When Disney+ launched in 2019, its much-touted originals were a live-action Star Wars series and a show about Gen-Z teens singing on ukuleles. High School Musical: The Musical: The Series was a meta-mockumentary series and it was lead by semi-newbies Olivia Rodrigo and Joshua Bassett as high-schoolers and love interests Nini Salazar and Ricky Bowen. But in the past year, Bassett has been on a fast track. He finished shooting an HSM:TM:TS holiday special, along with season two of the show; wrote, recorded and released an EP; and found himself in the middle of a rumored love triangle, when his HSM co-star Rodrigo released her single “Drivers License.”
Even earlier this week, Bassett had the internet abuzz after an interview with Clevver News in which he admitted that Harry Styles is “hot.” (Though really, don’t we all admit it?) He awkwardly added, “This is also my coming-out video, I guess.” A day later, Bassett released a statement on Twitter saying, “My entire life people have told me my sexuality. People have shamed me for things they know nothing about,” he continued, “It’s ok to still be figuring out who you are. Life’s too short to let ignorance and hatred win. I choose love.” So as HSM: TM: TS prepares to raise the curtain on season two, Vulture spoke on the phone with Bassett (before this week’s drama), about his and his character Rickey Bowen’s similarities, how he handles the good and bad sides of fame, and his impending album.
I was reading a Vulture interview with [HSM:TM:TS creator] Tim Federle where he recalls casting you very early on in the process. Were you one of the first ones cast? What was your audition like?
When I initially heard about the project, I was super-skeptical — like, What, they’re making a new High School Musical? I don’t know about this. But I went, and I auditioned anyway. I guess I was the first tape that they ever sent to Tim, so the casting director sent it to him, and she said, “You’re not going to believe me, but I think we just found a Ricky.” He saw it and said, “Great, let’s bring him back.” So yeah, I was one of the first to audition and then the first one cast, so it was cool to see everybody else get cast and to be a part of the process when they were auditioning different Ninis and Big Reds.
Did you have to sing anything from High School Musical for your audition?
I sang “Count on Me” by Bruno Mars for my original audition, but I don’t think they made me sing a High School Musical song. They did have me sing an original song because they wanted me to write music for the show. They found my Instagram and asked if I could sing one of my songs, so I sang my song “Common Sense.”
From what I’ve seen of season two so far, it feels like we’re going to dive deeper with Ricky and see what makes him tick. What are you most excited for in Ricky’s journey this season that differs from the first?
Yeah, Ricky’s biggest fear is just change, and I think that, in season two, he’s having to come face-to-face with a lot of change. He’s trying the best that he can, but he’s constantly falling on his face and still figuring it out. I think a lot of people can relate to that. His mom just recently moved away; he moves from a house to an apartment and is facing a lot. But through that, he’s being forced to grow because you kind of have to in those situations.
I’m very excited by the idea of a Menkie, so what was your and the cast’s reaction to doing a musical-theater competition this season?
I love it. It’ll be amazing. It’s so real, too. Theaters kids can get so competitive in general, let alone when there’s an actual competition. The school and drama-club rivalry is going to be super-relatable for people, and it was just super-fun to have some villains for all of us to unite against.
I wanted to ask about the Disney machine, because whether you’re a part of Disney or not, being a child or teen actor seems tough. And lately with the conversations around Britney Spears and Demi Lovato, is it weird to see the extreme ups and downs that these Disney stars have gone through while you’re actively going through it?
I mean, yeah, that’s a great question. I think what’s so fundamental, when you’re going the distance in this industry, is to be balanced and stay sane by keeping the right people around you, and that can be difficult. I can sort of see why Britney Spears shaved her head or why Miley Cyrus has such a hard time with it because it can be incredibly taxing having so many people have a say or be critically examining your life, or what they think is your life, and having so much of it be false. You just have to remember who your real friends are and, ultimately, that you can’t really take it personally, the good or the bad. It’s always easier said than done. I’m still navigating it.
What are ways you choose to take care of yourself and keep yourself grounded?
I read a lot. I meditate a lot. I’m a huge advocate for that. I think everyone should, if they can afford it, really consider taking therapy. I don’t care how well-off you think you are — even therapists do therapy. It’s such a fundamental thing that I wish I had started doing sooner. It’s obviously different for everybody and you have to figure out what works for you and how much you can balance.
I was scrolling through your Instagram, and you can see a lot of the bare bones of your current music from a few years ago. Is it ever weird to pull a song from years ago and rework it? How do you recontextualize it now?
Yeah, that’s so true. Even a month ago, I randomly wanted to listen to “Common Sense,” and while I was listening to it, I thought, Oh my god, who let me put this out? But you just keep evolving, and that’s always a good sign because that means you’re growing. If you were looking back at the past six months of work and said, Yeah, that was the best you’ve ever made, then you’re not really growing. I think it’s important to keep pushing yourself and striving for greatness. It’s just about trial and error until it’s trial and success.
Do you think you’ve grown musically throughout High School Musical: The Musical: The Series?
Olivia and I both wrote “Just for a Moment” for season one, and that was our first official songwriting job. So having the Disney executives believe in us in that way was pretty insane, and super-encouraging for both of us to keep going with our songwriting. This show has given us so many opportunities. I think that it’s really helped tremendously in my performance and my confidence with everything. I’m sort of like the little chick that has to jump out of the nest in order to fly. I feel like I’ve grown so much in the past two years.
Yeah, and season two seems to have a lot more of your personalities in your characters or maybe it just seems like it because we know you all a bit more.
I feel like in general there’s always been so much of me in Ricky. When I read his character description, I was slightly concerned that I’d been followed around because this is a little too accurate. But yeah, I think that truly great art is honesty that is funneled into a different context. Even though I think that while obviously the circumstances in High School Musical are not true reality, the experiences are true for everyone in different ways. In that way, yeah, it is authentic and that’s what makes it so special.
Are you working on your album right now?
I am working on something right now. I’m trying a bunch of new stuff working with different producers and really just figuring out where I want to go with this. I’m not really afraid to put out a 12-track album with totally different genres and just experiment. We’ll see what happens, but right now I’m just writing pretty consistently, and I’m giving it my best.
Are there any plans to release “We Both Know” [Bassett’s duet with Sabrina Carpenter]?
I’ll leave it be. I appreciate the curiosity, but who knows.
Okay, how about we end with one more, very important question: top-five DCOMS?
Wow, okay. Definitely, I’m trying to think. What’s the one with Brenda Song? Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior! Obviously, High School Musical is on my list.
Which of the trilogy is your favorite?
Honestly, I love High School Musical 2 so much.
That’s also my favorite.
I also have to say Read It and Weep is a good one. The 13th Year, when the dude turns into a mermaid, is another favorite. That’s three. What are some of yours while I look.
I have to say Zenon is a top-tier one for me. It’s the earliest DCOM I remember watching.
Ugh, I have terrible news. I’ve never seen it. [Laughs] I’m sorry!
Zetus Lapetus! Well, you need to watch that.
I’m sorry! It came out the year I was born. Oh, and Minute Men! I also love Starstruck and the Wizards of Waverly Place movies. There’s a lot of good ones.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.