musical world to life. And they're dreamed up by none other than costume designer Heidi Higginbotham.
"It's a very, very large job," she admits when talking to InStyle over the phone. "Besides each individual lead actor, we have all of the background and recurring dancers, so we have to do all of those fittings. And those fittings also have to work with what the lead characters are wearing. We want to make sure that all the costumes look good together, especially in a dance number."
Higginbotham says the whole process starts with an initial, pre-season planning meeting with the show runner and the creator, discussing each character's arc.
"We'll do initial fittings for looks that we think are going to work, so that we can bank some," she tells us, adding that things got especially complicated for season two due to COVID. With everyone quarantining in Vancouver, where the show is filmed, there was a lot online shopping, shipping, and Zooming involved - and that's all before ever seeing a script.
"That's when it gets really scary, because I don't get a script until maybe a week before [we film], and those scripts can change drastically all the way up until we shoot. Sometimes, a big costume gets cut, or something really particular arises in a rewrite and we have to quickly pivot."
One person in particular from the cast that Heidi enjoys working with from the cast, is Alex Newell, who plays Mo, Zoey's gender-nonconforming friend, neighbor, and building super. In season two, the character opens a restaurant, and the two continued to work closely on developing the character's style, which slowly became more structured and business-like.
"One of the things I love about him is that he loves clothes so much," Heidi tells us, saying that since Newell is similar to his character, his opinions and personal tastes are extremely important.
"In the last two years, I've had projects with gay men, gay women, trans men, trans women, gay men who present as women, body diverse men and women on the spectrum of sexuality. I've fit Drag Queens. That's totally different from what I know, and it's been super interesting to do the research, since my job is figuring out how those characters discover their own style. It's akin to doing research on a period show, but the difference is that I have an actor who represents that group who comes into a fitting. Alex is wildly pleasant to collaborate with because he's very confident in his own skin, his own sexuality, and how he likes to dress."
For Newell, working with Higginbotham on what Mo would wear often feels like walking into a mall, but better.
"You just see all of these clothes in front of you and you're just like, 'Well, I might as well just try them all on,'" he tells InStyle. "Sometimes, we go through the rack and like I say, 'Absolutely not, I would never wear this.' But then it looks better on my body than it does on the hanger."
Even for casual scenes, the two try not to hold back, and instead think outside the box for Mo's looks.
"We lean into the script," Newell says. "If it calls for Mo to be the building super and be doing work around the building, it's more 'Let's find a fun way of showing how Mo would express being the super.' The first thing that came to mind was this new, retro, 2019 at the time, Rosie the Riveter. So that's what we landed on. Or, if Mo was DJing somewhere on a '90s night, how about we make a throwback, letterman jacket to Salt-N-Pepa - stuff like that."
Still, Higginbotham admits that things aren't always so easy and smooth-sailing. Since limited stores sell quality plus-size clothing, especially in the luxury space, she's often tasked with reinventing fast-fashion when dressing Mo.
"We've done some crazy fittings where we've combined pieces from companies like ASOS, Fashion Nova, or Eloquii and built around that, sometimes just in better fabrics that were better constructed," she says.
"Sometimes I'll look at something and I'll say, 'It's cute, but how can we make it better? How can we take it this next step further? How can we elevate it?'" adds Newell. "There was an episode earlier in the season with this snakeskin dress we got from ASOS, which was off-the-shoulder and it came maybe to my knee. And I said, 'How about we cut it and make it a top, and add a ripped jean under it?' Really taking it further to create this very structured, snakeskin, everyday statement piece that you could wear whenever."
Getting to play around with fashion is really a childhood dream come true for the actor.
"Growing up thicker and bigger than everybody, and not always seeing plus-size models or style icons around, I get excited by having the opportunity to do that," he says. "Going into some stores, the plus size fashions are just not it. Sometimes they just literally say, 'Oh well you're plus size, here's a muumuu.' And to not have to do that -to get excited about clothes and express how you're feeling, and showing that your size doesn't make you unfashionable - is phenomenal."
However, designing and picking out fun, standout outfits is really only half the battle for Higginbotham, especially on a show like this. Not only does she have to worry about characters expressing themselves and their mood through whatever they're wearing - whether that means focusing on color, shape, structure, or tiny details - she also has to worry about making these clothes work through dance routines.
"The actor is going to be in those clothes for sometimes 12 hours, and it's kind of grueling. The show has singing and dancing, and they're performing. Especially for Alex, I have to make sure that he's okay. He loves a high heel, but I'm like, 'Oh my God, what's the choreography?'"
Newell doesn't disagree, but admits that's usually the last thing he considers in fittings.
"I'm like, 'No, I can make it work.' Then I'll get there and have on a six-inch pump and be like, 'Hey, so I can't do that anymore, sorry.' I remember one dance number, I couldn't move my arms up past my shoulders, and I was just like, 'That's not conducive to the choreography.' But you know what? I looked cute."
In many ways, those six-inch heels even end up helping out in the long run.
"Heels really change how you hold yourself. You kind of put a heel on and, instantly, you puff your chest out, arch your back, and you're more present," he says, talking about the importance of fashion in relation to acting. "I always hear it from all of my favorite actors, 'I really didn't find the character until I put the wardrobe on. I didn't find the character until I put the costume on.' The story is the clothes sometimes, and a lot of the times, the clothes tell the mood and the tone. You can act depressed, but if your wardrobe looks depressed as well, without even having the sound on, you can tell that it's something sad. If you're jubilant and happy and your clothes reflect that, it's the same thing."