Degrassi alum Jake Epstein[Photo Credit: Teen Nick, Getty Images]
Degrassi alum Nina Dobrev[Photo Credit: Teen Nick, Getty Images]
Degrassi alum Landon Liboiron[Photo Credit: Teen Nick, Netflix]
Degrassi alum Lauren Collins[Photo Credit: Teen Nick, Comedy Central]
Degrassi alum Shenae Grimes-Beech
Degrassi alum Cassie Steele
Degrassi alum Drake
After six seasons of playing the bioplar wannabe rock star Craig Manning on Degrassi, Jake Epstein “graduated” from the hit Canadian series to attend theater school. He made a few guest appearances — who can forget his surprise coke problem or the gang’s trip to Hollywood? — before landing roles in the national tours of Spring Awakening and American Idiot. And with that, a Broadway baby was born. Epstein currently stars as Gerry Goffin in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, the story of the prolific singer-songwriter and her former husband/writing partner that is much more than a simple reading of their Wikipedia pages set to music. With seven Tony Award nominations, the show is one of the must-see productions of the season, making Epstein one of Degrassi’s biggest success stories to date. See? It’s not all about Drake.
So how much pressure comes with portraying an accomplished musician who happens to still be alive? VH1 spoke to Epstein about playing the complex and talented man behind many of King’s most famous songs, as well as what comes with tackling tough subject matter on a teen soap. Buckle up, Degrassi superfans. This goes there.
First off, congratulations! The show just received seven Tony nominations, which is really exciting.
Yeah, it’s exciting.
Did you expect that kind of response when you got the gig?
For me it been a dream to originate a Broadway role and then the fact that we can get nominated for a Tony Award, this is all something that I didn’t even sort of consider. It was never on my mind or anyone’s mind, but it’s great. Hopefully it gets people in the seats.
Were you a fan of Carole King before you started working with the show?
Yeah, my dad is a huge folk music fan so growing up there were always records playing in my house. Carole King, James Taylor, Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles — I grew up with this music and I was aware of how special this music was to a lot of people.
How much did you know about Gerry Goffin? I love Carole King and I love Tapestry but I didn’t know too much about their relationship.
I knew nothing. I read her autobiography and that was how I learned about Gerry Goffin. I had no idea that she had written all of those songs with Gerry before she became a solo writer.
It’s so important. Obviously when you see the show you see how they created the songs and that they were still very true to her style. But when a song is given to The Drifters or its given to The Shirelles…
When you listen to the songs, the melodies are always so joyful and the words are always oddly dark and deep. “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” if you go through the lyrics, is such a haunting melody and the words are, for a pop song, pretty deep and dark. And I think that’s what made them a really special songwriting team. With that juxtaposition of her light melodies and his dark lyrics.
Have you had the opportunity to meet Gerry at all or speak with him?
I met him twice.
Was that intimidating?
Yes. Yes, especially considering the story that they choose to tell. I was always really worried. I really worked hard not to portray Gerry as a villain. He’s complicated and I was really worried that he would be upset or embarrassed or something, and I was really relieved that he was a fan. He was onboard.
I think the way the show progresses and the way they choose to end things with their reunion, so to speak, at Carnegie Hall is really nice.
Which is true. They’re friends to this day.
I saw that Carole King came to one of the shows recently and surprised you all. What was it like to realize that she had been watching you?
We didn’t know that she was there that night. Thank God! I think we all would have been nervous and anxious. It was overwhelming. Everyone was crying and I was laughing. I was like, “This is so ridiculous that Carole walked out on stage after seeing a musical about her life.” Oh my God, what a thrill to meet her and to get a chance to talk to her after the show. And she talked to me about Gerry and she was so warm and loving and open and cool. It was a really special night.
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How important is it to know that she approves of what you’re doing?
Well initially she came to one of our rehearsals and said she’s really proud of us and happy that we’re doing this but she’s not going to come see the show because it’s very personal; it’s a very personal story and it was too painful for her. So that is how we went about doing the show, with the expectation that she was supporting it and she absolutely knew what was going on but she just wasn’t going to be a part of it. Then to find out that she saw it and loved it so much was, again, sort of a bonus. For us it makes us feel so good and it’s great for the show. The fact that know she’s seen it and she’s a fan is great.
And you and Jessie Mueller, who plays Carole, have such an intense relationship throughout the course of the show. What did you guys do to kind of get comfortable with each other and to be able to go to those darker places and those more intense moments on stage?
You just kind of dive right in and don’t think about it. I’m such a fan of hers before we even started so I had a lot of respect for her as a performer before we even began. And I think that level of respect was a huge part of us being able to trust each other. To love each other, to hate each other on stage. We go through a whole journey every single night. It’s very intense, so I think you need to trust and respect the person that you’re doing it with. I was just really lucky it was her.
All of your castmates: Jessie, Anika Larsen, Jarrod Spector, they’re all very accomplished and have a bunch of shows under their belts. Have you been able to learn from them?
Absolutely, I’m the youngest of the four even though I play one of the oldest. They’re all such pros. They have that awesome balance and you can see they have so much fun on stage and off. [They’re] absolute professionals the whole way through. It’s totally been a learning experience working with all of them.
Were you a theater fan growing up?
The one thing my whole family kind of agreed on was theater. So once a year our parents would drive my sister and me to New York and we would see a Broadway show. We were always in awe of New York and Broadway. I grew up with cassettes of old musicals that we would buy in the ’90s.
My sister and I are the same way. We still have all our old playbills. I just found Beauty and The Beast, which was my first show.
Yeah we have all these hilarious cassettes of Big: The Musical, which I think was the first show we ever saw. I think it was considered a flop, but it was such an awesome [experience]. I think we might have broken the cassette, we listened to it so much. Titanic, The Lion King, all those cassettes. It’s so funny.
The first show you were in on Broadway was Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, which obviously had a lot of hype and a lot of attention. Which role would you say is more difficult: Peter Parker or Gerry Goffin?
They are like maybe the most complete opposite kind of parts.
Although Gerry did have a flirtation with heights.
[Laughs] Yeah I guess they share that love of being up on a roof. I mean Peter Parker was young and innocent and anxious. I found it vocally challenging and physically challenging, but there was so much love in the part. You were Spider-Man for those two hours. With Gerry there’s gravity involved in the part but its sort of emotionally challenging to do that part every single night. Certainly originating and playing a part like Gerry Goffin is a dream come true but Peter Parker was my Broadway debut. It was such a big deal for me. I was a huge comic book fan, so I really have loved both experiences but for different reasons.
And your big break as an actor was on Degrassi: The Next Generation, which has just been huge in Canada and here in the States. Did you expect that it would come to have this kind of cult following and still be on air?
No! Nobody did. The original Degrassi was a big cult hit in the ’80s — I remember watching it in reruns and it had this really popular following. When I was cast I was kind of hoping to live off of that. The fact that it became quite popular, like mainstream popular, was something that nobody expected, and certainly the popularity in the States was something that none of us expected. We thought we were making this Canadian soap opera thing and then all of a sudden we were flying to the U.S. to promote it and it was on TV in the U.S. and people started to recognize us. Yeah, it totally took us by surprise.
Is there anything you’ve learned from your time on Degrassi?Is there an episode or scene that people still come up to you and want to talk about?
You know what’s funny? At the time I just did it. It was like a second high school — everyone was playing an exaggerated version of themselves and they would write in things that you brought to the table. The fact that I was on the show for six years, and the amount that you learn about yourself and being on camera and how to pace yourself [in that time]? For me, they threw all these really beautifully dark storylines into my character [and] I loved it. I loved researching and talking to different people about it and [wanted] to portray these things in a really honest way that teenagers were going through. I think it was like what you [go through] in high school. You learn a million things at the time but you don’t really realize it.
We’d get some letters about people who grew up in an abusive home and how much how we handled the relationship with Craig and his abusive father meant to them. Or the whole bipolar arc. I’d get letters about people who were going through the same thing and how much it meant for them to see that in a TV show.
Looking back at the people you were working with at the time, so many of them are breaking out on TV, movies, music just like you are.
It’s great. It’s kind of like finding out the people you went to high school with are out doing interesting things; it’s great. Some of them I’ve been in touch with, most of them I have completely lost touch with. It’s great and it’s certainly great for my country, Canada, and Toronto. I think just the fact that so many of us are doing well, it gives us all kinds of cred for being part of that show.
Who from the cast do you keep in touch with?
I’ve kept in touch with Paula Brancati, she’s a really good friend; Jake Goldsbie is a really good friend, Shane Kippel, Dalmar Abuzeid. I have seen Miriam McDonald and Cassie [Steele]. Lauren Collins is a good friend.
Now that you’re living in New York, what’s your favorite thing to do on an off day?
My favorite thing to do besides sleep? I love going to Chelsea Market. I love going to Brooklyn, wandering Brooklyn and discovering something new. I think my favorite thing to do is find some corner of New York I’ve never discovered.
What are you guys going to do if Beautiful wins Best Musical?
Probably drink a bunch that night and feel really good. You know what, we’ll probably keep doing what we’ve done. It’s never been about the nominations or awards. We’ll probably keep doing the show and make it as good as possible.
[Photo Credit: TeenNick, Getty Images]
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