Arkansas-born actor Matt Cornett spent the most part of the last decade getting his foot in the door. After starring in several TV films and episodes of Nickelodeon's Bella and the Bulldogs, he started to gain worldwide attention in 2019 after he landed himself the lead role of E.J. Caswell in Disney +’s High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. With a career on the rise, MOOD caught up with Cornett ahead of the show’s much-anticipated second season to get to know the star a little better.
Even though Cornett always took an interest in acting, it wasn’t something he always knew he wanted to do as an occupation. While growing up in school, he enjoyed theater as he was able to hang out with his friends during an extra class. However, it wouldn’t be until he heard an ad on the radio looking for aspiring actors when he thought about wanting to pursue acting as a full-time career. Cornett explains: “That was the first time that I sat down with my parents and talked to them and they said, “Listen if this is something you actually want to do and it’s not just something that is an impulse thing...” Because I, unfortunately, am a very impulsive person, they continued, “If this is something that you’re in love with and want to do then we’ll put every bit of confidence behind you and support you every step of the way and do what needs to be done to make it work”.
Cornett’s “impulsive” decision to be an actor is certainly one he doesn’t regret, admitting one of the benefits of his job is that it doesn’t feel like one, explaining “It feels like I'm getting to hang out with some of my favorite people and I get to have fun everyday and party.” Although, that doesn’t mean the occupation is always relaxed: “There's also so much work that goes behind acting and filming every day. It definitely is a challenging job at times, it's not just a walk in the park.”
As most will know, the world of entertainment isn’t the easiest industry to break into. Cornett’s advice for those wanting to follow in his footsteps is for others to find what makes them unique and special. While that might sound cliche, Cornett makes a valid point: “I think a lot of people try to put on a persona of trying to be a certain version of themselves that they think will be impressive to people in the industry- whether it's a director, producer, or fellow castmate.”
“I think the most important thing is just being yourself because that will take you so far. And just from a technical standpoint, I think the best way to get started in the industry is to start taking some acting classes, if acting is specifically what you're kind of going after,” he shares. “Hop into some acting classes even if they're over Zoom. I know there are no in-person classes going on, so join a zoom class and start oiling the machine as I say. Get that work in your brain and get used to doing it. You'll learn so much from classes and from fellow actors.”
Season one of Disney +’s mockumentary musical drama, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, in 2019, was likely when most fans were introduced to Cornett. The 10-episode series definitely sets itself apart from the original movie but will still leave you feeling a little nostalgic. Like the original films, it was set at the same East High School in Salt Lake City, bringing back all those memories from certain scenes from when viewers first fell in love with the High School Musical brand.
Cornett plays the role of E.J. Caswell, a jock-theater enthusiast. With that being said, he tells me that wasn’t the character he actually auditioned for. “I actually originally auditioned for Ricky Bowen who's played by Joshua Bassett. “I went in for that audition and felt good about it, but I didn't hear anything for about two or three months,” he reveals. “As with a lot of auditions, you audition and then put it on the back burner until you hear back. When you hear back you bring it to the front and work your butt off to work hard on it again.”
Cornett shares the day in the life of being an actor involves going through so many different audition processes and not knowing what the future may hold for you. “You kind of get used to auditioning and then putting it in the back of your mind and not getting too attached until you know more about it,” he says. “Yeah, I auditioned for Ricky and then didn't hear anything for a couple of months and then they brought me back in for E.J. and it was about a solid two-month process of going through multiple auditions and multiple reads with producers and the creators of the show and just Disney in general.” Cornett found out he would be portraying E.J. in December of 2018 and started filming the first season just months later.
During the first show’s first season, Cornett’s character gets himself caught up in a love triangle. Soon after Nini Salazar-Roberts -- played by Olivia Rodrigo -- breaks up with Ricky, she forms a new relationship with E.J. However, their relationship quickly takes a turn when E.J. gets jealous of Ricky getting cast as Nini’s love interest, Troye Bolton, in the school play. He goes on to do some questionable things throughout the first half of the season but later on proves that he has good intentions deep down.
Cornett describes E.J. as a “good guy,” even if viewers might not feel the same way all the time. “He makes some mistakes and gets himself into trouble and is not the best at times in season one, but in season two you really start to see that he really is a good-hearted guy and really wants the best for everyone,” he explains. “I think that's something that I can relate to him with. In anything, I try to think about how it is going to affect others and impact others, and I just always want to do my best to be uplifting other people and giving other people positive energy and positive motivation. EJ really cares and loves with his whole heart. I'm a very caring person; when I care about something, I put everything into it.”
Cornett believes that Season 2 will showcase the softer side of his character. And like a lot of people in E.J.’s situation, he realizes he's not really ready for his high school experience to be over. “E.J.'s going through a lot. He's a second-semester senior, so he's trying to figure out what's next for his life and what the next chapter is,” Cornett explains. “He's trying to take that moment of having no relationship to self-reflect and look back at himself and figure out who he is and where he comes from and realize that he doesn't have to put on this fake persona, as I said in a real-life scenario.”
As most can imagine, making the second season was a totally different experience from creating the first. After shooting the first couple of episodes, the global coronavirus pandemic put everything on hold, and changes were made when it was safe for everyone to return to work. “We had to wear a mask for every rehearsal and the only time you're not wearing a mask is when the cameras are rolling,” Cornett says. Off-screen, the cast is super close and still kept in touch with one another when they weren’t able to see each other. “When we came back, it was almost like nothing had changed chemistry-wise between all of us,” he states, adding “We had zoom meetings every single week just to check in with each other and talk and just see each other's faces and that was really nice. So, coming back it was like we had never really stopped because we were still talking all the time.”
Cornett is aware that High School Musical is an iconic trilogy of films that are important to a whole generation. Initially, he was worried the mockumentary wouldn’t perform well but soon cared more about the series being portrayed as a cheap remake of the films: “I was more nervous of disappointing those people, and those people being mad thinking we're trying to recreate these films when in reality we're not. We're really paying respects to the movies because in the show we live in a world where the movies are iconic and are such a big deal. I think that's something that we wanted to focus on, is to pay respect to it while also giving the show its own two legs.”
Since the success of the show, Rodrigo has gone on to pursue a music career that is certainly in demand. Her debut single, Drivers License, was an instant hit in January 2021 and became the fastest song to reach 100 million streams. Her debut album, SOUR, is highly anticipated and will drop a week after the second season’s release date, on April 21. Bassett is also keen to be a pop star and has already put out a 6-track self-titled EP. When asked if Cornett has plans to follow in their footsteps, he was very open to the idea. “I would love to do music at some point. I mean, right now acting is definitely my focus, but I have been working a little bit here and there on trying to write a song and getting some tips from Josh and Olivia on writing and music arrangements. Sometimes I'll send Josh a little clip of something I came up with on the guitar or some kind of lyric, and get his opinion on it,” he shares. “I would love to focus a little bit more on music at some point down the road when I get a little bit more experienced with it. I'm still new to it. This show was the first quote-unquote professional experience with music for myself. So, I think the more experience I get the more I would love to dive into it and work on it. I'm trying to write a song right now so we'll see how long that takes and when that actually comes out.”
As for more acting, Cornett already has something new in the pipeline. While staying tight-lipped, he mentions that he has been working on a “super fun project” that is “something different” for himself. A long-term career goal of his is to do more films. “I've only done a few films here and there and I think film is something that I would love to do more of throughout my career. I really would love to do some kind of hardcore action film. I think that would be so much fun to dive into.”
One thing he would like to achieve by the end of the year, however, is definitely something completely different. “After we finished filming season one, my goal was to be able to do the splits by season two, that didn't happen because I got lazy and stopped stretching. But I have been stretching almost every day since we finished season two; doing stretches to try to get the splits. So, my goal is by the time we start a hopeful season three. We don't have any news yet, but hopefully, we're keeping our fingers crossed by that time-if and when that time comes- I'll be able to do the splits.” Once this aim has been achieved, Cornett, whose social media following is rapidly growing, insists he will prove it by sharing a snapshot to Instagram. It goes without saying that this is just the beginning for Cornett. While staying incredibly humble and grateful, he knows where he wants to take his career next and knows that he will continue to achieve his dreams as long as he stays true to himself.