Head of the class: A new generation of Degrassi kids carry the torch

Monday, November 15, 2004

Head of the class
A new generation of Degrassi kids carry the torch

By STEPHANIE McGRATH
Toronto Sun

Emma Nelson has been the target of an Internet stalker; has watched her step-father fall ill; had an uncomfortable encounter with her birth father; and endured a wave of turmoil with the object of her affection.

Craig Manning was abused by his dad; moved in with a more trustworthy adult; got in another fight with his dad, who left only to be killed in a car crash; and then found himself in the midst of a messy love triangle that “ends, of course, in the most disastrous way possible,” says Jake Epstein, who knows Craig very well. “And he makes a fool of himself in front of the whole school, the girls dump him and he gets slapped.”

Don’t worry, they’re getting paid to go through their misery, or at least Jake and Miriam McDonald are. The two 17-year-olds play Craig and Emma in Degrassi: The Next Generation.

The show has its roots in the early 1980s with The Kids of Degrassi Street, which transformed into Degrassi Junior High and followed the characters right through to their high school graduation.

The Degrassi universe is as much a part of Canadian history as hockey and saying “eh” and is famous for tackling heavy issues in realistic ways. Both Jake and Miriam respect that tradition.

“I think it’s as popular as it is because people can relate to it,” says Miriam during a lunch break on a school day. “I think it targets more the sort of middle-of-the road as opposed to any of the extremes.

“You look at a show like The O.C. and the only people that can really personally relate to it are the very wealthy ones that live in California. Whereas Degrassi (tackles) issues that kids, basically all over the world, are going to deal with at some point.”

Jake, who’s also taking time out of his noon hour to talk, agrees. “I think fans appreciate that it’s not playing down to them, but it’s treating them like adults. And it’s not sugar-coating a lot of serious issues that teenagers have to go through,” he explains.

But they weren’t always so well-versed in the magnitude of their responsibility in carrying on the Degrassi tradition. Allpop first met Miriam when she was about 13 or 14 years old and hanging out with her castmates, eating lunch and talking about things far removed from the angst-filled Degrassi land.

She was just getting started on the show. She’s grown up a lot since then, but she still admits she has more Degrassi homework to do. “One day I’m going to sit down and watch from the beginning to where we are now,” she says.

Jake, who admits a little white lie helped him land the part, has his sister to thank for a crash course in the show’s history.

“I lied in my audition about that. I said that I had watched it, but I hadn’t actually seen an episode. My sister is a huge fan, though. Then obviously when I got the part I got caught up right away,” he says.

Years have gone by since Miriam went through five call backs to land her part and Jake told an innocent little fib to get his. Now they know Emma and Craig incredibly well. But they’re not bored of their characters and their issue-plagued lives.

“I love all the different dimensions to my character. I love how one episode he’s really nice and then another episode he’s cheating on his girlfriend,” laughs Jake.

” … It’s a roller coaster of emotions and it’s always very exciting. Every episode is a new story or a new problem or a new change.”

Miriam is just happy that Emma, who’s been known to be a bit of a goody-goody, is making some drastic changes, which should spice things up on the set and on televisions this season.

But, as Degrassi fans know, there’s always something troublesome going on in the teen universe anyway. “I just think teenage years are the most exciting years of anyone’s life, it’s a time when people undergo the most change and so it probably makes for the most interesting television,” says Jake.

In January, Spears married childhood friend Jason Alexander in a surprise wedding in Las Vegas. That marriage was annulled 55 hours later.

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