High schooler Julie (Madison Reyes) lost her passion for music after her mom died last year. But when the ghosts of three dreamy musicians (Charlie Gillespie, Owen Patrick Joyner, Jeremy Shada) from 1995 suddenly appear in her mom’s old music studio, Julie feels her own inner spirit beginning to reawaken, and she’s inspired to start singing and writing songs again. As their friendship with Julie grows, the boys convince her to create a new band together: Julie and the Phantoms.
From Emmy and DGA Award-winning director and choreographer Kenny Ortega (High School Musical, Descendants) and choreographer Paul Becker (Descendants, Mirror Mirror) comes a fresh and exciting new musical series about embracing life’s ups and downs, following your dreams, and discovering the power of your own voice.
The award-winning director, choreographer, and producer talks about finding a new generation of superstars, and why this new series will delight and resonate with viewers of all ages.
What about Julie and the Phantoms first resonated with you?
KENNY ORTEGA: Early on in my career, I was fortunate enough to be mentored by the incredible artist Gene Kelly. One of the first things I learned from Gene was just how important it is to take on projects that have a strong “reason of being” — that r aison d’être , as the French say. From the onset, when my representatives at Paradigm first pitched me the idea of reimagining this Brazilian series called Julie and the Phantoms , I immediately connected with the premise and felt there was a depth to the story we could explore. We were being given an open opportunity as a creative team to take this story further and expand on key themes. And as soon as I began working with the incredibly talented writers and showrunners Dan Cross and Dave Hoge, we really took off.
What are some of those key themes that you wanted to lean into?
ORTEGA: Julie has lost her mother, and for a year she’s lost her passion for music — something she and her mother shared. Everyone around her, no matter how they try, can’t help Julie cross over into this new way of living without her mom. And I found that human struggle, especially for a young person, to be universal for anyone who’s suffered a loss. It captured my heart, and we talked a lot about the importance of never losing faith, never losing belief, never losing hope, standing strong, and believing that there’s another page in your story. Julie gets some unexpected help in learning to love music again when three dreamy ghosts from 1995 show up in her mom’s old studio.
How did you balance that fantastical element while still keeping the story grounded?
ORTEGA: Throughout the series, we’re playing with magical realism. These ghosts, our fantastical element, awaken Julie’s love and interest in music again — and that’s a very grounded, relatable part of the story. And Julie also brings these boys back to life in a lot of ways. There’s an incredible trade-off in their friendship that I thought was so special. I liked playing in a world that was a little ambiguous. I like playing with the mystical nature of the show, it excites me and gives us all the freedom to travel and to create where there aren’t as many rules, where you can go places where you might not in the telling of a more traditional story. A big part of that connection has to be because of the incredible cast you’ve assembled — especially 16-year-old Madison Reyes. This is her first professional acting gig.
How did you find her?
ORTEGA: My longtime casting directors Jason La Padura and Natalie Hart saw 700 auditions from around the world for the role of Julie. Jason found the 100 top high schools in the country that had strong arts programs and sent each one a casting call. They got 300 taped auditions, and Madison was one of them. She was 14 years old, and had never been in front of a camera in her life. She dragged her electric piano into a storage room in her house, asked her family to be quiet, and recorded her audition. She played every character in the scene — she didn’t know she only had to read her role. And when I saw that audition I just knew that she was our Julie, and that she could bring authenticity and heart to the role. And my instinct was right. We brought Madison to Los Angeles, and we put her up against some of the most extraordinary talent of her age in the industry, and she was able to win the role with unanimous support from everyone. Madison has said that it was important to her to become a role model for young girls and her little sister, and that when she was growing up, she didn’t see a lot of girls on TV who looked like her.
Did you have that in mind as well when you cast her?
ORTEGA: Yes, I wanted to tell a story that featured a Latinx lead. I wanted to put a hero out there for young ladies who haven’t had many, but who was also a character that everyone could identify with, and whose heart would engage everyone. I was looking for a girl who was going to find a way to bring herself into the role, not just have to imagine it, but could also use her own young life experience to make it real. And then, to top it all off, she’d have to be able to play an instrument, be able to hit the notes, and be able to work well with the other actors. And this little girl came in and just nailed it. She just delivered all of it. This generation of young people that are coming up now are so full of talent. And I think that the internet and reality television have paved the way for a generation that is as gifted as we’ve ever seen, certainly in my lifetime.
What about the Phantoms? How did Charlie Gillespie (Luke), Owen Joyner (Alex), and Jeremy Shada (Reggie) make their way into the mix?
ORTEGA: We looked all over the world for the right actors to play our Phantoms. Natalie and Jason saw hundreds of audition tapes from everywhere. And again, I was looking for performers who were going to be able to bring the magic — who could really play instruments and lead a band and who could, mostly importantly, deliver the heart and the humor of this rich and magical story. The combination of Madison, Charlie, Owen, and Jeremy feels explosive in the same way it felt when we got Zac, Vanessa, Ashley, Lucas, Corbin, and Monique together for High School Musical 15 years ago. Their chemistry was just undeniable, you couldn’t walk away from it. It was just right. It was there.
How has it felt to reunite with some of your incredible returning cast members from the Descendants franchise — Jadah Marie (Flynn), Booboo Stewart (Willie), and Cheyenne Jackson (Caleb Covington)? ORTEGA: It’s been such a pleasure, and so rewarding, to have the opportunity to work with them again. They all have such strength and are incredibly generous, wonderful, smart actors — they each bring something unique to the party. When we developed the script, they just jumped out at me as perfect fits for each role, and with the support of Netflix, they were at the top of my wishlist. We brought them in to audition, but they still all went up against other people. We wanted to make sure that we were opening this opportunity up for everyone. But at the end of the day, Jadah Marie, Booboo Stewart, and Cheyenne Jackson were just the right mix for this show. We’re grateful to have them. After you had your cast assembled, you all went on a month-long boot camp before filming began. Every day the core four cast members went through rigorous acting, singing, dancing, and instrument training.
Why was that experience so important to the project?
ORTEGA: I’ve been doing some form of this “boot camp” for years, I just haven’t always called it that. Our goal with boot camp was to create a space where everybody felt safe and brave; where the actors could have a voice, a participation; where they could bring ideas into the room and we would find the answers to the characters together. I would throw Madison and the boys into a situation where I wouldn’t give them any input whatsoever, and I would let them take a song and watch what they would do with it. Their instincts became the driving force of the direction that we traveled in, not mine. I put my trust in them, my faith that they had the ability to build something remarkable from the ground up.
What about this story do you think will resonate with both younger and older viewers?
ORTEGA: Well, I’m an uncle and I have eight godchildren, and I have been working with young people for quite some time. And that has really kept my spirit young and reminds me of the value of life and living. I don’t do this work because I have to; I do it because I love it. And I truly believe that this story is magical and captivating, and will cross over into multiple generations. I’ve already tested it out on my family members and friends, from eight years old to my mother, who’s 93, and everybody seems to be moved by it in different ways.
With their help, she might just become the next great rockstar.
Julie and the Phantoms, a musical series from Kenny Ortega, premieres September 10 pic.twitter.com/FlLbccqMB6
— Netflix (@netflix) August 26, 2020
Julie and the Phantoms is available to stream via Netflix from September 10th.