Degrassi, the Gateway to Stardom


By Gabriela Kalter

Drake at Bun B Concert. Photo courtesy of The Come Up Show.

Maple Syrup, Jim Carey, Neil Young, Jay and Silent Bob – these gems are all courtesies from our neighbor to the north, good ole’ Canada. Our favorite dreamy Young Money protégée, Drake, is a Toronto native himself, having started his career on the drama filled program Degrassi: The Next Generation. The first generation was, of course, a staple for after-school TV in the ‘80s, and the resurrection of the show in 2001 brought the magic back to life.

Every episode tackled a hefty topic, perhaps centering on a teen pregnancy with a B-story of a student-teacher relationship, and then a C-story of a lonely nerd contemplating suicide. I mean, Degrassi went there. In fact, for a long time that was their tag line: Degrassi, it goes there. In fact, it is still going there, as the show is in its 13th season with a cast of characters that struggle with a mess of issues from transgender sexuality to high school alcoholism.

So let us not forget Drake before his hip-hop days when he was still known as Aubrey Graham, the Toronto actor who played Jimmy Brooks of Degrassi Community School. Jimmy was the star basketball player with the school wrapped around his finger until the infamous school shooting episode where Rick puts a bullet in Jimmy’s back, confining him to a wheelchair for the remainder of his stay on the series.

It was in 2009 when Drake, the aspiring rapper, released his third mix tape entitled So Far Gone that the music industry really took notice of him. With the commercial success of his mix tape, he decided to finally record his official debut album, Thank Me Later, which was one of the few debut full-length records in recent history to achieve both sweeping critical acclaim and mainstream popularity.

From Jimmy Brooks, who didn’t approve of his emo girlfriend Ashley taking ecstasy, to getting shot in the back and rocking the wheelchair, to finally finding his niche under the guidance of Lil Wayne, Aubrey Drake Graham has certainly come a long way.

In which case, it shouldn’t be overlooked how Degrassi seems to be a sort of breeding ground for future Hollywood stars. It’s almost like a gateway to the American entertainment biz, take Shenae Grimes for instance. The Toronto native joined the Degrassi cast back in 2004 as Darcy Edwards, the very conservative, church-loving, abstinence-preaching, good-girl who experienced some major drama in her four-year stint on the series.

Darcy dated Spinner, the bad boy drummer who ends up with testicular cancer. She also dated Peter, the principal’s son who dabbled in some light underage pornography and crystal meth. But her most intense storyline, and the one that explained her leaving the show, was when she got drugged at a party and then raped by a douche bag stranger, losing her virginity, her innocence, and her faith all at once. This compromised her leadership position in Bible club and definitely tainted her church retreats.

So in 2008, Darcy left to find closure and healing in some far off country, while Shenae Grimes moved to Hollywood after getting cast as Annie Wilson in the CW’s 90210, the revamped spinoff of sorts to the beloved ‘90s TV hit. Annie Wilson has seen her fair share of drama, like Darcy Edwards before her. In the process of transitioning into the role, Shenae Grimes left the comfort of her Toronto world for the crazy twisted life of a young Hollywood starlet in Los Angeles.

Similarly, the CW snatched up another Degrassi starlet in 2009 when they cast Nina Dobrev at Elena Gilbert in The Vampire Diaries. She, like Shenae and Drake, got her start on Degrassi as Mia Jones, the teenage mother who balances school and raising her daughter with a blossoming modeling career. (Because, why not?)

Nina Dobrev joined the cast in 2006 as a transfer student from Lakehurst who starts dating the dorky J.T. Yorke until he is ultimately stabbed to death (R.I.P. J.T. Yorke). After a short stint with her baby daddy, Mia Jones is offered a modeling career. She then starts dating Peter (yes, the same Peter that Shenae’s Darcy Edwards dated) but they end up breaking up because Mia detects that Peter has some lingering feelings for Darcy (uh-oh!) Also, he gets pretty heavy into meth and starts singing in some scream-o band. So, there’s that.

But then three years later, as if by some television network witchcraft, she was cast as the lead role in the CW’s drama pilot about vampires, which has seen great success, launching the once small time Toronto actress into American superstardom.

From being the big fish in the small Degrassi pond, to being a medium sized fish in the vast, carnivorous ocean of Hollywood, these Toronto actors had some major adjustments to make. But, as Shenae Grimes says, it’s just the natural progression of things.

The CW seems to have established a pretty successful pattern. Perhaps their casting directors are in some sort of agreement with the casting directors at Degrassi, so when an actor or actress has run their course on the Toronto series they are sent to the CW offices for possible acting gigs in the U.S.

The CW launched in 2006 as a joint venture between Warner Bros. Entertainment and CBS. Seeing as CBS is one of the world’s leading mass media conglomerates with continuously changing ownership and broadcasting rights, it would seem that the production of Degrassi is ever entwined with and accomplished alongside a slew of other programs sponsored by the CBS media mogul.

Another example is Cassie Steele. Another Toronto native, Steele was an original cast member of Degrassi: The Next Generation and for ten consecutive seasons she played Manny Santos, a girl with big dreams who makes even bigger mistakes. I guess the longer you’re on Degrassi, the more potential disaster your character faces.

So, a quick rundown of Manny’s saga? Well, as Emma Nelson’s Filipino bestie with very strict parents, she begins her rebellious stage by dressing very promiscuously to school (think bright blue thong sticking out of low-cut jeans). She eventually gets pregnant, gets an abortion, and then proceeds to date almost every guy in the school. She dreams of becoming an actress, but when Peter records her flashing the camera she sub sequentially trashes her already questionable reputation. There’s cocaine, STDs, and so much more!

So, it seemed only natural for Cassie Steele to graduate from her time at Degrassi and follow the lead of her female peers Shenae and Nina. In 2012, Cassie Steele was cast as Abby Vargas in the CW series The L.A. Complex where her years of drama filled acting will most certainly pay off in the orgies, scandals, and heartbreaks that the CW has in store for her.

Steele’s most recent gig on The L.A. Complex provides us with some insight into the post-Degrassi career launch mystery. Degrassi: The Next Generation is produced by Epitome Pictures in association with Bell Media. Epitome Pictures is a Toronto-based production company that also works on the The L.A. Complex, the CW show in which Steele was cast. Epitome is run by founder Linda Schuyler and her husband Stephen Stohn who have been with Degrassi since the very beginning.

Not once in the series’ thirteen year run (and counting) did the writers or actors ever shy away from the intensity or discomfort of the dramatic content for which the show is known. Perhaps the longevity of the series and the continued success of its graduated actors can be attributed to the creative vision of husband and wife production team Schuyler and Stohn who provide a sense of continuity and consistency.

What makes Degrassi different from other tween programming is its commitment to depicting larger than life story lines that seek not to protect viewers by censoring tough topics, but rather distribute honest content in hopes of furthering the understanding and maturity of young audiences in dealing with drama.

Is it a coincidence that most train wreck pop-princesses are former Disney stars? When you grow up on a show that deals with light and harmless issues in an attempt to accommodate the pre-recorded laugh track, it’s almost understandable to feel this great need to rebel and shed your image of childhood innocence. The stars of Degrassi never dealt in such deceit because they were engaged in mature storylines and rebellious activities from day one.

Though there are many differences between Drake and Miley Cyrus, perhaps one of the most notable and telling distinctions is in the strength and coherence of their artistic vision. Maybe Drake doesn’t feel the need to throw six minute temper tantrums on stage at a major awards show because Degrassi served him in a way that Hannah Montana didn’t serve Miley. He got to play out the twists and turns of various dramatic teenage scenarios during his time as Jimmy Brooks, so he can now be the classy, soulful Drake we respect. Miley on the other hand has suffered from years of pent up teenage rebellion and promiscuity that got stifled during her Disney days. And now she’s on the loose like an out of control wrecking ball.

So, it seems Degrassi is the way to go for aspiring young (Canadian) actors who wish to make it big. In an interview at the 2008 TCA press tour, Shenae Grimes said: “Degrassi’s the be-all and end-all for Toronto’s youth actors. There’s not a lot of great material at home, and the stuff that there is, it’s cute, but you’re always playing 14-year-olds. No one has roles that are hearty and challenging for young actors there. So Degrassi was really it. I mean, that’s the show that everybody’s trying to get on.”

Within the very culture of making the show does it appear that those who are cast may very well be destined for bigger and better things, CW-related or not. Although I’m not sure there’s anything quite like Degrassi out there.

Shenae continues, “I look at Degrassi as like my boot camp to prepare me for this. It was a groundbreaking thing. You couldn’t throw more at a high school student, and they did it – they brought things to the table that people hadn’t seen on TV before.”