Degrassi: The Next Generation became a pop culture phenomenon when it premiered in 2001. The teen drama series also kickstarted Aubrey Graham’s career. Aubrey would eventually go by the name Drake, and now he’s one of music’s biggest and most influential stars.
HollywoodLife chatted EXCLUSIVELY with Degrassi: The Next Generation co-creators Linda Schuyler and Stephen Stohn ahead of Degrassi’s reunion panel at ATX Television Festival, which was presented by Tubi, about Drake’s audition and how he thought he’d “blown” it. Linda also revealed Drake’s secret “deal” on set so he would never be late. Plus, the co-creators explained the evolution of Marco, a reboot, and who may have ultimately been “endgame.” Read our full Q&A below:
Was there a character when you were navigating those earlier seasons who took on a larger role than you had anticipated?
Linda Schuyler: I think one character that did was the Marco character. It was interesting because we had definitely wanted to do a story about coming out. We wanted to do a story about coming out where it’s not just one day you come out and there you go, you’re done. So we had wanted to do a story where our character would come out to his friends and eventually to his mother and so on and so forth. But we were having trouble finding a character and Adamo [Ruggiero] had auditioned for us for some other roles. I think he was like in a Halloween special or something. He was a dancer. We were still continuing casting for this other character that would be Marco. We were watching him and we thought, “You know what? Could this character be our Marco?” And it turned out to be such an interesting piece of casting. We didn’t know it at the time, but Adamo was going through his same journey. While he was on the show, he personally came out. He ended up having a coming out party that he held at one of the hotels downtown where he invited all the cast and crew to. He was sort of, as a person, moving in sync with his television character.
Stephen Stohn: Although the television character was actually ahead of him. I’m not sure that he knew at the time that he was gay. And we didn’t know.
Linda Schuyler: We had no idea. I mean, we just thought he’s got the right look and whatnot for us. Again, I think this speaks to something that I hold very dear, which is casting age-appropriate. Adamo was the right age as were all our characters. He just brought something so special to that role, and it was so easy to keep writing for him. He was a good actor. We could also tell storylines about him that had nothing to do with being gay. He would do stupid things with his guy friends, and he had his best friend Ellie. We were able to make him a three-dimensional character. He wasn’t just our gay character. He was just our Marco.
Stephen Stohn: One other character who hasn’t gone onto superstardom but became one of the favored Degrassi characters… Linda and I a number of years back were talking to a class at Yale. It was an advanced class and we thought the questions would be on demographics, trends in television, and things like that. But the first question, which dominated everything was, why did you kill JT? How could you have killed JT? Ryan [Cooley], as an actor, he just brought something to this nerdy character who really became absolutely lovable. It was completely devastating when he died. And you say, well, how could he possibly have died? I mean, these kinds of random deaths do happen. But he became a real, real favorite. You don’t really know when you’re casting. Although I will say you when you cast Aubrey [looking at Linda], he had that sort of appeal.
Linda Schuyler: It was really interesting because, again, when we were casting for Next Generation we had written eight characters. We were trying to populate our student body with those, but as we saw people we were saying, “Oh, there’s somebody else we should keep in mind for another role. We should build a character based on that person.” But we had one character that we couldn’t cast and that was Jimmy Brooks. We just didn’t feel we had the right chemistry. And then Aubrey Graham came in for the role. He came in, he read the piece once, and the room was kind of quiet. And then he said, “Oh, did I do something wrong? I can do it again. Please, can I do it again?” And we said, “No, no, that’s alright. Thank you very much. That’s good.” So he got up and accidentally hit the light stand. It sort of topples and our assistant runs in and grabs the light. He shakes our hands, and he sort of backs out of the door. He left and we just all looked at each other and said, “We have found our Jimmy Brooks.” He just nailed it. And the funny thing is, he was on one of those talk shows and they asked him about his Degrassi audition. He said, “Oh, it was so bad because I was so trying to get in with all the cool kids at school. The afternoon I went in, for the first time ever, I smoked dope with the cool kids. And then I got this call from my agent saying, ‘Get down to Epitome. You have an audition.’” He left the room thinking he had so blown it because we didn’t ask him to do it more than once. He figured he was stoned and we must have known.
Jimmy and Ashley performing together in season 7 was a highlight for me. Did you have any inkling that Aubrey would go on to become one of the biggest music stars in the world?
Stephen Stohn: In fact, even before then, for a number of years we’d been listening to his music. He would make these mixtapes, and the writers were really trying to get him to allow us to put his music in the show. We wanted him performing. We just wanted him doing more and more, but he was very firm. He said, “No, I’ve got my Degrassi character life and my music is something that I’m doing separately,” So there were little snippets that we were going to do. Sometimes in webisodes, we could find him dancing.
Linda Schuyler: We did get him to do a rap. Maybe that’s the one you’re referring to. But he didn’t embrace it. You know, it was like, Jimmy Brooks is Degrassi, and he’s Aubrey Graham. I’m off on my own track here. But it was so funny I remember towards the end… I forget when he finished with us… 2007, maybe. That final year, the ADs came to me at one point and said, “Linda, we’re having a lot of trouble with Aubrey. He’s coming to set late. He doesn’t know his lines. He’s not focused.” So this is always where they have to come in and have a little chat with me. Aubrey came in and I said to him, “Hey Aubrey, it appears that you’re not completely there for us.” He was so apologetic. At this point, I had no idea what he was doing and the other part of his life. He said, “Linda, I promise that won’t happen again. I’m embarrassed you had to say this to me.” From that point on, he was brilliant. He was there on time and whatnot. I later found out that how this worked. He would work for us during the day, and then he would leave. At night, he would be going to the recording studio. He would be laying down tracks. He would be doing all his connections and emailing and writing. At about two or three in the morning, he had made a deal with our security guards after he got reprimanded. After he’d been working most of the night, he would then come and sleep in his dressing room, so that when he was needed to be called for his eight o’clock call or whatnot, they just knocked on his door and got him up. He was there on set. I would be watching my monitor and would say, “Great, Aubrey’s there on time.” I didn’t find out until after he left the show that they were all making these accommodations for him.
I was one of the many fans who was absolutely devastated when JT was killed. Would you say that’s the storyline that the fans are the angriest about all these years later?
Stephen Stohn: They’re angry about that. They’re angry about Adam dying.
Linda Schuyler: They’re angry about Cam’s suicide.
Stephen Stohn: When you’re doing a show like Degrassi and particularly casting age-appropriate, there’s a change in the cast over the years. It’s the main characters that these issues are happening to. It’s not that you bring in somebody for three episodes who commits suicide. It’s a main character. So when Cam commits suicide. He was a very, very loved character. He’d been in for 32 episodes, and in the 33rd episode, he’s gone. People were devastated by that. And with that, it was like, “Well, how could you do that? I mean, a trans character.” Well, trans characters text and drive when they shouldn’t just as much as others.
Linda Schuyler: We’d get pushback on so many things. People got upset when people died, people would get upset when favorite couples break up. People were so mad at us when Paige wasn’t 100% sure she was gay. She was experimenting, whereas Alex very much knew where her sexuality lay. I think it’s sort of a testament to the show that the people are that invested in our characters that they then get mad at us.
Since we live in an era of revivals and reboots, have you ever thought about circling back with Degrassi: The Next Generation?
Stephen Stohn: Absolutely. And there’s nothing that we can sort of announce or are talking about, but let me put it this way: it would be surprising if at some point there was not a Degrassi reboot. I mean, so many things are being rebooted, so many great shows. The time is very interesting as we emerge from the pandemic and the lockdown, which has been a period of great tragedy and also a period of great introspection, thinking about ourselves, and our role in our own lives and on the planet. I think it would be great to be able to explore this sort of reimagined normal that’s going on in all of us but through the eyes of youths. Degrassi could be that vehicle.
I was always a fan of Craig and Ellie. I have to ask, were they endgame? Their last scene together in the Degrassi Goes Hollywood movie left it pretty open-ended.
Stephen Stohn: I think they are meant for each other. There’s no question in my mind. I don’t want to know what you think [to Linda].
Linda Schuyler: Maybe? I don’t know. I think it would be fraught.
Stephen Stohn: I don’t think Spinner and Emma were necessarily endgame, but maybe they are. I’m sort of changing my view, having been very anti Spinner and Emma. And now thinking, well, sometimes it just works out. You think though those people will never last and then they’re having their 50th wedding anniversary.
Linda Schuyler: Don’t forget, there’s Sean. We never quite knew what happened to him. And if he ever came back, I don’t know what Emma would do.
Looking back, is there a storyline or a pairing that you would have changed or maybe gone a different route with?
Linda Schuyler: In some ways, television production is like a train schedule. Storytelling goes down the track, and you have to get it ready for production. Then you take it into the editing room, then you take it into sound, and then it goes on air. Meanwhile, others are coming down the pike. So there’s always things that I’d say, “Oh, if I’d only had two more days here or another day on the script, another day in the editing room.” But you can’t do that because you’re working against your deadlines. Knowing that reality, I don’t look back and say I wish we hadn’t told that storyline, or I wish we’d done that differently. It’s one of the joys of having both an ensemble cast who is age-appropriate, having multiple episodes, having issues happening with your main characters. If you don’t like something that happened in one episode, you can course-correct in some other episodes coming up. So is each episode perfect? No, it’s not. And it never will be. But I don’t look back with regret.
Stephen Stohn: And to your point, if something happens in one episode in so many of the major storylines, it was the lead-up. It wasn’t just written for that episode. There was a lead-up. In some cases, it would be a year before there would be lead up, and then there’s the aftermath. The aftermath would reverberate on in some cases, like the school shooting, for years after that.