Saturday, October 10, 2009

Filmi Girl talks to... Lucas Grabeel!!

This is an interview I did way back in May. It's extremely lengthy because I don't have an editor and I talked to him for like an hour and I think he's a really smart guy so I wanted to cram everything he said into the piece.

Why am I re-posting?

Well, the premiere of the infamous VAMPIRE MUSICAL I Kissed a Vampire is on TUESDAY!!!

I know, right?!

The show is releasing on iTunes and there is a cute featurette already up, so take a look here!

(Lucas Grabeel at the premiere of Milk)

The first time I saw Lucas Grabeel was the first time I watched High School Musical 2. I was mentally and emotionally exhausted from some major life-changing drama and had decided that the one thing I needed to do was go on vacation – by myself. Snuggled in my hotel room bed, drowsily flipping through the cable channels I paused on what I would later find out to be one of the opening scenes of High School Musical 2. This adorable blond guy was reassuring his sister that she was – in fact – the “primo girl at East High.” Needless to say, I watched the entire gleefully loopy movie and enjoyed every second.

Sure, I went and saw High School Musical 3 in the theater on opening weekend, even though I, at 29, was at least 15 years older than the average age of the audience; yet it wasn’t until the Bollywood producers strike, which started this past April and has put a stop to all new Bollywood releases, that I took the time to sit down and really watch all three High School Musical’s out of a desire for some good old-fashioned Hollywood-style singing and dancing. What I found was a lot more complex than I had initially thought. The layers of story and the easy charm of the cast reminded me a lot of Bollywood.

The basic plot of the first High School Musical can be summed up as follows: high school basketball star Troy Bolton (Zac Efron) discovers a passion for singing through his friendship – and blossoming romance – with math whiz Garbriella (Vanessa Hudgens). He must then navigate the reactions of his overbearing father, who also happens to be the school’s basketball coach, and his best friend Chad (Corbin Bleu, who happens to be a great dancer and needs to get more work), not to mention his own misgivings about trying something different, and ace the audition for the school musical. Rounding out the cast are Gabriella’s nerdy friends Taylor (Monique Coleman) and Martha (KayCee Stoh), mousy drama club pianist – and massive Troy/Gabriella shipper - Kelsi (Olyesha Rulin), Troy’s basketball buddies Zeke (Chris Warren, Jr.) and Jason (Ryne Sanborn), drama club diva Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale), and Sharpay’s brother - and lackey - Ryan (Lucas Grabeel).

While leading man Zac Efron as Troy Bolton conveys a natural matinee idol charisma – like Shammi Kapoor in his prime or John Travolta in Grease – Lucas Grabeel quietly stole every shot he was in as Sharpay’s “theatrical” brother Ryan, taking a part that was little more than Sharpay’s dance partner in the first film and parlaying it to a secondary lead in the second and third films in the series. Being a librarian, of course the first thing I do when interested in a topic is look up every scrap of information I can get my hands on. Google was used - article databases, too, but everything I read was so unsatisfactory. I’ve been around artistic types long enough to know that most musicians and actors are usually pretty uninteresting as people – no matter how wonderful their performances are – but something about Lucas’s answers to even the tritest of questions got me even more interested.

Take this exchange from the press tour for High School Musical (1):

What bands and groups you listening to?

Lucas Grabeel: I do like people who are popular across the years and stuff like that, but I'm not a big pop music fan. I don't listen to the radio unless it's KCRW, like Booka Shade. Yeah, like weird music is what I'm really into right now. But I like anything really. There's just so much. I buy new music almost every day, so there's so much coming in that I don't even have time to listen to something more that twice. (taken from here)

What kind of teen star says things like this on a press tour? And when I read on Oh No They Didn’t that Lucas had been jamming out to the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack, I knew I had to talk to him and luckily for me, Lucas was gracious enough to squeeze time for me into his busy Hollywood schedule.

Of course being a musician myself, I had to start off with music questions. I asked what he listened to and it turns out the answer is a lot. “I’m always trying to find new music and, basically, what I do in the car is I have 12,000 some odd songs on my iPod and I put it on shuffle and I have the Lucas Radio Station” says Lucas. “It spans from classical opera to African tribal music and jazz and rock and a little pop and old and new and everything in between and if I’m not feeling the song then I just click next. So, I like to keep a wide variety but I also love going home and throwing Radiohead’s “Hail to the Thief” on my record player and listening to the entire album because it’s just so amazing. Or a Bob Dylan album and all that stuff. I listen to popular music but I would say that generally I’m much more intrigued with artsy, weird, more intricate music.”

Record players are music nerd catnip! Unable to resist the bait, I had to bite. I’m not necessarily one of those people who judges a person by their record collection but I have to admit that I do infer things from a record collection – certain albums mean certain things. For example, whether a “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack meant for ironic or genuine listening pleasure says a lot about how a person relates to popular culture.

So, what does Lucas listen to on his record player? Vintage or new stuff? “Both,” he says. “I took a lot of records from my mom. She gave them to me when I moved to LA and I have 3 Dog Night and Jim Croce and Marvin Gaye… Now I’ve bought Eminem, Radiohead, and Beck and things that I feel should be heard on a record. I obviously buy so many more CDs than I do records but for something that is like ‘I’m going to sit and listen to this whole album and it needs to be played on a record player’ I’m going to buy it on vinyl.” Non-ironic 3 Dog Night? Lucas gets an A from me! (It would be an A+ if he had name-dropped The Turtles’ “Battle of the Bands” - like I just did - but nobody’s perfect – not even Lucas Grabeel.)

With a man obviously so passionate about music – he’s even recorded a few of the songs that he’s written – I was curious about whether music was calling to him or if he was going to stick with acting. So often in Hollywood, it seems that people are supposed to chose one or the other. Actors can’t be singers and singers aren’t supposed to act. So, is Lucas veering towards a music career? “I’m definitely not heading in that direction more so than movies,” he explains, “but I’m definitely entertaining that possibility [of a music career]… The most important reason why I haven’t come out with an album [is] because I don’t know my [artistic] voice well enough to know what my passion is when it comes to music. I’ve made so many different kinds of music from jazz to bluegrass to electronic and folk all mixed together or all separate and I haven’t found ‘it’ yet… I have to LOVE the music so much that I can’t help but get it out to people and that’s the only reason why I would want to release an album. I love making music but I’m totally fine with keeping that music in my house and having my friends listen to it or whatever unless it’s something where I can’t help it [because] I like it so much and so once I find that I’ll go to it and put it out there.”

And he’s not going to let himself get boxed into the Tiger Beat trap, either. This is a problem for a lot of actors who have done Disney-brand movies. Not about how you escape or break from the image – like Zac Efron and Lindsay Lohan are trying – but how to avoid having that image set in stone in the first place. If Lucas is lucky, and I think he probably will be, he can manage a Justin Timberlake-style re-introduction to the American public. Says Lucas, “I definitely don’t worry about [the image problem] at all. My goal as an actor in my lifetime is to try and do as many different things as I can just like most actors and so I’m constantly looking for ways to push myself into different kinds of things and if someone ever gets in the way of that then I don’t know I just won’t let them I guess.”

Well, what else can an actor do? “RIGHT! It’s all opinion anyways so I can’t say the person is not right for saying that I’m only a singing-and-dance man. If that’s all they see me as then that’s who I am to them. But who I am to everybody else is a whole different story and who I am to me is the only thing that I care about - and I know that I’m really weird.”

It’s a remarkably well thought out answer and maybe this self-confidence is what I picked up on in the interviews – this unwillingness to create the image of a “Lucas Grabeel” who was just as packaged for consumption as his character in High School Musical. The elephant in the room for any singing-and-dance man is, of course, the gay rumors.

Why is it that, in America, every man who can dance is automatically branded by the viewing public as gay? It’s certainly not that way in Bollywood – the most macho men are still expected to break it down on the dance floor when the situation calls for it. And it wasn’t always this way in Hollywood – think of the great dancers like Fred Astaire (see him do one of my favorite numbers Say It With Firecrackers) or Gene Kelly. “I think if Fred Astaire was alive today having his career that he had back then it definitely would be conceived in a completely different way” says Lucas wearily. “And I just think it’s a sign of the times that we as Americans have been scared into judgment of all kinds of people… Everyone is always trying to figure out ‘Are you different than me?’ and I think that’s definitely where the problem comes in with everyone thinking that I’m gay because I can dance and I don’t care at all… it’s just up to you to make a good decision whether you’re going to believe them [the rumors] or not.”

So, dear readers, don't believe everything you read in the gossip columns. It’s always seemed so strange to me, though, that dancing should be singled out for such fear and hatred. Dancers are either painted as effeminate – think of how K.Fed is constantly portrayed as being under Britney’s thumb or after her money or somehow not masculine despite the fact that he has four children - or they are “ethnic” – like Usher or Rain. I blame it all on the cultural upheaval of the 1960s when all of a sudden the “counterculture” of “authenticity” became the dominant cultural paradigm.

In a flash, dancing was for women, the gay community, and people with dark skin, the ones who were left behind by the white men and their search for “real” and “serious” culture in the fallout of the 1960s. The hatred that boiled over in the Disco Riots of the 1970s wasn’t inspired by the funky bass stylings of Chic. There was something much more sinister at work. “When I was doing Milk, just talking with these people who were… from the time when we were making the movie and [them] telling me about what it was like being a gay man - even in San Fransico - in the 70s and how difficult it was to be out, to be known, and to be proud to be who you were because people were still so afraid and so angry at something like that… It’s scary and it’s horrible to think about how much hatred is pent up inside a lot of people that just can’t accept somebody because of their difference and it’s even worse to think about just dancing.” And when I spun my theory that America’s suspiciousness of men who dance coming from our cultural uncomfortableness with doing things for pure enjoyment? “I never thought of it that way but you’re right. Dancing is a very joyous thing so hating that is hating joy… the true meaning of gay!”

Now, if only I could get the rest of America on board with my scheme to bring dancing back to movies, although Footloose is definitely a good start. And speaking of dancing in movies, let’s move onto the whole reason I wanted to speak with Lucas in the first place – High School Musical. In a lot of ways, High School Musical is an update on the types of films Hollywood put out in the golden age of Hollywood musicals (1930s-1950s).

“I think there are a lot of similarities,” Lucas agrees, “because we stole from those musicals. Anyone who’s smart steals from somebody else, in my mind. Not stealing in a bad way but taking the things that we grew up on and we know and love to a new more modern level.” And here Lucas totally wins me over as a fellow advocate for Jung’s Collective Unconscious. “High School Musical is basically Romeo and Juliet [and note that Shakespeare was also an advocate of some healthy “stealing” from the collective unconscious – FG] in a high school so it’s not like it’s a new story.” And yet, there is something very fresh in the way it was presented. High School Musical doesn’t have that stale, static feeling that a lot of Broadway shows-turned-Hollywood movies have.

“A lot of filmmakers – I’m talking more producers and studio execs and the people that put together these projects – get the notion that musical movies are a prepackaged product of something that’s happened 6000 times beforehand…[the difference is] doing a play everyone does the same play but you do it a different way each time - that’s the beauty about doing a play. With people taking that same literal interpretation and putting it into movies is just – it doesn’t work.” He makes a good point and it underscores both why Broadway shows have such a poor track record in Hollywood and what makes High School Musical different from what audiences usually think of when they think “musical.”

One of the things that I found really interesting through all three High School Musical movies was Ryan’s character development arc. While Sharpay and Chad remain the same Sharpay and Chad, Ryan develops from zero to hero – his narrative echoing Troy’s in a way, as both characters branch out of their small corners of the world. In High School Musical, Troy escapes his overbearing and domineering father to cultivate a love of the arts and community and Ryan, in High School Musical 2, escapes his overbearing and domineering sister to cultivate a love of sports and community.

I had a suspicion that attention to detail and concern over Ryan’s narrative arc were coming from one guy – Lucas Grabeel. I was correct. “I’m really close with the executive producers and with Kenny [Ortega], of course, the writer, and he [Kenny] told me ideas that they had when they were writing the script [for High School Musical 2]. Once they brought something to us, the great part about Kenny was that he was very open to, especially after the first one since we had gotten to know these characters a little bit, take some freedom and create on our own. I got to do a lot of just ‘I think Ryan should do this and I think Ryan should do that and blah blah blah’ and they were always welcomed with open arms so I was extremely fortunate in that way to be able to do that.”

And Lucas’s freedom to create his character is another of the many great things about High School Musical. If you’ve read Frank Zappa’s autobiography – which I highly recommend – Zappa goes on about how a lot of cultural product coming from the major studios and labels is really terrible and how a large part of why it's terrible these days has to do with the Pony Tail Guys - those executives who think they are “hip” and “cultural trend setters” when if fact they have exceedingly mediocre taste. My beloved Frank Zappa laments the loss of the old-time executives who, and I picture them as fat old white guys chewing on cigars, would greenlight anything as long as you could convince them that ‘the kids liked it.’ The execs didn't need to 'get it' as long as it made money but the Pony Tail Guys are another part of the cultural fallout from the 1960s and search for “authenticity.”

High School Musical seems to have slipped under the radar of the these guys – there was no attempt to make the first and second films ‘hip’ in any way and the grip of artistic oversight from Disney seemed very loose. And guess what? The kids – and their parents and older siblings - loved it! High School Musical 3 which was released in movie theaters had a lot more oversight from Disney and it shows. First of all, it’s much more stage-bound than the first two. Where in the first two made-for-TV films, and especially the second, the songs are picturized in a very Bollywood-like style, expanding on the emotional development of the characters, High School Musical 3 is much more conscious of having the songs set on a stage as part of the play or as very obvious fantasy sequences - as if the audience wouldn’t understand why the characters were singing otherwise.

Needless to say, Lucas had to fight a bit harder to keep Ryan on the right path in the big-screen movie. “I was going do my best with my character to make sure that he had a journey that wasn’t repeating the same thing over and over again. Especially in the third movie I had a lot of conversations about that – you may have noticed that Sharpay tries to coax Ryan into getting the song for her a lot like she does in the first movie. I brought that up and I was like ‘Look – he’s already done this. He was the hero in 2. He’s not going to go back on his word and just be the lame duck again, you know, the puppy dog.’”

Lucas’s reluctance to repeat himself led to difficulties with the concept behind “I Want It All,” which is a fantasy song in which Sharpay sells Ryan on her idea of stardom to get him to try to steal some music from mousy drama club pianist Kelsi by asking her to prom, at first.

“It wasn’t hard by the time we were shooting it [High School Musical 3] but when we were recording it and reading the script and working on the scenes in rehearsals and stuff, I posed that question that I don’t want this to be the same [as the first film]. We really had to work on a lot of really small nuances – ‘Well, yes, you’re not doing the exact same thing again but at the same time this is your sister, your twin, you’ve been attached at the hip from birth.’ And as much as he [Ryan] wasn’t going to do the same thing again Ryan’s kind of a daft man – he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer - so he’s not going to do the exact same thing again but he’ll almost go there… it’s more of a ‘Yeah, yeah, sure, sure I’ll get that music for ya’ whenever I get a chance BUT did you listen to me that I’ve got a date for the prom? Isn’t that exciting?’”

And speaking of Ryan’s date for the prom… “Obviously it’s a Disney movie they can’t have an openly gay character in the movie and that’s a whole other discussion about where the times are in this country. But the relationship between Ryan and Kelsi started from the first movie and cycled through all three. I think of course they would go to prom together and I still don’t think that that makes him gay or straight or anything.”

Well put, Lucas!

“He needed someone to be a couple with - he’s not going to be with his sister because that’s gross.” He continues, “I’ll say this – there are so many more subtleties to that movie that kids will hopefully get when they’re showing it to their kids later, later, later on but never were meant to be taken as literal… it’s hard for me to talk about it [to the general public] but over a beer with my friends we’ve dichotomized High School Musical so many different ways.”

Oh, to be a fly on the wall for that conversation! But as for what’s up next for Lucas, he just finished up a run of “The Fantasticks” to great reviews and is working on – and you might want to mark this down in your diaries – a Doctor Horrible-style musical about vampires, which pokes fun at all the current cultural vampire-hoopla. Lucas plays a vampire who doesn’t really want to be a vampire. And along with that extremely interesting sounding production, he’ll also be continuing work on The Legend of the Dancing Ninja, which should satisfy those of us who desire to see more of Lucas’s fantastic dancing skills. As if that wasn’t enough, being a big-idea kind of guy, Lucas has also started his own production company, as well as fielding offers for more stage roles. Somehow, I think we’ll be hearing a lot more of him for years to come. I, for one, can’t wait to see what he does next!


Banno said...

This is so getting bookmarked for Dhanno. She's had us all OD-ing on High School Musical for years.

Filmi Girl said...

Heee!! HSM is one of my ultimate guilty pleasure movies... :)

simran said...

Awwwww I love Lucas Grabeel :D He was the only character I actually didn't feel like killing in HSM ... ;)

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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