Degrassi students don’t have it easy. Over the years they’ve been plagued with school shootings, violence, unexpected pregnancies and the inevitable drug and alcohol problems. Yet throughout it all, one thing remained a constant. They survive — learn a lesson — and continue to face the challenges of growing up.
Unfortunately one student didn’t learn a lesson and sadly won’t live to see another day. Last Tuesday, J.T. Yorke fell victim to a random act of violence. His stabbing death was senseless, shocking, and as most violent acts tend to be, incomprehensible.
Immediately following the episode, fans throughout the world leapt to the internet, posting messages of sadness, support and love for one of Degrassi’s most beloved students. Having literally grown up alongside J.T these past six years, fans were heartbroken. [ See Youtube Memorials here, here, here, and here. ]
Actor Ryan Cooley was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to talk to theTVaddict.com and reflect on his time at Degrassi and the death of J.T.
theTVaddict: When did you find out you’d be leaving DEGRASSI?
Ryan Cooley: I found out I was going to be leaving the show around April 2006, just before we started filming the new season.
Were you surprised to find out that your character was being killed, or was leaving the show something you asked for?
It did come as a surprise to me that my character was getting killed off the show. But at the time [early 2006], I was contemplating going to University and leaving the show, so it kind of came together nicely. My last episode was shot in August, and knowing that I wasn’t coming back made it easier for me to decide to go to university.
Was the fact that you were leaving a secret, or did the entire cast know?
We were trying to keep it very “hush hush,” so much so that we didn’t tell anyone on the set. The only people who knew that I was leaving was myself, my agent, the writers and DEGRASSI executive producer Linda Schuyler.
Was it hard keeping the secret from your castmates and friends?
Yeah it was pretty hard. It was especially hard for me not to tell my co-actors, because normally there are not a lot of secrets when it comes to story-lines. It was difficult to shoot from May to August without telling anybody, but I think that people kind of had an idea. It was going around the set that somebody was going to get killed off the show. But I tried to keep the secret as well as I could.
Did you have any input into how J.T. was going to be killed?
At the beginning of the season, they knew that they wanted a stabbing and that someone was going to die, so I really didn’t have any input into how the actual story-line was going to go. But I certainly had input as to how it went down when we did the read through.
Would you have preferred to leave the show ‘alive’ so that you’d be able to return to DEGRASSI as a guest star?
I think it was more exciting to leave the show with a bang. It was definitely a very big challenge to film the actual episode, as well as the episodes leading up to my characters death. In a way it was kind of cool to be that guy. J.T. was the first regular character that DEGRASSI has ever killed off.
But you don’t regret not being able to come back on say DEGRASSI: THE NEXT NEXT GENERATION? You didn’t want to be the new Mr. Simpson?
No I don’t think so, I don’t really want to come back as a ghost.
That was my next question actually! Will a ‘J.T. ghost’ pop up in a future episode to help guide another character, say Liberty?
I probably wouldn’t be happy playing J.T. as a ghost, it’s just not realistic. But there is an instance in which my character comes back, but not necessarily in an actual episode. I think something will be released very soon after the episode airs in the United States.
Were you surprised as to how quick and sudden J.T.’s stabbing was?
When we shot it that night, it took such a long time. That scene was under thirty seconds, but in reality, took four or five hours to shoot. When I watched it, it was definitely very fast, it was Bang! Then they cut to commercial. It was very shocking
I’ve heard that from a lot of people, how it was so random — but that’s how it is. You don’t lay there and confess your love, it doesn’t last for ten minutes. That kind of thing is fast and shocking and that’s what happened. It was what we were going for and I think we got it.
Were you on the set for your TV memorial?
No I wasn’t on the set for it. I actually watched it on TV for the first time on Tuesday just like everybody else. I’d never seen it before. Had I been there it might have been a bit weird.
As I as watching the memorial I kept wondering what they were going to do with the giant mural of your head?
[Laughing] I wonder what they’ll do with it, maybe auction it off! I certainly don’t want it.
You’ve been on DEGRASSI for six years. Fans have literally grown up with you. Do you ever watch your early episodes?
I have been lately. It’s definitely very odd. I was on the set the other day, and we were watching an old episode on the internet. My voice was like four octaves higher, I was like five foot nothing. We were all so young. I was only 12 years old when we first started. The fans have grown up watching me on the show, and I’ve grown up acting on the show.
Do you have a favourite episode?
My character’s gone through some truly crazy stuff. J.T.’s constantly getting into fights. Fighting in the Panther suit was fun, fighting Liberty’s brother Danny, I’ve fought so many people. One time we had to shoot a food fight which was pretty awesome.
But I’d probably say the death episode was my favourite one to shoot because it was such a huge challenge and a huge episode. That one I’m always going to remember.
One question numerous fans had was now that’s J.T.’s dead, who’s going to be the Degrassi Mascot?
Some poor soul [laughs].
J.T. wasn’t mentoring anyone behind the scenes?
Ummm… no. That mascot outfit just haunted me. It was the most horrible thing to have to wear. Sure it’s funny, but the audience doesn’t understand how hot it is. Some poor soul is going to have to take my spot, good luck to them!
I can’t end this interview without asking you about your strangest fan experience.
That’s easy! We used to do these crazy mall tours in the United States. I’ve been to Chicago, Los Angeles, Orlando, Tucson and New York. We’d arrive at these malls and have thousands of screaming girls waiting for us. I’m just a guy from Toronto Canada, having four thousand people coming up for your autograph, well it’s a huge honour.
One time we were in LA, and when we finished our session, we had to let 1000 people go because we couldn’t get out of the mall. When we told the people we were leaving, the crowd went nuts. The security guards had to create a human chain to get us out of there. Me and Adamo Ruggiero [Marco] were chased through JC Penny as we exited the mall. Fans were jumping out of clothing racks trying to touch us and get our photo. It was unbelievable.
So what’s next?
I’m actually studying theatre at the University of Toronto, so I’m definitely going to continue in the acting world. I’ve been working on TV and movies since I was eight years old. I thought now is a great time to explore my theatrical side. When school finishes in April, I’ll start auditioning and see if I can get anything in the summer.
Ryan, Thanks so much for your time. You should know that fans loved your character and your work on the show. You’ll definitely be missed.
I’ve been living with this since august, actually having the episode air now, it’s sad. Now it’s all over for real. It’s been a pretty emotional week, there’s been a lot of tears. But It was a great ride and I’ve got some amazing memories to look back on. Thanks.
A Special Tribute: Ryan Cooley’s Final Episode
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