Luke Bilyk looks back on life as a Degrassi star
We talk to him about his future movie career including landing the lead in the upcoming film Adam’s Testament
Image: Danielle Jaime
There’s a fresh coat of paint on the newly reconstructed halls of Degrassi Community School — the set, that is. It’s been completely renovated after a fire in the season finale of Degrassi: The Next Generation.
Luke Bilyk looks around, peers into the updated science and music rooms and marvels at all the changes.
“It feels a little bit surreal being back here,” he says. “It’s been about six months since I was on the Degrassi set. There’s a lot of nostalgia flooding back."
Bilyk is now an alumni of the school and show, after spending five years as a main cast member. Although it was announced that the show was coming to an end, it turns out the Degrassi universe will continue as Degrassi: The Next Class, on Netflix and the Family Channel.
Although, as with other notable alumni like Drake, Cassie Steele (The L.A. Complex), Shenae Grimes (90210) and Nina Dobrev (The Vampire Diaries), there’s always a door left open to return, both onscreen, and off.
“These people are like family,” says Bilyk of the long-running production company, “and there’s an open door policy for any of the Degrassi generations to come back and hang out any time.”
Bilyk landed the role of Drew Torres as he was going into Grade 10 at Thornhill’s St. Elizabeth Catholic School.
So the set was where he spent much of his formative years.
“Degrassi was my high school. I was with 20 other lead cast members, all around the same age, and any of the drama you’d have around a high school, we got into ourselves.”
He’s referring to both onscreen and off — the lines would blur sometimes — although he and his fellow cast members would have to be more conscientious than typical high school students.
“We’d have a 6 a.m. call time, and you’d walk through the production offices to the set. When we weren’t shooting, we’d go to tutoring, and lunch was at a set time.… They almost treated it like a school, but I’d pick Degrassi over an actual school any day."
Now that he’s saying goodbye to his Degrassi days, Bilyk has been spending much of his time in Los Angeles for pilot season, but he’s been back in Toronto this summer to shoot a film.
“I just wrapped filming on Adam’s Testament. We had an amazing cast: Frank Chiesurin as the Archangel Michael, Nick Mancuso as the Devil.… It’s angels and demons literally fighting a war over my character’s soul, so there’s a lot of special effects and hands-on action, and I get to ride a motorcycle. It was a lot of fun to move onto a feature like this.”
The film was shot entirely within Toronto, and Bilyk plays the lead character, Adam, a young musician whose life is turned upside down by tragedy as undercover angels and demons battle for his soul. Barely into his 20s, Bilyk has also been spending some time behind the camera as a producer, working with other young filmmakers.
“A lot of my friends go to Ryerson University,” says Bilyk, “and I love supporting Toronto actors, producers and directors,” many of whom come from the school’s renowned theatre program.
“I recently executive produced two short films — Where Love Takes You and The Cycle of Broken Grace — and it was fascinating to work on the opposite side of the camera.”
When production for Adam’s Testament came to Toronto, filmmakers Jason Barbeck and Rafael Kalamat, of Reel Deal Guys Entertainment, ended up employing many of Bilyk’s friends from Ryerson as continuity supervisors, production assistants and social media marketers, which was a resounding success.
“The Adam’s Testament Twitter account hit 15,000 followers in the first few weeks of shooting,” recalls Bilyk.
(Dealing with social media and Degrassi’s fervent fan base comes with the territory for its stars and alumni.)
“For any project these days, promoting it via social media is really important,” says Bilyk.
There were other benefits to all the Ryerson students on set for Bilyk, who has become used to being around veteran film crews.
“It was really nice to go to work and be around all these other people in their early 20s,” he says.
Besides his career, Bilyk is also passionate about the charities he became involved with while on Degrassi, which took him far afield.
“I’ve travelled all over the world: India in 2010 with Free The Children [an international charity founded by Thornhill’s Craig and Marc Kielburger], Haiti and Nicaragua in 2011 and 2012. Working with them and Me to We was a life-changing experience,” he says.
“Being on Degrassi can go to your head as a kid: you’ve got some fame, some money, a lot of attention.”
Bilyk says that helping others helped him put much of that in perspective.
“We built a fresh water system in Nicaragua where before they’d have to make two and a half hour treks down a gorge to get water. When the taps starting gushing, the children were all so happy now that the school and village had running water.”
After all his recent time in the U.S., Bilyk is clearly happy to be home for a while.
He greets many of the production staff passing through the Degrassi halls with waves and a beaming smile, and he says he’s relishing time to play soccer and hockey with his pals.
“I grew up on a street in Vaughan full of boys, so we played a lot of street hockey. Now, I play regularly with like five other Degrassi guys,” says Bilyk.
“And it's not just my friends and family here; it’s Toronto’s diversity and the friendliness. People smile at you on the street, which doesn’t really happen in L.A.”
Bilyk hopes to be spending more of his career here in Toronto in the near future.
“I’ve landed a role on a Family Channel show that’ll be shooting here, potentially for years,” he says.
The details and title of the show are still under wraps, but Bilyk can share the genre.
“It’s a comedy, which I’m really excited for. I’ve never been a lead on a comedy, so it’ll tug on some different strings, from an acting standpoint.”
He’s been going to see more local comedy too. He caught the sketch comedy duo Peter n’ Chris at last month’s Fringe Festival and is looking forward to seeing some Just For Laughs 42 acts in September. As with anyone who’s been away from home awhile, one of the things Bilyk missed was local food.
“Marcello’s Pizzeria in Vaughan has the best Italian food. That and my mother’s Italian home cooking was what I missed most.”