Jake Epstein has a cold, but he doesn’t want to elaborate on it other than to tell me that he had a fever yesterday and spent a lot of time lying around. That’s fair, I guess, since what I really want to know from this sniffling boy is, “Why did Craig have to cheat on Ashley?”
Two seasons into his stint as Degrassi: The Next Generation‘s Craig – a Canadian teen drama, shown in the U.S. on cable channel The N – Jake is working hard to keep himself grounded and find time to do the stuff normal kids at his school do. Like playing in a band and getting the lead in the school musical. He’s also writing plays, directing plays, and portraying one half of Degrassi‘s most popular couple (his Craig, to the aforementioned Ashley). He may be 16, but he’s already got one heck of a jumpstart on a career.
With a three-hour time difference between us, Jake and I chatted via phone about the stuff that matters. And also, of course, the stuff that doesn’t.
When you auditioned for the role on Degrassi: The Next Generation, were you familiar with the original series?
Yes. (hesitates) I would lie if I said I was a huge fan. I had seen it before. Actually, during my audition, Pat Mastroianni, who played Joey Jeremiah on the original series, read with me and I didn’t even know who he was. I thought he was just this weird guy who wanted me to practice lines with him.
But you knew that the series had a huge fan base.
Yeah, yeah. I knew, you know, all my friends were fans. It has this huge cult following.
Did that make it intimidating for you to come into that situation?
Oh, you know. You have nothing to lose when you go into an audition.
What about when you were cast?
I was really happy.
Did you read for any other roles, or did you just read for Craig?
I just read for Craig.
Are there any other characters on the show that you would rather have gotten?
Spinner is probably my favorite character. He gets all the jokes. He’s funny.
But he’s just a big goofball.
Yeah, he’s a goofball. But, you know, I only got on the show the second season, and the first year, I watched the show a couple of times on TV. This is when I didn’t even have the part, right? And I watched it, and thought Spinner was pretty funny. So when I got the part, it was so weird, because I had watched it on TV [and I already knew those characters].
Since you didn’t come in until the second season, was it hard to settle in with the cast, who had been working together for all that time? They seem really close.
It’s hard to be the new kid in any situation. But everyone is so nice on the show.
Did they do anything to welcome you onto the set?
Nothing in particular, but they’re just really welcoming and open for new people. They weren’t upset that there were more lead characters coming on the show. They were really nice about everything.
Degrassi is one of those teen shows that is filled with so much angst. Do you ever find yourself doing things to lighten it up on the set?
We all joke around all the time. Working on the show is like summer camp. We go out there and we have a really good time, and we’re all really into the same thing – we all love acting – so it’s just a great time.
If they were going to release a Degrassi blooper reel, what footage of you would be on there?
In the season finale last year, the second season, I had a scene where Craig’s father has just died and he gets really upset, and everyone is trying to help him out but he just doesn’t need anyone right then. He keeps telling people that he’s fine. Finally he sort of snaps at the end of the episode, and he tears down this banner, and it’s all sort of really dramatic. So I tore it down, and I ran away, and I just tripped and fell flat on my face. Everyone was laughing at me. Because I was screaming and crying and then I just slipped and fell and it was terrible. That would probably be on there. I don’t know. There would be a lot of random humor on there.
Is it hard to get back into the scene when that happens?
Whenever you totally mess up? (laughs)
Yeah, you know, when it’s so – to use an overrated Degrassi word – “intense.”
I don’t think so. We usually end up having to do four or five takes for every scene anyway. [For instance,] the camera angles will turn around, and there will be a lot of time when we joke with each other between takes. So you just have to stay in character.
So your character Craig has made some bad choices –
(interrupts) Yeah. (laughs)
– in his personal relationships lately. (Craig is caught between his girlfriend, Ashley, and a girl who has a crush on him, Manny.) If Craig was a friend of yours, what advice would you give him?
I’d be like, “What are you doing, man?” I would tell him to choose one, one girl, and go with that one girl, or no girl at all. If you’re just going to be hurting the other person, it’s totally not worth it.
Which girl would you pick? Can you tell me?
Personally? Ashley. I mean, honestly, I never understood the Manny/Craig relationship. I just think the two characters wouldn’t go well together in real life.
You mentioned the crying scene at the end of “Tears Are Not Enough.” You recently won a Gemini Award for that episode. What did that feel like?
It was pretty cool! (laughs) I really didn’t expect to win it. Actually, the producer of Degrassi came up to me beforehand and he said, “Don’t expect to win, you’re up against other people [who are really good.] You’re not going to win.” So I pretty much figured that I wasn’t going to win. So when I did, I totally didn’t believe it, and I didn’t even have a speech prepared.
Did you forget to thank someone important?
I forgot to thank my parents.
Did you realize it afterwards?
Oh, that’s the first thing I said! I came out of there, ran back to my table and I was like “I’m so sorry.” My mom and dad were both there. But, you know, they were just really happy.
How do you prepare for scenes like you had in that episode? And, really, your character has a lot of those types of scenes – where you’re required to rage or cry.
Well, I love taking risks and doing really dramatic stuff. We usually have a couple of meetings with the director, and he or she will help me get into it. We’ll talk it over, see how we’re going to play it out.
Are there any personal experiences that you draw on or-
(interrupts) No. Definitely not. I’ve had a really good upbringing and childhood. That’s just what I love about acting, you get to be someone you’re not. You get to make up these terrible things and act like – if you were in that situation – what would you be like?
Fans have a bad habit of assuming that actors are just like the characters they play.
What part of your own personality have you given to Craig, and conversely, is there a part of Craig that you’ve adapted for yourself?
Well, this year, I’d like to think that no, (laughs) there’s no part of Craig [that is like me]. Let’s see. I think the artistic side is something we share. I think his, sort of…genuineness? Is something that I would like to think that’s me. And, like, he’s in a band and I’m in a band.
Did they write that into the show because they knew you were a musician?
Yeah, I think so. “He plays guitar, let’s stick him in a band.”
Well, that’s handy.
Last year I sort of had that whole photography thing going on, but I didn’t know anything about cameras. I think they realized it would be a lot better if it was something closer to home, like a guitar, so they pitched it. I had people who had to teach me how to hold a camera right.
Most actors in the US are schooled on set, but you attend an actual high school.
Well, we are actually schooled on set. We have a tutor.
How often do you attend regular classes?
When I’m filming Degrassi it varies. Since it’s an ensemble cast, sometimes I’ll miss a week of school, sometimes I’ll miss one day a week. I’ve gone for three weeks where I was in school and they didn’t need me on set. It really varies, and then during the year [when we’re not filming] I’m at school and I do a lot of stuff at my school. Like this year I’ve decided not to audition for anything [outside of the show] because I wrote a play and I’m directing a play. I want to be involved.
Are you doing those things at school, or with a community theater?
No, actually, I go to an arts school, so it’s at my school.
Tell me about the play you wrote.
Alright. It’s about this kid, who thinks he’s John Lennon.
Like, the reincarnation of John Lennon?
(laughs) Sort of. It’s kind of this, um, impossible situation. You meet this kid named John, who is in every way John Lennon. And even though it’s totally impossible that he is John Lennon, somehow he just is. It’s this weird game you play with the audience. He becomes more and more like him, and there are all these characters around him who represent characters from [John Lennon’s] life. And then, eventually, in the end, when he starts talking like him, he gets shot.
That sounds very not 16.
(laughs) I guess not!
There are a lot of male singer/songwriters who have admitted that they picked up a guitar to impress a chick. Why did you start playing guitar?
To impress chicks. (laughs) I don’t know why I started playing guitar. I had a lot of friends who played it, so I guess I just sort of learned from them. And then I got in a band…
How old were you when you started playing?
So not too long ago. Did you take lessons?
I took a couple of lessons a year ago, and then I had to stop because I didn’t have time. Then I…(laughs) Last year I was assistant directing this play, and we were going to this party afterwards, and one of the actors in the play gave me this huge lecture about how guitar equals poontang or something.
Oh my god!
So, uh. Maybe it’s that? I have no clue.
So you bought that, huh?
I guess so! (laughs)
Did it work?
(Laughs) Oh yeah! No! No, no. I love guitar. When I have a stressful day at school I’ll come home and play some guitar. It just chills me out.
What was the subject of the first song you ever wrote?
I think it was called “Psycho.” I wrote it with my friend Noah. He has really bad ADD. So I wrote it about him. He’s actually the other singer in my band.
I’ve been trying to dig up information on you guys, and it’s not readily available, you know.
No? (laughs) Well, we haven’t really done anything.
You had partial songwriting credit on the song that Craig sings to Ashley in The Big Episode (“Should I Stay Or Should I Go”).
(laughs) Right. “The Big Episode.”
Did you volunteer for that?
No! There is a guy who does music on Degrassi, and he writes all the music for it. So whenever there’s any kind of music on the show, you have to go up there, and spend an hour or two, and figure out what you’re going to sing. So I went in there thinking he was going to tell me what I was going to sing. But I went in there, and he wanted me to write the song.
Were you nervous to put that much of yourself into the show?
Yeah, it was hard. You know. That hit pretty close to home.
Was that a harder episode to film?
Yeah, yeah. I was really turned off by the whole cheating storyline, because so many people compare the character that I play on Degrassi to myself. So I was really sort of shocked that the writers wanted me to turn into this jerk.
I think that the fans are having a hard time dealing with that.
A lot of people are saying that it’s really out of character. But I think it’s an acting challenge. And people love…you know, whether or not people like it, it makes the show much more interesting with the drama and conflict.
But it could be about another character.
Yes! (laughs) Yes, it should be.
What five songs do you wish you had written?
Ooh. Good question. “Imagine” by John Lennon is an amazing song. “Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd is probably one of my favorite songs. “Under the Bridge” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers is unbelievable. “Don’t Let Me Down,” by The Beatles. That’s an awesome song.
What do you think about the new, stripped version?
I haven’t heard that version yet! That’s from Let It Be…Naked, right? Have you heard it?
You should buy it! Or illegally download it. But I didn’t tell you to do that.
No. (laughs) Of course not.
You’ve got one more song.
Okay, well. You’ve probably never heard of this guy. His name is Hawksley Workman, and he has this song called “You, Me and the Weather.” And it’s such a good song. I wish I had written that song.
Is he popular in Toronto? Is he on the radio?
He’s not too popular. He has a couple of music videos. I actually went to see him a couple of weeks ago in concert. It was so cool. I try to go to a lot of concerts. I love to see live music, even if it’s bands that haven’t been discovered yet.
So there is a rumor on your website that you have the lead in “The Music Man” this spring at your school.
Oh, good. So I can ask my question. You have more than one musical on your resume. What do you like about doing musicals?
Well, really, I just like getting up on stage in front of a lot of people.
If you had to choose between a play and a musical, what would you choose?
Probably a play.
Do you think musicals are harder to prepare for?
Yes, much. I don’t love singing in public.
And yet you’re in a band.
And yet, I’m in a band. I know. (laughs) It’s just that whole musical thing. And you know what? It’s hard being in a musical and being 16. All my friends laughed at me for it. They’re like, “Why are you in a musical?” It takes a lot of guts to separate yourself from your friends and do something that you actually love. Instead of being cool.
Do they make fun of you for being an actor, or is Degrassi okay because it’s popular?
Oh, no. They make fun of me for sure. It’s that whole “Being a girl rocks” thing, that they say on Degrassi. The commercials beforehand? They just laugh and laugh at that.
“Being a girl rocks?” I don’t think we get that in the U.S. The N must not show those spots.
Oh, well, nevermind then. (laughs)
We just get teenaged beat poets and exactly one music video between every episode. I’ve seen the same John Mayer video about a million times.
Not a John Mayer fan?
You know, I was, until I saw him live. But he makes the strangest faces when he performs.
When he’s soloing, right?
He just…he just makes the most bizarre faces. Do you have a soloing face?
(laughs) Oh yeah. Everyone needs a soloing face.
Do you practice it?
Of course, in front of a mirror…(laughs)
I have to ask this, because I’ve been through your resume a couple of times, and square dancing is listed as a skill.
Okay. That was something from a very, very long time ago that should not be there.
Because it also has an asterisk by it, which denotes “competition level.”
But what does that mean?
Nothing! It doesn’t mean anything.
Okay. Duly noted. How would you rate yourself overall as a dancer?
Not very good.
So you’re not out clubbing every weekend?
No, no. Clubs aren’t my thing.
What is your favorite American import? Music, television, movies?
Well, my favorite movie…I love Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. That’s not American, though. I don’t know the answer to this question.
It had Brad Pitt in it, though.
No, no. That was Snatch. Hey! How do you feel about Arnold as governor?
Oh, well, I didn’t vote for him.
Are you scared?
It’s embarrassing. Talk about something your friends make fun of you for.
What Canadian phenomenon would you like to export to the United States? What do you have that we don’t have?
There’s a lot of cool Canadian bands that Americans have no idea about. Like Hawksley Workman!
Do you…you’ve sort of answered this question already, but do you think of yourself as a normal teenager, or has your career sort of made you wise beyond your years?
No, I totally feel like a normal teenager. The only way to stay normal and grounded through this whole journey that I’ve been going through, is to not take it too seriously, and concentrate on what’s important, hang out with my friends as much as I can. Go to a public school, and, you know what, I’m in school musicals! So I totally consider myself normal. Acting is a hobby of mine, and I’ve been really lucky with it, but I don’t think I’m any better than any other kid my age.
Do you see yourself moving to Hollywood or somewhere else to pursue an acting career when you’re done with school?
I have no clue. I didn’t plan on getting into acting in the first place. So I have no clue where I’m going to go from here.
Do you want to go to college?
Absolutely, my parents would kill me if I didn’t go to university.
What do you want to study?
Some kind of social science, I think.
And what would you do with that?
The whole thing would definitely involve acting or public speaking or something, because that’s what I love to do. Debate? Maybe law or business.
Do you have a debate team at your school?
Yeah, I think we do. I’m not on the debate team. (laughs)
Because that would be even geekier than being in musicals.
Yeah. Yup. Totally.
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