‘Freaky Friday’ Musical Reboot Stars Cozi Zuehlsdorff & Heidi Bickenstaff on Revamping the Classic Story

David Bukach/Disney Channel

There have been plenty of takes on the classic body-swapping storyline in Freaky Friday, but Disney Channel’s newest is something special.

Based off of the 2016 stage adaptation from Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey (which in turn was based off of Mary Rodgers’s original story), this version brings musical numbers and heartfelt emotions centerstage.

Starring Cozi Zuehlsdorff as teenager Ellie, and Heidi Bickenstaff as high-strung mom Catherine (reprising her role from the original stage version!), strap in for a wild ride of parent-teen bonding, hormones and upbeat song and dance.

Bickenstaff and Zuehlsdorff gave us all the Freaky scoop.

First off, do either of you have a favorite former Friday?

Bickenstaff: I personally stayed away. I’ve never watched any of them. I know, it’s a little crazy. The one I have the most relationship with is the initial novel, but all of the films, generationally, I was a little young and then a little too old. When this happened, I then purposefully stayed away from it because we were making something new and I wanted to come at it from a really fresh perspective.

Zuehlsdorff: I watched the Jodie Foster–Barbara Harris version years ago, before I got the audition. And then when I received the audition, I made a point of not watching the Lindsay Lohan–Jamie Lee Curtis version because ours had to be so different. And it was important to remember that we were playing each other’s versions of the characters, not the Lindsay interpretation of the Jamie character, you know?

Bickenstaff: People love those movies though. There’s such an expectation going in that I think our safest play is to do something completely unique. Because if we tried to emulate another performance, we’re dead in the water. Our show is so different from anything that’s come before us, not only because it’s a musical, but also because it takes a deeper emotional dive.

It definitely does. What can you say about that dive for viewers?

Zuehlsdorff: You hear a little bit [in other versions] that the dad passed away, but you never really hear them talking about it. In ours, it’s the biggest theme in the movie.

Bickenstaff: It’s the driving force for both of these characters and why they behave the way that they do.

Zuehlsdorff: It’s important too, because kids can handle a lot more than we think they can. I don’t think they’ve been able to identify with people who have dealt with the same things they have for awhile. Sometimes the problems are a lot smaller [on screen]. These problems are a lot deeper.

What is Catherine and Ellie’s relationship like?

Bickenstaff: I think it’s incredibly fraught. We meet them when Catherine is on the verge of re-marrying after they’ve lost her husband, Ellie’s father. It’s been several years, and instead of coming together in their grief, they tore apart. And it was all at an integral part of Ellie’s growing up process. She’s becoming a young adult, but she’s also dealing with an unbelievable grief in her life. And I think Catherine is such a do-er that she’s like, ‘Let’s just move forward! Let’s just more forward and I’m going to do do do do do and I’m going to organize and I’m going to make sure this family keeps their head above water.’ And I think Ellie needed to stop, but Catherine couldn’t.

Zuehlsdorff: To put it even another way, Ellie’s sarcastic, rebellious; she’s messy; and she’s really brave and strong. Catherine is really powerful. She’s really good at multi-tasking and controlling things to keep everybody safe. That’s her driving force, to keep everyone safe after she lost her husband. But I’d say her fatal flaw is that it almost makes her afraid, like she’s acting out of fear.

What do you think are the biggest challenges that Ellie and Catherine face when they’re in each other’s shoes?

Bickenstaff: What’s interesting is, we spend most of this adventure in each other’s bodies. So, for all intents and purposes, I spend 90% of the movie as Ellie, and she spends 90% of the movie as Catherine, so we got to know those characters incredibly well. Ellie is such a loveable spaz, I think what she realizes she has taken for granted is how hard her mother really works and how difficult it actually is to be a parent.

And I think Ellie, when living in Catherine’s shoes, sees for the first time that she’s not just a nag. She’s not just yelling for no reason. She’s not just stressed out because she has issues. Her issues are real. By spending that day in her mom’s shoes, she really has new empathy and compassion for what her mom goes through day to day to day.

Zuehlsdorff: For Catherine, she’s been a teenager before. She knows who she is and she’s completely equipped. And then, she’s in Ellie’s body and–wham–hormones, man, hormones. She feels like a hot mess. She has all these emotions she can’t control, and it’s really funny to watch her explore that. Especially in the song “Biology.” That’s my favorite part of the movie because you’re really watching this strong, powerful woman falling apart because being a teenager is just so darn emotional and difficult.

Since, as you said, each of you played the other’s character for most of the movie, what was the audition process like?

Bickenstaff: I was lucky. I did not audition. In the theater business, you sometimes get a magical phone call. I’ve been doing shows and building relationships for more than 20 years in New York. Disney Channel came to see us when we were doing the La Jolla Playhouse. Miraculously, I was asked to do the movie musical, which I have to say, is truly a miracle. It is incredibly rare that a theater actor will build something and then also be taken to do the film version. We’re unicorns! So, I got to go to Los Angeles and test with Cozi and see if we were a match–and it turns out we were!

Zuehlsdorff: Usually when you audition, you have a few pages of script that you audition with. I had 26 pages. You have to be able to go through so much and play two separate characters. So it’s really double the responsibility. I had a lot of fun in the audition messing with that. When I played Ellie in the audition, I had my sleeves rolled up and I’d be slouching and my hair would look different. And then when they said, ‘Alright. Awesome. Let’s move onto Catherine.’ I’d roll down my sleeves and button them at the bottom and just take a moment, move my hair and stand straight. Those kind of touches, I think–a lot of people have been asking if it’s a lot of pressure and I think I’m so zen about ‘If it’s not my job, I won’t book it. If I’m meant to have this, I will book it.’ I just kind of went in with that freedom of, ‘Who knows?!’ and because of that I found it super fun to go in and try to create two different characters. Of course, after I was cast Catherine totally changed because of Heidi and I was like, ‘Wait, that’s not the way she plays Catherine.’

Wait, how different was your Catherine?

Zuehlsdorff:: It wasn’t that different, it was more, ‘I think this is how a control freak mom acts.’

Bickenstaff: And then you met an actual control freak mom!

Zuehlsdorff: No [laughs], but I did meet your interpretation though. It wasn’t that different, but it wasn’t Heidi’s portrayal. I stalked Heidi on YouTube, like hardcore, to make sure I was as informed as I could be about how she moves her hands and the tone of her voice and her inflection and different things. This was all nerd homework for me.

Now it’s not just these two ladies in the family… there’s also Ellie’s little brother and Catherine’s son, Fletcher (Jason Maybaum).

Zuehlsdorff: He’s coming for all of our jobs.

Bickenstaff: He’s going to rule the world. He also plays Levi on Raven’s Home on Disney Channel, so he’s already working more than any of us.

Zuehlsdorff: If you turn on your TV, he’s also in like every national commercial too.

Bickenstaff: He’s so funny and so smart. He will do whatever he wants to do in the world whenever he decides. And if that’s be an actor, he’ll do that. But he’s also incredibly interested in filmmaking.

Zuehlsdorff: …gifted in cinematography. One of the shots that he sat on the dolly and focused is in our movie.

Bickenstaff: Tell the story of the photo shoot.

Zuehlsdorff: Are you ready for this? We were sitting there. It was specifically Jason and I. We were sitting together in a portrait together in the lifestyle shoot for the poster and other advertising material. We were standing there, staring at each other, in profile, and we’re smiling. And then mid-smile, imperceptible to anyone else but me, he looks at me and says, “cheat out.”

Bickenstaff: Because he’s such a little pro.

Zuehlsdorff: He’s 10. 10! And then when we shot the movie, he told me because he couldn’t do a specific stunt that he was 38 lbs.

Bickenstaff: And there was a dog, an enormous dog if you saw – 150 lbs.

Zuehlsdorff: And he was walking that dog.

Freaky Friday, Movie Premiere, Friday, August 10, 8/7c, Disney Channel