Clear eyes, full hearts, character shoes — stars Auli'i Cravalho and Damon Gillespie talk Jason Katims new NBC series

By Maureen Lee Lenker
October 06, 2017 at 06:50 PM EDT
Peter Kramer/NBC

Texas forever? More like high school drama class forever.

Jason Katims’ new drama Rise sounds like the furthest thing from his hit TV show Friday Night Lights — a musical that follows the rise of a high school theatre department led by a dedicated drama teacher. But, according to the show’s stars, Auli’i Cravalho and Damon Gillespie, the DNA of the series shares a lot with the football-focused favorite.

“It’s a lot like Friday Night Lights where it’s life around [high school], so I think [Jason Katims] was the perfect person to take on this type of material,” said Damon Gillespie when EW caught up with him at PEOPLE’s Ones to Watch on Wednesday. “A lot of people have been comparing us to Glee, and the thing that Glee did is amazing, but what Jason’s about to do is really get to the truth. So we’re not going to like break out into song and tell the story through song.”

For Gillespie, a former high school theater student and Broadway actor, the experiences of his character Robbie Thorn on the show are very true to his own life. “I actually connect a lot with him because I grew up in sports, but I was also a dancer and was doing theater, and had to make a choice with what I was doing,” he says.  “Seeing how [Katims] is really portraying this and seeing how much we go through in acting and in theater school and being the nerds that we are, it’s very, very honest.”

Cravalho (Moana), who also stars, is less certain of a link between the two Katims programs. “People connect with what they connect to,” she says. “Our cast is so diverse, as well as our characters, racially as well as in sexual orientation. What our show really shows is America today. And if that doesn’t connect to people then I don’t know what does.”

Cravalho also teased her character Lilette Suarez. “She’s not one that’s in the spotlight necessarily. She has an incredible voice, but she more so wants to figure out a way to get out of her small town life,” she says. “Her mom is a single parent who makes some questionable choices and Lilette’s figuring out whether or not she wants to be a waitress for the rest of her life or maybe try something more.”

In addition to Cravalho, who wowed audiences with her voice performing “How Far I’ll Go” as the Disney princess Moana, the show has a lot of musical theater cred. Jeffrey Seller, one of the producers of Hamilton, is executive producing. Even better, Cravalho promises we’ll be getting a contemporary Broadway favorite in the first season. “We’re putting on Spring Awakening, which means there will be some singing and some awesome choreography as well,” she teases.

Rise will make a midseason premiere on NBC.

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