Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist star Alice Lee talks tackling 'heavy' postpartum depression arc
"I wanted to do it right for all the moms out there," Lee tells EW of Emily's emotional journey this season.
It's hardly a spoiler to warn that you'll need some tissues while watching this week's Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist. But trust: you'll need the entire box this time, and it's all thanks to Alice Lee.
Throughout the past season and a half, NBC's musical drama has tugged on heartstrings so often it's become like a weekly therapy session as Zoey (Jane Levy), and her family came to terms with losing her father Mitch (Peter Gallagher) through a rare degenerative neurological disease. But in this week's episode, Zoey discovers just how much her sister-in-law Emily (Lee) has been struggling with postpartum depression since the birth of her first child, keeping it secret from everyone, including her own husband (Andrew Leeds).
It's an emotionally devastating hour featuring yet another tour de force from Lee after her heartbreakingly raw version of Demi Lovato's "Anyone" at the end of last week's episode. And she's only just getting started. "What I've been doing these past few episodes, that arc is just so meaty, and I was able to tap into such deep emotions," Lee tells EW. "You always hope art makes a difference — not that it needs to, but when people get something out of it, it makes it more meaningful."
Lee has been blown away by the response to the end of the previous episode in which Zoey hears Emily's heart song, a cry for help as she reveals she's suffering from postpartum depression. "I didn't even know that people would resonate with it so much," she says. "I mean, I guess I should have known. But it's been amazing reading the comments and just seeing how many people relate to that story and that they felt seen and heard. It humbles you, and I feel very honored that I can be a part of telling that story. So many people go through postpartum, and it's something that should be talked about. Seeing everyone respond to it makes me realize this is such an important topic."
Lee found out about Emily's postpartum depression about a month before the episodes were written, and she admits she was "anxious and nervous" about having to portray that arc. "I wanted to do it justice," she says. "It's such a delicate topic and I say delicate but I don't think it should even be like this fragile topic, it should be talked about. There shouldn't be a stigma about it and women shouldn't feel ashamed to be depressed."
But because she's not a mother, she was careful to make sure she portrayed Emily's struggles authentically. "I wanted to do it right for all the moms out there," she says before quickly adding, "Oh my God, this is making me emotional, sorry. I love kids, and I definitely want to have a kid one day. And I talked to some moms, but I can only imagine having a baby and feeling like you don't love the baby or like feeling like you're not enough. I can't even imagine how sad that must be. I just tapped into that, and that feeling like you're not enough. I feel like we've all felt like that in different ways. It was heavy stuff, but because I'm not a mom, that was the scariest for me. I haven't had that experience."
While she knows postpartum depression is different from the depression she's dealt with in her own life, Lee says, "I've been depressed before. I think depression is something that a lot of us have gone through. It was challenging, but I loved the challenge. I don't think I've been able to tap into something so emotional and deep ever in my career."
What affected Lee the most is that Emily doesn't reach out for help despite her suffering. "Emily is very put together, she's really been there for David and his family, and a lot of the conversation I had with [creator] Austin [Winsberg] was why she hasn't said anything so far," she says. "Emily has been pushing it down for a while, like many people who struggle with depression or postpartum depression. I feel like people think it's a weakness. They don't want to show people that they're struggling. And because David just went through so much with his family, I don't think she wants to be a burden to him. She's been ignoring her feelings, hoping they'll just go away on their own, but at the end of the day, you need people, you need community."
Eventually, it all comes to a head in this Sunday's episode, "Zoey's Extraordinary Girls' Night," as Zoey focuses all her energy on helping Emily. "I hope when people watch the episode, if anyone's struggling with anything like that, they just know that they don't have to go through it alone," Lee says. "As much as that's cliché, it's true. There are people who love them, and I just hope they know that they can reach out for help, and it's not a weakness. It takes a whole episode of Zoey trying to get her to talk about it, and Emily's just like, 'Let's go to the clerb!' Without Zoey, Emily might not have ever really talked about it and it could have gotten a lot worse."
But there's more than just sadness ahead for Emily and the rest of the Clarke family, and Lee found herself really enjoying an upcoming flashback episode that shows where everyone was about five years ago. "You get to see Emily and David not meet but re-meet, which is cute," she says. "You see their backstory, which I think is really adorable." But it's still probably best to stock up on tissues for that episode too. With this show, you should always be prepared.
Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.