Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist star on portraying grief 'uncomfortably close' to his own life
"The loss of my father was swift and quick and out of nowhere just like Simon’s," John Clarence Stewart tells EW.
Did he stay or did he go?
In the final scene of last week's Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist, Zoey's (Jane Levy) crush Simon (John Clarence Stewart) was debating whether to take their relationship from just friends to something more ... all set to The Clash's iconic song, "Should I Stay or Should I Go." But remember, Simon is still engaged to another woman despite how he's been leaning on Zoey for support when it comes to grieving his father. And also remember, Simon's engagement party is happening the next night. Awkward!
The last episode ended on a major cliffhanger as both Simon and Zoey considered taking things to the next level, and Stewart tells EW that "this week’s episode picks up exactly where we left off, right in the doorway. We get to see what, if anything, happens between them and the aftermath of that."
EW has your exclusive first look above at this Sunday's hour, which finally answers the question of whether they ended up hooking up. (Go ahead and watch that now before moving on. We'll wait.........)
Okay, so Simon and Zoey didn't do anything they'd regret later. Phew! Now that that's out of the way, Stewart warns that even just the act of Simon going over to Zoey's apartment late at night is going to cause problems.
"I don’t think that Simon knew that this level of attraction or this moment was coming," the actor says. "Their relationship has been rooted in this profound intimacy that has to do with grief and loss. It’s almost like someone who is privy to your journal, your most intimate thoughts that you don’t have to hide from. That’s been the catalyst to all their communication and interaction thus far. But there’s something about being seen in this scenario, in this midst of a breakdown or trying moment, where Simon sees Zoey differently. The attraction goes from more of a peripheral, benevolent attraction to something that’s more alive and visceral and more of a desire."
And Stewart reveals this is something we're going to see Simon dealing with all season if not all series long.
"I don’t think that Simon is perfect but he’s trying to do the best he can," Stewart says. "You’re going to see a man who is hurt and conflicted and struggling but is trying his best and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But he’s human and flawed and I think that’s a beautiful thing to see. It’s messy and the show doesn’t shy away from that."
The actor thinks it's really the fact that Simon is dealing with the grief over losing his dad that he's in this situation with Zoey. "I think Simon was resigned to the way his life was – he was happy with most of the aspects if not all the aspects of his life. The loss of his father has forced him to reassess everything and take inventory," Stewart says. "He’s questioning everything now. I don’t think he knows anything at this point, everything is up in the air. He doesn’t know which way is up, so the feeling and connection he has with Zoey, he has no idea what that is. He’s confused as to why he feels so close to Zoey and free to communicate the vulnerable parts of himself and not necessarily to Jessica [India de Beaufort], his fiancée."
It's actually something that Stewart has gone through in his own life. "Having lost my father years ago, there’s this equilibrium shift that happens where you try to find a new normal," he says. "That speeds up a lot of things, and we’re seeing that with Simon, where he’s thinking about what he actually wants."
Portraying Simon's grief journey on Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist this season has been "glaringly, uncomfortably close" to what Stewart has gone through in real life.
"The loss of my father was swift and quick and out of nowhere, just like Simon’s," he says. "There is a way that it shifted all of the relationships in my life, my relationship with myself. The experience of grief made me feel very alone and very isolated and very unknown, even in relationships with people who had known me for a long time. When there was someone in my life who understood, it felt I had been underwater for a long time and was finally able to breathe. Simon is feeling that with Zoey, he can breathe. He can finally not have to act or fake it, and things will be okay."
Losing his father actually opened Stewart's eyes to how others deal with grief as well.
"When you’re experiencing grief, people want to take you out of it or fix you or make you feel better or encourage you to find a silver lining," he says. "When Zoey reflects back to Simon where he is and how there’s no other place to be and how everything he’s feeling is real or valid, she doesn’t try to fix him, she just holds space for him, that is so important."
He pauses, then adds, "There were people in my life who tried to fix me and pull me out of the place I was in, but grief doesn’t end. There were people who tried to save me from it and people who had the courage to sit there in it with me and allow me to experience it without fixing me. That is what made me feel so much more seen. But it can also be more confusing as to what is real, and that’s what Simon is navigating with Zoey. Is this real, or is this grief? They don’t know yet."
Bringing Simon's story line to life onscreen has been both difficult and cathartic for Stewart. "There are moments when we’ve been shooting where the days led to very dark nights, honestly, because it meant going to that space," he says. "It cost something sometimes. There are moments that have cost a lot. There’s also this catharsis because there are some things I wish I had done better in my own life and being able to walk with Simon, as Simon, through this process and the ups and downs and choices and stakes and wins has helped me unload or understand more my own past and the decisions I made in my life. So it’s been very healing in a lot of ways as well."
But the actor is excited about an upcoming musical performance he got to do on the show. "I can tell you that there may or may not be a duet at some point," Stewart says with a laugh. "That is all I can say. 'Should I Stay or Should I Go' was pretty fun, singing The Clash is really f—king dope, but 'Mad World' in the pilot was pretty profound for me. We shot a contemporary dance version that didn’t make it into the pilot. That was very close to my heart and it was why I wanted to audition for the show to begin with."
Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on NBC.
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