School of hard knocks : Young actors face big challenge in Degrassi: The Next Generation

School of hard knocks | The Record.com

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School
of hard knocks
Young
actors face big challenge in Degrassi: The Next Generation

Saturday October 27,
2001
Joel Rubinoff
RECORD STAFF


K-W actress Chrissy
Schmidt on the set with Degrassi veteran Pat Mastroianni, during
shooting of the new series.

TORONTO —
It’s three days before the premiere of one of the most anticipated sequels in
Canadian TV history. And as the eager young cast of Degrassi: The Next
Generation hunkers down for lunch in the Toronto building that serves as the
fictional Degrassi Community School, a familiar voice rises above the din.

“It sucks man!” barks Pat Mastroianni, who played fedora-clad smart-aleck
Joey Jeremiah on the original series. “I don’t know why they bothered wasting
this money. These kids should be in school right now. ”

He turns to a 13-year-old member of the new cast: “Where are you gonna be
in 10 years?”

He is, of course, joking. For Mastroianni — a rabble-rousing presence even
at 29 — is proof that 10 years after a stint on Degrassi, the likeliest
answer to that question is . . . back on Degrassi.

And after reviving his wisecracking alter ego on the recently aired reunion
special, Mastroianni has stopped by not to heckle those who would follow in
his footsteps but to wise them up.

Like Carson to Leno, like Kirk to Picard, it’s a task for which he is
uniquely qualified.

“You know how many times I’m driving along and people are shouting and
honking on the horn?” he says with bemused tolerance as a new generation of
actors hangs on every word.

“One of the things that gets me a little bit is when people bark at me like
a dog and go ‘Hey, you’re a jerk.’

“You say ‘Yeah, you’re absolutely right.’ Don’t get defensive — what do
you care what they think? Don’t even sweat it. Ninety nine per cent of the
time it’s going to be like ‘Hey, can I have your autograph?’ ”

If it seems presumptuous for the creators of a series — that at the time
of this interview had yet to hit the airwaves — to recruit not only
Mastroianni but a professional therapist to coach their cast, rest assured
there is good reason.

The award-winning original — which ran from 1979 to 1992 as The Kids of
Degrassi Street, Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High — aired in 100
countries, won a slew of awards and spawned a cult following that has grown
exponentially since the show went off the air.

Bolstered by a proliferation of fan-generated Web sites, Spike, Joey,
Caitlin, Wheels and Snake have become part of Canadian TV mythology.

Why all the fuss? Facing off against primped-up pretenders like Beverly
Hills 90210 and Saved by the Bell, Degrassi was the real deal — examining
issues like teen pregnancy, abortion, bullying, shoplifting and drug abuse in
a realistic, non-condescending way. No preaching, no lectures, no adult
interference.

In the echelon of teen shows with a message, Degrassi was the Beatles.

The question naturally arises, how do you top the Beatles?

“It makes me very scared,” admits Linda Schuyler, a former London, Ont.,
school teacher and co-creator of both Degrassi series.

“Because for some of the diehard fans, it doesn’t matter how good a job you
do. If we could have come back in a time warp with Snake and Joey all still in
high school, that’s what would have made them the happiest.”

She pauses. “But we can’t do that.”

We’re on a classroom set — indistinguishable from the real thing — down
the hall from Schuyler’s office. And as camera people fidget and fuss with
their equipment, the new crop of young actors run through a scene.

“This test is going to be brutal,” says the Grade 8 bully known as Spinner,
devising a scheme to get sick and miss it. “So I was thinking . . . ”

“Cut.” The director approaches. “That line you really gotta sell, ” he
tells 15-year-old Shane Kippel. “Cause that’s what it’s all about — getting
out of this deadbeat school. Let’s see the idea grow on your face.”

The actors take their position, the camerapeople recalibrate their lenses
and . . . “Action.”

“This test is gonna be brutal,” says Spinner, much more convincingly.

“Spinner, if you have any stupid ideas, I don’t want to hear them,” says
his perky classmate, Paige. “And getting sick on purpose qualifies.”

As she speaks, Spinner’s 14-year-old classmate, Terri (K-W’s Chrissy
Schmidt), walks in sniffling from a cold with a steaming cup of tea.

“Chrissy, hold the cup higher,” says the assistant director, halting
filming for a moment.

She holds the cup higher.

“Action.”

Chrissy sneezes on cue.

“Bless you,” says Spinner, rushing to her side.

When the teacher tells Terri to get rid of her drink, Spinner swoops it up
like a country gentleman, runs his finger along the cup’s germ-ridden lid, and
— ugh — licks it.

“Looked pretty good, guys,” says the assistant director, ready for another
go. “Let’s keep it moving, though.”

It will be four more takes before the crew takes a break.

No one, perhaps, is more surprised at the prospect of a Degrassi sequel
than Schuyler, who likens the experience to giving birth to a new family.

“If you had told me this day would come I would have said, ‘You’re crazy —
I’m finished, I’m done,’ ” says the fiftysomething matriarch, who refers to
the casts of both series as her “kids.”

“It had come to a natural end. I was convinced that was it. I had done my
adolescent storytelling.”

But life — and economics — have a way of foiling even the most determined
expectations.

And when Schuyler’s two post Degrassi series, Liberty Street and Riverdale,
flopped while Degrassi reruns shot through the roof, the writing was on the
chalkboard, so to speak.

Besides, a lot had changed since the late ’80s.

“The young people I’m dealing with today have access to so much more
information than they did 15 years ago,” notes Schuyler.

“To even mention the word ‘condom’ then was considered groundbreaking. But
just because teenagers have more information today doesn’t mean they’re more
savvy. It doesn’t mean they’re any more equipped to make judgements and
decisions.”

And so the new series — linked to the original through Spike’s now
12-year-old daughter, Emma — explores not only millennial issues like
cyberstalking and Internet porn but classic standbys like bullying,
self-esteem and drinking.

“Our hope is that we’ll be able to do what we did the last time,” says
Schuyler. “It would be terrific if we could see another generation of kids
grow up on Canadian TV.”

But as Schuyler and everyone else is aware, the original series casts a
long shadow.

Even as I write this, twentysomething fans of the original are sharpening
their critical scalpels, preparing to chow down on a show one loyalist
describes as “more polished, more slick and more middle class” than its
predecessors.

“I honestly do not think it will ever capture the magic of the original
show,” says Mark Polger, a University of Waterloo grad who runs a Degrassi fan
Web site, degrassi.org

“It’s a different time, a different director.”

The new cast and crew know there is a lot at stake, that history precedes
them.

And on this cloudy fall afternoon, fears of a backlash are, if not top of
mind, bubbling somewhere just below the surface.

“I feel like we have to live up to a lot,” says Ryan Cooley, who plays J.T.
“Because the old Degrassi was just so big in Canada.”

But for other cast members the original series is ancient history, a relic
of the shoulder-padded, poofy-haired Flashdance era.

“It’s so different now,” says Lauren Collins, who plays Paige. “People need
to realize it’s not the ’80s.”

Kippel agrees: “It’s the Internet now. We have computers, modern
technology, everything’s just more up-to-date.”

So far, reaction has been positive, cast members say. At an advance
screening of the premiere episode a few nights earlier, there wasn’t a dry eye
in the house.

“When I looked around every single person was crying,” says Schmidt. “It
was really cool. We all worked so hard on it.”

The real issue of concern, say the media-savvy cast, is competition in the
7 p.m. time slot from the teen reality show Supermodels and the Simpsons
offshoot, Futurama.

“Hmm,” muses a deadpan Kippel. “Maybe I’ll have to drift over from Degrassi
to Futurama on the commercials.”

Back in the cafeteria, an animated Mastroianni — a hairless, slightly
stockier version of his cafeteria-streaking alter-ego — is concluding his pep
talk.

“You’re actors,” he tells the new cast like a concerned older brother.

“You have no responsibility to the public. You guys are paid to play
characters on TV and not to let people know what’s going on in your private
lives. Don’t say anything that’s too personal.”

And then, with a smart aleck grin: “You guys are going to be the voices of
this generation. You’re representing the Degrassi name and reputation . . .
DON’T SCREW IT UP!”

Kitchener-Waterloo Record 2000
225 Fairway Road
South,
Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, N2G
4E5
519-894-2231

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