If the success of Nina Dobrev, Shenae Grimes and Landon Liboiron have taught us anything, it’s that not all DEGRASSI stars are created equal. Yet what is it about the iconic Canadian series that has allowed so many talented young actors to successfully transition to bigger and arguably better things? No one is more qualified to answer that question than executive producer Stefan Brogren, who since graduating himself from the original series in 1989 has spent the better part of 10 years shepherding the “Next Generation” to infinity and beyond courtesy of what he calls the best theater school money can’t buy.
“I think it has a lot to do with the show’s caring environment that allows young actors to flourish,” admitted Brogren when asked what it is about DEGRASSI that has turned it into such a powerful star-making vehicle. “Our kids are getting a lot of education while they’re behind these walls that allows them to experiment. That and, we’re always putting these characters through hell which means they have to grow and they never get soft about it. We don’t want to keep these kids on a certain plain and they’re always trying to take it to the next level.”
It’s precisely that aforementioned ‘next level’ that has caught the attention of an entertainment industry on both sides of the border since the hit Canadian export returned to the airwaves almost a decade ago to the day [Fun Fact: DEGRASSI: THE NEXT GENERATION premiered on CTV on October 14th, 2001]. Thanks in no small part to the likes of THE VAMPIRE DIARIES’ Nina Dobrev, 90210’s Shenae Grimes, TERRA NOVA’s Landon Liboiron, not to mention slightly lesser known albeit equally talented actors such as Paula Brancati (BEING ERICA), Lauren Collins (SHARPAY’S FABULOUS ADVENTURE), Stacey Farber (18 TO LIFE) among others, it’s never been a better time to be a recent graduate of DEGRASSI. But just what does Brogren think about working on what many have characterized as Hollywood’s go-to farm system for up-and-coming young talent?
“If DEGRASSI is minor league, we’re a minor league that gets a lot of fans showing up at the game,” said Brogren. “I think a big part of our alumni’s success is that the show is not a star vehicle for one person, it really is a group activity in a lot of ways. We get them when they’re young where they have to learn to work with others. So if this place was an acting school, the one thing that they’re learning is to be giving to their other actors and I think that’s a big big thing that a lot of young actors miss is that there’s some give and take involved. They come out of here really well rounded people in a lot of ways and they’ve learned a lot of skills.”
One former student who graduated with top honors in acting [with a minor in representing Canada well] is Nina Dobrev, who parlayed three seasons on DEGRASSI into the starring role on a hit CW series that sees her deftly juggling romantic entanglements, bloody baddies and multiple personalities on a week-in-and-week-out basis.
“I remember when Nina came in and auditioned, I think half the thing we were looking for was someone who could play a gymnast or a cheerleader and she came in and started doing flips and stuff and that was how she actually won the role. At the time the role wasn’t big enough to define it as ‘Does she have to be a great actress?’,” recounted Brogren on humble beginnings of the artist formerly known as Mia Jones. “Nina came in really raw, I remember she had a couple of roles under her belt but she was a little ‘actor-y’ and within a year, even less, we saw ‘it.’ I think in the first couple of episodes even, Nina had a great work ethic and she just sort of blossomed.”
Which doesn’t always happen. For when it comes to DEGRASSI — a show that must constantly juggle story-lines for upwards of 10-15 series regulars per season — one doesn’t always get much of a second chance to make a first impression. And for every Dobrev, Grimes or Liboiron there are an equal number of students who for some reason or other failed to connect with an audience.
“We were really surprised [Where Nina was concerned] because it could have gone either way and sometimes it does. Nina was a beautiful girl back then but we see a lot of beautiful girls,” admitted Brogren. “Your story can disappear very quickly on this show if nothing’s happening with you and all we saw is we kept on wanting to work with her because she kept on wanting to work. She kept on pushing herself a little bit harder. ”
Co-star Cassie Steele, who will soon be returning to the small screen in the tentatively titled HIGHLAND GARDENS concurs, “You kind of already know where they’re going, it’s no big surprise that they’re where they are today, it’s what they set out to do. I feel like Nina, Shenae, Aubrey [Drake] were the most concentrated people and they just really went out to get it, we all saw it. Nina is just the hardest worker I have ever known, Shenae is really strong headed and will go after what she wants, and Aubrey has been making music since I met him 10 years ago. Their success is no fluke.”
Sums up Brogren in the parlance of the show that started it all, “They want those stories, as a character they want to get raped. That’s meat to an actor!”