Naya Rivera was a fearsome screen presence who made meals out of whatever crumbs she got. While she began her TV career sparkling with winsome charm as a child actor on sitcoms like “Family Matters” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” it was on “Glee” that she got to prove the full breadth of what she could do. In Santana Lopez, Rivera took a flat character and made her vital by the sheer force of her inarguable charisma.
The role that made Rivera famous — and is now her most memorable, period, after her tragic death at just 33 years old — shouldn’t have been half as magnetic as it immediately became with her in it. When first introduced, Santana Lopez was just a bitchy cheerleader — the smirky, sexed-up Latina counterpart for Quinn (Dianna Agron), the show’s blonde heroine teetering atop the pyramid with a delicate smile. To balance out and humanize Quinn, Santana had to be leaner, meaner, and sometimes downright cruel. Rivera accomplished that, fueling Santana with deft comic timing and a palpable fury that pulsed through her every withering insult. Once it became clear that Rivera could take a sharp line and stab someone between the ribs with it before they even noticed, Santana got to deliver some of the show’s most devastating burns and raze the ground where her clueless peers once stood. (For a good time, please click through to see her eviscerate Chris Colfer’s Kurt, a once revolutionary character who became, as Santana puts it like the Cheshire Cat swallowing a fish whole before spitting out the bones, “intolerable.”)
Soon enough, Rivera’s Santana evolved into one of the show’s best and most realized characters. She joined the Glee Club as a joke, only to reveal herself as a jazzy alto with far more of a range than anyone expected. She realized the strength of her feelings for her best friend Brittany (Heather Morris) and came out of the closet, becoming one of TV’s first — and certainly most visible — Latina lesbians. She blazed through heartbreak and tragedy with a reluctant vulnerability and set jaw that threatened to slice her opponents in half. She did all that, because Rivera burned through her scenes with a ferocity that made Santana undeniable.
There’s a reason, for instance, why Rivera was the one to do a repeat performance of “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” the showstopping “Funny Girl” number that Lea Michele’s Rachel crushed in the first season to huge acclaim. Deep into the show’s chaotic fifth season, Santana auditions to be Rachel’s understudy by mirroring her initial performance, slamming the back door of the auditorium open and belting the song while strutting down the aisle. Doing that, when Michele’s Rachel had so thoroughly staked out the song as her territory already, was a bold and even reckless move. But unlike Rachel, Santana isn’t using the song to ask for approval. She demands and assumes her audience’s loyalty, because she knows she deserves it. Rachel, indignant, pouts throughout the number — but it’s clear from Santana’s first note that she’s nailing it, because Rivera so thoroughly nails it.
And despite “Glee”’s best efforts to make just about everyone else’s love lives compelling, it was Santana’s romance with Brittany that ended up stealing the show. From a storytelling perspective, their relationship was genuinely groundbreaking in 2009. (Two high school girls in open, unabashed, committed love! We truly loved to see it.) And from a performance perspective, Rivera in particular sold it from the start — even though, as with many “Glee” stories, the pairing was a throwaway joke first. And yet the relationship became such a vital organ of the show that it made for some of the most dramatic, memorable moments.
One of the best comes in the third season, when someone outs Santana against her will and she ends up working through her boiling grief onstage during a mashup performance of Adele’s “Rumor Has It” and “Someone Like You.” Blinking back furious tears, she dutifully does her cutesy choreography until it’s time for her to come in with her solo. When she does, she practically howls her line: “Don’t forget me, I beg.” On that count, neither she nor Rivera had much reason to worry: In that moment, and for so many thereafter, forgetting her was impossible.
Watch some of Rivera’s most memorable “Glee” moments below: