Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Dove Cameron: Those are some big shoes to fill. But Madison Reyes is ready for it.
The 16-year-old from Allentown, Pennsylvania, has the title role in Netflix's new musical dramedy series Julie and the Phantoms, directed and produced by Kenny Ortega, the man behind teen megahits like High School Musical and Descendants. She plays Julie, a teen musician struggling to reconnect with her craft after the death of her mother — until she begins playing with a trio of ghosts who become visible to others when they perform.
It's a lofty role, to be sure, but Reyes says her audition when she was 14 didn't make her nearly as nervous as a recent challenge she faced.
"The night before I went to take my driver's permit test, I was so nervous," she tells PEOPLE. "I was on the phone with my friend and I was just like, 'Oh my gosh, what if I don't pass? I just want to get it done on the first try.' And they were like, 'Girl, you are literally the lead in a Netflix TV show. Why are you nervous about this?' I was more nervous about this than I was for the actual audition. It didn't make any sense!"
(She passed, by the way.)
Reyes' audition for Julie began two years ago, near the end of her freshman year of high school, and a teacher recommended she give it a shot.
"She's a Latin American girl. She's 15. She was really on the nose with being so like me," Reyes recalls. "At first, I was like, I don't even know if I want to do it. I have school to worry about and I'd have to do the audition clips and do all this stuff. So I wasn't sure, but I eventually did it."
After submitting audition tapes, some calls came from very important people.
"My dad was like, 'This is directed by Kenny Ortega and I don't know what you did to get these people's attention, but I'm very proud of you.' It was crazy," Reyes recalls. "The first call that I actually ever had with someone was actually with Kenny just before I left [for the next audition in person]. He was basically like, 'There's no need to be nervous. We're here for you. We want you to know this is going to be a comfortable and safe place. There's no need to come here and be someone that you're not.' It was like having a phone call with a family member who I was going to visit at a different location."
Meeting a starmaker like Ortega didn't shake Reyes either.
"I wasn't as nervous as I thought I was going to be," she admits. "He came up to me, he gave me a hug and introduced himself so politely. And he just reassured that there's no need for me to be nervous. … You think that with someone who has such a great career that they'd act a different way, but he's just so humble and so kind. He just acts as if everybody is just his friend. He makes sure that you know that he's not just your boss, he's your partner in this — and that's really dope."
Once she got the part, Reyes and her trio of ghost bandmates — Luke (Charlie Gillespie), Reggie (Jeremy Shada) and Alex (Owen Patrick Joyner) — spent a month training at a music and acting bootcamp together, and formed a tight bond well before they began filming.
"We were just vibing all the time," Reyes says. "You'd think that we would get sick and tired of each other, but we wanted to hang out all the time. We went out to the movies, we were always going out to get something to eat. They're like my older brothers. I love them so much. I've learned so much from them. They're the coolest people ever and they've helped this whole process so much become so [much] easier just with how cool they are."
And now their moment to "shine together" is here. Julie and the Phantoms is streaming now on Netflix.
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