Fairy Tale

Frankie Rodriguez & Joe Serafini on gaying Disney in ‘High School Musical: The Musical: The Series’

HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL: THE MUSICAL: THE SERIES – “The Quinceanero” (Disney/Fred Hayes)
JOE SERAFINI, FRANKIE A. RODRIGUEZ

School is back in session, and gay love is in the air.

High School Musical: The Musical: The Series returns to Disney+ May 14, bringing with it the show’s breakout queer couple, Seb & Carlos (played by Joe Serafini and Frankie Rodriguez, respectively). Last season saw an awkward, teenage flirtation blossom into newfound affection. Season 2 of the show finds the boys about to kick off a new musical production at school (no, we can’t reveal the title here), and wrestling with some of the woes any high school relationship faces.

For Rodriguez & Serafini, landing the roles of the most prominent gay couple on Disney+ represents just another step in two already intriguing careers. Rodriguez grew up in Central California before kicking off his acting career, making his debut in the popular digital series I’m Fine. Roles on Modern Family and This Close followed before he landed the part of Carlos, the resident choreographer at East High School. Serafini grew up crooning on the stage of the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, landing parts in city productions of Peter Pan, Oliver!, The Music Man and Anything Goes. A stint on the local kids’ show Scientastic! marked Serafini’s debut in front of the camera before he scored the role of Seb, one of the stars of the series’ fictional musicals.

We snagged time with Rodriguez & Serafini to chat about the show, the pressures of playing a gay couple for Disney and what to expect from the new season. High School Musical: The Musical: The Series returns to Disney+ May 14.

So how happy do you feel getting back into production after all this COVID crazy?

FR: It’s definitely weird. It was an unexpected hiatus, and I was feeling freaked out by everything happening in the world. I’m happy that I have something I can go back to. It was a little bit different this season with COVID protocols, but it was great to see much of it was still the same.

JS: I mean, I think the pandemic put a lot of things in perspective for a lot of us in so many ways. I think just to go back to work and be back together, even with masks on and keeping your distance, it was really special to just be there to support each other and work on something bigger than all of us.

Last season, Carlos & Seb began a relationship. That might be the first gay relationship in the history of Disney+. Tell me about the responsibility of that? What kind of pride does it give you? What kind of anxiety?

JS: I think I always stress myself out more than I need to. But yeah, we have a responsibility to the community to tell these stories as authentically and interestingly as we can. Really, we just try to be honest in our storytelling and not make it such a big deal. I think that’s what makes it so beautiful: it’s just another relationship on the show. It’s not like a conflict.

FR: No pressure at all!

[Laughter]

It’s crazy. It’s not something I ever thought I would do, especially on Disney+. But I’m happy to be—it sounds so weird to be “trailblazing.” But it’s great to be the kind of representation I didn’t get to see growing up. It’s great to have an outpouring of support coming in from the new generation and also adults. Everyone has been super excited and supportive. It’s nice.

Carlos & Seb, for all their own anxieties, seem to be a bit more put together than the rest of the characters. Do you see them as being islands of sanity in a sea of teenage crazy? You’re almost like the straight men to the mess of other students. Pardon the expression.

[Laughter]

FR: It’s definitely funny that Seb & Carlos are the most stable and healthy of all the relationships. It’s fun though.

JS: I would say yes, they are more stable than the rest. Though they have their problems too. You’ll see.

We’ll have to talk more about that in a second. Though, I’m sure if you say the wrong thing, Disney will send masked men to all our homes.

[Laugther]

You’re both 20-somethings working on a big production, which is kind of like the drama club your characters live through. What’s life like for you? How do you balance the show with studying and having a personal life?

FR: I think the biggest change is that we don’t film in Los Angeles. We shoot in Salt Lake City. That’s the biggest thing to get used to: you get pulled away from everything and dropped into this foreign place. For me, it’s kind of nice, as an actor, to work to have a job. So to have something that’s stable, to get to leave Los Angeles—it’s a bit like summer camp. I guess the only tricky thing to navigate is being away from home. But we get by.

HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL: THE MUSICAL: THE SERIES – “The Quinceanero” (Disney/Fred Hayes)
JOE SERAFINI, FRANKIE A. RODRIGUEZ

And for you, Joe?

JS: Yeah, I was just telling someone. I just graduated college last May. So it’s been an experience figuring out what life is like without school, finding my own structure. It’s been interesting. I’ve been having a blast. Like Frankie said, just being in Salt Lake City for months at a time and just figuring out what’s going to happen after this. It isn’t too bad. We get by.

You’re both still quite young, and you’re on a show that millions of people around the world watch. How does that affect the way you live your day-to-day lives with family and friends?

FR: I will say walking around in public with a mask on has kind of helped when I don’t want to be noticed.

[Laughter]

But it is kind of freaky. It’s starting to happen more—getting recognized in public. It sort of throws me off a bit. It’s like don’t look at me, I’m a mess. But as far as everything else, we’ve been sitting at home for the last year. So I’d say it’s great for the most part.

JS: Yeah, I try to stay humble and keep my head down. I think leaning on people around us—family and friends—that helps us stay grounded or get caught up in the pressures of, ya know, being famous.

I’m sure the masks do help.

Related: Tim Federle on revisiting gay high school in ‘High School Musical: The Musical – The Series’

Watching this show…it reminded me a lot of a documentary about the kid stars of Nickelodeon’s early shows that I recently watched. Those now-adult actors talked about how surreal it is to be a kid playing a kid that is essentially going through the same things on a show they’re going through in real life. Do you ever find yourselves thinking about that—that you identify so closely with your characters?

FR: I don’t know. Everyone else says “If I could just go back to high school.” Which is something I would never want to do. But I’m glad I get to do it again in a fun, safe environment. I think the perspective it offers is that as much as you think you’re going through things alone, almost everybody else is going through something similar.

JS: I would say in high school, growing up, I was not really out. I wasn’t even really sure what I identified as. It was such a journey. With Seb being out, proud, and ready to go audition for Sharpay [a female role played in the film by Ashley Tisdale], that’s been really interesting and honestly, teaching me to be proud of who you are.

What can you tease for us in the rest of the season? Do the boys get a love duet?

FR: You’re gonna get us fired.

[Laughter]

It’s all done in the sweetest way possible, but there’s a lot of stuff coming up I’m excited for fans to see, especially for the fans who have been so vocal and supportive of our characters. I think there’s going to be a fun payoff.

JS: I agree. Everything he said is good.

High School Musical: The Musical: The Series returns to Disney+ May 14.