Puerto Rican teen Madison Reyes is about to be a Netflix star. Yes, she’s ‘scared’
Madison Reyes was only 18 months old when “High School Musical” first debuted, and her love for the franchise grew as she did. She’s seen the movies countless times; she collected all of the Barbie dolls and stickers.
“I loved watching these kids sing and dance around their school,” recalled Reyes, now 16. “I was like, ‘I want to do that! What school I gotta go to to do that?!’”
Fast forward to last year, when the Puerto Rican teen started a dance circle in a locker-lined hallway and crowd surfed inside a confetti-covered cafeteria. She did so as the star of Netflix’s “Julie and the Phantoms,” premiering Thursday — the latest project from “High School Musical” mastermind Kenny Ortega and the first of his overall deal with the streaming service.
The Season 1 finale of “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” was the start of something new for Nini (Olivia Rodrigo) and Ricky (Joshua Bassett).
Reyes — a magnetic musical heroine with her textured voice and adorable gap-toothed smile — was cast for the demanding lead role from more than 700 self-taped auditions. “I wanted someone whom everyone could watch and really recognize themselves in,” explained Ortega. “After watching her video, I knew Madison was the girl to beat. She has this raw talent that can take on any genre of music, and this promise of greatness that excited everybody. And yet she’s so relatable and grounded.”
Such credibility is crucial in the lead of any TV show, but especially one with a particularly imaginative premise. A remake of a 2011 Brazilian series, “Julie and the Phantoms” centers on a talented teen who, creatively paralyzed by the loss of her mother, meets a trio of musicians — who also happen to be ghosts, having died in 1995. These specters magically become visible and audible to all whenever they perform with Julie as their lead singer.
Their musical numbers are the high notes of the season’s nine episodes, thanks to a month-long “boot camp” of band rehearsals, a signature stage of any Ortega project. “We like to think that we’re a band first, and then actresses and actors second,” said Reyes of her on-screen band mates, played by Charlie Gillespie, Jeremy Shada and Owen Joyner.
Banking the series’ believability on Reyes is a surefire bet because she and Julie are nearly one and the same — excluding Julie’s tolerance for bullying by the series’ resident mean girl, Reyes admitted. She collaborated with department heads on Julie’s hair (naturally textured and with minimal modifications), makeup (bare face, with pops of color as her confidence grows) and costumes (one of which is an on-screen tribute to Reyes’ mother). She even worked with Gillespie on one of the show’s 15 earworms, marking the first time she’s ever written a song with another artist.
Reyes, who looks up to Ariana Grande and Zendaya — both of whom also launched their multi-hyphenate careers by leading tween-facing TV shows — is proud to play Julie, but that doesn’t mean she’s without trepidations. “I’m nervous about whether or not people are going to fall in love with her, because I’m just like her,” she said while seated in her family dining room, decorated with her father’s paintings of Taino symbols and the Puerto Rican flag.
“She’s Latin American, she’s got textured hair, she’s a strong and independent female character,” continued Reyes, acutely aware that she carries the burden of representation at such a young age. “As a person of color who wants more diversity [on-screen], I’m kind of scared about the hate comments that I’ve seen other people have to go through, especially women. I’m not trying to think about that too much ... Don’t get me started on that kind of anxiety!”
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Ortega has long believed that “Julie and the Phantoms” — both the series and the band of the same name — will find its fandom, as it was designed to be adaptable to other formats.
“I wanted to be able to put together a project that can go beyond television, that could tour and be a record,” he explained of the show’s pre-COVID plans. “Our imaginations were going wild with what could potentially happen, and now we have to step back and wait and hope the world will open up again.”
Until then, Reyes will resume being a teenager: finishing coursework for her junior year of high school, making earrings, watching anime, scrolling on Instagram and TikTok. Oh, and relishing the show’s three billboards around her hometown of Allentown, Pa.
“There’s one literally right down here by my house,” she told The Times excitedly. “It’s so surreal. I don’t know how to process it. It’s like, ‘That’s your face, Madison — you do understand that, right?’ Like, that’s me. And, oh my gosh, I kind of look good!”
‘Julie and the Phantoms’
When: Any time, starting Thursday
Rated: TV-G (suitable for all ages)
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