Glee star Amber Riley on the value of contentment : The Limits with Jay Williams This week, Auntie Oprah (as Jay calls her) lent us an episode from Trials to Triumphs, a podcast on the Oprah Winfrey Network. Hosted by Ashley Blaine Featherson-Jenkins, Trials to Triumphs discusses the personal and professional struggles of innovators–just like The Limits.

On today's episode, Ashley speaks with actress and singer Amber P. Riley. Amber is best known for her role as Mercedes on the hit comedy-drama series Glee. She also starred in the West End debut of Dreamgirls and won season 17 of Dancing with the Stars in 2013.

Amber and Ashley discuss reaching contentment by nurturing authentic relationships, embracing stillness and finding peace. Amber also gets real about building her Glee family, and how she managed the loss of beloved costars.

Follow Jay on Instagram and Twitter. Email us at For sponsor-free episodes, weekly bonus content, and more, subscribe to The Limits Plus.

From the Oprah Winfrey Network: Trials to Triumphs featuring Amber P. Riley

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


ASHLEY BLAINE FEATHERSON-JENKINS: Hey, all, and welcome to "Trials To Triumphs." I'm Ashley Blaine Featherson-Jenkins, but you can call me ABFJ. This week, my good friend, singer and actress Amber P. Riley tells me what life ingredients she has needed to simply be content. Ingredient No. 1 - authentic friendships. Whoo, Lord knows I can relate. The deeper I dive into this podcast, the more I discover just how profound the relationships I've forged in my life have been, how much they've shaped my path. The people around me - my friends, family, even the people who I get a quick text from every now and then - they fill my cup and inspire me to keep moving forward. And Amber knows all about the give-and-take of relationships. She has such a rare authenticity in all things - her pursuits, her relationships with her "Glee" family and finding her purpose because of those relationships.

AMBER P RILEY: She's like, I didn't deserve your friendship years ago. She said, you know what? Out of the blue - even though I was like - she kind of, like, to the - left me, like, disappeared. She said out of the blue one day, you called me and was like, hey, I just thought about you, and I just wanted to say I love you, and I hope that you're doing OK. I didn't want to bother you. I just want to call you and say that. And she said that moment saved her life. Somebody that she hadn't talked to, that she wasn't doing anything for, cared about her, and it let her feel valuable.

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: Amber's role as Mercedes in "Glee" gave the musical theater nerd in me a blueprint and forged this beautiful sense of possibility and contentment that is so, so necessary in Hollywood. In a world that constantly demands so much from us all, Amber doubles down on finding peace with who and where she is right now. And in our Sankofa moment, Amber brings back one person from history to show the beautiful progress the Black community has made.

RILEY: I would love to walk around with him and just be like, look. Look at this movement. Look at social media. Look at the Supreme Court.

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: Haaaaaaa (ph) - Amber P. Riley.



RILEY: Hi, friend.

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: Amber, hi (laughter). Oh, I just love you. Ever - first of all, welcome to "Trials To Triumphs." I'm so happy you're here.

RILEY: Thank you for having me here.

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: All right. I want you to tell the story of how we met. I want to hear it from your perspective (laughter).

RILEY: Oh, we met on the set of "Glee."


RILEY: I just remember you being very - just lovely. And we had, like, great conversations. And honestly, it was nice to be on set with, like, a Black woman, you know, and spend that much time with a Black woman 'cause it was just a very Caucasian set. God bless 'em - love the Caucasians.


RILEY: But...


RILEY: ...You know, there is something about, you know, having a shared experience with someone that looks like you.

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: Well, I mean, Amber, here's the thing. Haaaaa (ph) - "Glee" - OK - so "Glee" was the turning point for me in my career because it was my first guest-star booking, and it was supposed to be a recurring guest star. I remember being like, this is supposed to recur. And I was cast as one of your best friends - like, one of your best friends kind of coming and visiting. And, you know, at that time I was a huge fan of yours. I was a huge - "Glee" was like my dream show. It was like, I'm an actor; I'm a singer; I'm a dancer. I can put my musical theater degree to use. And so when the opportunity came up to audition, I was like, God, this is it. And when I booked it and got to go to New York, it was, like, my first, like, glitzy type of job. And it really felt like it was an early representation of, like, my manifestation power of like, I have really put that into the universe, and it was even bigger than what I imagined.

But one of the best parts, I realize - it's so funny. Going into it, I was just so excited that I was going to be able to sing and dance and whatever. But in retrospect, the best part was you. That's why I went there, that - it was so that we could become friends and we could - and it's - I'll never forget. You said to me - you were like, I just want you to know, I don't do this. This isn't normal for me. You're like, I don't typically just, like, make friends with people that come on the show, so I must really like you, girl, 'cause I have never done this before. And I felt so honored. I was like (laughter), well, thank you for loving me, Amber (laughter).

RILEY: I feel glad that I've grown up and got a little bit more tact. Who says that to people?

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: (Laughter) I mean, in a couple of years, we'll be celebrating a decade of being friends. And you truly have been there for me, and I've been there for you ever since we met. And I'm so grateful you're in my life. I really am.

RILEY: I'm grateful you're in my life 'cause you're definitely one of the most genuine people that I've ever met. And especially - that's very, you know, it's very hard in this industry.

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: Here's the tea, though, about you, Amber. You're one of the most LA people I know. And what I mean by that is you are so, like, fly and, like, there's a casual vibe to you. There's like a - it's a homegirl quality. It's like, if you meet you, you're just - you're just the homegirl. You're the homie. You echo - you share yourself with the world in that way. That's why I think people are so attracted to you is because - I appreciate that you called me so genuine, but you were the exact same.

RILEY: Thank you.

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: The thing about Amber is she keeps it a buck all the time. You're the most keeping-it-real person I know. If want to hear the truth, come to you. And so it's true. You're laughing because you know it's true.


FEATHERSON-JENKINS: But I want to hear about LA. So what did LA teach you?

RILEY: You know, I think - the one thing about LA is we're super laid back. Like, we're just really super chill. And I don't know if it's because of the weather. I don't know if - because we got the best weed in the U.S., I don't know if it's the beachy vibes. Like, I don't know what it is, but I've just always been super, like, laid back, super chill, even the way we dress out here. Like, you can go out some places and people will have on, like, tracksuits, and it's, like, a nice restaurant. Nobody's really sure.

I guess I didn't realize that we were like that until I started living other places. And I was like, I dress down all the time. Like, I rarely wear heels. I'm always in someone's, like - but I think that LA pretty much taught me to be myself. I'll put it in context of being in Hollywood, like, the fact that this is my business because I'm actually from here. I realized that Hollywood is really more of a state of mind than a place. And I think LA has - is like grounding for me. I think it's just became grounding because I know what LA really is because I'm from here.

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: Oh. Oh. So that's kind of like a gift. It's almost like a little bit of a gift. It's like you're able to see through the mirage because you're like, this is just home for me. Like, I know that y'all are kind of caught up in the glitz and glamour, but I'm just at home in my ones hanging out with my family at the cookout.

RILEY: But I realize that I'm lucky in that way because when people move here and they don't - you're not lucky enough to really find family because it can be hard because Hollywood can be - I understand when people say, oh, LA's fake and all this other kind of stuff. Like, I get where they're coming from, but that's - they're usually in this industry. They're usually in - and Hollywood is a facade. It's not real.

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: Take me to pre-"Glee." OK. I heard, I read and I'm flabbergasted by this - that you were turned down from "American Idol" at 17.

RILEY: I was.

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: Are they insane? What?


FEATHERSON-JENKINS: OK. So walk me through that, and take me to what your life was like right before you get cast on "Glee."

RILEY: So I think the year that I auditioned, I feel like Fantasia had won that year or the year prior. I think she won the - no, she had won the year prior. And that made me want to audition. And, you know, I kind of told my parents. And I didn't do the LA audition because the LA audition was nuts. Like, it was super crazy. So I drove to the San Francisco one. So me and my family got in - we got in our little Volkswagen, our station wagon.


RILEY: And we drove all the way to San Francisco. And I just knew. I was like, this is it. This is the new way to get in the industry. There's no other way, you know, to really do it. And I wasn't 17. I think I was like 19.


RILEY: I definitely was out of high school by this point and, you know, did the audition and made it through the preliminary because, you know, there's different - I think people think you go straight into, like, the judges. You don't. You go through like all these producers and all this kind of stuff.

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: What did you sing?

RILEY: Oh, God. I can't - I think that I sang "Sweet Thang." I don't remember. I really don't remember. I think it was a Chaka Khan song.


RILEY: And I think that's what I sang and made it - I think that made it through that first one and then went to the second producers. And, like, it was, like, a no. And I was legitimately devastated. And I remember my mom really didn't want me to go because I feel like she knew that I was probably not mentally prepared for that kind of rejection because it really did - like, it crushed me. Like, I didn't think that I could sing after that.

And maybe - I think maybe three years later is when I booked "Glee" because after that, I was just like, I'm going to sing whenever someone asks me to sing. Like, I just didn't take it seriously. I did a bunch of open mics after that and, like, tried to do shows and really tried - put boots on the ground to become, like, an artist. And it just wasn't - nothing was really moving. Everything that looked like an opportunity ended up being a dead end. And so, girl, I just got a job at IKEA and...


RILEY: ...Started working at IKEA customer service, actually really liked it. It was a very, like, foundational step for me because I had to learn how to deal with people and different personalities and, like, bite my tongue and not fight people out - like, I had to - it was some character development.


This is THE LIMITS from NPR. I'm Jay Williams. Stay with us.


RILEY: Soon after that, like, you know, my mom was like, you don't really sing anymore. I don't really see you doing blah, blah, blah. Then I was like, well, you know, I just don't know if it's for me, and she was like, you know, you really should go after your dream. I just see you working now and, like, this is not - she just didn't want me to, like, end up hating my life because I didn't really go for it.

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: Or squandering your dream - she didn't want you to squander your dreams.

RILEY: Yeah. And so I ended up quitting my job. And I'm not telling people to quit their job, OK? I worked there for two years. And I was really unhappy, and I didn't realize that I was so unhappy. I just felt like I was living on autopilot. And so I quit my job, and my mom was like, all right, well, you know, you got a year. You know, I saved money because I was helping pay rent and all that kind of stuff, helping pay bills. So she was like, you know, after a year, we'll see where you're at.

So for a year, I just - like, I was singing background. I was still doing open mics, getting paid for some stuff, doing demo work for producers. I did a lot of stuff for G-Unit, by the way. This is something that people don't know.

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: Come on, G - OK, Amber? G-Unit, OK.

RILEY: The Game...

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: Like, little, like, riffs and stuff on different, like, songs?

RILEY: I did demos for them; so, like, when they needed a singer to come in and do the hook for something and demo the hook, when they needed ad-libs in the background. So there may be some G-Unit songs that you're hearing...

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: Push through (laughter).

RILEY: For, like, everybody.

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: Wait, is that Amber (laughter)?

RILEY: Right. Well, legitimately. So I did a lot of demos. And then after that, the year was up, and I was like, oh, well, nothing happened in this year, so I'm just going to go back to work. So I called IKEA to get my job back. And she was like, if you can commit to this for a year, then you can come back. And I remember calling her and telling her, I don't know if I can commit for a year because I don't - you know, I'm not going to let my dream die, but I need a job. And she was like, well, if you can't commit for a year, then you can't come back. And literally, literally a week later, I got the call to do "Glee" - literally a week later.

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: You got the call to audition or you booked it?

RILEY: No, I got a call to audition for "Glee" a week later in the most random way.


RILEY: It wasn't like I had an agent. I didn't have an agent.


RILEY: I didn't have, like...


RILEY: It was literally - my homeboy's friend's roommate was the assistant to the casting director, to Robert Ulrich. Her name is Amy.


RILEY: That was his roommate - yeah, his friend's roommate. And he asked him, like, do you know, like, a big chocolate girl that sings really, really big? And he was like, yeah. So he - my homeboy Jazir (ph), like, reached out to me and was like, hey. And so he - when they approached me about it, they actually told me, like - he had the information wrong. He was like, I think it's some kind of reality show, and they want you to sing on it. Now, you know, reality shows were really new at that point. Like, it wasn't even, like, a thing-thing. So I just thought I was going to do - so they were like, just prepare a song.

So when I went into the audition, I didn't know that it was, like, for a TV show. I was not aware. They only told me that I was - it was a singing audition. So I thought I was like, either, like, singing to be a background singer on it or - like, I didn't know if it was - I didn't know, so I just prepared to sing. And they handed me sides when I got there, and I was completely like, what? I hadn't acted since I was a kid.

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: Had you been acting before that? I was going to say, had you been acting? Amber, gosh. Oh, my goodness.

RILEY: I stopped acting, like, at, like, 16. I was 21.


RILEY: I hadn't acted...

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: So then how did you end up getting cast as Mercedes? How did that end up happening?

RILEY: So I got there. She was like, oh, yeah, you're - you know, was Keith friend and thank you so much for coming in. She was like, sign in there. And I was like, OK. So I, like, signed in. And she was like, here are the sides, and I was like, OK. So I was, like, playing it cool. And so my mom was with me, and I was like, Mom, I think I have to act. And I was like, so what - who am I reading for? She was like, oh, you know, Mercedes. And I was like, oh, OK. And she was like, do you have a headshot? Excuse me? No.

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: (Laughter) I have my IKEA badge picture. No, I'm just kidding (laughter).

RILEY: I said, you know - she was like, well, do you have something, like, online, like on your Myspace? Girl, Myspace, OK? I said, I have pictures on my Myspace. So she went on my Myspace, and this is - if I could find the picture, I'm going to post it one day. This was when I was, like, experimenting with makeup because I love makeup. Girl, white eyeshadow with the thickest wing, the black line - I look like a superhero. Like, it was the worst picture with this, like, deep swoop - how a mess, a mess. And she printed that out. She printed that out as my headshot.

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: Amber. I am - this story is sending me.

RILEY: It's insane. And so I ended up going in. I did the audition. I sang "Sweet Thang." And Robert was like, well, do you think that maybe you could - no, it may be too much of a hard song. And I was like, well, what song, you know, did you want me to sing? 'Cause the acting part was a dub. I was terrible - like, no confidence at all. And he was like, well, can you sing "And I'm Telling You"?

And I had never - interestingly enough, I'd never considered myself a belter. I have a high voice, but I don't consider myself like a Jennifer Hudson belter. Like, that's a belt. That's a singer, singer, you know? And so I never really considered myself to be that. And so they asked - he asked me to sing "And I'm Telling You." And I was like, well, here goes nothing.

And, like, I was shocked by what came out of my own mouth. I was like, wow, that didn't suck. And I sang "And I'm Telling You." And he was like, oh, my God, oh, my God. And he started taking me around to all the casting directors in the building and made me sing for all of them. Yes, made me sing "And I'm Telling You" for all of them - called the producers, was like, I think I found her. We need to bring her in for the producer call. So I went in for the producer call, sang "And I'm Telling You," went in for the network call, did the test - chemistry test and all that kind of stuff.


RILEY: Yeah.

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: This is the most...

RILEY: And the rest is history (laughter).

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: I had no - and then you ended up being on one of the biggest television shows of all time.

RILEY: When I tell you, like, I read that script and was like, this is - either people are going to get this or they're not, but this is special. And you don't always read stuff like that. But, like, I was crying reading that script. Like, I saw myself reading that script. I was excited. I was like, there's nothing like this.

And even when I met the rest of the cast, like - and it just goes to show you people put a lot of things - people want to bet on people with a name or bet on people with credits. None of us had credits. We were all green - green. I mean, besides, like, the Jane Lynch and Matthew Morrison, Lea Michele obviously had credits on Broadway. So, you know - but as far as, like, the TV world, all of us were very, very new. We were very new to this. And people need to start betting on talent...


RILEY: ...Because it - bet on people with talent.

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: Wow. Betting on - well, we're going to get into that. We're going to - 'cause you and I are always, like, talking about our frustrations with that. And so we're going to get into that in a second.

But I have to say, as you've been - as you were telling me the story, especially the beginning of the story, how, you know, the audition came from a friend of a friend, and, you know, you walked into this not knowing what it was, I'm just thinking about how special that is. Had you known, you would have maybe doubted yourself before you even got in there. But you just went in thinking you were doing what you had just been doing willy-nilly, which was, like, oh, people just want me to sing? I've been singing backup. I've been doing demo stuff. Like, I can do that.

But you had to be green. You had to be unassuming because sometimes we get in our own way. And you weren't able to get into your own way, and I think that that is a large part of how this came to be. And I just think that is so, so, so, so beautiful and inspiring.

RILEY: And that's - and you know what? Honestly, that's why I love the theme of your podcast. Because we can talk about loss in such a negative way sometimes, but sometimes loss is good because I lost control. I didn't have control over what was happening in that situation. And control is such a huge thing that I worked through in therapy because, you know, you grow - if you've grown up broke - you know what I'm saying? - and if you've grown up struggling, you don't always have control over - you want control when you finally get, like, financial stability or security or, like - you want - you always want to know what's happening next because you grew up never knowing what was going to happen.

You know, I grew up - and sometimes we didn't have hot water. I grew up - sometimes, I would come home, and we didn't have lights. You know, I grew up in - there may have been an eviction notice, and now we got to figure out - you know, I had to, you know, listen to them talk to the landlord about how - can I give you this much this? That's how I grew up. So there were - there was instability in some instances, which now have given me control issues. So anything good, I just want to hold on to it. But losing control can be such a great thing. And it was such a blessing to be in that situation and just relying on the natural gifts that God had given me and get out of my own way by trying to control it...


RILEY: ...Control an outcome when I was never going to be - and that's auditioning and being an actor anyway. You can't control the outcome. We can't. We can't predict an outcome.


RILEY: The only thing that we do is prepare how we're always preparing and then move forward. And had I known all of those things, I would have been so in my head, you know what I'm saying? And then there were things outside of my control. Like, the story gets so crazy.

I almost didn't make it to the producer audition because our car broke down, and I had to - in the middle of the freeway. I had to call my homeboy who gave us his car. Kelvin Truly (ph) - I'll always be grateful to him - gave us a car, drove there - gave us a car so that I can even make it to audition and let us keep the car to drive it back and forth so that I could keep - you know what I'm saying? Because the - and then we thought the Volkswagen was - you know, we thought big Sheila (ph) was pushing again.

And when I left, I remember - this was the last audition, the network audition. And I finally got an agent in the middle of that process. And we're, like, driving, and the car starts to (imitating car engine sputtering). So we're like, oh, not again. Come on, big Sheila. We pull over on the side of the freeway, and my agent calls. And it's like, hi, can I speak to Mercedes? And I'm so, like, out of it that I'm just...

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: No, Amber. No, Amber. I - we are getting off of this call. That is not what happened.

RILEY: That is...

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: You got the call that you got it when you were in the broken-down Big Sheila?

RILEY: (Laughter) Literally, the car's, like, putt-putting on the side of the road, and my mom's pulled over, and I'm, like, all frustrated, and she's like, hi, can I speak to Mercedes? And I'm like, oh, I'm sorry. You have the wrong number - like, about to hang up.


RILEY: I'm about to hang up. She's like, no, no, no, no, no. Amber, you got it. You got it. And I just started screaming. My mom was like, what? What? Like (laughter) - I'm just, like, screaming and crying. I was like, I booked it. I booked it - like, so overwhelmed with, like - did I really just step into my dreams right now?


RILEY: Did I honestly...


RILEY: ...Throughout all...


RILEY: ...That has been happening in the past two years - did I, like, legitimately just step randomly? That's how - that's why you can't tell me that there is no God because that is not - that was so - everything was so orchestrated in the way that it was supposed to happen. Me being so green, me not really having the experience in auditioning in that way - everything is orchestrated - and everything that I went through - the disappointments; the up and downs; the figuring out; you know, the being frustrated; the not understanding; even the spiritual work that I had done.

During that year, I didn't really watch TV, you know what I'm saying? I was praying and journaling, praying and journaling, going to Bible study, going to church, talking to people about my dreams, praying with my mom, fasting, reading my word - like, and not even to get anything, just to gather understanding and a closeness and just have peace of mind because I just felt like I was just pining. Like, I don't know what I'm doing. The not knowing, but having peace in it - I'm in that space now. Not knowing, but having - I don't know what's going to happen with my music. I have a new EP that's coming out. I don't know what's going to happen, but I have a peace about it.

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: So what I want to know is - first of all, this is one of the most inspiring, beautiful and amazing stories I have ever heard, and I'm so grateful that you're sharing it. What I want to know now is - so you're saying you're in a similar season now in your life?

RILEY: Yeah, absolutely.

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: How do you - how are you keeping yourself lifted? 'Cause you're older now. You're different now. You've had different experiences from the Amber that was in Big Sheila - right?

RILEY: Yeah (laughter).

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: ...That's getting called on the side of the road. Yeah, you know? So it's - we've ascended...


FEATHERSON-JENKINS: ...But we're still trying to get somewhere. What is your mind frame like? How do you keep yourself lifted? How do you give yourself grace when you don't have the energy to do it? What do you do?

RILEY: Child, it's been hard. Therapy has been teaching me a lot about myself. I'm a huge advocate for therapy. I will say it - everyone needs to be in therapy because we all have things that we need to talk about, you know what I'm saying? We all have things that - where we need an outside perspective - somebody that has no skin in the game whatsoever - to tell us and help us work through our mess and be able to be completely open and naked and vulnerable with another person, right?

So one thing that I've realized - I'll say this. One thing that I've realized that I have stopped doing - "Glee" was such a pinnacle. I lived the life of a rock star, girl. Like, I lived the life of a rock star. I was on private jets. I could buy what I wanted. I could vacation when I wanted. I was flying all over the world, staying in five-star hotels, eating in Michelin star restaurants. Like, I lived the life of a rock star, and I had been chasing that high ever since.


RILEY: And I had to stop. And this is a recent discovery that I had. I was talking to another one of my actor friends, and she said - she literally was like, you know, I've just been chasing the high. And I was like, light bulb. That's what I've been doing. Instead of appreciating the work that I'm doing and the journey that I'm taking, I'm chasing that feeling again...


RILEY: ...And doing - I'm a different person. I'm a different girl. I'm at a different level. Why am I chasing something in the past? Never - it may never feel like that again, and that's OK because that thing was new. It was a shock. I was bright-eyed, bushy-tailed. Now, we're walking into purpose. Now, we're walking into contentment. People want to chase a high, and they want an adrenaline rush all the time, but everyone underestimates being content.

WILLIAMS: This is THE LIMITS from NPR. I'm Jay Williams. Stay with us.


RILEY: People want to chase a high, and they want an adrenaline rush all the time, but everyone underestimates being content. You want to know how to...

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: Oh, talk to me about - what is content? What is content, Amber? How do you describe contentment?

RILEY: I think, for me, it's being satisfied with where you are. It's not perpetual happiness or joy. It's being OK with not having highs all the time. You don't have to have highs all the time. And it's also being kind and gentle to yourself when you have lows. And it's OK with being bored. We are so not good at being bored. We're not good at being still. We're hustle, hustle, hustle, hustle, especially in the acting business, where people are like - people around that are outside make you feel like a failure when you're not popping - when you're not everywhere.

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: Your success is wrapped up in how often you're booking, how much you're doing. Yes. Yes, very difficult.

RILEY: It really is.


RILEY: And we take that on as actors and entertainers. Like, that's why so many go broke. Because they want to floss and flash and, like - you know what I'm saying? - instead of being content with what it is that you have.


RILEY: Contentment is just - that's my goal - getting into my purpose and riding that out the rest of my life and being content. And I really am working on it because chasing that high, it'll have you miserable.

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: Yeah. You know, I know "Glee" was such a big moment for you and a big moment for all of you. But, as a cast, you all had been through a lot - a lot, Amber - a lot of loss. And, you know, being - having been on a TV show, no matter the ups and downs, you're a family. It's family.

RILEY: Yeah.

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: It's almost - I don't even know how to fully explain how much time you spend with these people, how many memories you make, how many - you know, and even more than the memories, you're in TV history together for the rest of, you know, forever.

RILEY: Connected forever. The show has been off...

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: You're connected forever.

RILEY: We're going to be connected for the rest of our lives. If one person does something, I'm always going to know about it because people just automatically put us together. And, like...


RILEY: ...The thing about it is, also, what people have to realize - like, we did something that is new - was very new. It was revolutionary. So everything that we - even behind the scenes was created. There was no musical show. We literally did musical theater for television. So we had to do the musical theater stuff, the prep stuff - that's the dance rehearsals, the training, the recording, the - having vocal rehearsals to learn to harmonize and sing together. And then we had to do the TV stuff. We had to film. We spent an immense amount of time off of the set together.


RILEY: And the only ones that understood the experience was one another. I can't talk to another actor about it because they're not even going to understand what it is that I'm going through because I don't sleep, but it's because I'm spending time outside of this working also. I saw them more than I saw my own family 'cause we were also going on tours. So we developed a closeness that - part of it probably was a trauma bond, to be honest (laughter).

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: Probably. Yeah, some of it is. It's tough. Yeah, it's tough. It looks so glamorous, but there's so many difficult things you go through that you go through together as a cast that nobody...

RILEY: Exactly.

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: ...Will understand except for you all.

RILEY: Yeah. Yeah. Like, we had, like - experiencing losses together, you know what I'm saying?


RILEY: And coming together, like, they're like your siblings, you know what I'm saying? And you lost a sibling.


RILEY: It's not, I lost my castmate. I lost a sibling. Even if it's a sibling I didn't talk to every single day, you know what I'm saying? That's still - you know, when Cory passed away, I had never experienced a loss like that in my life.


RILEY: And like, I've had family members pass away, but that was like losing a sibling. When Naya passed away, that was like losing a sister - like, legit. Like, we used to talk about what kind of moms we were going to be on set. She's exactly the kind of mom that she wanted to be. I got to see her turn into that.


RILEY: Now, Jenna's having a baby. I get to see her turn into a mom. Leah had a baby. I got to see her turn into a mom, you know what I'm saying? Even the tragedy around everything that happened with Mark, you know what I'm saying? That's hard to deal with because that still was somebody that I considered a sibling.


RILEY: You know what I'm saying? And it was so much - there was so much controversy around that, you know? And we had to do it in front of everyone.


RILEY: We had to deal with that in front of everyone. And there's a certain feeling of entitlement that people have to us because they feel like they know us. We were on their screens every week - you know what I'm saying? - and talking about things that changed people's lives. That show changed people's lives.

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: Yeah. It changed mine. It made me - I was able to see what was possible.


FEATHERSON-JENKINS: I was able - it was a visual representation of what was possible for me on TV. Yeah.

What did experiencing such shocking tragedy multiple times - what did it teach you about life? What did it teach you?

RILEY: That it's very precious, and you don't know how long your time is going to be here on this earth, and you have to tell people the way that you feel. It also just taught me that everyone is fighting the silent battle that you don't know about, so be kind to people.


RILEY: Just be kind. It costs nothing to be kind. It doesn't - you know, and I understand we're all adults, and we have things that we - that we're going through in our own lives, but, like, if you think about somebody, just shoot them a text. It takes a second. Hey, I was thinking about you. I love you. I have a friend of mine that was - we're super, super close now, and she told me, you know, Amber, I didn't deserve your friendship years ago - because she was wild. She's like, I didn't deserve your friendship years ago. She said, you know what? Out of the blue, even though I was like - she kind of, like, to the left me, like, disappeared. She said, out of the blue one day, you called me and was like, hey, I just thought about you, and I just wanted to say I love you, and I hope that you're doing OK. I didn't want to bother you. I just wanted to call you and say that. And she said that moment saved her life, that somebody that she hadn't talked to, that she wasn't doing anything for cared about her. And it let her feel valuable.


RILEY: And honestly, she's that for me now. She sent me flowers yesterday. I had a hard day yesterday. She sent me the most beautiful flower bouquet with the most amazing note. And I just literally stood there at my door, bawling, crying because I - she returned that love to me. And I needed it in that moment, and she didn't even know.

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: Oh, my goodness, Amber. You're that for me. You know, somehow you're always there. You always know. You always check in. And that is rare. And as you said, it is valuable. So I want you to know that I value you. I see you. I respect you. I honor you. And I really, really, really love you, Amber. So I just want to say thank you for coming. I'm so happy we had this conversation.

RILEY: Thank you, Ashley.

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: Before we go, though, Amber, I want to know, what is your takeaway from our conversation?

RILEY: Honestly, I'm so grateful that you had me tell that story about how "Glee" happened for me because if God can do it once, he can do it again. And like I say, it's not about chasing that adrenaline high. It's more about now understanding my purpose in life, which is the help - which is just to help and just to be there for people, whether it be an example or the girls that I mentor or the jobs that I'm hoping to give to people that I feel like are talented and deserve it - to be in that position. So I'm really taking away to just keep going. And that is going to happen for me.

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: Yeah. And, you know, that's beautiful. And my takeaway is that - is the reminder that friendship can save lives - friendship.


FEATHERSON-JENKINS: Community is and can be lifesaving in life-changing. And...


FEATHERSON-JENKINS: ...That is - and to be cherished and to hold on to dearly. Thank you, Amber. I love you, sis.

RILEY: Thank you, Ashley.



FEATHERSON-JENKINS: After the credits, Amber tells us why we're making one of our most prolific thinkers from history proud.


FEATHERSON-JENKINS: Thank you so much for listening. This podcast is produced by LWC Studios for OWN. The show's executive producer is Juleyka Lantigua. Its senior editor is Veralyn Williams. Sound designer is Cedric Wilson. Managing producers are Camille Stennis and Paulina Velasco. Assistant producers are Michelle Baker and Shanice Tindall. If you enjoyed listening to this episode - and we hope you do - please make sure to subscribe, leave a rating and review wherever you listen to your podcasts to ensure you hear the next one.


FEATHERSON-JENKINS: OK. Amber, if you could bring one person back from history to see the progress that Black women have made today, who would that be and why?

RILEY: Oh, my God. This is such a good question. I would say James Baldwin.

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: Amber, that's a brilliant answer.

RILEY: I would love - because I'm really into - I've been reading, like, his books right now and watching videos and talks or whatever. I would love to walk around with him and just be like, look. Look at this movement. Look at social media. Look at the Supreme Court.

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: (Laughter) Amber, that's good.

RILEY: That's lit. It's because of you, by the way (laughter).

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: James Baldwin would get his life.

RILEY: He would.

FEATHERSON-JENKINS: He would get his life. Oh, my goodness, Amber, that's brilliant. Thank you for that. Yeah, I'm sure he'd be really proud of us. I think he really would be. Yeah.

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.