Frankie A. Rodriguez stars as student choreographer Carlos Rodriguez in the made-in-Utah show “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.” His character is talented. He’s driven. He’s already written his Tony acceptance speech. He’s a teenager who, in Season 1, experiences first love.
And, oh yeah, he’s gay. Which was clear from the first episode, skipping the done-to-death trope of TV characters struggling with their sexuality.
Executive producer Tim Federle wanted to take a “true to life” approach, Rodriguez said. “And he said, ‘Where we are right now is — we don’t really need a big coming-out episode. What if he just is already? He’s already accepted.’
“And I feel like by addressing that early on, we got to really figure out who Carlos is. What are his interests? What are his goals? What does he want to be when he grows up? It became more about his aspirations and less about his sexuality.”
Rodriguez, 23, is back in Salt Lake City for production on Season 2 of “HSM:TM:TS,” which is expected to start streaming on Disney+ toward the end of this year. Rodriguez can relate to Carlos’ storyline — he came out when he was 15, and there was no great drama involved. His family and friends were supportive. He just … was already.
Rodriguez is the first openly gay actor in “High School Musical,” and Carlos — one of 10 first-season regular characters — is the first openly gay regular in the franchise. So while the show is not about gay kids, the school is portrayed as a place where a gay kid is safe and accepted.
“The arts saved my life when I was a kid,” said Federle, who also is openly gay. “I had a theater teacher who said, ‘You’re basically different than the other boys. And if you can just get through school till 2 p.m. every day, I have a theater class for you.”
But unlike Cyrus, Carlos is out from the get-go. He’s a focus of Episode 5, “Homecoming,” when he asks Seb (Joe Serafini) to be his date at the school dance. Carlos, who thinks he’s been stood up, takes center stage in a dance number. And when Seb arrives (after an unavoidable delay), they dance together in the midst of all the other couples.
Rodriguez said the response to that episode was “overwhelming” and “completely positive,” but it didn’t come from the people he expected would react.
“There was a flood of messages that were, like, ‘Wow, this is great. I feel seen. You’re telling my story,’” he said. “But it was mainly from adults who reached out and said, ‘If I would have seen this when I was in high school, I would have felt a lot less alone.’
“That’s what kind of threw me for a loop. I was like — wow, adults are actually watching this,” he said with a laugh. “For kids, it wasn’t as big a deal because being gay isn’t a big deal.”
The importance of feeling seen
Advocates for ethnic, sexual orientation and gender minorities have long preached about the importance of representation on television, saying it’s vital for young people to see characters like them.
Rodriguez can tell you that’s true, because he lived it. Watching the 2006-10 series “Ugly Betty” — which premiered when he was 10 — at a friend’s house changed his life. Betty’s young nephew, Justin (Mark Indelicato), was both Hispanic and gay.
“I was, like, ‘Oh my gosh! He not only acts like me, but he kind of looks like me,’” Rodriguez said. “And I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen myself on television. Ever. If he can do it, then clearly there’s other roles.’ That was the first time I thought that I could also be on television.
“I think it is very important that kids can see themselves represented on screen. It makes a difference.”
Now Rodriguez is making a difference for young viewers. “I’ve gotten direct messages on Instagram from kids saying, ‘Carlos being himself gave me confidence to be myself,’” he said. “And that’s more than you can ask for as an actor.”
‘In on the joke’
Carlos (and the actor who plays him) gets a big laugh in the first episode of the series. “I’ve seen the original ‘High School Musical’ 397 times,” Carlos says, “and the first 15 minutes of both sequels.”
But that wasn’t the first joke in the show. The title — which has caused some consternation — is meant to indicate that the show has a sense of humor about itself. “That’s what I love about the show — we’re all in on the joke and we’re all winking at the camera,” Rodriguez said.
The series is a faux documentary in the style of “Modern Family” and “The Office.” Characters often speak directly to the camera of an unseen film crew recording them as they rehearse and perform the school musical — and all the personal drama/comedy that surrounds the production.
The movies and the series are all filmed at Salt Lake City’s East High School, although in the movies the school was portrayed as located in Albuquerque. “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” is set in Utah, and the kids are (supposedly) Salt Lakers who go to the high school where the movies were filmed.
And Rodriguez loves the title. “People get mad — especially on Twitter, they’re like, ‘Why is this name so long?’” he said. “It’s just funny. I can’t explain the joke to you. Then it’s not funny anymore.”
But he did find one Season 1 scene rather intimidating — the big dance scene he’s at the center of in the “Homecoming” episode.
“I don’t count myself as a dancer at all. And I made that very clear in my audition,” Rodriguez said with a laugh. “And for some reason, they still gave me the job.”
He credits the fact that he looks good dancing to choreographer Zac Woodlee (“Glee”). “I still always feel challenged, but never uncomfortable,” Rodriguez said.
Google, does Salt Lake City have a mall?
When Rodriguez was cast, he was “beyond excited.” He was also a little bit worried about spending several months at a time in Salt Lake City during production.
“The first thing I Googled — this is terrible — was to see if Salt Lake City had a mall,” he said with a laugh. “Because I thought if they have a movie theater and a mall, I’d be fine. And luckily, it came with a lot more.”
Rodriguez, who grew up in California’s Central Valley and lives in Los Angeles, admits he didn’t know much about Utah’s capital city. “I thought it was going to be more small town than it actually is,” he said. “But, yeah, I like it here.”
Well, except for the cold. He is a Californian, and wasn’t exactly thrilled when told during an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune that the temperature outside was in the 20s.
“Oh, I haven’t gone outside yet [today]. Maybe I won’t do that,” he said with a laugh.
Rodriguez had a tie to Utah he didn’t know anything about. When he was a senior in high school, he directed the school musical production of “Footloose” — based on the 1984 movie that was filmed in Utah.
“Really? I didn’t know that,” he said. (The movie was released a dozen years before he was born.) “I might have to go take a trip” to Lehi Roller Mills, where Kevin Bacon danced gymnastically. (Well, mostly Bacon’s double.)
He said he can’t remember if his high school drama teacher offered to let him direct “Footloose,” or if he “just begged. I feel like I might have begged that we do a musical. And she said, ‘Well, if you want to take it on, go for it.’”
Which is yet another time his real life foreshadowed his role. “Oh, 100%. That’s definitely Carlos,” Rodriguez said.
‘I’m such a Disney nerd’
Rodriguez isn’t just on Disney+, he’s “such a Disney nerd,” he said. “I’m literally drinking out of a Mickey Mouse coffee mug right now, if that tells you anything.”
He grew up with Disney music, he said. “I had every single Disney soundtrack. I think it’s just because it’s very theatrical,” he said. “Those movies, like ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘Aladdin,’ they’re set up like musicals. And I love all things Broadway.”
So the news that Season 2 of “HSM:TM:TS” would feature the cast mounting a production of “Beauty and the Beast” was “magical” for him.
“I’m excited, because ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is very Broadway, but it’s also very Disney,” he said. “And I know they’re going to just do something crazy with it.”
‘So proud of the show’
Rodriguez is a TV star who didn’t grow up watching TV — because his parents didn’t have one. “It was never a weird thing for me,” he said. “My family is very big on music, so that was like our source of entertainment.”
He was allowed to watch TV at other people’s houses, he just couldn’t watch it at home. So he often heard about shows before he had a chance to see them.
“I remember my cousin, who was totally into sports — that was his thing — telling me, ‘Have you seen “High School Musical”? Oh, my gosh, they do this basketball number. It’s crazy. It’s so cool. You’re gonna love it,’” Rodriguez said. “And I was thinking, ‘Whoa! He’s talking about a musical.’”
Rodriguez summed up his own reaction to the first “High School Musical” movie in one word: “Wow!” He played the soundtrack “over and over until the CD was, like, dead.”
So when he got an email about an audition for “HSM:TM:TS,” he said, “I didn’t read the breakdown. I didn’t even read anything. I just responded immediately — ‘Yes, I will be there.’”
Once he got to read the first script, “I knew immediately that it was going to be something great,” Rodriguez said. “The concept alone was so different, but yet it was the perfect way to bring the franchise back. So I was on board from the first day.
“And then after we saw the first episode for the first time, I remember thinking, ‘How are they letting me play with them? They’re the cool kids. And for some reason, they’ve invited me to sit at their table.’
“I love the show. I’m such a fan. It sounds weird to say because I’m in it, but I’m so proud of the show.”