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High School Musical: The Series’ Julia Lester Journeys to Theater Camp and Into the Woods

Julia Lester. Photo: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for ABA

Julia Lester is getting used to being a star, both in and out of character. On High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, the 22-year-old actress plays Ashlyn Caswell, a nerdy, New Age–y kid who initially considered herself a character actress — until she was cast as Belle in East High’s production of Beauty and the Beast in season two. In the latest season, she heads off to theater camp with the rest of the cast to stage Frozen but goes through an identity crisis when she’s assigned a role in the ensemble. Does Ashlyn really want to be a star? Is she actually more a Leo rising than a Capricorn rising, and does that explain her need for the spotlight?

As this season of HSMTMTS airs, Lester’s also making her Broadway debut in summer’s hottest theater ticket, the starry revival of Into the Woods. She lends a delightful maniacal quality, with a layer of malice, to Sondheim and Lapine’s version of Red Riding Hood, skipping across the stage with her basket of pastries and snarling at anyone in her way. Lester started the role back in May, jumping into the deep end with an 11-day rehearsal period for the show’s short Encores! run at New York City Center. You could think of that as an intense theater camp of its own, albeit alongside Sara Bareilles and Gavin Creel, and it served as Lester’s crash course in acting on a New York stage. She talked to Vulture about acclimating to life on Broadway in Into the Woods and Ashlyn figuring out her life in, well, different woods.

While off at camp, Ashlyn’s confronted with the tragedy of not getting a lead role in the musical. What did you think about her reaction to that?
Ashlyn has become co-dependent, not only on her boyfriend but also on Miss Jenn, who gave her the opportunity to play Belle. Ashlyn’s been plucked from that place of comfort and security and dropped into a new environment where they’re not there to advocate for her. She has to remember who she was before Miss Jenn gave her the opportunity to shine.

Tell me about “Rising,” the song Ashlyn performs in this episode as she’s processing all those feelings.
It was written by Cozi Zuehlsdorff, who’s a Disney Channel alum and had submitted this song. I remember the first time I heard it was the day I went in to do a hair and makeup test, before we even started filming the season. The show’s creator, Tim Federle, pulled me into his office and said, “I want you to hear this song you’re going to be singing in a couple of episodes.” And, well, I’m a very emotional person, so I just started crying. There’s this one line that says, “Will my future self and I be friends?” It just broke me down.

Are you much of an astrology person? Would you be thrown by discovering you might be a Leo rising instead of a Capricorn?
I think it’s admirable that people can have this sense of security in knowing who they are based on astrology, but I need a couple of notes from Ashlyn because I’m not as knowledgeable as she is.

Before Into the Woods premiered on Broadway this summer, you were in the short Encores! run of the musical at City Center in May. You had, what, 11 days of rehearsal? What was it like to jump into it so quickly?
I had never done a show in New York before, so I’m learning how different processes work. But usually you have months of rehearsals and months of previews before a show opens. To put a show on its feet in ten or 11 days with one tech rehearsal was a crazy undertaking. I really made a point to come in as prepared and solid in my choices as possible.

Your take on Little Red brings out a lot of her darkness. She’s already in a dark story and gets some dark lines, but you give her an almost surprising intensity.
The script and the story allude to that side to her, if you choose to play that, and I knew I wanted to surprise audiences with who she can be. Also, I’m 22 but playing a kid, and I didn’t want people to go, “This is an adult trying to be a little girl.” I didn’t want it to be campy and weird, so I loved playing into the darkness and the hard attitude of it all. It was accepted and welcomed at Encores!, and I could take those choices and grow into the Broadway production.

Do you have any backstage rituals?
I learned this one thing where you go up to everyone before a performance and put your hand on their back and say, “I got your back.” I do that before every performance. Then, as a cast tradition, during the Witch’s rap, we have a dance battle going on in the wings between stage right and stage left. The audience can’t see it, but it’s a mega dance battle.

Who is on which team?!
I’m team stage left all the way. It’s me, Kennedy Kanagawa, who is Milky White, and Aymee Garcia, who’s Jack’s Mother. Usually, one of our Wolves is back there, so either Gavin Creel or Cheyenne Jackson. Across from us on stage right is the royal family, so it’s the peasants versus the royal family. Peasants all the way!

Class consciousness, I love it. As Little Red you’re also eating a lot of baked goods onstage. Where do they get them from? Do they taste good?
The really extravagant-looking ones, the fancy pies and stuff that I hold, are all fake, unfortunately. The ones I actually eat come in little bags. They’re called Little Bites and are tiny half-dollar-size muffins. They’re really delicious when I’m kind of hungry, but when I’ve just eaten a big meal they’re really nauseating. I have to be conscious of how big my bites are. Sometimes, I can barely nibble on it!

Have you thought about which Sondheim musical Ashlyn would want to star in?
I think Ashlyn would be a killer Little Red, or she would pine for the Baker’s Wife, with her sense of leading lady–ism. But I think there’s a part of her that really loves Company, and specifically the revival version with Katrina Lenk as Bobbie. I think she listens to Company all the time.

I think you should push for that to happen. Get her in the red jumpsuit!
I’m going to call Tim after this and be like, “Season four is Company, okay?”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Julia Lester Journeys to Theater Camp and Into the Woods