Degrassi memories old & new for Stefan Brogren
By Blair Matthews – May 3, 2009
Stefan Brogren may not be a household name, but mention the name ‘Snake’ from Degrassi and you’ll likely get a much different response. Brogren probably knows the halls of Degrassi better than anyone – first as a Grade 7 student at Degrassi Junior High in the 1980s, later at Degrassi High, and now as a teacher in the hit Canadian series Degrassi: The Next Generation.
At the time of the Degrassi Junior High auditions Brogren was attending a school for the arts in Toronto. Producers of the show dropped in one day looking for actors for a new Canadian series and held open auditions.
Ironically, Brogren auditioned and read for main character Joey Jeremiah (which was eventually given to Pat Mastroianni). The producers ended up creating a character for Brogren named Archie Simpson (nicknamed Snake).
Brogren says that when the original series was just beginning more than 20 years ago, nobody really knew what was in store for the show. “You kind of go ‘wow, I’m going to be on a tv show’ but you don’t know if it’s going to be a hit or if it’s going to be seen … if it would stay longer than one season is another thing altogether,” he says.
The show was an instant hit with Canadian teen and pre-teen audiences when it debuted on the afternoon of January 18, 1987. Mid-season it was moved to the Sunday evening primetime slot.
Over the next two years the Toronto-based Degrassi Junior High tackled more than its share of pre-teen issues. Everything from drug use, child abuse, teenage pregnancy, homosexuality and divorce – nothing, it seemed, was off-limits. “I think it was their mandate right from the very beginning and we knew that – they were going to take on some heavy stuff. It was pretty clear right off the top that this was going to be ascary show for the characters,” Brogren says.
The core group of characters primarily stayed the same – Joey, Snake, Wheels, Caitlyn, Spike; but a supporting cast of a dozen or so other classmates – including Arthur, Heather & Erica, Yik, Kathleen, and Shane – also played prominent roles. Some came and went, others popped up periodically.
When the characters moved on from junior high to high school, so too did the series as it became Degrassi High.
And the controversy followed.
The first two episodes of Degrassi High sparked controversy over the issue of abortion. Degrassi High character Erica (played by actress Angela Deiseach) was left with a decision that went against her Catholic faith after a summer camp fling left her with an unwanted pregnancy. As she weighed her options, she opted to have an abortion.
Canadian viewers saw the full un-edited episode where Erica battled her way through pro-life protesters outside a downtown Toronto abortion clinic, one of which held up a plastic fetus and chanted, “This is your baby… Can you really kill your baby?” It was an unforgettable Degrassi moment.
In the United States the abortion episode was heavily edited (by PBS) to exclude the clinic scene altogether and no final decision on whether Erica got an abortion was ever made.
For Brogren, the most intense Degrassi moment was the School’s Out movie, a made-for-television movie filmed in 1991, shortly after the tv series wrapped up.
In that movie, Brogren holds the distinction of being the first Canadian actor to use the F word on primetime television, in the most dramatic of scenes. “We actually shot two different versions of (the scene) – in the hopes that we could get away with it depending on the time that it was airing. I don’t think we knew until we saw the finale product on tv that I had actually said the F word. That was pretty cool.”
School’s Out brought Degrassi to yet another level of realism: Wheels (Neil Hope) was arrested and convicted of drunk driving in an accident that killed a 2-year-old boy; Joey cheated on Caitlin and in the process unknowingly knocked up Tessa Campanelli (Kirsten Bourne). There was drinking, pot smoking, and cursing – the Degrassi kids were finally growing up. It was clearly a movie that was intended to wrap up the Degrassi story once and for all.
While filming Schools Out Brogren and Mastroianni commiserated that it wouldnt be long before the characters they had played for years would cease to exist except in re-runs.
“We thought it was the end of the show,” Brogren recalls. “I was kind of looking forward to saying, ‘you know, Degrassi will end, it’ll probably air in re-runs for a couple of years and then everyone will forget about it. No one will know about it anymore, and it was fun while it lasted’,” Brogren remembers thinking. “God knows I didn’t expect it to still be remembered. I thought it would be done by now. I’m very glad that it isn’t.”
These days Brogren looks back on those early days of Degrassi moments – both on and off camera – with fond memories. “There was a scene where Joey comes to fight the bully in the park and Pat, Neil and I had gone to this waterpark the day before. Pat, being italian, had a great tan; Neil and I had pretty bad burns. When the fight was actually happening, we were supposed to pull Joey off the bully – it hurt so much to even move.”
The resurrection of the Degrassi franchise – and the return of Archie Simpson, now a teacherat Degrassi – meant that Brogren and other Degrassi alumni returned to familiar roles, albeit as adults. “For us to get back into it was pretty easy,” Brogren says. “The writers had to decide where these characters were ten years later. They came to the table with the script and said ‘this is what you are now’ and it’s like great, I’m a teacher now.”
Other Degrassi alumni were also re-introduced in the new series: Spike (Amanda Stepto) now married to Snake; Joey Jeremiah (Pat Mastroianni), stepdad of Craig; Caitlin Ryan (Stacie Mistysyn), a national television journalist.
Brogren says that reuniting with cast members he’d worked with 20 years ago was incredibly easy. “Working with Pat, we knew our rhythms, we had the same sense of humour as we did back then. He’s such a great person to work with. I had so much fun working with him again.”
Admittedly, Brogren says he wasn’t surprised that Degrassi was being brought back to television for another run. It had been talked about for several years before it was a done deal.
When Degrassi: The Next Generation aired its first episode on October 14, 2001, it was immediately established that we were now following Emma Nelson (Miriam McDonald) as a teenager – daughter of Spike, who gave birth to Emma in the original series. Along with Emmas classmates, a whole new generation of kids were walking the halls at Degrassi.
Degrassi: The Next Generation has reached levels that the original series never could thanks, in part, to it finding a home on the CTV network in Canada and The N network in the U.S. It’s also available for download on iTunes. Degrassi: The Next Generation recently finished its eighth season.
Brogren says that there are definite similarities and differences between the original Degrassi series and The Next Generation. “When we were dealing with big VHS cameras on our shoulder trying to make little movies in the school, now these kids are making things on their phones. Gossip travels at a ridiculous pace, information travels at a ridiculous pace versus what was going on with us when we were that age. Subsequently there’s more opportunity to get these kids in trouble as far as stories are concerned,” he says. “As much as things change, they stay the same. The stories are very similar in a lot of ways to the original show it’s just how they get there is usually different based on how the world works today. Theres universal stories that kids are going to go through. I think on The Next Generation they just find new and interesting ways of telling those stories. The writers do an amazing job at it.
These days Brogren is enjoying his work on Degrassi from behind the cameras as a producer as well as in front of them.
If someone had told him 20 years ago that he’d be returning to Degrassi as a teacher he would never have believed them. “We used to joke about that stuff. I had no clue (then) that I’d still be involved with the show. They just won’t let me leave, and I thank them for that.