'Rise': Damon J. Gillespie on Robbie and Lilette's 'Fresh' Romance and Troubles Ahead (Exclusive)


The actor talks to ET about the freshman season so far.

Can a small-town teen really handle it all? On Tuesday's episode of Rise, titled "We've Got All Our Junk," the pressures are mounting for Robbie Thorne (Damon J. Gillespie) as his football future is unraveling and his blossoming relationship with his musical production partner, Lilette (Auli'i Cravalho), begins to ruffle feathers.

"I don't think he's handling it very well," Gillespie tells ET, cautioning that while last week's episode ended with Robbie and Lilette's first kiss, the star quarterback is about to face some major life tests. For one thing, his once well-respected post as leader of the football team is now pulled into question following an embarrassing loss to a rival they've dominated for years. "He's not doing very well. He's keeping it together but things are starting to really fall apart," Gillespie notes.

Ahead of the episode, ET spoke with Gillespie about the season so far, Robbie and Lilette's burgeoning romance and what's to come.

ET: Robbie's been juggling a lot as of late. If it all comes down to an ultimatum, what part of his life -- football, the production of Spring Awakening, family or romance -- do you think he would do?

Damon J. Gillespie: That ultimatum comes sooner than you think. He's one of those people who doesn't like to be told what to do; I can relate to that very, very well. When he is told he has to do something, it's like, "Says who?" That's kind of his mentality. If he really had to choose, I don't think he knows what he would choose. I really don't. I think he'd freeze up, and that's just my opinion. When I was going through this stuff in high school, I was going through everything possible to make [it all] happen -- to keep the football, to keep the dancing, to keep the academics. But there comes a point when you literally can't. 

With Robbie's football life starting to fall apart, what challenges face him in trying to regain his ground? 

For Robbie, football has always been everything. He and his father have worked so hard for him to get to this place, where he's a sophomore but he's the starting quarterback. That, in itself, is amazing. For something like that to be taken away from you, it's devastating.

What is in store for Robbie and Lilette's relationship?

Right now, it's such a fresh relationship. They're still discovering who they are. They're still trying to feel each other out, but it's nice for them to be around each other and to be happy for a little bit. With every relationship -- I don't care if you're in high school or you're an adult -- your parents, at some point, will give their advice on the matter and they will give you some food for thought even though you didn't ask for it. And that can put some stress on the relationship. That's one thing I really like about this episode: You really get to see both sides of the relationship. Neither one of their parents are wrong or being malicious, they're just warning their children: You just have to be aware of the reality of the situation. Because there is a class difference, that can make things harder.

Are they equipped to overcome the external factors that may be threatening their romance?

I think they can handle it. They've gone through much worse, honestly. Ultimately, they really care for each other. It's one of those things where they both challenge each other intellectually and emotionally. Whatever comes their way, they can handle because they've dealt with so much worse in their lives. It won't be easy but they know how to cope and maneuver through it.


Are you rooting for them to make it in the end?

Of course! I was watching episode four and have been keeping up with certain things that fan post, it's one of those things where I never realized how much I would enjoy seeing -- not to be political or anything like that -- people celebrating an African American boy and a Hispanic girl in a normal, functioning relationship as, like, this is the new All-American thing. This is just as All-American as anything you've ever seen. I was talking to my fiancee about it last night, like, that's so cool to me that people are naturally rooting for this couple. I found myself really rooting for Robbie and Lilette too, not only because of that, but because they really are amazing human beings. They're both strong, they're both kind-hearted people who really do lead with their hearts. Who doesn't want to see good people succeed, especially in a relationship? There will be trials and tribulations galore, but I can't help but root for them.

What can viewers expect for the rest of the season?

We get to see Robbie and Lilette go through a relationship, but we also see other characters. We get to learn more about Michael. We get to learn more about Sasha, who comes in later. We get to see a little bit more of everyone's story. We also get to see a different side of Gordy and Gwen. We get to see where Tracey and Lou's relationship goes and how they can butt heads. We get to see how a high school, through everything they're going through, is still working to put on an amazing musical that they really believe in.

Speaking of the Spring Awakening production; at the moment, there are a lot of hiccups Lou and Tracey have to navigate. How surprising will the end result be?

Certain aspects aren't surprising, like, This is what I wanted. There are a couple of twists at the end, but some of these twists are very good and will make you cry, and some of them are bad and will make you cry. Typical Jason Katims show. [Laughs]

Rise airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.