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On July 22, Degrassi High is going to see some familiar faces when Jake Epstein (Craig), Adamo Ruggiero (Marco), Lauren Collins (Paige), Miriam McDonald (Emma), and more show up for the Degrassi: Next Class reunion to celebrate the franchise’s 500th episode, a sneak peek of which you can see exclusively, above. “I hadn’t seen those guys in so long, so it felt like a real high school reunion,” says Epstein, who was last on the series in 2008, of his performance in the Netflix show. “Except instead of reuniting with teachers and principals, it was with directors and crew members. We had a blast.”
The 29-year-old Canadian — who’s made a splash on and off-Broadway with starring roles in Spider-Man: Turn Out the Dark, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, and Straight — looks back on his teenage years spent playing the troubled, sensitive Craig Manning.
Entertainment Weekly: How did you feel when you were asked to come aboard the 500th episode?
Jake Epstein: It was a no-brainer and the best excuse to catch up with all of those guys. I grew up on set and we’re all still so close. Any chance to hang out with them, I’m totally happy to go along with it.
What was your favorite part about revisiting Craig?
Craig became a musician on the show, and I’ve sort of gone on to become a singer and continue to write music. All of those characters are a version of ourselves. You show up and bring a huge part of yourself to the role.
How has the set changed since you were on Degrassi: The Next Generation?
You get bigger, so everything gets smaller. It’s like, were the desks always that small? The studio has evolved. When we were there, it was pretty much empty, and now it’s packed to the brim. The dressing rooms are way nicer than when we were there, and the lunches are much healthier now, too. But a lot of it still feels the same.
Where do you envision Craig in 10 years?
He’s a touring musician now, and something tells me he’ll become a music producer. I see him mentoring a lot of young musical acts who are lost souls, much like himself.
Any favorite Craig memories?
When I first got cast [in 2002], I had a whole storyline about parent abuse, and I’d never done anything like that. I loved that first season and how Craig was pushed as a character. It was a huge challenge when they wrote the bipolar storyline for him, too. At the time, mental illness was not really something anyone was talking about. There was a huge stigma attached — I had never seen [bipolar disorder] on TV, and certainly not in a teenager. I loved the opportunity to portray someone who was conflicted and not perfect. I was really proud of those episodes.
The scope of TV has certainly changed since you were on Degrassi…
I think the show really paved the way for a lot of that. The original, from the ’80s, was the first time teens were shown in real-life complicated situations on TV. A lot of what we were doing was breaking the rules. There was a whole storyline where Craig impregnates Manny [Cassie Steele] and she ultimately gets an abortion — those episodes were initially banned in the U.S.
Any plans to return to the small screen again soon?
I’m not allowed to talk about what I have coming up quite yet, but I’m very excited for it.
Hopefully we’ll see you on Broadway again soon. Are you one of the lucky mortals who was able to snag a Hamilton ticket?
I have indeed seen Hamilton. It’s brilliant. I actually lived in the same Harlem building as Lin-Manuel Miranda when he was writing Hamilton — his hair was getting longer and longer. I’d try my best to bump into him in the elevator whenever I could. He was actually a big Degrassi fan!
I have to ask…are you in contact with your former costar, Drake?
I haven’t talked to him in years, but I’m so happy for the guy. I find the whole thing so ridiculous and so inspiring.