How this Bayview boy next door graduated from Degrassi and became Canadas hottest new heartthrob

Jake Epstein
How this Bayviewboy next door graduated from Degrassi and became Canadas hottest new heartthrob

by Robin Heron

TWENTY-YEAR-OLD JAKE EPSTEIN sits in the lounge of the Drake Hotel, casually dressed, with a hat pulled low over his forehead. Although it’s nearly noon, this is an early morning interview for Jake, who spent the previous evening celebrating the opening of his new Fringe festival play The Dream.

Its basically a modern version of A Midsummer Nights Dream, and Im playing the Lysander character, Epstein says. We had our opening night last night, and it was nuts. I could probably use a coffee, he laughs.

Theres no question Epstein is a charmer, and the role of handsome, but troubled Lysander seems perfect for him. Epstein, who grew up in Bayview, and returns here in the summer, played Craig Manning on Degrassi: The Next Generation, the shows resident rebel without a cause. An attractive lad with a hidden side.

He seems to be just what Hollywood is looking for in their new crop of young leading men. So it was no surprise when Epstein snagged a role as a distressed high school jock in the upcoming film Charlie Bartlett, starring Hope Davis and Robert Downey Jr., due out this August.

Its Epsteins first plunge into the world of major motion pictures and if he can attract the same rabid following he did on Degrassi, hes sure to make a splash.

Epstein credits his parents, lawyer Ian Epstein and award-winning childrens author Kathy Kacer, with giving him the support necessary to stay grounded and succeed in the entertainment business.

Theyre the most important people ever, says Epstein. With both me and my sister, theyre just always there for us.

The role is clearly a step up to the next level of acting, a career that Epstein credits his older sister Gabi with helping him pursue.

In the beginning, I was a total jock, says Epstein. All I did was play soccer and hockey and basketball, but then my sister had auditioned for Claude Watson School for the Arts, and I found out that you got to miss a day of school for the audition, so I was like, Im there!

It was at Claude Watson that Epstein was matched with a mentor drama teacher, Paul Comeau, who sent him on his first audition for a Soulpepper Theatre production of Our Town at the Royal Alexandra Theatre.

I think I was just an outgoing kid, so I got it, and then through that I got an agent, says Jake. Everything just started from there.

Shortly after Our Town came

. Epsteins five-year stint as the troubled character Craig put him on the map as a well-known Canadian actor and Gemini Award winner. But at the time of his audition, he had no idea of the success that was to follow.

My agent at the time was like, It might not be that big, he says. I had never seen an episode of the original Degrassi, so I had to lie in my audition and say that I had. The funniest part was that I had all these intense scenes with Pat [Mastroianni] and everyone else was freaking out because they were doing scenes with Joey Jeremiah, and I think I got the part because I was calm. I had no idea who he was.

Epstein says the role of Craig immediately appealed to him and he saw it as a way to expand his acting experience, and work with well-known Canadian talent.

I loved the character, and I knew Id get to work with Bruce McDonald in my first episode, and hes just a legendary Canadian director, the coolest guy, so I really wanted to do that, says Epstein. My character at the beginning of the show was intense. Id never done anything like that before. In the first episode hes getting abused by his dad. I just went with it because I wanted to take the challenge.

Epstein has high praise for the show, and its handling of teen issues. He says the feedback he has received from fans over the years has greatly added to his experience on Degrassi. What is so great about the show is that it deals with some incredibly serious, relevant issues in the world, he says. My character is bipolar, and Ive gotten some amazing letters from people saying they really related to it. Its nice. Its good to feel like there is some purpose behind it.

While on Degrassi, Epstein continued to attend Earl Haig Secondary School and tried to live his life as much like a normal teen as possible. This was a difficult balance, but he had supportive teachers to help him along the way.

Its interesting because its like I went to two high schools, he says. I went to Earl Haig, and I went to Degrassi. Literally, I got this role in Grade 9, and I was growing up in front of everyone. I had a few awkward years there, and it was definitely a little strange for a long time.

Epstein says he made a conscious effort to make time to involve himself in high school extracurricular activities, socialize with friends and pursue music with his bands Mind the Gap and Funkasaurus Rex.

I still wanted to have that real high school experience, he says. As soon as Degrassi finished, I didnt audition for anything else all through high school. I didnt want to be that kid who is always gone and then grows up screwed-up because he didnt get to have a real life when he was younger.

It was during his time in high school that Epstein first discovered his love of writing and directing plays, and he was involved in several school productions. Upon graduation, he applied and was accepted into the National Theatre School of Canada in Montreal.

Probably the biggest decision of my life thus far was going to theatre school, says Epstein. I left the show actually. After doing it for five years, I just felt like I didnt care about money or things like that. I just thought you only go to university once, and I didnt want to lose out on that university experience.

Epstein is now going into his third year of school and says that, although the program is challenging, he has been able to hone his craft and gain experience in many areas of theatre production.

Although Epstein has been busy and living away from Toronto during the school year, he has still managed to clear time in his schedule for an occasional guest spot on Degrassi.

Luckily I still have a good relationship with the producers there, and theyve invited me back every summer, he says. I was there last summer, and at the end of this summer I think Im going to do another stint there. I love them. They keep throwing me these amazing storylines. I think my character is just going to get better.

Along with shaking up things with his characters return to Degrassi, Epstein spent last summer filming his first movie role in the high school comedy Charlie Bartlett a film about a rich teen who falls into the role of psychiatrist for the student body of his new school.

I play the captain of the football team, he says. It was awesome. I practiced with the football team for two months because I wanted to look like I actually played.

Epstein says getting to work with Robert Downey Jr. (who plays the high school principal) was the most valuable part of the experience for him as an actor.

I was just taking in everything I could, Epstein says. Watching him work is always sort of a party. Hes always schmoozing and talking, and he improvises his lines. Hes got a charm. Its really cool to see. It wasnt just when the camera was rolling that he put on this character. Its all the time.

And whats next for Epstein now that hes cracked the big-time? My sister Gabi is a singer and she was talking about maybe moving to New York when Im finished school, so its definitely an option, says Epstein. Ive got a lot to learn still, but Id love to write. Id love to direct. Id love to do more acting. Im just going to keep on having fun and see where that takes me.

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