I was 11 in 2003, and finding myself through my oldest sister’s love of classic rock. It was thanks to her that I developed a taste for, as Jack Black’s Dewey Finn would say, killer vocals and shredding guitar. Because of this immediate and all-consuming love, it took less than 30 seconds for me to fall for School of Rock, which came out that same year and crash-landed alongside my growing affection for the riotous stylings of some of rock’s most influential bands: The Beatles, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, you name it. I was hooked. My obsession (and what would become a lifelong dedication) to rock music was a learned passion, much like that of the kids in the film. My sister was my rock mentor, my Jack Black imbuing fairweather pupils with a rock-certified sense of originality and verve. His character’s core belief was in one thing: The power of music. But the kids of School of Rock put that concept into practice better than Black’s wacky lead ever did. They found the parts of rock that made them better, in whatever way was most meaningful for them. Thinking of that as the Richard Linklater and Mike White film celebrates the 18th birthday of its premiere, I tracked down some of the former Horace Green kids to ask them where their characters would be at 18 years old, on the precipice of college, adulthood and a life of music.
After 18 years, School of Rock—which follows the heartwarming story of a conman substitute teacher (Black), as he recruits his prep school class to form a rock band after he’s booted from his own group—has developed a tried and true legacy. It certainly holds its own among the best we have to offer, just like the kids of the film did when they shot it.
Many of them had never acted before, recruited first for their musical abilities. The result is that the roles have become their calling cards, following them on their paths through life, keeping them in the news. In this way, the idea of life and fiction reflecting and influencing each other becomes unmistakable—unavoidable, even. The proof is in the pudding: The conversations I had with each actor were near-meshings of the self and the character.
“It’s an interesting question because Katie wasn’t in the movie when we first got the script. Like, she didn’t exist,” said Rivkah Reyes, who played the shy bassist. “My audition for School of Rock, I read for Joey’s character. The script was completely different when we auditioned and everything.”
“I think they were more concerned with, ‘Can you play this instrument?’ than, ‘Are you an amazing actor?’ because I think Richard Linklater, and [screenwriter] Mike [White], and Jack’s vision for the movie was that these kids are real and are really talented at playing their instruments,” Reyes said. “Katie didn’t exist until I walked into the room and they went, ‘Oh, huh, that little guitar girl’s got something over there.’ So really, that character was built out of myself. At the time, I was really shy, I was really reserved, I was really terrified of everyone around me.”
Two things are for sure: The characters these people—who are now in their late 20s and early 30s, my peers—played were shaped by the very fabric of their lives and, thus, their real life became inseparable from their character, integral to informing that on-screen development and, later, their off-screen futures. Who they saw themselves as when they were kids and how they’ve grown comes, somewhat, from the same place. Knowing that, the imagination trips we went on became that much more special.
“Tomika was going through a stage of being a bit insecure and a little shy, and not as comfortable with her figure and the talent she had, or just not knowing how talented she really is,” said Maryam Hassan, who now goes by the stage name Mayhrenate. “[It made] her feel like, ‘I don’t know if I can really do this.’”
“Now, she knows she’s a star,” the shy-student-turned-soulful-songstress added about where her character Tomika, the shining star of the School of Rock backup singers, would end up. “And she’s giving Beyoncé.” It’s also giving art imitating life. Mayhrenate simply glowed during our conversation, her confidence and fiery personality pulsating through the computer screen.
She also noted that Tomika, who became such a valued part of the band by the film’s end, would have really treasured those connections made through the music. “By default it probably would’ve been the other girls,” Mayhrenate said of Tomika’s closeness with Marta (Caitlin Hale) and Alicia (Aleisha Allen), the other backup singers. “We would’ve all probably stuck together and had our own singers’ community, whether we decided to stay together as a group or do our own thing, but still writing together.”
When one thinks on the teachings of Mr. Dewey Finn, it’s obvious where his influence shines through most: Giving these kids the self-esteem they needed to soar. “I think she becomes Mayhrenate. I think she becomes me,” said the singer, who is releasing her second EP Plush II in the coming months. “I’m definitely comfortable in my skin, comfortable in my artistry. I would say she becomes the real me.”
Allen, who played one of those fellow back-up singers, honed in on her character’s future ambitions through her innate attention to detail. “Alicia may have gone into law and eventually become a detective or something like private investigations. She was so observant! The fact that she picked up on how Mr. S [AKA Dewey Finn] was asserting himself into a ‘project’ that was supposed to be about the students, at, like, nine years old, was wild,” the actress said. “There were definitely holes in his style, and she peeped them right away.”
Gordon, the band’s lighting director, was a softer sort. Z Infante, the actor who played the gifted production designer, believes their character’s talents were shaped and nurtured in Dewey’s class and further propagated throughout their young adulthood, which paid off in their future studies. Their giddy and vibrant demeanor emulated their on-screen counterpart’s fastidious observance and zest for connection.
“Gordon was such a fun and eclectic person in the classroom who was very nerdy and not afraid to be a geek, like really geek out. They definitely would’ve gone into something with graphics and imagery, something about the visuals. They would’ve designed the class yearbook cover, that person who is contributing to the aesthetic,” Infante explained, noting they would have attended “Carnegie Mellon for robotics or Emerson for theatre design.”
“Like me, I think they would’ve stayed close to Billy, because Billy is the look—and who shines the light on the look but the lighting designer?” Infante gushed. “I also think they would’ve stayed close with Marco, the other tech person. There would’ve been a collaboration.”
Speaking of Billy, Brian Falduto—forever known as the band’s brutally honest stylist, unafraid to hit Dewey with the classic “You’re tacky and I hate you” line—also had a pretty clear-cut (and sweetly predictable) vision for his character’s post-Horace Green world.
“By now, Billy would definitely be the next Miranda Priestly, running some sort of fashion empire with a frighteningly intimidating amount of sass and precision. I imagine he’d be very into the genderfluid styles that are emerging and becoming staples of the red carpet and the stage, maybe even becoming a personal stylist for Lil Nas X or [Jonathan Van Ness] or ALOK,” The Gay Life Coach Podcast host said. “He probably would have attended FIT or some other bougie fashion school, living in Williamsburg and being the most adventurous with his fashion choices! I feel like Billy and Summer (Miranda Cosgrove) would still be in touch, just running the world of business and fashion together.”
On the opposite end of the personality spectrum, there was Zack, the band’s shy lead guitarist who was introspective and unsure of his immense talent. Joey Gaydos Jr. told me that his thoughts on his character’s life were open-ended. “I hope that wherever Zack was headed, his love for playing and creating on his instrument remained a guiding light for all his future travels,” he explained. “I think he and the band and crew would always remain close and, just like in real life, they would always be there for each other no matter how much time passes.”
But perhaps the most extensive conversation I had, though, was with the only band member more reserved than Zack-Attack. “I think what ends up happening is, Katie, really, through being in the band School of Rock, breaks out of her shell. She realizes that she can emerge from the back of the classroom and be more in the forefront,” Reyes mused. “Going to college, she ends up going to—I’m gonna say it—I feel like she ends up going to a small Oberlin type school, like an artsy-fartsy school, like Emerson or something, and really finding her people there. I also feel like Katie is just down for whatever so she’s definitely either bi or queer or a lesbian and is just trying whatever.”
“At a certain point,” they said, “maybe Katie makes her way to the front of a band and becomes the frontwoman. In my mind, she becomes a Phoebe Bridgers-esque singer-songwriter and she comes into this emo [phase], writing songs about yearning and her sapphic love affairs.” They added jokingly, “I’m not pulling from any personal experience whatsoever!”
Personal experience is the foundation of what makes these School of Rock characters memorable, even in tragedy. In May, actor and drummer Kevin Clark, who played Freddy Jones, was killed after being struck by a vehicle while on his bicycle. His friends and co-stars graciously shared their connection with Clark, and their memories and insight into his relationship with the film.
Reyes showed me a pair of drumsticks Clark’s mother gifted them following his death. “He was just willing to drum for whoever, whatever project I or one of my friends or one of his many, many friends needed him to be a part of,” they told me. “He was just so fucking talented that he could really make any band sound better. I feel like that is what Freddy ends up doing, being this glue.”
“Freddy would be the rockstar that he is, that Kevin is. I say ‘is’ because Kevin is still with us in spirit. Honestly, I think he would be teaching other kids how to rock out and be a superstar and own their creativity,” said Mayhrenate. “I think he would’ve stuck closest to [Zack]. Their characters were very close-knit in general, especially on set. Definitely still performing, doing shows. He knew he was it, walking in the doors. There’s only one way to go with that type of attitude: Up.”
In Falduto’s eyes, “Freddy would still be our leader when it comes to sticking it to the man,” he added to his peers’ loving chorus. “No one did it quite like he did. I’m sure he’d be going head to head with all the drummers in the greatest bands. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him with an early entry into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.”
“Freddy was such a rebellious character but he, Kevin, knew how to connect people, and I feel like Freddy was very encouraging to everyone—because he wasn’t that way until he got the drums,” Infante explained, eyes closed as they considered the question carefully. “I feel like the drums helped him express himself in a way [the character] never could before because of the way his family treated him. And I think that’s the really beautiful thing about art, you know?”
“Kevin was just so generous, especially later in life,” Infante added. “I think what happens is, childhood acting happens and people get shrouded by the attention, but Kevin was just like ‘Ok, cool,’ but was himself. And was generous of spirit.”
Gaydos’ answer was short, sweet, and powerful—a response that really hits home on the magnitude of Clark’s loss: “His drumming is immortalized through Freddy.”
I think about that word “immortalized” a lot when pondering these characters and these people. Yes, Linklater, White and Black created the world of this film, but these kids truly inhabited it. They brought themselves into the fold and breathed life into the casings, creating this beautiful, inflated thing full of their lives and passions and dreams.
It’s true that this movie is one of the best comedies of the last 20 years; there is little debate over that, at least in the circles I run in. But we wouldn’t still be talking about it, showing it to our kids, or even quoting it if it weren’t for the ragtag band of real kids that made the film what it was: An inspirational coming-of-age rock comedy, a blueprint for who these kids were and would become, a feature-length version of that “What do you want to be when you grow up?” elementary school exercise. All of these things, and everything we see of ourselves in these characters. Just like these actors saw their real-life selves in them first. For those about to rock—or just grow up and become who they are—we salute you.
Lex Briscuso is an entertainment, film and culture writer who eats, sleeps, and breathes exceptional horror, sweeping dramas, and top-notch acting. She is a news desk writer at /Film and has bylines at FANGORIA, The Guardian, Shudder’s The Bite and EUPHORIA. Her horror radio show, YOUR NICHE IS DEAD, is live Mondays 5pm ET. She tweets @nikonamerica.