Jenna Ushkowitz on Glee, Growth, and Gratitude
From its debut season in 2009, ‘Glee’ exploded into the limelight, receiving nominations for 32 Emmys, 9 Golden Globes, 30 Teen Choice Awards and many more. While celebrated for its positive impact on the world, members of the Glee cast, crew and its fans also experienced the dark side of a global phenomenon, living through shocking tragedies that changed the show forever. In our inaugural content series, Fresh Perspectives, Stephen Cheung, founder of Blackburn, caught up with actress Jenna Ushkowitz to speak about what it was like living through the rollercoaster of ‘Glee’ and how it shaped her views on life and death, family, and the future.
Hi Jenna and thank you for being here. Many people know you as one of the original regular cast members of ‘Glee’. You played the shy, somewhat guarded punk-goth student, Tina Cohen-Chang, right?
But you were no stranger to the business. You started out as a child actor.
I started in the business at 3 years old. After college, [I wanted to] prove to myself that I was more than just a child actor and could be successful in my career as an adult.
I think we can all agree you proved yourself correct. In fact, I was a major “Gleek” (Glee+Geek). On the surface it’s about high school kids starting a fun show choir. But the series goes deep and confronts the realities of bullying, discrimination across race, gender, and sexual orientation in unapologetic ways that stunned some viewers. Were there moments where you thought ‘Oh shit, this is going to cause a stir’?
I wasn’t shocked by any of them because Ryan [Murphy] was always pushing the envelope and breaking these barriers and talking about things that people don’t want to talk about. It’s kind of shocking looking back now in 2023 on the things that we were doing and saying, and I can’t believe they let us do it. It felt like a really cool responsibility to have because we knew there were so many eyes on the show and people responded because [they] were feeling less alone.
‘Glee’ became a worldwide sensation due to its covers of songs by popular music artists. Ushkowitz and the cast were praised for their ability to sing, dance, and act by viewers and critics alike. As the triumph of ‘Glee’ continued, the euphoria was sharply interrupted by personal tragedies within the cast. Cory Monteith’s sudden passing, due to an overdose, sent shockwaves through the community. In subsequent years, the cast faced further sorrow, with Mark Salling taking his own life amidst distressing circumstances, and Naya Rivera tragically drowning while on a lake outing with her son.
What was your experience like having been there through it all with these cast and crew members whom by that point, you knew on such a personal level?
Because we were such a global sensation at the time, it was like ‘Glee’s’ highs were the highest and the lows were the lowest. You rise to the top and then you wait for people to pull you down, that’s just the way it goes, or at least it feels like it. But these people are family. And they’re real people. And they had families who had to grieve their [loss] privately and publicly. And it was hard. It brought us closer together because there’s only a certain amount of people in the world who understand what you’re going through.
How did the media respond?
It was like the media rolled it into this “Glee Curse”, which we all hate. We all hate that term. It’s not true because we’re still alive and we’re still here. It’s like you’re waiting for another one of us to go. And that’s just very dark and unacceptable. When Naya died, it just put things in a very sharp perspective for me. In terms of Glee, in terms of my life, it was a really crazy time.
How much did it change you in terms of your views on life, family and motherhood?
Glee shaped who I am, how I work, how I see the world, and how I treat people. I grew up on that show, and it’s had such a profound impact on everything in my life. To have lost those people, our friends, gone through a pandemic with a lot of them, to getting engaged, and having a daughter—I’m just so grateful and appreciative. While I was in it, it felt like a tornado. It’s hard to see what you’re experiencing; you can only just feel it and so to come out of it stronger is so important to me. I feel so grateful for all these amazing things that I’m able to do now, and my family is just so precious to me.
What advice do you have in handling success and maintaining integrity in one’s career?
Putting your head down and doing the work and showing up for yourself every day is what’s going to get you longevity. Don’t get swept up in [the tornado]. You really must stay true to who you are. I think because you can so easily get swept up in it, you feel really good and you’re at the “top.” But you’re not always going to be at the top. You can certainly hope for the kind of success Glee was, as an artist, but it’s about loving what you do and persevering when times get hard, and believe me, they will.
Your work on ‘Glee’ and the success of it all seems like lightning in a bottle.
Glee was the cherry on top of Sunday, being able to do what I love and work consistently, is what was important to me. The best advice that I got on set was to be kind to everybody. People don’t want to work with assholes. People want to work with people who are nice and to [keep] that reputation.
And after ‘Glee’, where did you turn next?
After ‘Glee’, I have loved exploring other facets of the industry, including producing both Broadway and Television and directing. I am a firm believer in always learning and pushing myself to do new things that excite and scare me. I feel motivated to continue to find ways to stay in the industry for a long time but also to have more freedom and agency over my time.
Ushkowitz found love and a new appreciation for life through a larger sense of purpose in family, understanding her own identity and taking on a social responsibility for greater representation.
You’re a new mother, you’re married, and you’ve started a family of your own. Congratulations!
You were adopted at a very young age in Korea and raised in the United States. Have you already, or are you interested at all in being reconnected with your birth parents?
Yeah, that’s an interesting question because it’s flip-flopped quite a bit. I have not done any kind of search for my birth parents, and partially because I was so fulfilled growing up. I didn’t feel like anything was missing. But as I grew into my adult self, I felt interested in it for health reasons.
What has it been like welcoming your first child?
With my daughter, who is my blood relative, it’s crazy to say! It just means a lot to me because it’s the first person I’ve seen myself in. There’s this thrilling feeling of having my daughter and people say she ‘She looks like you’. I’ve never had that before. It didn’t faze me until a few months after she was born. It was so surprising to me, and I was elated by it — the idea that I could look at her and I could see myself in her.
Did you always know you wanted to be a mother?
I have known since my early 30’s. I am a big proponent of therapy, and so is my husband. We separately did a lot of work on ourselves before we met and I believe that through that work, having a stable partner and feeling secure in our own lives and our relationship together, I felt that I was ready to bring a baby into our world.
And she being Asian, it must feel important to have people like her represented in the media. And with the visibility that came with ‘Glee’, you were an early figure that helped the momentum going. How did that feel?
Yeah, it felt important to me. I was subconsciously idolizing Lea Salonga on Broadway and Sandra Oh on ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ because they were Asian, and it didn’t faze me that was why for a while. And so, it felt important to me because I started hearing from fans, especially young Asian girls who would say, “I’m so Tina, Tina is my favorite character”, and I was that girl, so I understand what that meant. I just finished ‘Beef’ and I love seeing these incredible shows with these all-Asian casts.
Did you ever struggle with that kind of social identity, especially if you were not raised in Asian culture?
Yeah, definitely. I feel like I’m trying to find my way. I was adopted, growing up in a very American white household. Out in the world, people were sometimes confused by my name and the way I looked and what they saw. Even in audition rooms, people are just confused. And so, it’s hard. It’s been hard ever since…I think, even still, I’m still trying to find my way. I don’t think our industry fully understands what to do with adoptees just yet.
Lastly, do you have any ideas or hopes for what could change or become better in the [showbusiness] industry or in the way people identify communities that would make someone like you feel more at home?
Yeah, that’s a good question. I mean, I don’t know that I will feel at home until I feel it. But I do know that in the way that I see representation on an LGBTQ show having a full, diverse writers’ room, full of LGBTQ writers, it feels like for an adoptee [it’s important] having our voices in there as well. Yeah, listen to us, experience us as well, and lift us up. Everyone’s story is different and there’s room for them all.