Jake was a punk
Toronto actor ready for prime time with starring role in Green Day's American Idiot
You’ve got to wonder what they put in the water on the set of Degrassi. The Canadian teen TV drama series has a record of churning out stars — hip hop idol Drake and Shenae Grimes of TV’s 90210, the iconic U.S. series, to name just two. Jake Epstein could soon follow in their footsteps after landing the lead role in a touring production of Green Day’s American Idiot.
Epstein — who portrayed bipolar musician Craig Manning on Degrassi: The Next Generation — is set to make his debut in the stage show on Dec. 28 in Toronto.
“It’s a childhood dream coming true,” Epstein, 24, says about starring in the first national tour of the Tony and Grammy Award–winning musical that recently completed its run on Broadway.
Epstein plays Will, a disillusioned young man who sees his two long-time buddies flee to the big city from life in suburbia, while he stays home with his pregnant girlfriend.
The musical is adapted from Green Day’s hit album, and the lyrics were written by lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong, who would sometimes guest star in the Broadway show.
Ironically, Epstein’s first live concert experience was going to see Green Day perform in Mississauga when he was 13 and says the night was magical for him.
He says it was music that got him through his adolescent years.
Inspired by a musical cousin whom he thought was “cool,” Epstein started playing guitar at the beginning of high school and played in bands throughout.
“All of my friends were musicians,” he recalls.
Before being cast in American Idiot, Epstein toured with a U.S. production of Spring Awakening, another teen rock musical that was a Broadway hit, winning 11 Tony Awards in 2007 and drumming up controversy for its themes of suicide, sexuality and abuse.
Epstein played the pivotal role of Melchior, a contemplative student heartthrob.
“It was probably my favourite role of all time,” Epstein says. “Proving to people I could lead a show like that gave me huge artistic satisfaction.”
Epstein says he went through a major learning curve while touring the U.S. with a controversial show.
“We went from red states to blue states — so as a performer, I had to develop a thick skin,” he says. “We’d have walkouts in the Midwest and standing ovations in Miami and D.C., which were like rock concerts.
“I learned to stay grounded in the material, to trust myself and not get too concerned with what people are thinking — just to focus on telling the story.”
It was through his role in Spring Awakening that Epstein got an audition for American Idiot.
Once the tour concluded, Epstein was looking for an apartment in Toronto and needed an employer as a referral, so he turned to his former producer in the U.S.
Rather than talking real estate, the discussion turned to casting.
“She said to me, ‘We’re starting a new tour — it’s too bad you don’t play guitar.’”
Epstein countered with “I play guitar really well.”
Four auditions later, Epstein signed on to the cast of American Idiot and promptly forgot about the apartment. The tour begins in Toronto and will touch down in 11 states, including stops in cities such as Boston, Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles.
Epstein says the show pushes the boundaries of what most people think of as a musical.
“It’s definitely the closest thing to a rock concert that has ever been put on a stage,” Epstein says.
“It’s punk rock that is operatic.”
Born in Toronto, Epstein grew up in North York with his parents — his father, a lawyer, his mother, a children’s writer — and his older sister, Gabi, who is also an actor.
Beginning in Grade 4, he attended Claude Watson School for the Arts and was encouraged by his acting teacher to go out on a few auditions.
In no time, he was landing gigs, which led to him signing on with an agent. Epstein continued on in an arts program at Earl Haig Secondary School while he was filming Degrassi.
He considers his role on the show a major break in his career. He won a Gemini Award for Best Performance in a Youth Series in 2003, and he says having a recurring part on the TV series really taught him how to act on-camera.
“Degrassi was sort of my first really serious acting experience, so everything I did felt like learning,” he says.
“I also had a great character and didn’t know what would happen to him, so it was a really creative process.”
But after five seasons on Degrassi, Epstein’s contract was up and he felt ready for change. He auditioned at the National Theatre School in Montreal, where he studied for three years.
“My heart has always been in theatre,” he says about the choice.
“Degrassi had done all it could for me creatively, and I wanted to put some technique around my acting.”
Acting school taught Epstein how to connect with his body while onstage, something that has proven invaluable given his new musical theatre direction.
“It teaches you to treat your body like an instrument,” he says.
Epstein — who also performed in the Toronto production of the hit musical Billy Elliott last summer — says he sees his work in musicals as a coming together of his two passions, acting and music.
“Music has always been fun for me, and acting has been a profession.”
When Epstein isn’t touring, he makes the most of his spare time, playing his own music at open mic nights in Toronto.
“I play shows in the city when I can,” he says. “Just to get in front of people and start singing.”
Most recently Epstein has been frequenting the Tranzac Club in the Annex and Clinton’s in Little Korea. Sometimes he’ll play piano, sometimes guitar, and he mixes it up, playing cover songs and music he’s written himself.
He says he’d love to release an album although he’s not sure what direction he would take since he’s a fan of many music genres. But most of all, what Epstein would really love is to land a role in a Broadway production.
With two leading roles in touring productions of Broadway musicals on his resumé, it would certainly seem that Epstein is on his way.