Untold stories from the set of ‘Degrassi: The Next Generation’

Started from Degrassi now (20 years later) we’re here.
October 14, 2021 1:00 p.m. EST

Degrassi: The Next Generation is officially, somehow, where-did-the-time-go 20 years old this year and despite being off the air for six years, its pop-cultural impact in Canada and beyond still feels fresh… like a new pair of OVO x Air Jordan hightops. From date rape to abortion to school shootings, Degrassi wasn’t afraid to let the show’s punches land hard — even if it got multiple episodes banned or re-edited for the big audiences south of the border. 

AV Club recently wrangled some of the cast and crew from the second iteration of the groundbreaking series to chat about the big moments that continue to loom large on the teen TV landscape. Like the abortion episode, which saw 14-year-old Manny (Cassie Steele) decide to end a pregnancy. The episode didn’t air on US TV but that didn't stop American fans from seeing it. “We were hearing stories [that] if you had a friend in Canada,” said writer James Hurst, “they’d tape it for you and send it to you. Kids on the playground were passing the tape around because if you were really into Degrassi, that was not only a huge episode in terms of the issue, but it was a huge episode in terms of the art.”

The ban, however, was hard on Steele. “My biggest memory was what Cassie was going through personally with the disappointment of finding out that [the episode] was banned,” recalled Miriam McDonald (Emma). “It’s such a controversial thing, and for a young teenager to shoulder that, it was a heavy weight.”

For actor Adam Ruggiero (Marco) the time spent on the set of Degrassi had a major impact on his off-screen life. “I was a closeted gay boy,” he told AV Club, “and I found myself on the show, and my life went from zero to 100. I hadn’t really acted that much before. Suddenly, I was a character that was playing to all my deepest, darkest secrets, so there was a lot of negotiation of my coming out personally and a negotiation of my personally not being prepared to have those conversations because they were drawing to these pains in me,” he explained. “But in a way, I was forced to have those conversations, publicly and globally. That balance was ping-pong, like, ‘Who am I? Am I ready to reveal? I know that this character, whether I like it or not, is going to reveal it for me.’

It was a time that was incredible, but also left some things in me that have taken me some years to negotiate,” he added, “and I’m still negotiating. It was a coming-out experience that should not have been that public for me. However, there’s always a wonderful side. What Marco gave me is a community. In the promotion of the show, I connected with a queer world.”

And then there was the school shooting episode, which was conceived off after Columbine but before these kinds of avoidable tragedies became so commonplace. “That episode was really intense, and we all knew when we were making that how difficult it was going to be for people to watch. At the time, this crisis with gun violence entering schools was totally new. It was almost like nobody wanted to even confront that issue, and I do remember them not airing it in the U.S. after we had aired it in Canada,” said Mike Lobel, who played Jay on the series.

According to his co-stars, Drake (aka Aubrey) wasn’t onside with the writers’ decision to put him in a wheelchair following the shooting. “I think he struggled, just physically with having to all of a sudden do everything confined to a chair. That was really hard for him,” remembered Lauren Collins (Paige). “I definitely have a few memories of him toppling the chair over and falling off of makeshift ramps that they’d constructed for him.”

I don’t want to speak for anyone,” she added, “but I think [Aubrey] probably struggled with the idea that he was one of two Black characters on the show, and that he was the one who was winding up shot and in a wheelchair, which obviously is part of a much larger conversation.”

Things became heated when a law firm representing Graham sent a letter to production. “It was an odd letter that said, ‘Aubrey Graham will not return to Degrassi season six as Jimmy Brooks unless his injury is healed, and he’s out of the wheelchair.’ I said, ‘Get him down here,’” recalled Hurst. “He came in and was like, ‘What letter? I don’t know about that.’ And I said, ‘All right, I understand. But how do you feel about the wheelchair?’ He’s like, ‘All my friends in the rap game say I’m soft because I’m in a wheelchair.’ And I said, ‘Well, tell your friends in the rap game that you got shot. How much harder can you get? You got shot, and you’re in a wheelchair.’ He was like, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ He was so nice and apologetic about everything. He instantly backed down,” said Hurst, adding, “I was very passionate about it, and I said, ‘Aubrey, there’s some kid somewhere in a wheelchair, who’s completely ignored, who’s never on television, never gets represented.’ I need you to represent this person. You’re the coolest kid on the show, and you can say there’s nothing wrong with being in a wheelchair.”

One of the jaw-dropping facts and anecdotes that surface during the lengthy interviews include the fact that Drake almost didn’t play Jimmy. “Aubrey [Graham], I think auditioned for Spinner, as well as Jimmy,” said writer and showrunner Aaron Martin. It was also revealed that Kevin Smith almost directed the Degrassi movie. “He acted in the show, I think, because of funding in Canada. We had to have 100% Canadian production, so he couldn’t actually write or direct. So he just became a character for a while and had a love interest in Caitlin,” Ruggiero revealed. Caitlin, played by Stacie Mistysyn in this series and the original Degrassi, was Smith’s childhood crush.

Of course, the interviews had their lighter moments. For example: “Originally, I read for Paige,” recalled Collins, who ended up landing the part, “but they wanted me to come in for Paige and Ashley. Obviously, Aubrey was auditioning for Jimmy, and Jimmy and Ashley were a couple from the beginning of the show. So in our scene, we had to kiss in the audition room.”

That’s a Degrassi story you can dine out on these days. 

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