Going where no two boys have gone before: on children's TV, Canadian drama Degrassi: The Next Generation boldly explores gay themes by having a major teen character come out--and fall in love with a classmate.
When a gay teen character is introduced into a mainstream youth-oriented drama with a minimum of fanfare, you can be sure of one thing: You're not talking about U.S. television. It's Canada's CTV that's airing the third season of the revival of a classic television series that has of late begun to enjoy a generous fan base in the United States. Those south of the border can catch the show on the N, the teen- and tween-centric programming block on the Nickelodeon-owned cable channel Noggin, which brings the show into 22 million households. And obviously, people in the United States are watching: The day before this interview, Degrassi found itself a finalist for the GLAAD Media Awards in the Outstanding Drama Series category, against such high-profile shows as Nip/Tuck, Playmakers, Queer as Folk, and Six Feet Under.
Set in a downtown Toronto high school, the show brings the character of 10th-grader Marco (Ruggiero) out of his closet and into the jungle of secondary-school society. This season he's met Dylan (Bregar), who until recently existed in the series only as the spoken-of-but-never-seen openly gay older brother of Marco's friend Paige.
Sitting side by side, Ruggiero (currently finishing his senior year at a Toronto arts high school) and Bregar (taking time off before college to make the actor's boot-camp round of auditions) clearly share a rapport that transcends their roles on the show. They interrupt each other periodically and finish each other's sentences as though they had known each other for years instead of mere months of shooting the show in and around Toronto.
"My first two auditions were for Queer as Folk," notes Bregar with laughter when asked if he had any trepidation about tackling a gay character, much less a gay teenager in love with another teenager, his first time out of the gate. "I didn't get the parts on QAF, but when I saw the character breakdown [for Dylan] I was like, 'OK, why not'?'"
Ruggiero, who was hired knowing that his character was going to go through a tough, realistic coming-out, was already an established cast member by the time Bregar auditioned to play closeted Marco's first love. Paradoxically, the newest cast member was written as an already-out gay high schooler, derided by some, admired by others.
"Unlike Marco, Dylan has no journey to accept his sexuality," says show writer Aaron Martin. The actor playing him bad to be believable as an athletic, "all-Canadian," hockey-playing teenage boy. "We knew there was going to potentially be a gay kiss."
Ruggiero and Bregar first met at the latter's audition. Bregar admits, "I didn't know Adamo's character because I hadn't watched Degrassi. I thought he was maybe the reader."
After the initial read-through, the director sprang all improv scene on the two actors, one that would eventually make its way into the show as a moment of early tenderness between the two characters. "In the scene, we were sitting on the beach and I comfort Adamo," Bregar says.
"I'd just broken up with my 'safety girlfriend,'" Ruggiero says, setting up the scene where he and Elite (played by Stacey Farber), his last would-be girlfriend, finally acknowledge that they will only ever be friends. As he sits staring pensively at the lake, Dylan comes up behind him and puts his arm around Marco's shoulders. Although they didn't kiss at the audition, "we physically touched for the first time," says Bregar. "Obviously, initially, when the director said 'Put your arm around him,' there Was some initial nervousness, but then it felt comfortable. It didn't feel fake at all. I didn't want to do anything that felt fake."
When the producers asked Ruggiero who he thought might be a good bet for Dylan, he answered, "The blond guy." "One of the biggest problems with the other two guys was that they didn't have that comfort [level]," says Ruggiero. "Not that I had a significant say in tile matter, but I had some input in deciding who would play Dylan. My choice was based on how comfortable I felt in the audition. I know that if the other person isn't comfortable, I'm going to be ,awkward. I'm going to be thinking, Oh, my God, I'm hugging a guy who's going to shoot me! and I won't do a good job."
The question of whether Ruggiero and Bregar axe gay or straight isn't one that makes either one flinch. "I'm a straight actor playing gay," says Bregar unequivocally. "And I find that very good for me. It diversities me as an actor and gives me another dimension. I'm confident and comfortable playing the role, and I'm enjoying it so far."
Ruggiero is more thoughtful. "I completely understand people's curiosity about the question," he says reflectively, with the political astuteness of an actor twice his age. "When you're watching a character on television every week, you believe in that person as you see him on the screen. But my answer to that question is, I don't want to say [I'm gay or I'm straight], because I don't want to relate myself to a character and get people more interested in me than in Marco. But at the same time, I don't want to say that I'm the opposite of Marco, because I don't want people to think I'm disconnected from my character. So," he says, smiling serenely, "I think I'll leave it up to the individual to decide, and hope they just focus on Marco."
Although the romance between Marco and Dylan on Degrassi: The Next Generation marks the first-ever gay story line on what is technically a children's network, it's par for the course given the bold history of the show. The first installment of what would become the Degrassi saga aired on Canada's CBC network in 1982 as The Kids of Degrassi Street, the brainchild of creator and producer Linda Schuyler.
Degrassi, from its earliest incarnation, has been unapologetically Canadian. Set in an urban Toronto neighborhood, it follows the lives and fortunes of a group of friends facing the real-life challenges that kids face.
Over the course of the next five years, Schuyler and her colleagues cobbled together 26 half-hour episodes of The Kids of Degrassi Street, which ran until 1986. As the years passed, the kids aged, but the shows had until then dealt only with kids at a sixth-grade level. "When we were in the final season of that, we wanted to deal with heavier issues," Schuyler says. Schuyler had taught eighth-grade math and English for eight years prior to going into television production and yearned to deal with adolescent issues.
Continuing the relationship with the CBC but forming a secondary partnership with PBS affiliate WGBH in Boston, which became their presenting station, Schuyler and company went on the air in 1986 with Degrassi Junior High, which evolved into Degrassi High. Throughout, Schuyler remained (and remains) a stickler for reality. "If [the actors have] got acne, I don't care. Or if their teeth are crooked and they have their braces on, whatever," she says pragmatically. "I think the show has to be accessible for kids." And unlike, say, Beverly Hills, 90210, Degrassi has always cast actors "within a year or two" of the characters' ages.
"They're not actors remembering what it was like to be 15 or 16," says Schuyler. "They don't bring extra-world experience to their parts. They bring only the experience they have. I think that gives them just a little more vulnerability."
In 1992 the story swept to a two-hour movie of the week, School's Out, which had the Degrassi kids spending one last summer together before riding into the sunset of adulthood. Incredibly, there was yet another spin-off--a documentary series called Degrassi Talks, which had the actors traveling across Canada to discuss weighty teen issues such as drugs, sex, alcohol, and depression with ordinary high schoolers. "When I wrapped those two projects," Schuyler recalls, sighing, "I thought to myself, That's a wonderful chapter of my life, and it's over. I'm moving on."
Over the next decade Schuyler worked on adult shows, but she soon realized that she missed working on teen material and began developing a series based on a group of 21st-century high schoolers. "[Longtime Degrassi writer] Yan Moore said to me one day, 'You know, Linda, this is starting to feel a lot like Degrassi.'" Moore and Schuyler realized that the chronology would he right for the original Degrassi kids to be parents of adolescent children. "The penny dropped for all of us, and we realized that we had the next generation on our bands."
Part of making the stories of "the next generation" involved tackling social issues that were relevant to the postmillennial adolescent experience. This meant, among other things, gay themes--which previous Degrassis had approached gingerly, in 1982 on the Kids of Degrassi Street, a girl had a crush on a teacher and wondered whether that meant that she was a lesbian. The following season saw a male character discover that his brother was gay. These two tentative explorations of gay subplots were handled with typical early-'80s delicacy and discretion. "It was very gentle and very light," says Schuyler, who admits that it seemed radical at the time. "In the mid '80s it was revolutionary to even have kids use the words 'gay' and 'lesbian' on television," she adds dryly.
In 1979, while Schuyler was still teaching, a colleague's son committed suicide by throwing himself off a bridge. His note stated that he was gay, and he didn't want to bring that shame to his family. The experience haunted Schuyler for years. "It was the first time in my adult life that I had come face to-face with that," Schuyler says softly. Creating a gay character and giving him a fully integrated life was, she says, "on the boards right from the beginning."
Interestingly enough, the very title of the long-running Degrassi franchise was inspired by a close gay friend of Schuyler's: "One of my dearest friends was 10 years older than me. I called him 'The Grandfather of Degrassi Street.' The show got its name from the [Toronto] street on which he had a house. My friend Bruce was a beer-swigging, hockey-loving middle son of three boys. He never came out to his parents.
"I was Ellie to Bruce's Marco," Schuyler adds. "We were best of friends. I wish he were alive to see what we're doing now. It's the sort of storytelling that he would have loved, and there is a freedom these kids are experiencing that he never knew."
Writer Aaron Martin, 32, joined the show in 2000 after graduating from the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto. "We were always saving, 'It would be great to have an actual character who is gay,'" says Martin. Schuyler continues, "We had a very good meeting with Noggin in New York. We told them, 'These are the themes we're exploring this year. We're thinking of a gay kid.' They said 'Great!'"
The character of Marco was crafted to be as realistic as possible. Like many gay teenage boys, Marco has intense friendships with girls and a jocular, if occasionally awkward, relationship with his guy friends. "We didn't want to hide the fact that he was gay, if that makes sense," says Martin. "We wanted to make sure that he came across the way 99% of gay teenagers come across." She adds carefully, "Not to stereotype anybody, but we didn't want him to be 'the football player with confused sexuality.'"
"Because our performers are so young, we're constantly watching them to see what they can deal with," says Schuyler. "Because Adamo did such a brilliant job in the second season where he came out to Ellie, his girlfriend, we thought, Oh, great! When we cast him, we hoped he could do it. And this season he has his first gay kiss."
The show itself receives enthusiastic marks from its young stars for being true enough to life that the actors don't feel dishonest playing their characters as written. "I think, in general, coming out is leas shocking [to today's youth], but you don't want to have the ignorance to say that everything is OK, because people are still homphobic," says Ruggiero.
"People grow up now with the idea of coming out and stuff like that," says Bregar. "It's not such a surprise when they do. Our generation is growing up seeing it happen. People are opinionated, but seriously," he says, laughing, "bigger things happen." Both actors note that Degrassi is set in an urban school, and urban settings have traditionally been more tolerant of diversity than rural ones. "I'm aware that there's a danger of making the coming-out experience seem too candy-coated on TV," Bregar says seriously. "You know, if someone is watching the show in souse rural place and they decide to come out--well ..." He pauses. "You know how people can be."
Ruggiero reluctantly relates an anecdote: His school had a half-day, and he and his friends went to a strip mall near his old school to rent a movie from the local video more. Outside the store he was cornered by a group of menacing group of angry teenagers chanting, "It's that fag from Degrassi!" and screaming, "How can you stand to play a stupid faggot on television?" "Some of them were people I went to elementary school with," Ruggiero says quietly.
While audiences and critics may marvel or recoil at the notion of two teenage boys in love, much less kissing, on a show geared toward teenagers mad younger children--a groundbreaking moment by any cultural standard--the teenage actors approach it with more maturity and nonchalance than might some actors twice their age. Ruggiero notes that when he had his first screen kiss last season with Farber, they practiced the kiss until they had it down. By contrast, he and Bregar chose not to practice theirs, preferring to let their natural awkwardness inform the characters they are playing. "I wanted that initial shock," Ruggiero says thoughtfully. "The awkwardness between me and John was the same awkwardness that there is between Marco and Dylan."
And there was awkwardness, at least initially. "If you can plug real emotion into a character, that's a gift," says Ruggiero. "So for us, the awkwardness that we felt was real. What makes it sweet is that the first kiss is the most nerve-racking thing in the world."
So is kissing boys different from kissing girls? Bregar shrugs. "It's a set of lips," he says.
Rowe's second collection of essays and journalism, Other Men's Sons, will be published by Mosaic Press in 2004. Additional reporting for this story by Wenzel Jones.
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|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Feb 3, 2004|
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