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Kenny Ortega has done it again. The legendary filmmaker and choreographer behind the musical hit franchises High School Musical and Descendants just released a new TV series, Julie and the Phantoms, and this time he went even further to produce your new favorite musical obsession. Because the stars behind Julie and the Phantoms are more than just actors singing songs onscreen — they're actually a real band.
The new Netflix series, based on the Brazilian series Julie e os Fantasmas, stars Madison Reyes as 15-year-old Julie, a talented singer who lost her passion for music after her mother died. But when she discovers the three ghosts of Luke (Charlie Gillespie), Alex (Owen Joyner), and Reggie (Jeremy Shada), teenage rock stars who died in 1995 right before they were about to hit it big (all thanks to some bad hot dogs, natch), they decide to form a band. Luke, Alex, and Reggie help Julie rediscover her love of music while Julie gives the guys an opportunity to achieve the fame they were robbed of when they died, because the world can only see and hear them while they're playing with Julie.
The nine-episode first season is sweet, feel-good fun with surprising emotional depth. But it's the music that sets Julie and the Phantoms apart from Ortega's other hit franchises. For the first time, the songs take on a life of their own. From the big room pop anthems "Wake Up" and "Bright" to edgy pop rock/punk hits like "Now or Never" to swelling ballads like "Unsaid Emily," every song feels like something you could hear on the radio or see performed at stadium concerts. And that's exactly what Ortega set out to do from the start. "I wanted to find a cast that could be a band. And then I wanted to have music developed for them with their input," Ortega tells EW. "And so all of that happened. We found these incredible kids that just connected in spirit and had this great chemistry and shared a love of music and enthusiasm from the first time they plugged in live in their final audition."
The producer knew that Julie and the Phantoms would live and die on the shoulders of the four stars, so they had to find not only the right actors for each specific role, but also four musicians who would become a band in real life. "The whole process that put us into the studio to record the soundtrack and then to bring it to life on camera was just all about really finding those magical four kids," Ortega says. "And from the very time we pitched this for Netflix, it was never just a series. I see this as a series that has an album, that is a band that can tour, and that can take on a multitude of lives." Ortega then begins to tear up as he thinks back on the long road to finding the stars and watching them become the band he always envisioned. "We’ve worked so hard to make that real," he says, wiping his eyes. "I can’t tell you how much love and effort we’ve put into this."
Making the band
With a band (and series) called Julie and the Phantoms, Ortega knew he needed to find the perfect teen to play Julie, and he had a good idea of who he was looking for. "First of all and most importantly I wanted a Latinx leading lady, that was really important at this time of my life," he says. "And then what I was looking for in finding a Julie was a Julie from the block. I didn't want a glossy, over-experienced actress. I wanted someone who was authentic and relatable, but then also had an instinct, and that was smart, and then a voice, of course."
As for the three guys from the fictional 1995 punk rock band Sunset Curve who would posthumously become a band with Julie 25 years later, Ortega wanted three stars "who could deliver the humor and the heart," because they "had written with ambition" when it came to the story. "Charlie and Owen and Jeremy, these guys can deliver the humor and the emotion of our story, but they can also plug in and play and deliver the vocals," Ortega adds. "I expected these four kids to be able to really do it all. And they do."
But the process to find all four stars was painstaking, even for someone like Shada who was in a real band, Make Out Monday, prior to landing the Netflix series. "The audition process was pretty intense," the actor, who plays girl-crazy and goofy bassist Reggie, tells EW. "We had to do an a capella song in our first audition, as well as playing the instrument for our character so for me it was singing and playing bass, and then doing the acting scenes."
Joyner, who plays emotional drummer Alex, is no stranger to the demanding schedule of being a musician on top of an actor in a TV series, having come from the world of Nickelodeon and laughs about his history being in a "prom band" touring school dances when he was 12. But auditioning for Julie and the Phantoms was unlike anything he'd ever experienced before. "It was terrifying," he tells EW. "I was in L.A. and I actually flew home to my drum set and just crash coursed it for a week, playing every day. I remember looking down and my finger was bleeding – there was blood dripping off my drum stick because I had been playing for so long."
Despite all that prep work, disaster struck. "I completely bombed my audition," Joyner admits. "I sang 'Sunday Morning' by Maroon 5 and I forgot all the lyrics, I forgot the key I was supposed to be in. It was so bad, and so embarrassing. When I left the room I told Kenny, 'If you bring me back I’ll learn my lyrics, I promise.'"
Gillespie, a huge High School Musical fan, auditioned with songs by Shawn Mendes and Backstreet Boys. "I'm more of an acoustic guitar player but I knew Luke was supposed to be more electric," he tells EW. So all throughout the month-long audition process, he rented an electric guitar and practiced at open mic nights six to eight times a week all over Los Angeles. "People were at a Julie and the Phantoms concert before they even knew what that was," he jokes.
For her auditions, Reyes accompanied herself on the piano while singing "She Used to Be Mine" from the musical Waitress. "And then when I got to L.A., we had to learn two songs which were 'Bright' and 'Wake Up,'" she tells EW. "And my voice was nowhere near the peak that it’s at now, but it was so cool seeing everything evolve as the audition process went on and we found our band."
After almost a week of initial auditions, the producers narrowed it down to about seven different actors for each of the four roles. And while the actors were using demos of "Wake Up" and "Bright" during auditions, it wasn't guaranteed that the songs would actually make it into the series. But when Ortega saw Reyes, Gillespie, Joyner, and Shada auditioning, he saw something special in both them and the songs. "They made it their own," he says. "Every time we put this group together, I was feeling something that I wasn't feeling in the rest of them."
During the "mix and match" process of the auditions, Ortega and the other producers would put together different groupings to see how all the actors performed with each other. "We were matched up with so many different people during that process, but every time it was me, Owen, Jer, and Madison, we felt it from the very first moment," Gillespie says.
"There was just an instant chemistry," Shada adds. "The first time I was with Charlie and Owen, there was this brotherly bickering vibe that was perfect. And then when we had Maddie, it just sent it over the top."
Finally, Ortega couldn't deny the magic he was seeing with this foursome. "When we were all finished with every single actor, I turned to Netflix and my partners, and I said, 'Can I show you what I believe is our band?'" he says. "I went into the back and I dismissed everyone and I said, 'I'm going to look at one more audition, everyone else is free to go,' and I called up Madison, Jeremy, Charlie, and Owen. And they came out onto the stage and they huddled in a band circle. And it gave me goosebumps."
The four actors had no idea they already were Julie and the Phantoms. But they acted like it anyways. "They decided they were going to be this band, and I was feeling it," Ortega says. "And all of a sudden Madison came out of the circle and she walked up to the microphone and she said, 'Hello everybody, I'm Julie and we're Julie and the Phantoms,' and the band kicked into the song, and every camera in the room went up into the air like we were at a real concert. And I turned around and every Netflix executive and all of my creative partners, everyone in the room had their camera up and I was like, 'We are filming our future right here.' That was the moment that I knew, and that there wasn't going to be a debate, we found it, and it was clear."
Joyner remembers how that final audition felt different, even though they didn't realize how important it was in the moment. "When they brought us out one last time, and when we walked out there you just saw everyone’s phones slowly going up. And that just made me even more nervous," he says with a laugh. "It was such an anxiety-ridden time for me, my show had just gotten canceled, all my friends were going off to college, so it was this defining moment of am I really going to be an actor, am I serious about this? Can I book anything after Nickelodeon? It was huge."
"It felt like it was ours for the taking at that point," Shada adds. "Charlie put us in a band circle and Maddie was like, 'Let’s just have fun with it.' We acted like we were actually the band performing onstage. And then they told us right there that we were the band, which was insane."
Into the studio
With all four roles cast, the real work began. The stars received demos for all the songs in the first season and had to learn them before getting in the studio. "Talk about binge-listening – it was just an entire few days listening to all these demos," Gillespie says. "I was so into it that I lost my voice. I had to be on voice rest for two weeks when we started rehearsing and it was the scariest thing. When I finally got my voice back I only had like a week-and-a-half to prepare to record."
The first song the band recorded in the studio was "Bright," and Joyner really got to lean into his drum skills because the demo didn't have any real drumming in it. "I had to figure out my own thing, and that was such a cool process," he says, and Shada remembers how much freedom they were all given in making all the songs their own. "Every time we went into the recording studio we were given the chance to just mess around and have fun with things, and it was like this free flowing, not mandated to be anything," he says. "It really felt like we were a band and not just people hired to perform this music. There’s one song, 'You’ve Got Nothing to Lose,' all three of us came up with our own instrumental solos instead of those being given to us."
When it came to creating and recording each of the songs, Ortega had specific goals for each one. Like how "Now or Never," the very first song of the series, had to establish who the guys were in Sunset Curve before their death. "We wanted to make sure that from that first glimpse of them, you really felt that these guys were ready to take over the world, this was going to be the night that changed their lives," he says, adding that there's a longer version of that song he can't wait to release. And then the first time viewers hear Julie sing with "Wake Up" was equally as important to see who she was as a musician. Every single song has a unique purpose, and Ortega is proud of how the massive team of songwriters and producers he put together created the perfect album of hits for the first season.
Another way that Ortega went a step further than he's gone before with his other musical projects is making sure each of the stars worked hard to become experts on their instruments instead of pretending to play. "That was the goal: Don't hide it, make sure we see it," he says. "They all came already somewhat experienced musicians, but we also gave them mentors that could really help their singing chops and work out on their instrument with total pros. These kids felt so comfortable in the space when they were recording. They were fearless, and they really lost themselves in the work."
Joyner remembers the "boot camp" they all went through before recording the songs and filming the episodes, and Gillespie says it felt like the most immersive master class. "We worked on our instruments every day, and Kenny pushed us outside of our comfort zones a little bit more every day," Joyner says. "He really made sure we could do what we needed to do." He adds that watching Gillespie's work ethic also inspired him to give it his all. "We had like six weeks together rehearsing and honing our skills before filming and just became best friends during that time, and I think that really comes across onscreen," he says.
And all that hard work culminated in Reyes and Gillespie writing an original song, "Perfect Harmony," that impressed Ortega so much that he put it into the series. "The inspiration came from Gabriella [Vanessa Hudgens] and Troy's [Zac Efron] moment on the rooftop when it's raining in High School Musical," Reyes says. "We worked on it in all our free time."
When "Perfect Harmony" plays in the first season, it's a huge moment for Julie and Luke's relationship, so Ortega was going to hire a professional songwriter to create the song. "Me and Madison just saw the opportunity and we took it and ran and started writing in secret," Gillespie says. "Nobody knew, other than the boys. We had like 10 minutes in between our dance rehearsals and we'd run, we'd go and write, any minute that we had. We pitched it to Kenny on this really cool night and he loved it."
Ortega remembers the exact moment when Gillespie and Reyes finally clued him in to their secret project. "We were shooting on location and Madison and Charlie came over to me and said, 'Do you have a couple minutes? We want to play a song for you,'" he says. At first, he just thought his two stars were playing a cover for him just as a nice gift. "It was so beautiful but in my mind I was thinking, 'Who wrote that? Is that Shawn Mendes?'" he adds with a laugh. "They finished and I was like, 'That was gorgeous! Who wrote that?' And they looked at each other and laughed and said, 'We did. We thought maybe you might like it for our moment where we sing and dance together.' I loved it, I sent it to the studio immediately, all of our executives embraced it and the rest is history."
And "Perfect Harmony" isn't the only original song created by the real-life Julie and the Phantoms. "Now that the kids have gone into band camp, they have written five songs along with songwriting mentors for a potential season 2," Ortega reveals. "All the promise that I saw in them is there. They’re songwriters, they’re actors, and they’re a great band."
That's what has surprised Joyner the most about the long road to get to the debut of Julie and the Phantoms season 1. "It’s actually us playing these songs, as a band," he says. "We’re not just actors anymore, we are a band. Even my friends and family didn’t really understand how much work we put in, all those months before we even started filming."
And now that season 1 is streaming on Netflix, Ortega is excited as he looks to the future of what this series and band can become. "We haven’t even really explored the voice of Owen or Jeremy. Every one of these kids has a major voice," he says. "Now they’re writing material for themselves, and this was the dream, what I wanted Julie and the Phantoms to be. We all have high hopes that if the world shows up and asks for it that we can come back and do it again, and beyond that take this out and tour when the world is safe again, and share this in a live experience with our fans."