A former child actor, Naya Rivera got her break on Fox’s 2009 high school music dramedy series Glee. Her character, Santana Lopez, started as a stereotypical queen bee mean girl, with Rivera guiding her into becoming a multi-dimensional fan favorite.
A day after Rivera’s body was found in a lake north of Los Angeles, confirming the actress’ tragic death at age 33, Glee creators Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan shared their memories of working with her.
In a heartfelt remembrance, the trio talked about the evolution of Santana from a bit character to a trailblazer for portraying a lesbian relationship on network TV, about the humor and humanity Rivera brought to the character and about her professionalism on set.
“Naya was more than just an actor on our show- she was our friend,” wrote the creators. They are setting up a college fund for Rivera’s young son who was with her on the lake and whose life she may have saved at the expense of hers in her final minutes.
Here is Murphy, Falchuk, and Brennan’s tribute:
We are heartbroken over the loss of our friend Naya Rivera.
Naya wasn’t a series regular when we cast her on Glee. She didn’t have more than a few lines in the pilot. But it didn’t take more than an episode or two for us to realize that we had lucked into finding one of the most talented, special stars we would ever have the pleasure of working with. Naya could act, she could dance, and she could sing (could she ever sing!) She could nail a joke as well as she could crush you with an emotional scene. She could move between being scary tough and deeply vulnerable with ease. She was a joy to write for, a joy to direct and a joy to be around.
Naya is responsible for numerous iconic Glee musical performances- The Adele Mash Up, Valerie, Songbird- but her greatest Glee legacy is probably the humor and humanity that she brought to Santana’s relationship with her best friend and eventual girlfriend/wife Brittany (played by Heather Morris). It was one of the first times an openly lesbian, high school relationship was seen on network television and Naya understood what “Brittana” meant to the many young women who were seeing themselves represented on television for the first time. Naya always made sure that Santana’s love for Brittany was expressed with dignity, strength and with pure intentions. Naya was always moved by the girls who reached out to her to tell her how much Santana and Brittany’s love affected them. Naya’s obligation to them- and to all of her fans- was obvious. She had the rare combination of humility and endless confidence in her talent.
Naya was a real pro. Always on time, always knew her lines (which wasn’t easy considering the giant mouthfuls of dialogue we often gave her), always kept everyone laughing on the set. She was warm and caring and fiercely protective of the rest of the cast. She was tough and demanding. She was fun. She was kind. She was generous. There were ups and downs during the wonderful and stressful years we spent making Glee. We disagreed, we fought, we made up, then we fought some more, than we made up again. The kinds of things that happen in a family. Naya was more than just an actor on our show- she was our friend.
Our hearts go out to her family, especially her mom, Yolanda, who was a big part of the Glee family and her son Josey. The three of us are currently in the process of creating a college fund for the beautiful son Naya loved most of all.
Here is one of Rivera’s top music performances mentioned by Murphy, Falchuk, and Brennan, “Valerie”: