Most of us grew up watching classic film series like High School Musical and Descendants, spending hours memorizing the lyrics to all of the songs and the choreography to all of the dances, wishing that we could be our favorite characters. Madison Reyes, a 16-year-old from Brooklyn, currently living in Pennsylvania, is living out childhood dreams. As the lead of Kenny Ortega’s new Netflix show Julie and the Phantoms, Reyes combines her passion for music and acting to portray the role of Julie in the show. The series follows Julie, a teenage girl, as she rediscovers her passion for music with the help of three ghostly guys known together as the Phantoms. As a young Latina lead on a Netflix show, Reyes is paving the way for more young Latinx artists and musicians to come in the entertainment industry.
You submitted a videotape for Julie and the Phantoms—what drew you to the show and what led you to send that tape in? What was it about the show that appealed to you as an actress?
My uncle actually did some research after I got a callback and found out that it was a reboot of an original show. When it came to doing the self-tape it was just doing some more research on the role and understanding what the show was about. I had been looking for that kind of [role] that I could play and be myself, and Julie was that person for me. She was Latin American, she was 15-years-old, she had a passion for music and piano, everything just kind of felt right. I had just started learning piano at the time, I always loved singing and wanted to have a High School Musical experience where you get to act and also perform, and that was Julie and the Phantoms.
I imagine like many other Gen Z you grew up watching High School Musical and the Descendants movies. Personally, Kenny Ortega was an icon growing up. What was it like working with him?
High School Musical, Vanessa Hudgens, is kind of my inspiration for why I even got into acting and wanted to go to an art school. I always enjoyed that aspect of being able to perform and have that interaction with fans and an audience in that way. But Kenny is so nice! I guess you would think with his legacy and reputation and all the amazing things that he has done that he would be intimidating, but he is so chill. He is there for the moment and has so many amazing stories to tell, and honestly, I could sit there and have him tell me every single one of them. He has such an amazing heart!
You have such an amazing voice and are so talented! When did you start playing the piano and is music something you have always done?
I used to play the violin and then I stopped. Getting into piano and guitar was something I always wanted to do, but I knew it would be expensive. I was the kind of kid that knew that “oh, mom and dad are going to have to pay for this so maybe we should just hold off,” so a lot of the things I got into were free and reasonable so we didn’t have to spend that much money. Especially once I started going to art school and I had to pay for lunch now, I kind of knew that had to be a priority. After the New Year, I got into the piano, and the good thing was that I already knew how to read notes. Teaching myself how to play was pretty easy, and It worked out so well with the audition because luckily I had a song prepared and knew how to play the piano!
Do you write some of your own music? What do you love most about music?
So far the only song I have written professionally is “Perfect Harmony” that [Charlie and I] wrote for the show. I definitely mess around here and there and try to stay in the groove of writing songs. Hopefully, we get picked up for a second season and we will be able to write some songs as a band because after having that experience with Charlie, we want to have the experience of writing music like a real band would!
Was the success of the show something you expected? How did you feel after getting such a positive response back from viewers?
I had no idea that we were going to surpass Hamilton like that. The fact that we even made it to #1 album overall on iTunes was incredible, and I thank the fans so much for getting us this far. We are so grateful to them. It’s crazy! You hope for it to go well, but we did not expect it to go this crazy.
Growing up, did you see yourself represented on screen? How has that representation changed from when you were little up to now?
If I sit down and think, there were definitely a lot of people out there representing people, but as a person yourself if you don’t find that person who you can truly relate with then everything else kind of fades. That is kind of how it felt for me, there were very few people who encouraged me to get into [acting]. It wasn’t until I saw Zendaya on Shake it Up where I felt I was seeing the representation that I was hoping for. She was really inspirational, and I want to follow in her footsteps. Zendaya has really taught me to be my own person. My younger sister always tells me she wants to be like me, and I always tell her that she has to be her own person. I think it is so important to encourage people to be themselves first rather than have them be you because everyone does things differently. I thank Zendaya so very much for teaching me that! I’m so thankful that I am able to be this symbol now in this new generation where we are starting to have our own voices. It is so amazing what our generation is already doing, and the fact that I get to be a part of it is very fun!
In your career so far, have you ever felt boxed in by your identity? Have you ever been told not to audition for certain roles? As a young, Latina artist what are some traditional boundaries that you hope to bend?
The school that I went to definitely did not have that much diversity in staff and in the student body. When it came to the people of color who made up the student body, I definitely felt like I was by myself. The people were incredible! My one friend Malaki, he is amazing. He is brown-skinned, so intelligent, soft-spoken and he has the biggest heart. It is hard seeing that he has so much talent but because of the roles our school offered he couldn’t be involved. Even when I found out about this role, being in a class where I was the only Latin girl, my teacher told me I couldn’t do it. I felt like it was not meant for me at all. I questioned everything, and I was actually getting ready to leave the theatre program altogether and switch to vocal or even public school because I wondered if this was the career choice for me. After talking to the people that I love and my peers, they encouraged me and told me that I could do it, and that allowed me to take the chance. I never looked back. Being able to be a voice for him and all the other friends of color I have is so important because we always talked about how badly we wished more roles existed where we could play them. It is so amazing all the things that we as people can do!
I love that young Latinas will be able to look up to you. What does it feel like to be a role model for them?
I would not necessarily call it pressure. Especially at this time, I just want to make sure that I can keep everyone positive and that is where I can’t necessarily help everyone. I have to know that I won’t be able to meet everyone and I won’t be able to see everyone’s posts even if I try to meet that expectation that I set for myself. I have to realize that is okay, too. I don’t have to always be 100% on it! I can still take the time for myself and be a normal teenager who is at school and has things she wants to do as a normal teenager but can’t because of the situation I am in, which I am so grateful for, but I do not want to lose myself in trying to make everybody happy because I know people want me to still take care of myself. It is okay for me to not always be on social media and to take days off.
Any last messages to your fans, or any advice you might have for those that look up to you?
There’s going to be a lot of nos. I have definitely realized after this process that there is going to be a lot of nos, but it is all going to lead to something really amazing and great. It could be a small thing like passing a test or getting a role on a Netflix TV show, but you have to keep going. And this is coming from a person who understands that it is easy to get caught up in the negative and get lost in the gloom of the world, but it just takes going through it to get to the good. Keep pushing!
STORY ANA SANDOVAL
PHOTOS MADISON REYES
HAIR & MAKEUP BRENNA DRURY
STYLIST AMANDA LIM