Most of us dread returning to high school once we've graduated, but Jake Epstein was actually pretty excited to return back to the hallowed halls of The N's Degrassi: The Next Generation. The 19-year-old actor left the series in order to get an education, but is back playing moody musician Craig for two episodes, starting with this week's season premiere (Friday, Jan. 5, at 8 pm/ET). TVGuide.com caught up with Epstein to find out what it was like stepping back into the role of Craig and performing with fellow guest stars Taking Back Sunday, and if there's a chance he could make another return appearance.
TVGuide.com: What have you been up to?
I've been living in Montreal.
TVGuide.com: Going to college, right? What are you studying?
I'm at the National Theatre School, which is like the Juilliard of Canada.
TVGuide.com: Did your acting experience on Degrassi make you a shoo-in to get accepted?
No! It is a theater school, so television didn't count.
I know! I was all up for talking about it.... [Laughs] I'm sure it helped a little.
TVGuide.com: Craig is actually a very complex character, being bipolar. That's not exactly a physical disorder that's easy to portray.
Yeah, it is challenging.
TVGuide.com: Have you gotten much response from people who are bipolar?
I have heard that there have been letters from people who have bipolar disorder, saying how it was nice to see a [series] recognize it and show how hard it is. I have a family member who is bipolar, and so is one of my best friends, so that was obviously a huge inspiration for doing those episodes. They were appreciative, and thought I did it well. I could tell it was a really important topic for them to see on TV.
TVGuide.com: You've been away at school, so how was it going back to Degrassi? Was it like going "back to high school"?
It was totally like going back to high school. You see your friends and you just pick up where you left off, though with some people it is really awkward. You see your old teachers, who are [now] the directors and producers. But that was awesome, actually. I think when I came back it was pretty much just a big party. I'm very fortunate that I can go away to theater school and have the TV show say, "Yeah, go pursue your dream, but you still have a spot here if you want." They were the ones calling me saying, "Come back!"
TVGuide.com: Was returning to the show always part of your plan?
Not initially. But once they started asking, it became the plan.
TVGuide.com: Every so often they give Craig a mention. Like, "Oh, he's off working on his album.... "
That's how they keep me on the show. I wanted to have, like, a weekly letter. Craig's girlfriend, Manny (played by Cassie Steele), is still on, after all....
TVGuide.com: Yeah, she mentions you every once and a while.
TVGuide.com: Have you been following the show?
I've missed a couple, but I have been following it.
TVGuide.com: Does Craig know that Ashley [whom he once proposed to] and Jimmy [his former bandmate] are back dating?
Hmm... interesting question. Very interesting question.
TVGuide.com: Does that come up during your two-episode stint?
I think it is sort of mentioned, but I think Craig has moved on. Plus, he's with Manny and sort of pursuing Ashley's best friend, so I don't think he can really feel bad about Ashley going out with Jimmy. Plus, Jimmy is in a wheelchair. He deserves all the happiness he can get. [Laughs]
TVGuide.com: What is going on with Craig when he returns?
He has been in Vancouver, living the rock-star life, but he's lonely and has been dealing with drugs. That's kind of his secret. He comes back to play a show in Toronto and to see his girlfriend, and to see Ellie.
TVGuide.com: Interesting. Also, you'll be performing with the band Taking Back Sunday. Was that exciting?
Totally. I didn't know a lot about them, but then I went on YouTube and [looked them up]. They were so down-to-earth and cool, and they were fans of the old Degrassi. Like huge, scary, obsessive Spike fans. I asked if they were in town for a show and they said, "No, we're just in town for Degrassi." I was like, "Where have you played here?" and they were like, "Oh, we played at the amphitheater." I was thinking, "Is that some small club?" and then I was like, "The Molson Amphitheater?" It's this massive, massive stadium, like, the biggest venue in Toronto. I'm like, "Wow, 30,000 people came to see you."
TVGuide.com: Are you performing one of their songs?
How it works is that Craig meets Taking Back Sunday, and they ask if he'll open for them. So he just plays one of his own acoustic concoctions.
TVGuide.com: Do you get to contribute at all to the songwriting process?
I do! That's one of the coolest parts of the show for me, because I love music so much. Jim McGrath does all the music for the show, and whenever there is a Craig song he calls me in to his office and says, "Jake, what do you want to write about? Let's make this rockin'." He's always up for writing a song right there and then.
TVGuide.com: Do you get to do much music in your spare time?
I played the drums, and I was in a band called Funkasaurus Rex in Toronto. When I left for school it became hard to play as frequently. In Montreal, there is a friend of mine at school who is a jazz pianist with an amazing voice, and we sort of have this fusion/soul/R&B/folk music kind of thing. We've been keeping it low-key and opening for some friends.
TVGuide.com: Do these two episodes wrap up what's going on with Craig, or might we see you again?
There is definitely the potential to see me again. I don't think Degrassi will ever wrap up any character.
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