Degrassi girls gone mild
BY Marc Weisblott January 30, 2008 14:01
Today on the Scroll: Preparing to party like a child star with aging Gen X-era Degrassi chicks at Bloor and Bathurst
What to make of a flyer promoting a 1980s dance party Friday night (Feb. 1) at the Annex Wreck Room (794 Bathurst) with DJs featuring Spike & Caitlin of Degrassi Junior High?
They cant be doing it for the glory Jr. High was 20 years and two Degrassi series ago. But, also, werent these actresses playing teen girls that were sorta sullen? Well, they mustve been good at it, because theyre still playing those parts today.
Stacie Mistysyn and Amanda Stepto revived their recurring roles of Caitlin and Spike when Degrassi: The Next Generation premiered on CTV in 2001, a winking gesture of continuity now into its seventh season. But the lifelong friends are also in the process of pitching a series of their own (which they may or may not star in), and the inevitable Sex and the City-esque thing is guaranteed to amuse, because the thirtysomething characters will be forced to grapple with their past lives as Canadian teen actors.
Fear not, the pair wont be plugging in their moody ’80s iPod playlists to film scenes for a reality show. Since theyve already spent their whole adult lives being recognized for their Degrassi past, Mistysyn and Stepto arent looking to revive some demi-celebrity status a la The Two Coreys. After all, theyre still playing the same parts on a franchise that dates back to the early-’80s series, The Kids of Degrassi Street.
Caitlin wasnt known as Caitlin back then, but Mistysyn auditioned the part after seeing a Kids Wanted flyer at Bloor Collegiate where she was in the enrichment program despite living at Woodbine and Gerrard and mightve gotten the role because of her lispy speaking voice, induced by a gap in her front teeth. Stepto grew up in Mississauga, and she was attending the Etobicoke School For the Arts when she got a tryout in 1987 for Degrassi Junior High in her Doc Martens and safety pin wardrobe, and hair that already came pre-spiked.
I was something of a punk snob, recalls Stepto. And thats really who I am, still. Not everyone knows that Im heavily tattooed, because if Im auditioning to play the 38-year-old best friend at the wedding, Ive got to look like Ive toned things down. Im so proud that I used to do that with my hair, though, I still think it was a pretty rad look to have.
Before long, Spike was knocked up by her mumbling boyfriend Shane. And the character had more stressful issues to deal with than whether some deadbeat adoptive dad liked her indie-rock mixtapes a la Juno. The petulant portrayal earned its share of empathy from viewers, who even sent baby clothes and toys for fictional offspring Emma.
I was playing this slutty character on TV and some people couldnt separate me from the show, says Stepto. But I had an attitude anyway. This gave me a good excuse to throw it around.
Following the Degrassi High reunion movie in 1992, a surreal sex and drugs-laden postscript called Schools Out, Stepto spared herself the Hollywood ambitions instead, she was around Toronto, often available to be gawked at.
Its funny reading online about sightings that never actually took place, she says. A story about how some guy slid up to me in a bar, and asked me to do this thing that I supposedly do, and then I said I wasnt going to do it to him.
But overactive imaginations are no match for the banal reality of her existence.
Ill get recognized on the TTC, theres really no choice but to be friendly, when youre trapped in a confined space.
Mistysyn spent over a decade in Los Angeles, though, as a relationship kept her there until fall 2006. Shed come back to film those occasional appearances as the grown-up temptress on Degrassi: The Next Generation even as Hollywood wasnt offering a huge shot.
The character of Caitlin was revealed to be a long-time object of desire for convenience-store clerk Kevin Smith, though, in the pages of Details magazine. Mistysyn was even floated the lead role in the movie Mallrats, which went to her American quasi-counterpart Shannen Doherty.
Who got the better end of that deal, then?
I flipped past a show where Shannen was pulling pranks on people, says Mistysn. And it was supposedly a friend of hers, who was being accused of causing a car accident, with the victim looking for revenge. This was the most horrifying thing Id ever seen. The friend is visibly shaken up and distraught, and Shannen is cracking up at the whole thing.
Kevin Smiths enthusiasm for Degrassi was consummated when he appeared in a 2005 episode arc that planted him in a love triangle between Caitlin and Joey Jeremiah. Jay and Silent Bob do Degrassi was a novel twist, again reigniting interest in the Next Generation series for those old enough to remember the first one. But a relatively successful filmmaker profanely professing his unabated real-life lust for a teenage television character became a bit too pathetic by the time he was in his mid-30s with a wife and child.
My attitude was, well I didnt completely understand it, says Mistysyn. Nonetheless, she recommends the DVD of those episodes, where she attempts to make sense of it on the commentary track.
From a distance, the biggest distinction between ’80s Degrassi and the one today is how much more fashionable everyone looks. There was a lower-middle-class dowdiness to the original series that accentuated the despair experienced by the likes of Spike and Caitlin. Not that anyone ever likened Degrassi to an Ingmar Bergman movie, but where did the gloom go?
The shows creator and executive producer Linda Schuyler swears it’s still there, and the sexier outfits reflect how fashion has become more of a priority in high school, even among kids who cant always afford it.
Theres still a lot of diversity, she says. Thats part of our mandate. But television has changed a lot, too. Back then, we were working on smaller budgets, and it was more of a low-rent production overall.
Degrassi: The Next Generation has now been around for twice as long as its precursor it’s about to air its 140th episode, which is twice as many as the 80s junior high and high-school incarnations combined. The success has partly been fueled by Viacom-owned teen niche cable network The N, which made Degrassi: TNG its flagship show. But, dissecting its broadcast ratings on home turf, TV critic blogger Bill Brioux wonders if its time to stick a fork in the franchise, as ratings are more middling than most people would think.
What hasnt changed it that were fearless in how we approach subject matter, she says. And fearless is not the same as sensational. The other thing that has remained the same is we dont bring in day players to carry an important storyline. If we want to address something like a gay character dealing with his sexuality, we always make a point of drawing from the cast we already have.
The latest example of art imitating life and back again is Degrassi: The Next Generation star Adamo Ruggeiro on the cover of local magazine Fab, explaining how his own experience was similar to that of his character Marco, only that the scripts werent always in synch with his experience.
Of course, that becomes fodder for the tabloid-industrial complex, which really didnt exist back in the heyday of Caitlin and Spike but has provided plenty of platforms to promote the current stars of Degrassi none of whom are likely to stir up scandal that belies their small-screen characters a la Jamie Lynn Spears and so what does the woman who started it all think?
Oh, I dont know,” Schuyler replies. “Im just doing what Ive tried to do all along, and thats try and come up with a few good stories of our own.
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