(Featured image courtesy of Daniela Cuiffa)
One of the buzziest breakout shows of the year has been Netflix’s musical comedy Julie and the Phantoms, an American adaptation of a Brazilian program. Following a ghostly band from the nineties who crash land in teenage Julie’s garage, the series’ upbeat tone and finely crafted musical numbers have earned it critical acclaim and a wide fanbase. Playing a key supporting role is Alison Araya’s Tia Victoria, Julie’s hilarious and caring aunt who helps support the family after her sister’s death. She “can be a little too involved at times, but her heart is in the right place, and she is motivated by the love she has for her family.” As Julie strengthens her ties to her mother by playing the music they wrote together with her new band, Victoria provides a more physical connection to the woman they lost.
However, Victoria is just the latest in an impressive slate of roles from Alison Araya, who’s been one of television’s go-to guest stars for the past decade. In a wide range of roles, Araya has proved both her comedic and dramatic talents, as well as a knack for shifting between extremely technical and specialized positions with ease. TV Wasteland had the opportunity to speak with Araya about her history on television, her love of performing, and the new Netflix series that literally brought her to tears.
The Australian native started her journey at the Accademia Internazionale d’arte Drammatica Silvio D’Amico in Rome, which “shaped me as a woman and artist. When I think back on those years, it was hard work, and I made many sacrifices to attend.” While occasionally exhausted by the six-day school weeks and her nighttime bartending job, Araya found herself always driven by the passion that her unmatched education provided. Between Italian Operetta, Movement, Combat, and History, her “rich and extensive” curriculum “forced me to extend beyond what I thought were my limits,” especially in how she had to do everything in a language other than her native tongue. “However, the best part was the people I met and the friendships forged that have lasted to this day – My time in Rome taught me discipline, professionalism, and gave me the deepest respect for acting.”
Choosing a favorite role would be tough, but Alison would choose her very first after moving from Australia to Canada, a short film titled Finding Llorona. Even if they’ve been working previously, many actors have one particular project that they feel really kickstarts their journey, and Finding Llorona was that project for Araya. “It opened doors for me and affirmed that I could make this a career. I haven’t looked back since!”
In 2014, Araya was involved with Earthlickers, a short film that paid homage to cult sci-fi with an added feminist edge. The short film went on to win the 2014 Crazy 8’s film contest, but it also gave birth to GlitterSpank Productions. With roots in cult classics like Barbarella and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, her and co-founder Justine Warrington’s intent “was to produce content that was both satirical and feminist.” In a genre that provides unique opportunities to explore endless fascinating topics through the lens of strange, alternate worlds, “we saw a niche where our voices could be heard and our imaginations could run wild!” The foundation of the company was always “to tell a different kind of story. Our vision was to unite and delight audiences with campy satire, that veiled a deeper truth of love and oneness.” While it may not always garner the same amount of respect that other mediums get, film and television are art forms like any other, “powerful tools that imprint into our consciousness; for me, GlitterSpank meant the possibility of contributing to a movement of uplifting content.”
However, two years later, GlitterSpank was disbanded, and Alison “knew it was the right decision. Establishing a production company takes a tremendous amount of time, work, and energy. It was difficult for me to balance my acting career and develop the future of GlitterSpank.” Araya found that storytelling was her true strength, and while producing was a new and exciting venture, she knew that acting, writing, and directing was a world that came more naturally to her. “My biggest lesson from that time is to know your strengths and play to them.”
One thing that becomes obvious when taking even a quick glance at Araya’s impressive filmography is how many specialized roles she’s played. Nurses, doctors, and detectives often take years to train for their jobs and develop a familiarity with the complex world of their profession, but actors only have a few weeks to develop that same level of comfort with complicated jargon and specialized tasks. It could be easy to pass it off without much research at all, but Alison would never take that simpler route. “I love these roles because I do my deep-dive research and end up learning so much and accumulating knowledge. When it comes to delivering technical dialogue or speaking ‘doctor’ as we call it, I want to know that I have as clear an understanding of what I am talking about as possible.” On any medical series like Proof or The Good Doctor, “we always have a medical adviser, so I’m always asking them questions!” If a medical professional is watching at home and thinks, “Yup, that’s real. That’s how I’d do it,” then Araya feels like she’s done her job well. And between all the medical-related roles she’s collected over the years, we imagine they can only come naturally to her now. “I like to joke that I should have an honorary medical and law degree due to the number of doctors and lawyers I have played!” She also has more than a few superhero projects under her belt, and she attributes that to her love of Wonder Woman, which she religiously watched growing up.
Across the first four seasons of Riverdale, Araya has played Ms. Weiss, a Social Services worker who helps Jughead and Betty with their various familial issues. Araya admits that she was incredibly excited to work on the popular series, even before it became the pop culture juggernaut it is today. “Beverly Hills 90210 was everything to me growing up. My bedroom was a shrine to Luke Perry, Jason Priestley, and John Stamos. So when I was cast in Riverdale and knew I’d be working with Luke Perry, my teenage self was in heaven.” She feels it was an honor to have worked with Luke before his untimely death. “He was a beautiful human and actor. I learned a lot watching him work, and his expertise was inspiring.” Having made her debut in the first season finale, Araya had no idea that Ms. Weiss would return for later arcs in the series, and “it has been a treat to be invited to be a part of the Riverdale world.”
To preserve continuity, it’s uncommon that an actor will play more than one part in a show. However, performers like Sheryl Lee (Twin Peaks), Freema Agyeman (Doctor Who), and Sherilyn Fenn (Gilmore Girls) have all returned to play new parts when the creators just couldn’t get enough of their performances. It’s even rarer that that hiatus between roles stretches to almost an entire decade, but that was exactly Araya’s experience on Supernatural. First playing Jolene in the 2010 episode “Appointment in Samarra,” Alison returned to the infamously long-running series last year to play Vice Principal Bailey. “I could hardly wrap my mind around the fact that it had been that long!” She found herself comforted by familiar faces and a welcoming crew, and while the mood on set was bittersweet because everyone was aware that the show’s fifteenth season would be its last, “it was evident how much love there was amongst the cast and crew, [and] it was lovely to be a part of that… my second episode was actually directed by Jensen Ackles, which was very cool!”
Araya had nothing but enthusiastic praise for the team behind Julie. She detailed it as “a show with heart, soul, and so much talent.” Each episode has a few musical scenes, ranging from simple piano ballads buoyed by star Madison Reyes’ incredible vocal talents to elaborate showtune numbers with dozens of dancers. “Although the show has elements of magic, it is grounded, yet the music and dance numbers elevate the show and showcase the immense talent from the cast and crew.”
One of Alison’s favorite on-set moments of any of her projects actually came from the music of Julie. Having not participated in any musical scenes, she hadn’t heard any of the songs that the other cast members had been working on. While getting ready to shoot, she happened to mention this to Charlie Gillespie, who plays leading guitarist Luke, and he played one of the tracks for her. “I was so moved by the song, I literally shed a tear!”
Probably the most recognizable name behind Julie and the Phantoms is that of Kenny Ortega. The choreographer was the man behind the moves on Dirty Dancing and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off before settling into the director’s chair on iconic projects like Hocus Pocus, the High School Musical trilogy, and Descendants. Though of course, he might not have spent too much time sitting down, because he choreographed all of those films as well. Araya recalled meeting Ortega for the first time and how “it took all my self-control not to completely fangirl over him,” crediting his “Midas touch” for much of the show’s magic.
There has been no word yet on whether we’ll see Julie and her ghostly band return for a second season, but if they do, Alison is prepared for whatever could be in store. “Tia Victoria has not participated in any dance numbers yet, but let’s just say that if there was a season two and it would provide that opportunity, I have been brushing up on my dance moves, so I think I could handle it!”
If everything previously discussed hadn’t already told you, Araya emphasized how important performing is to her. “I think to be an actor is to commit to a lifetime of personal growth and self-realization. With that comes confidence; confidence I hope translates in my work and choices.” With every project, she picks up something new, and she is thrilled to “take what I have learned along my journey and apply it to my work and continue to evolve.”
In short, Araya believes that “Julie and the Phantoms has a gem for everyone. Younger audiences will find themselves reflected in the worlds of Julie and her friends and foes, and for everyone else, the music and dance will entertain, but the heart of the story is about reaching for your dreams and we can all relate to that!” If one thing’s for sure, it’s that we could all use a little more song, a little more dance, and a few more dreams in our lives right now. You can find all of that (and so much more) in Julie’s first season, streaming on Netflix now.