In 1987, Snake, Joey Jeremiah, and the rest of the gang took their first steps down the fictional halls of Degrassi Junior High. Twenty-five years later, the cast and creators of the iconic Toronto show reflect on the super-low-budget sets, the behind-the-scenes parties and crushes, and what it was like to go through puberty—on air and off—in front of the whole bloody world.
If you grew up in Toronto during the late ’80s and early ’90s, chances are you knew someone—a classmate or a friend of a friend—who was a Degrassi kid. Long before Drake and Shenae Grimes rolled their next-gen Degrassi fame into international bankability, the original show’s stars enjoyed a slightly more modest brand of celebrity—one where the DIY production values meant that they occasionally had to wash dishes on set. It’s hard to believe, but it was 25 years ago that Degrassi Junior High—a show developed by CBC’s children’s division—finished its first season and was in the process of being plucked from its humble Sunday afternoon time slot and elevated into prime-time viewing.
But even for those who grew up in other parts of the country, Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High made a pretty convincing argument for moving to Toronto and cutting classes in the city’s east end. The magic of the show, by and large, came in the form of Joey Jeremiah, Caitlin, Spike, Snake, and Wheels—loveable and (often painfully) identifiable characters, played by kids who, as one member says, “portrayed teenagers in as honest a light as you could at 7 o’clock on a weekday night.”
That Degrassi became, and remains, one of Canada’s biggest cultural phenomena is a testament to how much heart, soul, and zit remedy the small but determined cast and crew put into that original series. We spoke with a number of the key players to find out just how exciting, ridiculous, hilarious, and mortifying it was to make a hit TV show in Toronto in the ’80s.
LS: I’m an ex-schoolteacher. When I was working with adolescents, I very much wanted to get audio-visual materials for the adolescent/teenage crowd, and there was really nothing. Meanwhile, because you get your summers off when you’re a teacher, I was going to university and taking courses in filmmaking and so on. And one day, it was like this light bulb moment: Maybe I should make these things!
YM: I was originally a picture editor, and worked on Kids of Degrassi Street. At one point there was a show we were putting together and it wasn’t working. And on the streetcar home I had a brainwave—and I got to write it because the regular writer was away.
AS: I went to Etobicoke School of the Arts—and I saw a flyer for an open audition and it asked us to submit photos. I just had my dad take pictures of me. I had spiked hair at the time, and both my parents were like, “You’re never gonna get on TV with spiked hair! There’s no way! Put your hair down for the photos!’”And of course, being a belligerent teenager, I said, “NO WAY! This is my hair! If they don’t like me, fuck them!” But I ended up getting the audition anyway.
DB: They put up posters near my sister’s junior high. I was already in high school. She brought the poster home and I was like, “Ooh, I’m going to do that.”
SM: I had no idea what to expect. I remember my dad saying, “Really? You’re going to wear flipflops?” But that’s what they wanted. They didn’t want professional actors; they wanted kids being kids, and that’s what we were.
LS: Pat Mastroianni was the first kid to come in and read for Joey Jeremiah. He left the room, and I said, “Oh my god, we can stop the auditions right now—we’ve just found Joey Jeremiah!” And my partner at the time, Kit Hood, said, “Ohhhhh…not sure.” So, we went through a series of workshops and extended auditions. In the end, Pat Mastroianni had the part. He just walked into the office and he just exuded Joey Jeremiah.
SB: I read for Joey Jeremiah. Which is pretty funny. I thought I’d nailed it, but Pat must have done a better job. So I was really bummed because I thought I didn’t get the role, and there’s no other role that I’m right for. I’m not going to be playing Yick Yu. When I left, someone came after me and asked, “You don’t by any chance play any instruments, do you?” I was like, “No, I’m taking violin.” He said, “Do you think you could possibly pick up guitar?” I said, “I can probably do that.” And he was like, “Okay, great, we’ll see you next week.” And that’s how I found out I got a role.
DW: I was 26. I’d only been out of theatre school for a couple of years, and normally if you get a significant role in a series, you’re playing to more veteran performers. In the Degrassi scenario, I was the veteran performer that the kids were looking up to.
SM: They asked some of us from the original show, from Kids of Degrassi Street, if we wanted to keep our old characters, and I think all except one of us said we wanted to move on to something new. The auditions consisted of a bunch of different monologues, and I picked the badass one. I was sick of playing a little goody-goody, and I wanted to try something different.
LS: Amanda walked in with that hair—that was her hair!—and did her audition, and we said to each other afterwards, “Oh my—that girl is not Stephanie Kaye, but we need her in our show!” It was the same with Stefan: “That boy is not Joey Jeremiah, but we need him in our show.” So the role of Snake and the role of Spike were created specifically for those two actors.”
AS: It was Neil, who played Wheels, who actually started calling me Spike on set, because of my hair, so before I even had a character, people were calling me that. My first episode was somewhere in the first season, maybe halfway through, when LD gets cancer, and I was given a few lines. I was invited to the read-through, and I was like, “Oh, look! I’ve got a few lines!” And I had a character name. The next read-through I went to, the whole story was about me! It was quite shocking: “I’m the star of this, and holy crap, my character gets pregnant! How am I gonna tell my mom? She’s gonna freak out!”
SB: When I came in and they said they wanted to write a role for me, they said my name could either be Snake or Slim. Not the greatest choices, but I decided to go with Snake and the rest is history.
KID PEOPLE PROBLEMS
LS: We adopted an attitude early on that if the kids are talking about it in the schoolyard or the mall, we should not be afraid to talk about it ourselves.
YM: Degrassi Junior High was filmed out in Etobicoke, so they bussed the kids back and forth. When they came back [to the production office, near Queen Street East and Carlaw] and were waiting for the parents, they’d come in and talk to me and tell me stuff, and about three weeks later they’d open the script and see their story. So they quickly learned not to tell me the good stuff.
AS: We’d have brainstorming sessions where we’d talk about potential storylines. The writers and producers fed off of us being teenagers at the time, and being the age that we were playing. They often got a lot of their ideas from us.
SM: There was one time when Pat tried to drive the shuttle van [laughs] without a licence, when nobody was looking. It was the vehicle they used to transfer us from the school to the office. He got in trouble for it. And then shortly after, they wrote the episode where [Joey] goes joyriding without a licence.
SB: I do recall an episode where Pat, Neil and I, I think we stole my parents’ car. And we smashed a taillight and we were all freaked out running around trying to find a garage that would fix it. But it ended up that the taillight was smashed to begin with, so we totally got caught. Usually you’re at school and you’re with the rest of the cast, but that was just the three of us for the whole shoot, so there was a lot of bonding between us. It was a special time.
Next page: Life on the “ghetto set,” and the pros and cons of being “Degrassi-famous”