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Jenna Ushkowitz and Heather Morris share favorite memories of their late costar with EW ahead of GLAAD Media Awards tribute.

By Maureen Lee Lenker
April 07, 2021 11:48 AM
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The Glee cast is reuniting to celebrate one of their own.

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 Rivera's Glee character Santana coming out. As part of the tribute, the cast will celebrate that moment and spotlight the character's impact on LGBTQ teens and Latinx LGBTQ representation on television.

"It's something to celebrate," Ushkowitz tells EW of Rivera and Santana's lasting impact. "It's 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. It's 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 we're able to pay tribute and honor the work she did do, and the effect she did have on people's lives, it gives us something to celebrate as well in her remembrance."

GLEE, Naya Rivera
Naya Rivera
| Credit: Everett Collection

Demi Lovato, who guest starred as Santana's girlfriend on the series, will introduce the tribute. In addition to Morris and Ushkowitz, it features cast members Jacob Artist, Chris ColferDarren Criss, Jessalyn Gilsig, Dot-Marie Jones, Vanessa Lengies, Jane LynchKevin McHaleMatthew Morrison, Alex Newell, Lauren Potter, Amber RileyHarry 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 Rivera's legacy. In addition to her groundbreaking portrayal of Santana Lopez, Rivera previously hosted the GLAAD Media Awards on multiple occasions.

Glee cast
Glee cast
| Credit: FOX Image Collection via Getty

"The Santana army is really quite incredible and we've talked to many, many fans and they were pushing for some kind of tribute for the work she's 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 we're a pretty tight knit crew, so anything for Naya. It's not hard to rally the troops."

"The fans helped us see where Naya's heart really was," Morris, who played Santana's 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."

Naya Rivera
Naya Rivera and Heather Morris as Santana and Brittany on 'Glee'
| Credit: FOX Image Collection via Getty Images

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 wasn't 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 she's since embraced following Rivera's example.

"I get so many messages on Twitter and Instagram of people telling me it was their coming out day, celebrating themselves," she marvels. "I'm 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 people's lives, save people, and it brings tears to my eyes every time somebody sends me a message."

Sadly, this isn't 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 show's fifth season. But the tragedies have only brought the others closer together. "We're 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 we're going through if you're going through it, and that's why we got so close. It was like this Glee protective bubble in really challenging times where we looked to each other. It's unfortunate that it's not the first time, but [we find] resilience in each other and in picking each other up. We really do find strength in knowing we're 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. "I'm always just looking to Jenna to Kevin to Harry for guidance in those times. If we have anything on our minds, we're 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. Shue's room, and immediately we were bouncing off of each other with funny gestures and comments and just being goofballs."

GLEE
Naya Rivera and Amber Riley as Santana and Mercedes on 'Glee'
| Credit: FOX Image Collection via Getty Images

For both Ushkowitz and Morris, Rivera's memory lives on in both her outreach and her performance on Glee, particularly her musical numbers. "Getting to do 'Shake It Out' was my favorite," Ushkowitz says. "My favorite to watch was anything with her and Amber, so like 'River Deep.' It was more fun to me than actually having to perform with her because you could just watch her do it."

"And then you'd be like, 'Oh my god, you are so good,' and she didn't know how good she was," Morris interjects. "I really enjoyed watching her sing 'Songbird.' That's ingrained in my head, that time where I sat in the choir room and listened to her sing 'Songbird' because her voice is just of another world. It's always been my favorite. I will never forget that."

What fans will never forget is Brittana and the relationship that gave two queer cheerleaders a happy ending after many ups and downs. Ushkowitz calls it "one of the most iconic relationships on the show," while Morris celebrates it as an essential part of not only Rivera's legacy but Glee's impact as a whole.

"Having these teens who are not only curious, but pretty sure about who they are, but not quite certain that society is ready for them to be — every teen nowadays feels that and will continue to feel that and has throughout history, and it's just an ongoing cycle — but to have a show that allows it to be an open conversation and not a conversation that's behind closed doors was just life changing," Morris reflects. "It shook the ground that everybody stood on in theater and in the real world. And hopefully, changed some lives for the better."

During its run, Glee was nominated six times for Outstanding Comedy Series at the GLAAD Media Awards, winning the award in both 2010 and 2011. The awards recognize outstanding representation of the LGBTQ community in the media.

The 32nd annual GLAAD Media Awards will premiere exclusively on GLAAD'S YouTube channel on Thursday, April 8, at 8 p.m. ET. They will also stream on Hulu starting at 10 p.m. ET and be available there until the end of June.

Watch the video above for more.

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This story originally appeared on ew.com