STEPHANIE TRAVASSOS/THE VARSITY

Degrassi is a cornerstone of any Canadian educational curriculum. Whether you watched it or not, the 33-year-old franchise (it started in 1979, seriously!) has become a cultural phenomenon. The latest chapter in the franchise, Degrassi: The Next Generation, began in 2001 and is in its 11th season on MuchMusic.

The show, which is shot in Toronto, features actors from all over Canada. One of those actors is Judy Jiao, who played Leia Chang from seasons 8 to 10. Introduced as a transfer student from a ballet school, Leia immediately became friends with Mia (Nina Dobrev). Their relationship came to an end thanks to Mia’s party-animal ways, but in the meantime, Leia had a romance with Danny (Dalmar Abuzied).

Judy herself was born in Winnipeg but grew up close by in Mississauga. Today, Judy attends Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts but still holds Toronto dear to her heart.

THE VARSITY

What type of high school did you go to? Did it focus more on arts or on sports? Was it similar to Degrassi?

JUDY JIAO

My school couldn’t be any more different than Degrassi. My high school was a mid-sized public high school in a very wealthy area of Mississauga with a huge focus on athletics. In comparison, Degrassi had a lot of diversity. It was diverse in terms of being multicultural as well as having students from different socioeconomic backgrounds and upbringings. It was very representative of Canadian multiculturalism. Also, Degrassi was very dramatic and dealt with very heavy issues — something my high school didn’t.

THE VARSITY

Degrassi is shot in Toronto like so many other shows. Why do you think people enjoy and get so excited to see Toronto on TV?

JUDY JIAO

I like to watch Life With Derek, and in that show they make Canadian references to places, schools, and other things. I think people like it because they feel a strong tie to where they have been brought up and it is always amazing to have it featured in popular culture. I still enjoy American shows but, [they don’t] have the same hold that shows shot in Canada have on you.

THE VARSITY

Do you have a favourite building in Toronto?

JUDY JIAO

Hart House. It is so historical, beautiful, and very rustic-looking. I don’t know how to describe it, but it shows an older and beautiful Toronto. I love the ROM too, even though I don’t really like modern architecture that much. I find it sometimes doesn’t make sense. There is a very awkward juxtaposition between old and the new, but I still love the ROM — I like the rotunda. It’s beautiful.

THE VARSITY

Modern architecture can really go either way.

JUDY JIAO

I agree. Modern architecture just wants to be talk-worthy and such.

THE VARSITY

I feel as though Toronto is moving towards a more heritage and restoration movement as opposed to modernization.

JUDY JIAO

That’s excellent. I love old buildings. It’s always sad when they tear down old buildings because there’s so much history and culture attached to them.

THE VARSITY

How about your favourite Toronto neighbourhood?

JUDY JIAO

Queen West. It has great shopping, and they have a really nice mix of modern chains and little boutiques. I feel like those Toronto neighbourhoods are distinct with certain ethnicities and cultures, but it’s experienced by everyone in the city.

THE VARSITY

Do you have an earliest memory of Toronto?

JUDY JIAO

Going to Chinatown. My mom worked at U of T and occasionally, when I went with my mom to her office, we would end up going to Chinatown to do grocery shopping and to have lunch. I was about four or five, and I have such fond memories of that time.

THE VARSITY

And how about your favourite restaurant?

JUDY JIAO

Joey at the Toronto Eaton Centre. I love the elegance, and it feels really classy.

THE VARSITY

Nowadays, where is your favourite place to hang out or to have a relaxing day in the city?

JUDY JIAO

 Kensington Market or St. Lawrence Market with friends. I just love marketplaces, they’re fun and a great place to spend a weekend afternoon when it’s nice outside.

THE VARSITY

Let’s talk about your experience on Degrassi. Why do you think Toronto teens in particular love the show?

JUDY JIAO

 It is very representative of Toronto; it shows how Toronto embraces multiculturalism. It’s something Degrassi does amazingly. Canada is unique. If you look at Canada and America culturally, they are very similar but very different in terms of multiculturalism. The concept has a different connotation in the States than in Canada. Here we embrace it, and Degrassi shows that.

THE VARSITY

Out of the episodes you worked on, do you have any favourites?

JUDY JIAO

My first two episodes, just because it was my first experience being on set and meeting everyone. It was a mix of excitement and terror. My first block of episodes was this big party scene. They made this gorgeous set; it was a bachelor pad-esque set. It was just a really fun atmosphere and fun working with everyone.

THE VARSITY

If you could have played any other character, who would you have liked to play and why?

JUDY JIAO

Holly J, played by Charlotte Arnold. It’s remarkable to see her character development. She started as a mean girl who was superficial, but there were always undertones to her character, deeper issues to Holly J. It was interesting watching Charlotte and the writers tap into her character as she evolved, and watching her character’s transformation. I can understand her character’s pressure to succeed, that drive and ambition. I think we are similar because we are motivated individuals, and Holly J’s dream was to go to Yale or another Ivy League school — and I understand that as well. I really liked her character a lot.

THE VARSITY

You must’ve been very busy with the show. What was it like balancing Degrassi and school?

JUDY JIAO

I was really focused on school. There was an overlap between Degrassi and school, and it was difficult to balance the two. Degrassi was great because it was an ensemble cast, so I could balance school and normal life. We’d film for a week or two and then take a break. It was difficult, but I always had my priorities well-established. It’s about balancing and managing your time and making it work.

THE VARSITY

 When your character “graduates” from Degrassi High, do you plan to continue acting in Toronto or do you see yourself starting something different?

JUDY JIAO

 I love acting, but realistically, it is very competitive and cut-throat. I might audition part-time, but I want to make sure I have a degree. I may want to work on the business side of the industry, maybe corporate strategy or on the production side.

Lightning round

In character!

THE VARSITY

What’s the one thing a person could do to commit social suicide at Degrassi?

JUDY JIAO

Mess with Holly J.

THE VARSITY

Do you have Bieber Fever?

JUDY JIAO

Yes.

THE VARSITY

Assuming you were to return to the show for a reunion, who would you be most excited to see and who would you be least excited to see?

JUDY JIAO

I would be excited to see Mia [played by Nina Dobrev] to see what direction she took and not excited to see Chantay [played by Jajube Madiela].

THE VARSITY

If you could have a romantic storyline with one character, who would it be?

JUDY JIAO

Sav [played by Raymond Ablack]. I need a nice guy, a guiding force to show me the ropes.

THE VARSITY

What about if you got to have one with a celebrity?

JUDY JIAO

Jake Gyllenhaal or Ryan Goslin

 

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