Olivia Rodrigo: Challenging Hollywood’s Diversity Problem One Kids’ Show At A Time
17-year-old singer and actress Olivia Rodrigo proudly breathes her Filipino heritage into her latest role in the recent Disney+ High School Musical re-adaptation. With a diverse cast and openly gay characters, the show effectively bridges the gap between typical 2000s Disney and feminist ideals – a previously unthought feat for a kids’ show: a win for equality and inclusion.
Interview by Mae Trumata
With a huge following on Instagram and a Hollywood-worthy CV under her belt, Olivia Rodrigo’s career exhibits the value of super creators such as Disney, racial diversifying. The presence of underrepresented actresses of mixed backgrounds, such as Rodrigo, is all-round enriching. In this instance, viewers will not only get to experience Rodrigo’s on-screen prowess in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, but also the songs on the soundtrack she expertly produced while starring as Nini Salazar-Roberts – including her solo ballad, ‘All I Want’. Inclusion has given us the privilege of Olivia Rodrigo’s profound talent.
We spoke with Olivia to discuss the growing representation of Asian and Filipino actors specifically, as well as Disney’s steps to further LGBTQ+ representation on screen.
MAE: It’s been an amazing time for Asian representation lately, particularly for us Filipinos, having [someone] like Jacob Batalon with big roles in Spider-Man and Let it Snow, we have Darren Criss and his upcoming Netflix series, we have Ella Jay Basco who played a lead role in Birds of Prey, and we also have you. What are your thoughts about this diversity movement so far?
OLIVIA: Yeah, I mean, it’s so amazing and I’m so happy to be part of that positive change in Hollywood. I think, especially in my condition, I feel really lucky and privileged because the projects that I work on are generally geared towards younger kids, and I think that they’re really special—particularly for younger kids to be able to see themselves on screen. And I think that’s something that High School Musical: The Musical: The Series did a really great job of. They really represent a diverse group of kids who come from different backgrounds, and have different sexual orientations and different ethnic makeup. So I think that’s a really lovely thing and I feel really lucky to have done projects that are like that.
M: How do you balance your role in creating spaces of diversity for the Asian and Filipino communities within the Hollywood realm and still be more than just the representation you stand for?
O: I guess, me as an actor, I can’t really control the kind of roles that are offered to people, and I guess I just try to be the best actor and the best performer that I can be. But I think people are really starting to realise that, you know, representation is a really important thing.
M: The show has amazing LGBTQ+ representation, you in particular with Nini having two mothers, what do you hope young viewers take away from a Disney brand series having visible LGBTQ+ representation?
O: Yes, I love all the LGBTQ+ representation on High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. I think it’s so important for young kids to grow up and have this series. I think normalising, you know, the fact that people have two mums and that, you know, Carlos and Seb have this kind of really beautiful love arc in the show. I think just normalising that and letting everybody know that that’s okay is really, really special, especially if it’s on a large scale. I talked to so many adults and they always say that they wished they had something like that when they were growing up to show them that that is expected and okay. And I feel like it is a really important thing and I feel really lucky that I get to be in a show that shows that kind of thing.
M: When this whole thing was first announced, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, it was kind of like a reboot thing, and a lot of people might, and have found, that any sort of remake, or reboot of nostalgic classics, is an effort to commoditise people’s longing for the past. What do you make of that kind of assumption that people had before the series came out?
O: Yeah, I don’t think that that’s necessarily a bad thing, especially with High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. I think that the creators did a really great job of harnessing that High School Musical nostalgia, but putting completely new fresh twists on old classics. And so I don’t think that that’s necessarily a negative thing; I think one of the great things about our show is that it kind of has that nostalgia in it. So, like I said, it does something completely new with it and kind of updates it for, you know, 2019/2020.
M: Do you think it is good for younger audience members to be re-introduced to a classic like High School Musical within the context of their own culture?
O: I think that’s such a good thing, it totally is. It’s a good thing now… I think theatre kids in 2006, or whenever High School Musical came out, and theatre kids nowadays, at the core have the same kind of heart to them. I think there’s so many different things surrounding kids and I think that the writers of this show kind of present everything really truthfully and authentically, and that’s kind of the beauty of the series, and that’s kind of the beauty of Disney+; it’s the privilege of kind of delving into these characters and kind of giving more current stories that are definitely more 2020. So, yeah, it’s definitely changed with the times, and I think that’s one of the greatest things about this show. It’s, like I said, it capitalises on nostalgia but kind of puts a new twist on the classics.
M: Do you have any advice on how young people, such as yourself, can further involve themselves in causes of feminism and equality?
O: Yeah, you know, I think what’s really important to you is that if you are young, that you don’t have everything figured out, but to not let that stop you from being educated and being outspoken about what you care about. I think being educated is really important; when someone can educate themselves in every way possible, it’s amazing. I honestly think that being kind of unbiased and open to other people’s opinions is really great. I think there’s so much kind of polarity kind of going on in our generation—it’s either you’re against this or you are this. It’s just sometimes beginning to show more kindness around other people’s ideas and being open to that. Because at the end of the day, nobody knows every thought, and there’s arguments for everything. That’s kind of the advice I would give to people; it’s kind of how to be open.