Jesse Ashton

Frankie Rodriguez is making queer Disney history.

13 years after the wildly successful first High School Musical movie debuted on the Disney Channel, a brand new TV series both continuing and paying homage to the legacy of the iconic musical has been released for the house of mouse’s new Disney+ streaming service.

While the original movie featured a character most viewers assumed was gay (Lucas Grabeel’s Ryan Evans), this new show marks the first time the franchise has featured an out and proud LGBTQ character who’s allowed to be, and say, who they are. Lead character Nini even has two moms. For a company that’s been heavily criticised for its lack of diversity in the past, it’s a huge moment.

“I’m excited that we’re not tackling this in the last episode, we’re going head on,” Frankie, who plays out teen choreographer Carlos on the show, tells us. “And what I love is that it’s not the focus of the character, you know? I think by allowing the character to be openly gay, it actually kinda adds more layers to be like, ‘Okay, he’s openly gay, but what are his dreams? What are his goals? What is he gonna do to get there?’ It became more about his aspirations for life rather than his sexuality.”

As the series makes its debut on Disney+ this week, we spoke to Frankie about the lasting impact of the High School Musical franchise, why he believes Disney are committed to bettering their LGBTQ representation, and how important it is for him to be a visible queer Latino on screen.

Can you tell us a little bit about your character Carlos?
So I play Carlos, he’s the student choreographer of the production of the show within the show, and he kinda just has his eyes set on Broadway and in the meantime he just has to go to high school.

Did you see yourself in the character when you got the script?
Oh, like one hundred and fifty per cent. They sent the script over and I remember reading it like, ‘Oh, I definitely think I can do this’. Mainly because I was drawing on so many of my own high school experiences. I think I am Carlos, basically.

Were you a fan of the original High School Musical movies before you took the role?
Oh for sure, I was a big High School Musical fan, I grew up with the movies. And now that I’m on the show I’ve rewatched them about a million times.

Do you feel a sense of pressure to represent such a beloved franchise?
Ever so slightly. Obviously when you hear that there’s a reboot of something you’re actually a fan of, you can kind of get a little apprehensive about it, but I think once we finally got the script and learned what world we were going to be in, it just made sense. I hope fans of the original franchise love it. I think they will! A lot of the built-in fanbase who have reached out already, they actually seem so young, so I’m kinda like, ‘Were you even born when the original movie was made!?’ [Laughs] And then a lot of people from my generation seem excited, too. There’s a lot of nods to the original movie, but also allowing us to tell a completely new story with brand new characters. It’s familiar, but new at the same time.

One thing people loved about the movies was how camp they were, and from what I’ve seen so far, the show seems like it’s following suit. Can we expect more of that vibe throughout the show?
Oh for sure! I think the trailer does an amazing job of capturing what we did in 10 episodes in a minute-and-a-half, and so I’m excited that people really got excited by the trailer and understood what the show is about, because I think there was a lot of speculation as to what we were doing – and I think there still is a lot of confusion! But I think all that gets cleared up in the first episode. But yes, a lot of camp! That’s my fave.

How important do you think it is that Disney is featuring an openly gay character in one of their shows?
I think it’s very important. Obviously we saw with Andi Mack just how big of an impact it had, and so I’m excited that we’re not tackling this in the last episode, we’re going head on. And what I love is that it’s not the focus of the character, you know? I think by allowing the character to be openly gay, it actually kinda adds more layers to be like, ‘Okay, he’s openly gay, but what are his dreams? What are his goals? What is he gonna do to get there?’ It became more about his aspirations for life rather than his sexuality. 

When Andi Mack’s coming out scene was broadcast, it was a huge moment, but it did also face some backlash from conservative parents. Is that something you’re worried about with this show?
I was worried for a split second, I remember talking to one of our executive producers and I said, ‘Should I expect a backlash? Should we be preparing for that?’ And she just looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Frankie, moms protested the movie Peter Rabbit because the kid had allergies, so we can’t focus on that. For every five people that are gonna hate our show, there’s gonna be 95 people who love it. Those are the people we need to focus on’. And ever since that short conversation I was like, ‘Oh yeah, you’re right!’

I guess it’s inevitable that there will be some backlash. For any parents out there who think this show isn’t appropriate for kids, what would your message be for them?
You know what? It just really makes me sad, because that kind of thing really puts into focus where our priorities are, and it just makes no sense to me how they could make a big deal about a boy holding another boy’s hand, when there are so many other shows where a boy kisses a girl, and it’s like… why aren’t we making a big deal about that? If you’re going to make it a big deal in one show, make it a big deal for every show. I don’t know. I think I’m just part of this new generation who finds it really hard to understand where they’re coming from. That would hurt my feelings if there was some kid somewhere who wasn’t allowed to watch our show over one small thing that’s not even pivotal to our plot.

There probably will be children out there in a conservative area of America who will watch this show and will be inspired by your character. Is that something you’ve thought about yet?
Oh my gosh, one hundred per cent. Growing up there wasn’t a lot that I was able to watch on television that I could identify with, it wasn’t really until Will & Grace that I saw gay men on television just living their lives, and I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, they’re normal just like everybody else’. And I just love what the creative team did with Carlos, they really focused on him as a person, and that’s what I love. So if someone can watch it and see Carlos living one hundred and fifty per cent as himself, and if it gives them courage to do the same, of course I will be over the moon.

We spoke to Vanessa Hudgens earlier this year and she told us she thinks Ryan from the original High School Musical movie was probably gay. Would you agree with that?
[Laughs] I don’t know! You never want to speculate. It was never addressed so… I don’t know.

I think a lot of people did assume he was gay even though it was never mentioned in the movies, but now all these years later we have a character in the same franchise who’s able to be openly gay on screen. That feels pretty incredible.
Oh my gosh, yes! It’s been a good 13 years, and even then the progress seems like a footstep, but I think that Disney is making such a good… I don’t know, you can just see the strides they’re taking and the excitement while they’re doing it, you know? It’s not like, ‘We’re gonna do it once and that’s that’, they really do have our backs with this, and I’m so excited.

In the past Disney has faced criticism for its lack of LGBTQ representation, but it feels like they’re trying to make up for that now.
I don’t think it’s just Disney, every network understands the need for it now, and I think everyone’s trying to figure out how to navigate that. And I don’t think that’s just with LGBTQ storylines, I think it’s with diversity in general, like adding people of colour and adding people with disabilities. That’s what our world looks like and so that’s how it should be represented on screen. I do think it’s kind of tricky to get that right. But what I would love to see is that it’s never just a stereotype, and it’s never just for comedic relief. Nini, one of the lead characters on the show, she has two moms, and it’s shown in such a loving way, her family is just like every other family. I don’t like to say we’re normalising it, because there’s nothing wrong with it and it already is normal, but it’s important to see it more often so that people who aren’t familiar with it get familiar with it.

We’re getting to a point now where it is becoming more common to see more diversity and representation on screen. Why, in your opinion, has it taken so long to get to this point?
Oh how interesting, someone literally asked me this yesterday and I just didn’t have a clear answer. I think it’s a mixture of everything. As a gay artist, I think it’s important to also support other gay artists, and as a Latino it’s important to show support for Latino work on television, so it’s a helping hand kind of thing. We all need to help each other out to get to the point where anyone anywhere can watch something and see themselves on screen.

As you just mentioned, you’re bringing both Latino and LGBTQ representation to the screen. How important do you think that is?
It’s just kind of crazy, because as an actor you’re just constantly auditioning and then to get a role and all of a sudden have… not the pressure, but it’s like, ‘Wow, I’m on this Disney show as an openly gay Latino character!’ I wasn’t thinking about that during the audition process because I was just trying to get the work, but when I got the part and I really started getting asked these questions I started to think, ‘Well, who did I see on television that I connected with? Who did I see that looked like me?’ And there really was no one. So I’m very excited for people to meet Carlos, because even the messages I’ve gotten already from kids who have said, ‘Oh my gosh, I see myself in you’, that alone is exciting and that’s why it’s so important.

In the past a lot of gay actors have stayed closeted or forced themselves to present in a more masculine way in an attempt to get work. Do you think that is something that’s changing? Do you think the industry is becoming more open and accepting of people who are different?
I hope so! I mean, I’ve been in the entertainment industry for about five years now, and it honestly was never a question for me to hide my sexual identity, that was never a question, and I think that had a lot to do with where we are in the industry. I entered at a very exciting and inclusive time, so I do consider myself very lucky. I hope that actors are never scared to be themselves again, because we’re already pretending to be other people for a living, so why do that in our personal lives as well? I’m all about living your truth.

It’s nice to hear that you never had to hide it because a generation ago people wouldn’t have been able to say the same thing. But when there are people out there who still say being LGBTQ is wrong, that can get you down, especially for young people. How do you keep going in the face of that?
I don’t know how true this is, but on a podcast I heard that people who are very vocal on social media about things they don’t like, or people who send you hate, they actually only represent about 2% of the population, and that really put things into perspective for me. So these people who are screaming at me saying my ‘lifestyle’ is wrong, it’s actually not that many people. That shifted my whole thinking. It’s not about them, they can scream and shout all they want, but it’s not about them. It’s never really been something I’ve focused on because fortunately I don’t think I’ve been in a position where it’s been magnified yet. I’m sure it will get more intense when the show is out there. I have gotten some messages where people have told me, ‘What you’re doing is wrong’, but I’m just like, ‘Okay… I don’t know what you want me to do?’ Like, I’m not gonna stop being myself because someone else is upset by it.

It’s a shame that you have to go through that, though.
Oh, totally. But that’s just the world we’re in, and I’m thankful that I get to be a boundary pusher, I guess.

Going back to the show, what can you tell us about the new musical numbers?
Oh my goodness, I mean, it would be neat to leak a secret or something… [Laughs] Let me see. I think if you’re a fan of the original movie you’ll be pleased, every song from the movie is in our show for the most part, it gets a nice highlight or something. I’m actually not in any of the numbers really, but I would show up to filming and to see what they did while paying tribute to the original movie, it’s pretty exciting. I think the fans are gonna have their minds blown.

My final question to wrap this up – what do you hope viewers can take away from both the show and your character?
I hope that viewers can take away that being yourself really will get you so much further than trying to be somebody else, and I think that can spread across literally anything. Also, take some chances! I’m definitely the kind of person where if I make a decision I think of the end result, but I’ve realised it’s okay to make mistakes, that’s just part of the process. Take a chance, and if it doesn’t work out it doesn’t work out, and if it does, that’s great, and you’ll be doing that for the rest of your life, so why not start now?

High School Musical: The Musical: The Series is available to stream on Disney+ now.

Photography Jesse Ashton
Words Daniel Megarry