One of the trademarks that Degrassi is most known for is using “age appropriate” casting. In other words, casting actors who are the same or close in age to the characters they are portraying. Whenever Degrassi is compared to American teen TV shows, this is almost always the first thing that people bring up as a distinguishing factor, since it is very common for other teen dramas to cast 20-30 year olds to play teenagers. But in recent years, questions have been raised in the entertainment industry about the ethics of using underage actors, and putting children in vulnerable positions before they may have the ability to advocate for themselves.
It’s a topic I’ve given more thought to as we get ready for the Degrassi reboot on HBO Max. On the one hand, having real teenagers in the cast gives Degrassi an authenticity that other teen shows often lack. As Degrassi Co-Creator Linda Schuyler has remarked, these young actors also bring a vulnerability to their characters that is difficult for older actors to fake.
“[Casting age appropriate has always] been something that has been really dear to my heart… What I found is if you had a 15 year old playing a 15 year old, they bring 15 years of experience to the screen. If you take a 25 year old playing a 15 year old, they bring 25 years worth of experience to the scene, and knowledge and understanding that some of you said you were grappling with to figure out about your character. Well the fact that, as an actor, you too were trying to figure out where you stood on these issues, it gave you such authenticity and such vulnerability… There’s a lot of key tenants to Degrassi, but that’s one of the ones that I think has really served us all well over the years.”
-Linda Schuyler, addressing the Degrassi cast at the ATX TV Festival panel June 2021
Everything that Linda said in this interview is completely true. But what is the long term impact on someone’s mental health when they achieve this kind of success at such a young age (especially in the age of social media)? What sort of protections should be put in place, beyond the legal rules around hours of work, chaperones and schooling?
When working through this, I think it’s helpful to look at other teen shows that have adopted a similar casting strategy. One of those is the British series Skins, which aired on E4 in the UK from 2007 – 2013. April Pearson, a former Skins actor, recently started a podcast to work through her feelings on being part of something as iconic as Skins when she was only 17 years old. The podcast is appropriately titled “Are You Michelle From Skins?,” and it gives incredible insight in terms of what it’s like being an “age appropriate” cast member on a teen drama. In each episode, April interviews different actors and creatives about what it’s like being forever known for a particular time in their lives. Several of her guests have been actors from Skins, and listening to their stories and perspectives is fascinating. Many of them have shared experiences with social anxiety and body image issues as a result of being exposed to criticism online. They have also spoken about feeling like they were too young to be able to deal with the situations they were presented with. But we’ve also heard more serious allegations. Former Skins actor Laya Lewis (‘Liv’ in Skins series 5 and 6) spoke about an incident in which she and other cast members had their bodies judged by one of the co-creators of the show.
“Because we had to go to Morocco in the first episode of Season 6, we each had to in a bikini or our swimwear one by one stand in a room with just us and the creator of the show who was male. And he was a lot older than we were then, I mean I’m talking we were all between the ages of 16 – 18. And we had to be told whether we looked good or not, good enough to film in Morocco… He said “you look great Laya, you look great.” And I will never forget that moment. At the time I thought it was horrible, but I think it’s so much fucking worse now.”
-Laya Lewis, Are You Michelle From Skins podcast #4
Luckily, we’ve never heard allegations of similar behaviour from producers or executives on the Degrassi set. Skins is also a lot more risqué than Degrassi, so I think (hope) it’s unlikely that the Degrassi cast would have been put in uncomfortable situations similar to this one. But I still see a lot of similarities in the actors’ experiences between the two series.
Both Skins and Degrassi were teen dramas not based in Hollywood. The actors were often expected to attend a regular high school in real life, and usually didn’t have any kind of security team. While they were paid well, they were never “rich” like Disney Channel teen stars in the US. They were also put into the public eye with little to no preparation for what that would entail. On the one hand, they were given an incredible opportunity to be on TV and do something they were passionate about. But at the same time, they also had to deal with many of the unsavory aspects of being part of a successful TV series (e.g. stalker fans, lack of privacy, your teenage image in the public forever). And while the Degrassi cast wasn’t performing in sex scenes like the Skins cast had to, they still did kissing scenes and many Degrassi (and Skins) cast members have admitted to having their first kiss happen on camera. Also Skins and Degrassi both have actors that have gone on to become global superstars (and Academy Award winners, in the case of Skins), leaving others to compare themselves to the success of their former co-stars and potentially wonder why they weren’t able to achieve the same.
Despite these pressures, for the most part the Degrassi cast have spoken positively about their experience working on the show. But some cast members have publicly shared more complicated feelings that reveal the vulnerability of being teenagers in an adult world. One of those cast members is Chloe Rose who played Katie Matlin on Degrassi Season 11-12. Last year, Chloe took to Instagram to talk about her time on Degrassi, and the good and bad parts about being a teenager while working on the show:
“This is not by any means a criticism of the production at all, they were so sensitive to our innocence and really created a safe space for us. I’ve just been processing that I simply did not have the tools to manage my own teenage life in tandem with the expectations of being an actor. I was expected to be professional, punctual, to be able to digest heavy script content, understand scene cues and humour (something I was not good at), all while going to regular high school and dealing with the complexities there. I put a lot of pressure on myself to act like an adult and felt I was expected to understand adult perspectives on teenage issues. I did my best and played the part of “adult.”"
-Chloe Rose, Instagram post from February 17, 2021
Chloe’s post was liked and supported by several of her co-stars, including Aislinn Paul, Charlotte Arnold, Jessica Tyler, Ricardo Hoyos, and more. She echoes what we’ve heard from many Degrassi cast members over the years, which is that they did feel supported and protected by the Degrassi team. But it was still challenging to be put in that position when they were so young.
A couple of former Degrassi cast members have been more critical of the Degrassi team and their experience working on the show. One of those is Sam Earle who played KC Guthrie on Degrassi Season 8-12. Sam has occasionally spoken out on Twitter about the lack of support he thinks he received, and on having images of his teenage self forever available in the world.
“Degrassi should pay me damages for like, latent pedophilia vibes as a result of the multitude of adults hitting on the teenage version of myself online… I’m talking about that juvenile image of myself continuing to be presented and received as something “hot.” And at the time, they provided no mental health resources, and not a lot of buffer between us and the fans.”
-Sam Earle, Twitter thread from Sept 21, 2020
When you agree to be on Degrassi (or any TV show as a teenager), you are agreeing to having the image of your teenage self permanently in a public space and not having very much control over how it gets used. This begs the question: Is a child able to understand the implications of this in order to make that decision?
Where Do We Go From Here?
So what should be done to foster a safer environment going forward? I think it comes down to a combination of protection and education.
On the protection side, there needs to be better efforts to protect the young actors from the fans (even the well meaning ones). During Degrassi Junior High, the actors had almost no interaction with the fans aside from receiving physical fan mail. And most of that fan mail was screened by the adults before the actors were even allowed to see it. We’re now in a time when fans are able to easily contact the actors through social media and say virtually anything they want to them. To combat this, one strategy that some European teen dramas have used is requiring the cast to private or delete their social media accounts for the period of time when they are on the show. This encourages the fans to follow the shows’ “official” social media accounts, and also protects the actors from unwanted messages and attention. Policies like this can be difficult to enforce, but it could be a way to teach the cast about how to set those boundaries.
In terms of education, I think this is about giving the young actors the tools and knowledge needed to speak up for themselves and say no to situations that they may feel pressured to agree to. This can be done through mandatory onboarding and media training programs. It’s also about having adults on set who can continuously check in and have open and honest conversations with the cast about what they are being asked to do and how they feel about it. This could take the form of guidance counsellors, mental health professionals, and intimacy coordinators (for those performing kissing and/or hugging scenes). Of course when talking about hiring these types of resources, money becomes a significant factor. But in my opinion it is essential if you are going to work with kids, especially in a post-#MeToo world.
I’d love for this article to be a conversation starter, so if you have any thoughts on this please leave a comment or send me a message over on Twitter. What do you think about the ethics of age appropriate casting? Should Degrassi continue this practice going forward? How do you think Degrassi compares to other film and TV series that work with child actors? Let me know!