Emmys 2012: 'Glee's' Naya Rivera on Playing a Lesbian Role Model

Naya Rivera Glee 300th Song - H 2012
Frank Micelotta/FOX

Naya Rivera Glee 300th Song - H 2012

Glee's Naya Rivera not only fronted the show's landmark 300th musical performance but made the production -- an Adele mash-up -- a poignant one as it represented a major moment in her character's coming out process.

During November's "Mash Off" episode, Rivera's Santana Lopez is pushed out of the closet after a confrontation with Finn (Cory Monteith) that ended with the jock calling her a coward.

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Her public outing was a defining moment for the character and for Lopez, whose performance as the quick-witted cheerleader has been garnering Emmy attention for most of Glee's third season.

Now, the TV Academy has tapped Rivera to follow in the footsteps of Jane Lynch, Parks and Recreation's Adam Scott, Modern Family's Eric Stonestreet and several others to host a special 10-minute Emmy video that reaches an estimated 25 million people in more than 125 countries.

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Rivera on Thursday after the young actress wrapped the Wednesday night shoot for the video (which bows on the TV Academy's YouTube channel July 23) to discuss Emmy buzz, emotional scenes and being a lesbian role model.

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The Hollywood Reporter: What was filming the Emmy video like?
Naya Rivera:
We started at 5 and were done by 6:30 p.m., I feel like I was doing nothing! (Laughs.) It was shot on a green screen and I was wearing an elegant gown; they wanted it to be glamorous like the Emmys and went over the shows that would be up for an award and explained about what the Emmys are doing on the website for this year's show and talked about Jimmy Kimmel, who's hosting. It's a huge honor, especially since people I admire have done this before me: Jane did it last year and she's quite the fan favorite.

How are you navigating the Emmy buzz surrounding your performance?
It's very exciting. I've been on the show for three seasons and each season for me gets better and better. I submitted "Mash Off," the episode that has "Rumor Has It," for Emmy consideration and thought that was a blessing to have an episode that was so well rounded. We are a comedy but I also got to show off some dramatic aspects of the character that I brought to it this season. For people to even think that I'd be considered or a good candidate for a supporting actress nomination is mind blowing to me.

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Chris Colfer earned an Emmy nomination for his role after Kurt's coming out season. Did the thought of Emmy consideration ever pop into your head while you were filming the episode?
Definitely. Since we had people like Chris and his character Kurt go through similar things -- this was when it was all coming to a head and there were so many different layers to Santana's coming out story -- I definitely felt the pressure. When I got the script, the cast and crew were joking that this was my Emmy episode. A friend on the crew was texting me, "Happy Emmy Day" on the day we filmed  (laughs).

How did you approach filming the episode?
Eric Stoltz
directed and I was happy to have him manning that ship in that episode. I approached it head-on. I don't like to waste opportunities, and especially being a supporting cast member on this show to really make the most of it and show [executive producers] Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan and all the writers that you can handle the things that they're giving you. Hopefully I did a good job with that.

After Santana came out on the show, did you alter the way you approached stepping into her shoes?
Definitely. Her relationships and the way she interacted with a lot of the other characters -- especially the male ones. It was really hard because it had to have a subtlety to it; she still had to dish out insults to all the guys but I didn't want there to be a layer of hurt under it anymore. It had to be, "That's who she is," and she had to keep her softness with Brittany had to continue throughout the rest of the season.

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How did you prepare for Santana's coming out scenes? The monologue she had with her grandmother was very powerful. Did you talk to Chris or Jane about it?
I'm blessed to have a number of close personal friends in my life who are gay and lesbian and I've heard their stories about high school and how it's still a struggle for them. I had that to take with me and I also infused my own feelings about love and relationships and how tough that is and those feelings of embarrassment when things don't work out your way. It was a combination of both.

What types of fan mail did you get after that?
Oh my gosh, I get so many stories of people that the story line truly touched them and and hit home for them. It's created a fan base for me that I never thought I'd have. I was reading that my episode of The Glee Project that the demographic of women went up like 27 percent. It's really cool to know that there are people out there that this does matter to and that your work does matter. 

Via Santana's story line, you've become a role model for lesbians -- recently repeating as AfterEllen.com's No. 1 on their annual Hot 100 list. What does being a lesbian icon and role model mean to you?
It still really hasn't hit me, to be honest with you. Those are big words: icon and role model. I never thought that would happen for me going into the show; it wasn't supposed to happen that way, it was scripted that way -- that's not who she was in Season 1, Episode 1 when she was mean to Rachel in the bathroom. It's really cool to see how it's evolved and it's given me the greatest fan base in the entire world.

Watch last year's Emmy video, below. Rivera will take Scott's role as host in the segment.

Email: Lesley.Goldberg@thr.com; Twitter: @Snoodit