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For all you fans of Degrassi: The Next Generation (The N, Fridays at 8 p.m.) who noticed a little something missing from the teen soap last season, you can relax. Canadian cutie Jake Epstein is back for a two-episode guest arc (wrapping up Jan. 12) in which his rocker character, Craig Manning, reconnects with his long-distance girlfriend, jams with Taking Back Sunday, and — gasp! — battles a coke habit. We checked in with the 19-year-old Epstein to get the dirt on what he’s been up to, what he thinks of Craig, and this season’s killer plotline.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What have you been doing with yourself, since you’re not a Degrassi regular anymore?
JAKE EPSTEIN: I left the show for a while because I went to school in Montreal, the National Theatre School. It’s like the Juilliard of Canada. It’s this really tough program to get into, and after five years of doing Degrassi, I wanted to do something else. I’m really into theater. It was probably one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made in my life.
Does that mean you’re completely done with Degrassi?
No — the great part about Degrassi is that I have a great relationship with the folks there. So they’re always saying, ”You know, it would be really awesome for you to come back.” And there are a lot of people who really like my character, so it’s flattering. I honestly don’t know how it’s going to play out, but they’ve been talking to me about coming back for another couple of episodes next season.
What was it like on set when you came back? Had anything changed?
It was a little weird to be back. I had made this sort of big, dramatic decision that I was going to literally stop doing Degrassi for a while. My contract was up, and I had a choice if I wanted to keep doing it. After living on my own for a year, I was a different person coming back, which is probably really similar to what my character’s going through on the show.
The band Taking Back Sunday also guests in the Jan. 12 episode with you. How did that happen?
They always wanted to be on an episode, and I think after [director and Degrassi fan] Kevin Smith did a couple episodes last year [playing himself], they were like, ”Hey, if Kevin Smith can do it, we should do it!” In the episode, Ellie [the student journalist played by Stacey Farber], gets a gig reviewing their show in Toronto. She brings me along, and Craig is a Taking Back Sunday fan and starts talking to them about music. They eventually ask him to open for them that night.
Which always happens in real life, right?
Oh, that’s how it works in the rock-star life! In my head, there was a huge drug deal going on that the camera didn’t show. [Laughs] No, no, no, it was great.
So Craig’s a fan of Taking Back Sunday…Are you?
I wasn’t at first. I’d never really heard of them, to be honest. I always look up bands on YouTube. So I looked up Taking Back Sunday when I heard I was going to be in the episode with them. They’re really, really cool guys.
Were they star-struck to meet all of you?
I don’t know. I think they were star-struck to meet, like, Stefan Brogren [who played Snake in the old Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High series, and now plays a teacher]. They all came to hang out, and I think they were freaking out that they were meeting Spike [Amanda Stepto, also from the old Degrassi] and Snake. Like, they adored Spike — it’s not even funny.
Looking back on all the seasons of Degrassi you’ve been on, what’s been your favorite storyline?
Anything that makes people hate your character is like a godsend to an actor. It’s so much fun to be the bad guy. Craig has cheated on his girlfriend, he’s impregnated a girl, and now he’s bipolar. I guess doing the bipolar episodes were probably the most fun. When they first started to think about it, Linda [Schuyler], who’s the producer, called me into her office and started saying they want Craig to be bipolar and told me a bit about it. It’s a really serious problem with teenagers, and it’s a genetic disorder that you’re born with, and it’s terrible. And so I was psyched to do it.
So Craig’s new coke habit can’t be good, because he’s already on other meds. Does that come up?
Absolutely, yeah. That’s a huge thing. Craig is like the problem character. Everything bad happens to him.
The season 3 storyline about Craig, his girlfriend Manny (Cassie Steele), and her decision to have an abortion: How did it feel to be a part of that? It was really controversial — at the time The N decided not to air that arc in the United States (though it has aired here since).
It was very strange. I had just turned 16. Obviously I understood what I was doing, but now, looking back at it, seeing how huge an episode that was, at the time we just did it. It was just kind of like any another episode. I think it was way more emotional for Cassie. Craig wanted to keep the baby, and he was very forceful about it, which was probably not the best way to go about the argument. We didn’t think about how controversial it might be. I remember my girlfriend at the time was really uncomfortable with it all.
The show has gotten so popular, and not just in Canada anymore. Do you get recognized when you’re in the States?
All the time. They’re like, ”Yo! This is the dude from Degrassi!” It’s usually girls between the age of 13 and 19. [In Canada] it’s this weird kind of university cult following. I went out during the first two weeks of school, not thinking twice that people were going to know me from Degrassi. I was mobbed, I was absolutely mobbed. I just wanted to meet people and make some new friends. It was very, very strange. It was kind of a reality check.
One last thing before I let you go: Can you give us any hints as to which character is going to die this season?
Any hints? Are you insane? I can’t even give you a hint!
Do you know, though?
Of course I know!
And you won’t tell any of your fans?
No, but to be honest, there’s been a lot of speculation on message boards and stuff…and a lot of people are guessing right.