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Your donation will support The Ithacan's student journalists in their effort to keep the Ithaca College and wider Ithaca community informed. Your contribution will allow us to purchase equipment and cover our annual website hosting costs.

Actor Julia Lester discusses life behind the camera and on stage in NYFTSA session

Julia+Lester+spoke+to+students+at+a+NYFTSA+session+about+her+life+as+an+actor%2C+how+she+grew+up+acting+and+gave+advice+to+the+aspiring+filmmakers+and+directors+in+the+room.
Julia Hargreaves
Julia Lester spoke to students at a NYFTSA session about her life as an actor, how she grew up acting and gave advice to the aspiring filmmakers and directors in the room.

Julia Lester, actress and singer known for her time as Ashlyn on “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” was brought to Ithaca College via Zoom for the New York Film and Television Student Alliance as a part of the alliance’s “Actors on Set” program Sept. 26.  

Junior Grant Johnson and senior Paige Morrissey introduced Lester to the packed room of about 60 students in Textor 103 as Lester spoke to them about growing up around actors and theatrical family members, which inspired her pathway into acting. 

“My parents were primarily theater performers in Los Angeles where I grew up when I was little,” Lester said. “So when you think of Bringing-Your-Kid-to-Work-Day, I was going to rehearsals of shows that my parents were doing or performances or on set if they were in commercials. … [There was] just a lot of theater in our household, which was very fun. Everybody’s very musical.”

While speaking about her upbringing, Lester said she had to learn from a young age how to juggle her education with being on the stage and the pressure of acting alongside older people. 

“I was never homeschooled growing up and went to public school for my entire life through 12th grade, which I think was very good for me,” Lester said. “I think for some people who are truly working when they’re kids who can’t go to school, I think that’s amazing. And they learn in their own way, but I was very much a normal kid and would go to public school and truly don’t know how I graduated high school because … I worked more in television when I was in high school.”

Lester said immediately after graduating from high school in 2017, she started acting in theater performances in LA. She said one day while in rehearsal for “Shrek the Musical,” she glanced down at her phone and was notified that she was booked for an audition for a new Disney+ television series.

“At the time, [the show] was called “High School Musical: The Musical” and I was like, ‘What is this?,’ this sounds amazing,” Lester said. “I read the character description for a character named Ashlyn and I remember it saying something like, ‘Brash and gutsy as if Kelly Clarkson went to high school’ and I was very, very excited.”

The name of the series soon became “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” which Lester said was the first Disney+ original series along with The Mandelorian. The series premiered in November 2019 and concluded in August 2023, featuring Olivia Rodrigo, Josh Bassett and Lester as some of the show’s main characters. 

While the opportunity was fantastic, Lester said, she felt there were pressures of being on the show, from portraying characters from a cult-classic movie series to the external pressure the cast felt from people that would comment about the cast being so-called, “Zach and Vanessa posers.” 

“It felt very exciting to portray a very accurate representation of what it felt like to grow up with High School Musical movies because if you grew up with them … they were the end all, be all of Disney Channel movies,” Lester said. “We knew what we were in for. So it felt very strange, like people outside of our control had a lot of opinions, but we knew that once the show dropped, people would be like, ‘Oh, that’s what they’re doing. That’s cool. That’s different.’”

Lester said that learning how to act for the stage has made her a better actor and provided significant benefits for her career, including having a broader range of the types of acting she can do — not just for the camera or the stage, but for all types of performances. 

“I would say that having theater training set me up for so much success in being able to chameleon into different genres,” Lester said. “But theater was extremely helpful in learning how to … compare one job to another job and figure out what that is. But theater training was very, very helpful.”

While Lester said she hopes to continue pursuing acting, she said she hopes to become a director in the future. She gave advice to the NYFTA students to be a fly on the wall to get into directing and what qualities make someone a good person to work with in the setting of a set or stage. 

“Making your actor feel like they’re the only person in the room is so important because your job as a director is not just the actors,” Lester said. “It’s every other facet of the show or movie or whatever you’re doing, which is like a huge responsibility and a huge broad job. … Sometimes you can feel a little lost and wonder if you’re doing the right thing, so I think being very intimate and quiet and connected with your actors is super important.”

Lester’s last piece of advice to the audience was something she had learned from one of her co-stars, the original Ms. Darbus, played by Alyson Reed. Lester said one of the most impactful things she had ever heard on set for “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” was from Reed. 

“She would say this quote to us, ‘Memorize your life,’” Lester recalled. “She really taught us to remember to take snapshots of the things that lead you into the rest of your life. And I found that really beautiful.” 

First-year Kaitlyn Peconie said that learning about the behind-the-scenes of a theatrical television show or film performance from an actor who has that first-hand experience was nice to hear 

“I really enjoyed it because I personally am a fan of her’s and I thought it was really cool being able to get some insight on this stuff — especially as a freshman and not really knowing where I’m going in my career, because I am a Park Pathway student — so this was really nice,” Peconie said. 

First-year Graceann Mattair echoed that it was helpful to hear from an actor as a Writing for Film, TV, and Emerging Media major. Mattair said she felt at ease that the type of person Lester presented herself as during the session could be someone she could be working with in the future. 

“I loved the line that she said she learned from one of her co-workers to memorize your life,” Mattair said. “I was like, ‘I’m writing that down.’ I loved that so much and it just shows who she is as a person and honestly I always hear such rough things about people in Hollywood and it makes me so scared to look for a job one day, but the fact that she’s a type of person that I could be working with. It’s comforting to see.”

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About the Contributors
Vivian Rose
Vivian Rose, Assistant News Editor
Vivian is an assistant News Editor for The Ithacan.
Julia Hargreaves
Julia Hargreaves, Social Media Manager
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