A sort of Degrassi fairy tale

Catherine Dawson March

From Saturday’s Globe and Mail Last updated on Wednesday, Sep. 02, 2009 02:54AM EDT

No one gets stabbed, no one is bullied, no one contemplates an abortion or suicide and no one ends up in a wheelchair. Not in this Degrassi special. This time, the usually angst-ridden cast gets to have some fun.

It’s a fantasy Degrassi , laughs Jake Epstein, whose character Craig in the long-running Canadian TV series left last year to shake a cocaine addiction in rehab. It takes Degrassi into this insane Hollywood universe. It’s crazy, crazy to see!

In the new TV movie Paradise City: Degrassi Goes Hollywood , the cast leaves their Toronto troubles behind: Craig is living the good life in Venice Beach, Calif. Paige (Lauren Collins) works as a celebrity’s personal assistant, but when she gets a big break in a musical, invites Ellie (Stacey Farber) and Marco (Adamo Ruggiero) to hang out at her Beverly Hills mansion. Unfortunately, the fame goes to her head, and Manny (Cassie Steel) decides to audition for Paige’s role and heads to the City of Angels in a school bus borrowed from Degrassi High.

Throughout the film, heavy-handed fame-dropping gets under way quickly as the cast bump into notables such as celebrity blogger Perez Hilton, rocker Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy, actresses Vivica A. Fox and Kelly Carlson, while filmmaker Kevin Smith makes a return engagement with his protg Jason Mewes playing a key role. (Mewes gets the film’s best line too, shouted at Paige the diva: You’re not a star, you’re more like a circle.) The perils-and-pleasures-of-Hollywood plot is terribly self-aware, and it’s intentional. Many of the TV show’s cast have already left for bigger things: Epstein plays the lead in the touring Tony-award winning musical Spring Awakening , Nina Dobrev stars in the highly anticipated fall TV series The Vampire Diaries , Aubrey Graham (a.k.a. Drake) is performing with Lil’ Wayne and recently signed a record deal with his label, and Shenae Grimes is shooting her second season in Los Angeles for 90210 .

This is our opportunity to almost poke fun at ourselves and tell a sort of Degrassi fairy tale, says director Stefan Brogren, 37, who played Snake in the original show some 20 years ago and now co-produces and plays a teacher in the current Next Generation series. The last time we did a feature was back on the original show when we did School’s Out . I think everyone either ended up dead or in jail.

Dobrev, 20, has been living out a happier ending this summer. She’s experienced the sudden intense fame that Paradise City explores as the lead in one of this fall’s most talked about new TV shows. She’s been featured in magazines, on TV and gossipy websites, one asking: Who would you most like to sink your teeth into: Nina Dobrev or Twilight ‘s Kristen Stewart?

While her role in Paradise City is small her character, Mia, hitches a ride from Toronto to L.A. on that school bus she says the movie captures the cutthroat feel of the business, especially when starry-eyed Paige turns on her long-time friends. Hollywood is really harsh at times, and it really can break people down and make them act differently than how they usually are, she writes in an e-mail from The Vampire Diaries set in Atlanta.

Graham and Grimes are not in the TV movie, but corralling the rest of the scattered cast was a scheduling nightmare, says Brogren. Not to mention cramming all those celebrity cameos into the film’s two-day shoot last November in L.A.

Brogren swears that Hilton, despite his roguish reputation, was a complete professional on the set. In his scene, Paige confronts Hilton about a nasty post on his website. Collins admits she was nervous about the shoot, especially as Hilton was working on his infamous blog between takes. But he was totally not what you’d expect, he was really shy and quiet and well prepared, she insists.

He’s also a good promoter: perezhilton.com features a clip of their scene together and he’s been plugging both the Canadian and U.S. airdates of the movie. ( Degrassi’s American network, teen cable channel the N, premiered the film two weeks ago. It was the network’s highest-rated telecast ever, drawing close to one million viewers.)

Collins won’t be back for Season 9 of Degrassi: The Next Generation when it returns in the fall. The 23-year-old has been on the show since she was 14 and wanted a break. She spent the last two months backpacking through Europe. Now, with the U.S. success of Paradise City , she’s thinking about heading to L.A. to look for work in the spring just like her character in the TV movie.

If she does end up in Hollywood, she won’t be able to make a run to the Canadian Store Paradise City ‘s most cringe-worthy invention. Like every Degrassi script, there are a few overly earnest moments: watching stressed out Paige demand back bacon and maple syrup be delivered as she’s learning her lines is one of them.

As for the actors, once you’ve graduated from the dogged, issue-driven scripts of Degrassi , as all of Paradise City ‘s key cast members have done, why return? Sometimes, you just can’t leave high school behind: After five years on the show, Jake Epstein left to attend the National Theatre School in Montreal. Now the 22-year-old has an L.A. agent and is the lead in a hit touring musical.

Degrassi for me was my start. It’s like, I feel like no matter where you are you owe a lot to the thing that helped you get going.

Paradise City: Degrassi Goes Hollywood premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. on CTV.


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