BY MISHA DAVENPORT Staff Reporter
It’s been a great year for the kids at Degrassi High, the fictional setting of “Degrassi: The Next Generation.”
The show is currently seen in more than 50 countries, and in the past year has become a cult hit on the N cable network, where episodes air on Fridays. ‘Degrassi’ recently won a Television Critics Association award for best children’s series.
“Degrassi” has managed to develop a core teen audience in part because of its realistic portrayal of issues facing many teens like date rape, eating disorders, gay bashing and school shootings — all told within the setting of a fictional high school in Canada.
Two of the stars of the hit series, Miriam McDonald (Emma Nelson on the show) and Ryan Cooley (JT Yorke) will be in Chicago on Saturday. We chatted with them about what’s up on Degrassi:
Q. Though “Degrassi” has just recently taken off in the States, in Canada (where the show is produced) “Degrassi” is a television franchise that’s been around for 25 years –The N will even air an anniversary special in September. When you first auditioned for your roles did you have any idea about the show’s place in Canadian television history?
RC. I certainly knew what ‘Degrassi’ was, but when I auditioned I hadn’t seen any of the episodes from the previous series. I –and I’m sure Miriam was the same way — was too young.
MM. Ryan’s right. I knew the show had some history. Of course, I knew the character I play [Emma Nelson] was born on the last series [in the second to last season of ‘Degrassi High’]. The show itself was a new thing for me, though.
RC. I think we definitely knew how popular the previous show was as we were going into the new show, though.
MM. Absolutely. One of the most rewarding parts of being on the show is when we’re on mall tours like the one in Chicago and we get to see how kids really appreciate the show. We all feel so lucky that are fans are so incredibly supportive.
Q. Your show has managed to do something that the previous two series never could: conquer America. Why do you think American teens identify with your show?
MM. I think all teens can relate to the show. Our characters don’t look like they walked out of a beauty parlor. They have flaws and they actually look like they just came out of a classroom.
RC. I think it helps that we are teens playing teens, too.
MM. Absolutely. There’s a certain honesty to our performances because we are kids just trying to be kids.
Q. You both have spent five years on the series. Has it been weird to grow up in front of so many people?
MM. I never really saw myself as ‘growing up.’ I definitely think we all go through phases. There are times in everyone’s life when you’re not so proud of yourself or how you look. To look back at those episodes, yeah, it’s a little scary.
RC. Our jobs weren’t to just grow up, though. Our jobs were to act on a TV show. There’s reality and there’s TV. All and all, it’s been quite an amazing experience.
Q. So you all really get along?
RC. Yes, we’re all really good friends outside the show.
MM. Like any group of friends, there are some people you’re more close to than others, but I don’t think any of us has anything bad to say about anyone else. Nothing to divulge, anyway [laughs].
Q. Miriam, you character Emma is the resident do-gooder and Ryan, your character JT is the class clown. In episodes last season, both of your characters did some things that weren’t so nice. Do you have any say as to what happens to your character?
RC. We don’t have any direct input. Once we get the script, we do a read-though and then talk about the issues.
MM. You need to separate what is going on in the series from what is going on in your life. You are not your character. If you can do that, you can let your inhibitions go.
Q. Can you give us a sneak peek at what will happen to your characters in the fifth season?
R. Let’s see: JT gets thrown into the adult world and has to grow up quickly. There’s an episode where JT and his significant other have to deal with a certain situation.
Q. The series has tackled a lot of issues. Any issue facing teens today that the show hasn’t had an episode about?
RC. We just taped our 100 episodes and I can’t think of a single issue we haven’t dealt with.
MM. There was something I was going to mention, but then I realized we have an episode about it in season five and I don’t want to give too much away. You’ll just have to watch and see.
*Miriam McDonald and Ryan Cooley will sign autographs Saturday from 1-6 p.m. at the Spring Hill Mall, 1072 Spring Hill Mall, West Dundee.
Reruns of the fourth season of “Degrassi: The Next Generation” air Fridays at 7 and 9 p.m. on the N cable network. The fifth season premieres Oct. 7.