Joe Serafini on High School Musical and Disney Diversity
Turns out he was dancing to “We’re All in This Together” in his basement just like us!
Joe Serafini grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, acting in his high school musicals and now he is starring in a different High School Musical. Serafini plays Seb on Disney+’s hit show High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (HSMTMTS). Seb, originally a recurring role, is a student at East High who is cast as Sharpay Evans in the production of High School Musical. In 2020, Serafini was upgraded to a series regular for season two of the show.
Wishes and Wayfinding sat down with Serafini to talk about his acting career and his role as a trailblazer for on-screen representation for Disney.
Wishes and Wayfinding (W&W): When did you start acting?
Joe Serafini (JS): I started acting for fun at the age of five and then professionally at the age of seven, but it was always just fun to me. And then I decided to go into classes at [the Pittsburgh] CLO Academy around seven as well. I did it through high school and then decided to actually try to pursue it. I auditioned for all the schools and went to University of Michigan for musical theater. From there, [I] got High School Musical, and the rest is history.
W&W: How did you land the role in HSMTMTS?
JS: I had known the creator of the show, I had met him when I was in high school at the Gene Kelly Awards. I was introduced to him at intermission, and he saw me in the opening number and he thought of me to audition for the role of EJ originally. I sent in a video audition tape, never heard anything and kind of forgot about it. And then a few months later, they asked me to audition for Seb as a recurring character. I sent in another audition, I got some notes back, [and] I had to send in another tape. And then literally in less than a week I was in Salt Lake City for my first fitting and the first day of filming. It was crazy.
W&W: What is your favorite part about HSMTMTS?
JS: My favorite part about this show specifically is that I get to do everything that I love. From playing piano, to singing, to acting, to dancing. Everything that I've always wanted to do, I get to do in this show [and] it's been so much fun. I feel like I get the best of both worlds because I'm getting to do musical theater, which is what I went to school for and is my bread and butter. But I get to do it on a television show where you get this major platform to really showcase yourself and be seen by a really wide audience. It's been amazing and I am so, so grateful.
W&W: What is the most challenging part about playing Seb?
JS: I think the most challenging part for me was adjusting to acting on camera. I had done only one TV pilot in Pittsburgh when I was little. And obviously, all my training has been in musical theater. We had an acting for the camera class at Michigan [and] I learned a little bit there. But nothing really prepares you for acting on a television set other than acting on [a] television set. So I think that was the biggest learning curve for me, but I think I'm getting the hang of it. But it's just a lot of watching and learning and just feeling it out.
W&W: Were you a fan of Disney and the original High School Musical before HSMTMTS?
JS: There was this one night where they did a screening of High School Musical on Disney Channel where they taught the dances in the commercial breaks, and I fully learned the High School Musical “We're All in this Together” dance. So yes, I was an OG fan and losing my mind whenever I was actually offered the role. Obviously, it's not the original High School Musical, but just to be a part of the same franchise and the same company, it is connected. So it was absolutely absurd.
W&W: What is one thing that has totally surprised you about stepping into this role of fame?
JS: I guess it was funny, just seeing how many people were like, ‘Oh, this isn't gonna be the original. We want Troy and Gabriella, whatever, whatever.’ And then seeing how people kind of grew to like these new characters and just get on board with this new show. But I think it is challenging just to see people not wanting you. Being like, ‘Oh, this isn't gonna be as good as the original.’ But all you have to do is watch the show and you kind of fall in love with [the] characters.
W&W: We recently wrote an article about being Gen Z/Millennials and loving the show. Why do you think it resonates with an older generation?
JS: Did you do theater in high school? I think anyone that does theater in high school and has ever had that joy of performing and being a part of a group effort to do something bigger than yourself can relate to it.
I think there's definitely aspects of every character that people can relate to. Even the teacher I feel myself relating to, just figuring out what your dreams are and how they can change. Especially in [“The Quinceañero”] with her and Nini in the car when they were talking about dreams changing. And I think the show really explores a lot of stuff that people can relate to. While also having really good music. AND Olivia Rodrigo are you kidding me?
W&W: What is it like working with the rest of the HSMTMTS cast and are you as close off-screen as you are on-screen?
JS: Yeah it’s really great because we filmed in Salt Lake City and it's away from home for all of us. When we're there we have each other to be around. So we all got very close very quickly. But yeah, we have game nights. This past season was hard with the pandemic because we felt like we couldn't hang out. Because we were like, we don't want to get COVID. Everyone's very supportive. It feels like a big family.
W&W: Is HSMTMTS filmed solely at East High?
JS: We used to shoot at the actual high school a lot more, I think with COVID it got a little more difficult. We shoot in the school in the cafeteria [and] in the theater, so it's a lot of fun. But then other stuff is obviously shot at a soundstage in Salt Lake City. We do have a stage where there's a bunch of sets [and] that's where a lot of stuff lives.
W&W: What was it like going to East High for the first time?
JS: My first day [on set] was rolling right up to East High. And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, somebody pinch me I can't believe I'm here.’ Walking into the cafeteria, and you're like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is THE cafeteria.’
W&W: If you were able to keep one prop or outfit from the show as a memory, what would it be?
JS: Seb always wears these little Nike boots that are super cute. I mean, I wouldn't wear them. But I think they would definitely be the most signature Seb look. And I think that would be a nice memory to have of Seb.
W&W: Were you totally freaking out when Miley Cirus retweeted the video of Seb singing “The Climb” from “The Quinceañero”?
JS: Uhm, yes! Well obviously we grew up loving that song so I was just like, ‘oh my gosh. Who knows if it's actually her, it could be a PR [person], but we like to think that she saw it and loved it.’ Hopefully.
W&W: What is it like being one of the first actors to play an openly gay role on Disney?
JS: It's absolutely wild and such an honor. I think it's time, obviously, and I really appreciate the way that the show has been handling the representation that we’ve been seeing. I do feel some sense of pressure because it is a big deal. And kids want to see themselves and the community wants to be represented in the right way. So, I feel like I have to do it the right way. But most of the time, I'm just trying to trust that it's enough. Trust that the work is there and it's going to be good.
W&W: How do you hope your role affects younger generations as they look up to you in this position?
JS: Hopefully, in a positive way. I've gotten a lot of really sweet messages from people that are saying, ‘you make me more comfortable to be myself,’ ‘I see myself in you,’ ‘you bring me joy,’ and ‘I feel confident after seeing your character go through what he's going through.’ To see people connect with that, I think that's the most special thing about it to me, is that people can look at these characters and say, ‘oh my gosh, I'm not alone. There is hope that someone out there is like me and feels this way inside their heart. And there's going to be a way forward.’
I think we talked about this, especially with [“The Quinceañero”], [that] growing up, what you saw on television there was some gay representation. I feel like I saw that on Glee and Smash, but those are for more adult audiences and a little more heightened drama. But to be on a children's and family television programming show, and to see two boys really holding hands with each other, and just be like ‘yeah, we like each other and we're going to be in a relationship,’ that's awesome. And [it’s] something I feel like I definitely was not seeing on Disney Channel or Nickelodeon. I think it's just good for people to see that.
W&W: What do you hope to see for on-screen representation in the future?
JS: I hope that there will be more to come and even more diverse stories to be told. I've been learning so much more about the other communities within the LGBTQ+ community that I still haven't seen on television or media. And I'm starting to [see it] more and more. I think it is on the up and up, but the more we can get that going I think that's all the better for the younger people that might be struggling with figuring out that kind of stuff without someone to look to.
W&W: Do you have a message for young theater kids who hope to pursue acting?
JS: Don't compare yourself to others in what they're doing in their path, because your path is yours. You have to trust that it's on its right track and you're where you're supposed to be and everything's going to work out just the way it's supposed to. Trust yourself and believe in yourself because I think that is going to take you farther than anything else.
I feel like that's something I'm still working on with my own journey, trusting that I know what I'm doing. Because for all this to happen, you're kind of like, ‘Am I actually supposed to be here, am I a fraud? Am I faking my way through this?’ But everyone feels that way. Trust that you know what you're doing. And work hard, do good work and be patient.
Joe started following his dreams and pursuing his acting career at the young age of seven but as viewers saw on “The Quinceañero,” you’re never too old to change your dreams and go after them. This is just one of the many valuable life lessons HSMTMTS portrays and reason #100 why we love the series.
HSMTMTS Season 2 episodes release every Friday on Disney+. Check out our Instagram, TikTok and website for more HSM-related content!