Olivia Rodrigio: Rising Under Pressure
Photographer: Jasmine Durhal
Makeup: Hendra Nasril
Hair: Jaycee Mnirajd
Wardrobe: Fairfax Copenhagen
Written By: Latoya Coleman
Edited By: Madeline Blue Schussel
“You know, I’m so excited about being a part of such a great project,” Olivia gushes. She’s referring to the latest spinoff in a two-time Emmy®-Award-winning franchise that premiered (officially) Tuesday, November 12th on Disney’s new streaming service. The reboot, titled High School Musical: The Musical: The Series is so highly anticipated that Disney+ has already renewed it for a second season.
“It’s definitely challenging being part of such a massive franchise. There’s a lot of pressure that is associated with that. And, you know, it’s like people’s childhood. It’s like you don’t want to do a bad job recreating somebody’s child,” she adds. “The nice thing about the show is that it’s not a remake, so lots of that pressure is taken off with the new class and the new characters–cause I’m never going to be Vanessa Hudgens,” she chuckles.
“She’s amazing in her own right, and I’m me–and I’m cool in my own right, too,” she adds.
This afternoon in our studio, she does seem pretty cool–calm and bubbly at the same time. She came in with her mom a few minutes ago and endlessly apologized for being 5 minutes late. She is relaxed in her white tank top, blue jeans–no makeup and hair styled with a middle part going straight down, a little past her shoulders. As she sits down on the navy couch, her mom and publicist are still within earshot. Even as they each type on their laptops, she includes them throughout the interview whenever a name isn’t right at the tip of her tongue, making it feel more like a fun conversation between the four of us. She picks up her water, looks at the large TV screen playing Normani’s Motivation music video, and she almost screams, “OMG, I love Normani! I saw her at the Ariana Grande concert and I was like, who is this girl? She put on such a great show, and I kind of wanted her to stay on stage.”
It’s hard to believe that Olivia is only 16 and already gearing up for such a large TV role. She plays the lead role of “Nini” in High School Musical, and here, in person, she is mature, conscious, and humorous. Among my favorite quotations of hers during our chat are that “social media does not define your self-worth,” that the show tries to authentically represent what the world looks like today, and that she’s “always wanted a pet pig.” As someone whose own childhood was shaped by the original High School Musical (HSM) series, one could only imagine the pressure Olivia might be feeling–but if she is feeling nervous, it’s entirely not apparent. While she was only 3 years old when HSM first aired, she has vivid memories of the sequels and understands the significance of carrying on the story. “[The show] is such a time capsule. I rewatched it, like, over 30 times for the role, and I would hear a song and be transported back in time like to third grade, Ms. Ramirez’s class–I even can see the classroom,” she laughs.
The show’s original trilogy consists of three Disney musical romantic dramady films starring Vanessa Hudgen and Zac Efron as the romantic leads: (1) High School Musical, a Disney Channel Original Movie (DCOM) which was followed by a television sequel; (2) High School Musical 2, also on the Disney Channel; and (3) High School Musical 3: Senior Year, which was released in theatres. With an enormous cult following, the trilogy holds recording-breaking accolades, including one Emmy for Outstanding Choreography (2006) and another for Outstanding Children’s Program (2006). Released in 2006, the original film held the record as the highest-rated DCOM, viewed by 7.7 million people in the United States and 789,000 in the UK, until the release of High School Musical 2, which smashed its record with 17 million viewers in the US alone. The third installment of HSM set the record for the largest opening weekend for a musical film and holds the title for the highest-grossing film in the trilogy.
In the current reboot, led by Olivia and her co-star Joshua Bassett, the show will follow a new class of East High drama students through 10 episodes as they prepare for the opening night of their school’s first-ever theater production of…High School Musical. This post-modern story will take viewers on a journey from auditions, through sparkling romances, intense rivalries, and in and out of the overall growing pains of being a teenager. Olivia is excited about the show and feels like there will be something for everyone to enjoy. She is most excited about the music (she wrote two songs) and the choreography. When I ask her why someone should tune in to the reboot, Olivia explains: “I think the most enticing element of the show is the hearts and the relationships between the characters. I think in any show, that’s what kind of makes it relatable and likable to people.” She also feels like people will appreciate the authentic representation of the LGBTQ community. With her character having two moms, she feels like Nini is an up-to-date teenage girl trying to find her place in the world. Olivia also thinks people will love that, similar to her real-life experience, her character “doesn’t have it all figured out.” “And honestly,” she adds, “nobody has it [all] figured out! Right?”
While the characters on the show have completely new storylines, Olivia realizes fans will be tempted to compare her to the series’s original lead, Vanessa Hudgens. And she is able to see the upside of that. “Even in [the] original, Vanessa Hudgens is my same ethnic makeup. Like me, she’s Filipino and White,” she explains. “It’s nice to have that Asian representation on television, which is a very marginalized group when it comes to TV and film…I’m hopeful it will get better in the next couple of years.” In a recent study by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, Asian-Americans were shown to represent only 1 percent of all leading roles in Hollywood, and with the 2017 United States Census Bureau reporting that 18 million Americans (roughly 6 percent) are of Asian descent, this number is startling.
Olivia also acknowledges that the show is only at the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to reflecting what the world truly looks like. “[But I do hope people] see themselves,” she tells me. “We have all different shapes, all different sizes, all different sexual orientations. And it’s all represented in an authentic way.”
Still, on the precipice of one of the most highly-anticipated shows of 2019, Olivia manages to keep her cool. With 1.2 million followers on Instagram, Olivia feels like there are a lot of people watching her, and maybe even making assumptions about who she is. “Look, social media is wacky,” she laughs, “and we all know it’s wacky, but we keep doing it–[and] so do I.” “It’s strange to grow up with that. It’s just tough when you don’t know who you are–which is normal. But you’re expected to know who you are. That’s Rough. Really rough. Like you’re kind of just figuring it out in front of a huge audience,” she says. But even under the gaze of 1.2 million people, she doesn’t think Instagram is all bad. “I do have some genuine connections on there with my friends back home, and there are some amazing accounts on there where people are spreading awareness,” she smiles.
Understanding that Instagram can be trying for our mental health, Olivia and her co-star, Joshua Bassett, may have found the cheat code for happiness on social media: limiting their screen time. They activate parental controls on their phones, creating passcodes for each other. So after they each run out of 45 minutes, they can only get back in by asking one another for permission. (Too bad neither of them remembers the passcode they created!) A University of Pennsylvania study shows a direct correlation between social media and psychological wellbeing, reporting significantly reduced levels of depression, anxiety, loneliness, and FOMO for those who use a screen limiter.
Born and raised in Temecula, California, Olivia began taking singing lessons at the age of six, before she started acting. Her singing teacher/mentor Jennifer Doesburg suggested that she try acting, and it was only then that she even thought about it as a career. She recalls Jennifer pointing out how “expressive and emotive” Olivia was when she sang. From there, she took acting classes and “absolutely fell in love.” “I remember I told my mom,” she says, turning to her mother, “This is like, kid therapy. Like, I get to go to this class and I get to feel all my feelings and, like, nobody judges me for it!” Olivia identifies as “an only child who never had any pets,” and “who knows,” she laughs, looking at her mom, “[if I weren’t,] maybe I wouldn’t have turned out the way that I am.”
Prior to landing the role of Nini, Olivia starred as Paige Olvera in Disney Channel’s live-action comedy Bizaardvark. And her first professional acting job was in an Old Navy commercial; right after that, she went on to star as the bubbly Grace Thomas in the popular direct-to-DVD movie An American Girl: Grace Stirs Up Success.
Today, Olivia lives in Los Angeles with her two parents when she is not in Salt Lake City, Utah filming for HSM 6 months out of the year. In her time off, she tells me, you might catch her failing at her “dream CEO, 5-AM morning routine,” or you might find her at a cafe, people-watching.
Realizing that she is an idol for a lot of teenagers, she advises other young aspiring actors to: (1) “make sure you love [acting] for acting, not for fame, and not for recognition–because you’re probably not going to get that at all, or [at least,] for a [long,] long time.” (2) “work on the core of it. The acting and the script should get you excited and be the fun part. Practice!” she says. (3) And lastly, she reminds us, “surround yourself with good people. People who are in the industry are like your team, and [also], people who are not in the industry [but] who love you for who you are–not [your stardom].”
I try to imagine what Olivia’s life will look like 10 years, 5, or even 1 year from now. I imagine it will be very different. As she wraps up her junior year in online high school, her plans include (“definitely”) going to college next year–although she’s not at all sure what her major would be. Career-wise, she hopes to one day land a role as Wednesday Adams in The Addams Family franchise. She’s also always wanted to be in a Quentin Tarantino movie, although she admits that it probably won’t happen. “Didn’t he say he was going to only do 11 [films,] and he’s like, on his 10th right now?” she asks, turning to her publicist to verify. Olivia also writes songs, so she hopes to have some music projects out soon, but admits, “I don’t want to put too much pressure on that. So we will see.”
She shrugs, and I get that same sense that she’s looking toward the future with a cool combination of ease and excitement.