[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers through the Season 1 finale of Julie and the Phantoms, “Stand Tall.”]
From showrunners Dan Cross & David Hoge and director/executive producer Kenny Ortega, the nine-episode half-hour series Julie and the Phantoms follows high schooler Julie (ultra-talented 16-year-old newcomer Madison Reyes) who’s still reeling from the loss of her mom when the ghosts of three musicians – Luke (Charlie Gillespie), Reggie (Jeremy Shada) and Alex (Owen Joyner) – from 1995 suddenly appear. Their passion for music reignites her own and as they start to write songs together and perform, they quickly realize that while they’re performing, they’re a little less ghostly and can be seen and heard.
During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, Reyes talked about what most excited her about the opportunity to play Julie, wanting to be a role model, what it was like to go through the audition process, the complication of having feelings for a ghost, her favorite performance number, the season’s two big cliffhangers, and what it’s like to lead a TV series and a band.
Collider: When this came your way, what most interested in excited you about it and what made you most nervous about it?
MADISON REYES: What interested me the most was just that she’s an American girl who’s the main protagonist and lead of this show, and I just was looking for something like that. I was 14 at the time, and the only person that I really felt like I could look up to and be like, “That person looks like me,” was Zendaya. There were probably more people, but to actually find someone that you relate with on a very good level is rare. There’s always something that doesn’t click. That was her for me. So, when I found out about it, I was like, “Yes, this is everything that I’ve been looking for.”
I wanted to be something for somebody, like my sister. I wanted to be her role model. I know that I am but definitely with this, I can 100% be. She can now look at the TV and be like, “That’s my sister. She looks like me, I look like her. She did it, I could do it too.” That, and just how real she is. Julie is your everyday teenager. She might have ghost friends, but she’s still experiencing things that every teenager goes through, at one point in their life, even adults. What’s so good about the show is that it’s for everybody. You can be older or younger, and you can still take something from it. It’s a kids’ show but you have this depth of dealing with loss and death, and you’re making it cool. Who wouldn’t want to know that in the afterlife, you come back as a ghost in a cool band?
I thought that it was really cool that we touch on things that aren’t touched as much, like depression, and not knowing where you fit in, or what your destiny is and if you want to follow it, and just being vulnerable with people and opening up and taking that step of helping friends get there. Look at the relationship that Flynn and Julie have. It’s on such a deeper level. They’re able to be vulnerable in front of each other without worrying about the other person’s feelings and how they might take it. They know that it’s okay to be sad or to lean on them because that’s what friends are for. So, it’s really nice that we have all these cool things within the show that definitely inspired me to want to be a part of it.
Is it nerve-wracking to pursue a cool project like this? How did you even pick a song to play for your audition?
REYES: Around the time that I learned about Julie and the Phantoms, I was learning how to play piano. I had played violin before but I only messed around on a keyboard. I had this keyboard for years and I never touched it that much, so I was learning. It was funny that I learned about Julie and the Phantoms because I had been practicing a song, which was “She Used to be Mine.” I was in this elective and we had to do a performance, and that was going to be mine. The teacher was helping me through that. So, it just so happened that I already had something that I could use, and I was comfortable and knew I could do well. But the experience and the audition, I thought it was going to be much harder and I was going to be a little more nervous but when I met Kenny [Ortega] and I talked to him on the phone, even before going out and finally meeting him in person, he made it so comfortable. He greeted me, he gave me a hug, he told me that this is a safe space and that I just needed to be myself, and they were here for me. They just wanted to see who I was and that I brought everything to the table. It’s really hard to be nervous when you have an amazing person like him, who is so kind and so understanding and so patient, behind you.
So, yes, it was definitely nerve-wracking but I got distracted with how fun it was and how fun he made it and how easy the process was. He made sure that he explained everything to me and told me what we were going to do. I felt like everybody definitely understood that he was there for them and he wanted everybody to feel comfortable. I did get hit with the nerves when I got back home, though. I’m not going to lie. You’re told that you may have 10 days until you’re going to find out if you got the role or not. Being told, then and there, with the people that you wanted to get cast with is like a totally different experience and I wasn’t really expecting it. I got so distracted with being happy and being so proud of myself that I got it, and then when I got home, I woke up in the middle of the night and had to calm down. My mom wasn’t home yet because she was still at the military. My dad had to get my asthma pump. It was something, girl.
But it was a very easy process because of how easy he made it. You’re told that when you go to these auditions that they’re going to be very distant and they’re not going to want a relationship with you, and they just want you to come and do your song. But that wasn’t the case, at all. He really wanted to get to know everybody. He even came back into the little green room and say hi to everybody that was there. He was just so kind.
There’s this definite spark between Julie and Luke. How does it complicate things, to have feelings for a ghost?
REYES: As an actress, when I first got introduced to it, I was like, “Huh? He’s a ghost. She does know that, right?” When I was working with Charlie [Gillespie] for “Perfect Harmony,” I really understood why Julie might feel this way about Luke. It’s that whole liking someone for who they are on the inside, not for what they are on the outside. It’s that deeper connection that you get with somebody that you care about. And writing music with somebody, the power that music has to bring people together is very strong. You’ve seen it through the decades and the years. It happened here, as well. These two people are writing songs with each other, constantly. Me and me and Charlie realized, when we wrote our song, if they’re doing this on a daily basis, of course they’ll have feelings for each other. It’s the vulnerability that you have to have with someone to write a song and trusting that they’ll tell you whether it’s a good idea or not, and that you can believe that if you give them a good idea, they’ll take it and see it through.
On the surface, I can see why their relationship is questionable but you’ll realize that the reason why she feels about him the way that she does is because he’s just so passionate for music. They have so many similarities, with his mom and hers. They know what it feels like to have that experience. It’s definitely a very cute relationship. I’m a Juke fan. I will run with it to the end. It’s really nice.
There’s this funny element that because they’re ghosts, they can poof in and out, they can walk through walls, they can partially walk through a door, and people walk through them. What is that like to deal with on set? Does that lead to endless laughter because it just seems so ridiculous?
REYES: The poofs alone… The way we film them was that the boys would do a chest bump in the air. We’d do that one time, and then we’d do it again but that time, we’d have to lock the camera, so that nothing would be able to be moved. So, they’d poof out and have to stay still, and then they would cut. And then, we had to do it one last time, where nobody was in the shot, at all. It was definitely funny, especially when sometimes Charlie would go a little too hard and he’d do some weird stuff. I was like, “Okay, calm down.” It was a fun experience to deal with those kinds of things because you’re excited to see how the end result is going to look, so being able to see how it turned out was really dope. All that hard work really does pay off, especially when you have to do the same scene over again, just to get those little shots.
Do you have a favorite performance number in this? Do you prefer the smaller moments when you’re trying out songs, or do you prefer the big flashy performance sequences?
REYES: I love when we got to perform, especially when we had a live crowd. We worked so hard on those songs, for a good month and two weeks, so being able to actually perform like a band was a whole new and different experience. I definitely did like those better than the little ones when we were trying things out. Those were cuter, deeper and more sentimental because they’re important moments in the show. But being able to actually perform live with a live crowd was a whole different experience. Being able to perform was a lot of fun. If I had to pick a song besides a band song, it would be “I’ve Got the Music” because I worked so hard on that. I had to learn choreo in between takes and in between school. I was so nervous that I wasn’t going to be able to learn the whole dance but I ended up doing it, and it was a lot of fun. Being able to walk around with all that stuff, it was a little hot but I looked so cool. I really felt like I was in High School Musical and I was like dancing in the halls. Also, being able to work with Jadah [Marie] on that, we had such a good relationship and it really just made us feel like the best of friends. We got to come up with like our own choreo and add our own things to make it unique to us.
This season ends on a couple of big cliffhangers, with Julie and the guys actually being able to feel each other, and then Caleb taking over Nick’s body. What did you think of the ending? What was your reaction? Did you immediately have a ton of questions?
REYES: There’s a lot. As a fan of the show, I’m like, “I want this to happen. I want to learn more about this relationship.” The thing I’m hoping for, if we get a Season 2, is learning more about Alex and Reggie. Their characters are just so sweet and cute, and I just feel like I definitely want to learn more about their backgrounds. We touched upon on Luke’s, and we know a little about how Julie and her mom’s relationship was. I just want to expand more on the characters.
But I was excited to see if the boys’ powers evolve. Caleb can control so much and do all these cool things. I’m excited to see if the boys’ powers will also grow like that, as well. That’s some of the things that I’m looking forward to. The love triangle that’s already happening between Luke and Nick and Julie, I’m excited to see where that goes, especially with what happened with Nick and Caleb. I’m excited to see if maybe I get to work with Cheyenne [Jackson], if they’re going to have an interaction. There are a lot of things that we could do for Season 2. We could go down a lot of paths and I’m excited to see what our writers choose, if we do get picked up for Season 2.
What was this whole experience like for you? As someone so young, what’s it like to lead a show where you’re playing the title character, fronting a band, going on this big emotional family journey, and exploring a bit of a romance?
REYES: It was a dream. I talk about this experience as if it was an acting gig but I feel like I was myself, the whole entire time. I was just living. The moments that we had on set were so much fun. When Jadah came out to Vancouver for the first time and Savannah [Lee May] got cast and all of these people started joining the group, it was so much fun. You could watch this family grow.
It used to be me and the boys, and then my dad, Kenny and the writers, so when we got to Jadah, Sacha [Carlson], Savannah and everybody else, it really just made everything feel so much better. Not that we didn’t enjoy our own time together but watching our family grow was definitely nice. That’s what we are, we’re family. We spent a lot of holidays together, out in Vancouver. When we weren’t on set, we were probably doing something off set, as well. It’s definitely a blessing. It’s a dream come true working with Kenny and the boys and everybody. I really did love it and I hope I get to do it again. It was just such an amazing process. I feel like we’re a band first, and then we’re actors and actresses. You can definitely see the real Madison and Charlie and Jeremy and Owen and Savannah and everybody when you see our characters. It’s crazy to see how so alike we are to them. Kenny cast everybody so greatly. It was a lot of fun.
Julie and the Phantoms is available to stream at Netflix.
Christina Radish is a Senior Reporter of Film, TV, and Theme Parks for Collider. You can follow her on Twitter @ChristinaRadish.