#Glee stars @JennaUshkowitz and @HeatherMorrisTV share their favorite memories of Naya Rivera, and share how the upcoming cast reunion tribute came together.
Jenna Ushkowitz and Heather Morris share favorite memories of their late costar with EW ahead of GLAAD Media Awards tribute.
The cast will pay tribute to the late Naya Rivera in a special virtual reunion as part of the GLAAD Media Awards tomorrow, and EW has a sneak peek of the moment above. Ahead of the reunion airing, EW talked to original Glee clubbers Jenna Ushkowitz and Heather Morris about their memories of Rivera, who died in July.
2021 marks the tenth anniversary of Riveras Glee character Santana coming out. As part of the tribute, the cast will celebrate that moment and spotlight the characters impact on LGBTQ teens and Latinx LGBTQ representation on television.
"Its something to celebrate," Ushkowitz tells EW of Rivera and Santanas lasting impact. "Its something that marked a lot of fans lives and affected a lot of people in the fandom because of her bravery as a character and seeing themselves represented on TV. Glee was breaking barriers at the time. Its bittersweet because we miss her so much, and I feel like there was so much more she would have done if she was still around, but the fact that were able to pay tribute and honor the work she did do, and the effect she did have on peoples lives, it gives us something to celebrate as well in her remembrance."
Demi Lovato, who guest starred as Santanas girlfriend on the series, will introduce the tribute. In addition to Morris and Ushkowitz, it features cast members Jacob Artist, Chris Colfer, Darren Criss, Jessalyn Gilsig, Dot-Marie Jones, Vanessa Lengies, Jane Lynch, Kevin McHale, Matthew Morrison, Alex Newell, Lauren Potter, Amber Riley, Harry Shum Jr., and Becca Tobin.
Rivera passed away in 2020 following a tragic accident. In the wake of her death, much of the Glee cast has gathered to memorialize her, both online and in real life. They previously held a holiday fundraiser in her honor.
This reunion was actually orchestrated by Ushkowitz, who reached out to GLAAD about honoring Riveras legacy. In addition to her groundbreaking portrayal of Santana Lopez, Rivera previously hosted the GLAAD Media Awards on multiple occasions.
"The Santana army is really quite incredible and weve talked to many, many fans and they were pushing for some kind of tribute for the work shes done in the LGBTQ community as Santana and as Naya," Ushkowitz says. "So, I reached out to GLAAD and we were able to craft this really incredible moment pretty quickly because were a pretty tight knit crew, so anything for Naya. Its not hard to rally the troops."
"The fans helped us see where Nayas heart really was," Morris, who played Santanas best friend and true love Brittany S. Pierce on Glee, tells EW. "They knew that GLAAD was really important to her. They also knew how important the Brittana relationship was."
Morris says during their days on set Rivera led the way on fan outreach and connecting with LGBTQ fans who saw themselves in Santana and Brittany. Morris wasnt really on social media and adjusting to life on set since Glee marked her first acting job, but it was Rivera who consistently engaged with fans, which Morris says shes since embraced following Riveras example.
"I get so many messages on Twitter and Instagram of people telling me it was their coming out day, celebrating themselves," she marvels. "Im getting all of it in these last six, seven years since the show finished — how much it really meant to people and how it continues to help peoples lives, save people, and it brings tears to my eyes every time somebody sends me a message."
Sadly, this isnt the first time the Glee cast has had to pay tribute to one of their own. Fellow cast member Cory Monteith died in 2013 prior to the start of the shows fifth season. But the tragedies have only brought the others closer together. "Were a pretty tight knit group," Ushkowitz reflects. "A lot of us still stay in close touch. We find strength in each other. You can only really understand exactly what were going through if youre going through it, and thats why we got so close. It was like this Glee protective bubble in really challenging times where we looked to each other. Its unfortunate that its not the first time, but [we find] resilience in each other and in picking each other up. We really do find strength in knowing were not alone."
Morris adds that they have a still active Glee group text chat, which they turn to whenever someone needs advice or support. "We continuously keep in communication and anytime any of us calls I would never think of not picking up the phone," she notes. "Im always just looking to Jenna to Kevin to Harry for guidance in those times. If we have anything on our minds, were always there for each other."
They all have fond memories of Rivera, and Morris can vividly remember the first day she and Rivera spent together on set. "She was always just so witty and incredible," Morris reminisces. "I can recall the first moment I met her and we were in Mr. Shues room, and immediately we were bouncing off of each other with funny gestures and comments and just being goofballs."