'Degrassi's' got a whole new student body

Friday, September 21, 2001

‘Degrassi’s’ got a whole new student body

TORONTO — It’s just another lunch-hour for the students of Degrassi.

Plates are piled high with salad, fruit, and pasta but the dessert is first to go. Groups of friends congregate at a specific cafeteria table, and conversations range from the U.S. tragedy to an upcoming bar mitzvah to the rumoured ability some people have to bend silverware with mind-power.

Unlike most students though, after they’ve eaten their food and bounced a few basketballs in the gym, these kids will get paid to have melodramatic arguments with their best friends, develop crushes on the boy or girl who sits next to them in class, and deal with some heavy-duty teen issues.

The cast in front of the gym set

This particular group of young teens spend their days shooting scenes for CTV’s “Degrassi The Next Generation”, a continuation of CBC’s cult classic series “Degrassi Jr. High” and “Degrassi High” that’s scheduled to hit television on Oct. 14. Filming takes place in an industrial park in North York, Ont., where the set includes everything you’d expect to find in a school, from classrooms to locker rooms (complete with dirty laundry).

But just because the actors are reading scripts doesn’t mean the situations their characters find themselves in won’t be of use to them when the camera stops rolling.

“I think that doing this show, you learn a lot, because they deal with issues that everybody goes through, and by acting and reading the scripts, us as real people can learn how to react to things when we go through them,” says 13-year-old Ryan Cooley, who plays J.T., the class clown of “Degrassi”.

Ryan’s castmates quickly gather around him, clamouring for their turn to discuss “Degrassi”. Although they may agree with Ryan that the show can provide them with a blueprint of a future crisis, they decide to focus on other, lighter aspects of filming the series.

“The best part is you get to hang around with other kids your age and older than you,” says 13-year-old Sarah Barrable-Tishauer who plays Liberty, the show’s high-achiever and loner. “We have a lot of fun, and the people are really nice.”

If this group of thespians feels any pressure to follow in the footsteps of the actors who carved out the “Degrassi” niche in the first place, they’re not showing it.

Jake Goldsbie says he’s been watching the “old, oops, I mean classic” episodes of “Degrassi”, and to prove it, points out that another character, Ashley (played by Melissa McIntyre), is sort of like “The Next Generation”‘s Stephanie Kaye. (For those of you not familiar with the original, Stephanie was the uber-popular school president).

For 13-year-old Jake, who plays troublemaker J.T.’s best friend Toby, it’s a bit of an honour to take over where Snake, Joey Jeremiah, and Wheels left off.

The cast in front of the “Degrassi” school set

“I think it’s kind of cool, carrying it on,” he says.

Once the others are finished talking about why they’re happy to be on the series, 14-year-old Miriam McDonald decides it’s her turn to speak. A dancer, Miriam stands regally in front of a colourful “Degrassi” mural in the foyer of the school set. Miriam plays Emma, an environmentally minded student who is a very important character on the new show. Where her castmates and friends are giddy and excited, as well as being articulate, Miriam is pleasant and likable but almost all business, and the rest of the cast sits back and listens when she speaks.

“I think that the best part of being on a TV show and acting is the fact that this is a job — and I think I speak for all of us — that we really love doing and we enjoy doing, and for some people, unfortunately, they don’t enjoy their work,” she says.

Ryan and Sarah seem to have no intention of working at a job they don’t like, which is why they are already planning their next career goal.

“I want to continue acting, and I also want to be a pilot,” says Ryan. “So I’m going to try to do both when I grow up, like John Travolta.”

“I’ll continue on with acting as far as it will take me, but I really want to get into being a lawyer or a sales representative or a stock broker,” says Sarah.

Miriam and 12-year-old Cassie Steele, who plays the “betrothed” Manny, sound more certain about sticking with the acting world.

“I really love acting,” says Cassie. “It’s like my favourite thing to do. But I also want to sing and dance, those are other things that I love to do.”

“I want to continue doing ‘Degrassi’ for as long as I can,” says Miriam diplomatically, “and then after ‘Degrassi’, I want to do whatever other acting opportunities I get. If it takes me to Los Angeles, so be it.”

The cast doesn’t have long to chat. Bringing the new show full circle, Siluck Saysanasy — who played Yick Yu on the classic “Degrassi” — works as the children’s co-ordinator and makes sure his young charges are exactly where they need to be. Now, that means Siluck must whisk the cast away from their real adolescent world and into a land of teen-angst magnified for the camera. Lunch-time is over.


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