When you are a teenager auditioning for Kenny Ortega, when he greets you in the room with his fedora, his walking staff and his whiter-than-white smile, this is what he wants to see: “The potential,” he said. “The desire, the enthusiasm.”
An actor, then a choreographer, director and producer, Ortega, 70, has an unparalleled instinct for nosing out young talent and making it shine, blindingly, from the screen. For Disney, he directed all three “High School Musical” movies and all three “Descendants” movies. Like a man-sized Hubble telescope, he can spot stars before the rest of us. And even in the face of computer-generated dragons and Auto-Tune, he gets performances from young actors that feel somehow real.
He has no children of his own. “You wouldn’t know it,” he said. “I have godchildren and nieces and nephews coming out my ears.” But he has a rare ability to see young people as they want to be seen and to guess what they will want to watch.
His latest project, “Julie and the Phantoms,” a reboot of a Brazilian series, comes to Netflix on Thursday. Julie, a high school student mourning the death of her mother, has lost her love for music. Then three adorable and mostly dead boys materialize in her backyard studio. Members of a pop-grunge bad who died in the mid-’90s, these ghosts help her learn to sing again.
The casting notice for the lead role attracted hundreds of video submissions. Ortega fixated on just one, from Madison Reyes, a piano-playing 15-year-old from Allentown, Penn., with a shaky self-tape and zero professional credits.
Why did he bring her in? “It’s the promise,” said Ortega, who is an executive producer and a director of the series. “It’s the promise in someone. And I saw it.”
Reyes, now 16, who had grown up with “High School Musical” stickers plastered to her Barbie doll bin, knew she should have been nervous during that first in-person meeting with Ortega. But she wasn’t.
“He doesn’t ask for much, but he asks that you do it the best that you actually can,” she said during a Zoom call. “So you can be the best you.”
The grandson of Spanish immigrants, Ortega grew up in Palo Alto, Calif., surrounded by music. “Flamenco, Latin, R&B, gospel, rock ‘n’ roll,” he said during an hourlong Zoom interview last month. “Music was everything, and then the movement that came along with that,” he said.
Even as a child, he knew he was gay, and he also knew not to talk about it, which made for an uncomfortable acting routine. “To have to pretend to be someone else in order to fit in, that was difficult and tragic,” he said.
So he looked for other forms of expression and as a teenager began touring as an actor, first with the musical “Oliver!,” then with “Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical.” There’s a photo of him as the louche George Berger, with a handlebar mustache and his “hair like Jesus wore it.”
Discovered on a club dance floor by the San Francisco art-punk band the Tubes, he began to choreograph their outrageous stage shows. Cher came calling; so did Rod Stewart and Kiss. In 1980, the roller-skating movie “Xanadu” hired him as a choreographer. On set, Gene Kelly, one of the film’s stars, took Ortega under his dapper wing and showed him how to make dance for the camera, not the arena. Ortega was a quick study.
The “Twist and Shout” sequence from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”? That’s Ortega. “Try a Little Tenderness” from “Pretty in Pink” and “I’ve Had the Time of My Life” from “Dirty Dancing” with its epic lifts? Him again.
In the early 1990s, Disney’s Jeffrey Katzenberg offered him a chance to direct his first film, a musical about turn-of-the-20th-century newsboys. Inelegantly, “Newsies” flopped. Then came “Hocus Pocus,” another flop. Ortega picked himself up, directing TV episodes, choreographing Michael Jackson’s HIStory world tour, and orchestrating numbers for the Super Bowl, the Academy Awards and an Emmy-winning Winter Olympics.
Then in 2006, Disney offered him a TV movie on a microbudget, “High School Musical.” It was an awesome success, which, along with titles like “Moulin Rouge!” and “Glee,” were part of a renaissance for onscreen musicals. “We awakened an audience that was thirsty for music-driven storytelling,” he said. More movies followed, plus the albums, live tours and in-person events that power modern franchises. In 2019, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and signed an overall deal with Netflix.
Ortega cropped his Jesus hair decades ago, and on the Zoom screen, in his black T-shirt, slim glasses and nonstop smile, he looked comfortable, expensive and somewhat leathery, like some late-model sedan. A chain peeked out from the T-shirt’s neck, a gift from his mother, Madeline, who had died a month before after going into hospice at his Los Angeles home.
He smiled — sweetly, sadly — through that part of the conversation, too. “She was my first dancing partner, and I her last,” he said.
In the audition room, he doesn’t necessarily look for great dancers. He looks for people he can dance with. He has nothing against a great voice or kids who can plink piano keys like baby Rachmaninoffs. But anyone can see skills like those. Ortega can see something more: Who young actors are and what — with faith, drive and good lighting — they can become.
Ortega tries to make auditions welcoming — fun, even. Because he remembers, vividly, what it was like to be young and to feel snubbed or misjudged.
“I know what I had going on inside of me, and I thought it was pretty special,” he said. “And sometimes I would walk into a room, and I would feel like no one even knew I was there. They didn’t look deep enough, or they didn’t take the time to relax me to a place where I would open up and reveal my colors.”
Reyes recalled that before her first in-person audition, Ortega phoned her and her father to offer reassurance. “It was a really cute interaction,” she said. “He worried about my safety and me feeling comfortable and stuff like that.”
A few days later, after that audition, Ortega told her to go home and wrap a warm towel around her throat.
“He was already caring for me,” she said.
Charlie Gillespie, the “Julie and the Phantoms” actor who plays Luke — the band’s guitarist and a potential, if spectral, love interest — recalled how Ortega always insisted on proper vocal warm-ups. “He cares about your voice,” he said on that same Zoom call with Reyes. “He cares about what you’re going to be doing in the future. He cares about you so much.”
Once Ortega casts his teenagers, he gives them plenty of rehearsal time so that they can become comfortable with the music and dance, so that their characters can evolve to meet young people where they are. “Julie and the Phantoms” began with a week of musical boot camp so that the actor-musicians — Reyes, Gillespie, Jeremy Shada on bass, Owen Joyner on drums — could shoot that first day already feeling like a real band. He also encouraged them to write their own music and included a song in the seventh episode that Reyes and Gillespie helped write.
Vanessa Hudgens, who starred in the “High School Musical” movies described how Ortega would watch how she moved to a song before he built out the choreography. “He always wanted to see what I brought first before he threw anything out there,” she said, speaking by telephone. “He wanted the foundation to be at its core authentic.”
Ortega tells his actors that they are his collaborators, his partners in creativity, and he actively solicits their ideas — for character details, for camera placement. But he expects complete commitment, and he knows how to elicit hard work as a cheerleader, not a drill sergeant. (He really did cheerlead in high school.)
“He definitely, in a positive way, pushes you to get to a level past what you thought you could be,” said Corbin Bleu, a veteran of the “High School Musical” movies.
His actors, current and former, refer to him with profound affection and the particular playful condescension that the young can visit on the old. “He’s the coolest little hippie you’ll ever meet,” Gillespie said. Hudgens called him “a big kid at heart.” Dove Cameron, a star of the “Descendants” movies used the word “childlike.”
“He has this sort of untouched belief in the wonder of the world around him,” she added.
But Ortega is a grown-up, too, and he tries to prepare actors and their families for what sudden fame can bring. “You have to protect your child’s childhood and not let the celebrity and the madness that comes with it interrupt their ability to have a real life,” he said.
The pandemic means that as far as “Julie and the Phantoms” goes, the madness and the hoped-for live events have been postponed. But he still checks in with his showmates. “He always texts us,” Reyes said. “Like: ‘Hey, are you OK? Hey, is everything all right? Do you need any help?’”
He said that he checks in with all of his former stars, though not everyday. “They’re all my kids,” he said.
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