Some people pique in high school. Tim Federle never seemed to leave it.
The California native first enjoyed a successful career as a Broadway dancer in shows like The Little Mermaid and Gypsy before acquiescing to literature. He burst onto the literary scene with his novel Better Late Than Never, which earned him a nomination for the Lambda Literary Prize–the highest award for queer-themed literature. Federle topped the feat with the book’s sequel Five, Six, Seven, Nate in 2014, which took home the Lambda Literary Prize for Best Young Adult Novel.
His work as an author helped him gain notice in Hollywood, where he took a job as a writer on the animated feature Ferdinand. The film went on to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature, and helped Federle land his most recent job as head writer & showrunner of the Disney+ series High School Musical: The Musical – The Series, a mockumentary comedy about fans of the High School Musical movie series. The show is noteworthy for including an out gay teenager, who even finds romance at his high school.
Queerty snagged a few minutes with Federle to talk about the show, his career, integrating gay characters in a Disney series, and his future plans. High School Musical: The Musical – The Series streams on Disney+, with new episodes every Friday.
I can tell the series fits so well with your bibliography, in that it’s about young adults. How did the job come to you?
Disney was interested in finding a new way into the High School Musical universe. I’d just had some success in co-writing the animated Ferdinand screenplay, and I had this Broadway background as a dancer, so I was lucky enough to be a writer that Disney took a meeting with. My pitch for the show was The Office meets Glee, and they bought it.
That’s great. I have to say, the series shocked and delighted me with how iconoclastic and subversive it is. Rather than deify the original High School Musical—though it does do so to some degree—it subverts itself in a kind of postmodern way. It’s also damn funny. Was the concept—a Modern Family-style mockumentary about fans of the original movie at the high school where it was filmed—yours?
Yes! Right from beginning, I wanted to poke fun but never make fun at the original movie trilogy. Disney embraced that irreverence and let me flex a few mockumentary muscles in the making of our show.
The show is also notable for including Carlos (played by Frankie Rodriguez) as an out-gay high school student. Had you always wanted to include a gay character?
I grew up a theater kid, I’m gay, and I don’t think you can do a show about the performing arts without including an element of LGBTQ life. Carlos is the student choreographer of the show and felt like the perfect character to capture that spirit.
Was Disney on board right away, or did they require some convincing?
Literally on board from the first pitch meeting and never batted an eye about including characters with a range of identities.
Wow. So what about in terms of giving him a love interest? Was everyone comfortable with that?
I think Disney knows we’re making the show for a modern audience, and on a new streaming platform that’s announcing itself as taking big swings. The idea of Carlos getting a love interest (the way so many of his straight counterparts in the show have) was never an issue and was fully embraced by my creative executives.
Carlos, as a character, is groundbreaking, in that he’s an out-gay kid on a Disney show who is allowed to date. That said, he’s also quite stereotypical—femme, skinny, and a choreographer. Why make him the stereotype, and did you hesitate at all in doing so?
To be honest, in casting Frankie A. Rodriguez, who is himself an out gay man, I wanted to lean into the authenticity and energy that Frankie brings to the role and to his everyday life. That he is both out and also Latinx felt like a character I’d rarely, if ever, seen onscreen before.
You, of course, have made a career out of young adult stories, with the “Nate” series, now this. What is it about writing young adults as characters that so fascinates you?
My school years were hard for me; all I wanted was to get out, be out, and live in New York. I think a lot of my writing comes from wanting to heal old wounds from a time when I felt chosen last for everything. As a creative person, the blessing is being able to turn the challenging moments from your life into plot points.
In order to be authentic in writing stories about high school or adolescence, I think a writer needs to acknowledge just how painful a time it is to live through. That said, it also can’t be too dark or the world just deems it “adult.” How do you strike a balance?
I think there’s a lot of “teen television” that goes deep and dark into the pain of adolescence. At the end of the day, my show is called High School Musical: the Musical: The Series. While we’re always trying to surprise people with just how “real” we can be, I also know people are tuning into the show as an escape, and I want to give them that experience. When it comes to the LGBTQ characters in the show, I don’t want to use their identities as a plot twist or a “tragic coming out” arc. Those stories are important to see—but if we want to change the conversation around gay identity, we also need to see characters who just are gay, already, and don’t have a problem with it. And in fact, embrace it.
What hints can you drop about the rest of the season?
New episodes come out every Friday at midnight.
What’s next for you?
Currently writing the second season of the show, thank goodness. And then, in about five years, I plan to sleep for a week.
High School Musical: The Musical – The Series streams on Disney+, with new episodes every Friday.