For all of fifteen minutes during my senior year of high school, I thought the show biz life was for me. I quickly realized my skin wasn’t nearly thick enough to handle Hollywood, and opted for a liberal arts college career instead.
But for actress Cassie Steele, the daily grind of making it in LA is something she knows all too well, both in her own life and in the lives of her characters. Many college students will remember her as the iconic Manny Santos on Degrassi: The Next Generation. But now, Cassie has left the teenage world of Degrassi to play Abby Vargas, star of The L.A. Complex, which premieres tonight on The CW.
Steele spent half of her life on the small screen, landing the role of Manny Santos when she was just eleven years old. I was still playing dress up while the Toronto, Canada native, at the same age, was doing the real thing. She spent ten seasons on Degrassi: The Next Generation, earning a 2003 nomination and a 2002 Young Artist Award for Best Ensemble Actor in a TV Series. I was getting rubber bands on my braces and 13-year-old Steele was winning awards in Hollywood. Sigh.
But awards and all, the witty actress is entirely down-to-earth and humble about her experiences. And despite her star status, Steele has had her share of bullying, even as an adult. “All my experiences of visiting people at schools have been terrible. There are always the people making fun of me, like ‘Oooh, Degrassi! Degrassi!’” she sighs. “This one time, I was hiding under a table at a party thinking, ‘I can’t believe I’m here–worst kegger ever!’”
So does Steele ever wish she had the quintessential high school experiences she acted out in Degrassi? “Oh God, no!” she states emphatically, “I’m afraid of kids, or rather students, all those little cliques. You walk by a high school and it’s the most terrifying thing – it was terrifying then and it’s terrifying now.”
The City of Angels
Luckily, Steele has graduated from Degrassi and the teenage world of Manny to enter the very real world of her newest character, aspiring actress Abby Vargas. High school cliques are replaced by harsh casting directors in The L.A. Complex. “I played Manny for so long, it was hard for me to switch from that teenage role to young adult. But as it goes on, practice makes perfect,” Steele says.
The CW’s latest drama follows the lives of six characters: a comedian, a dancer, a musician and three actors, all trying to survive the competition and earn their big break. Having grown up in the industry, Steele can relate to Abby’s struggles, from paying rent to blowing an audition. “We both get really anxious. A bunch of nerves–that’s what my life is, what her life is,” Steele laughs. “But we’re actually really different. We know what it’s like to go into casting room after casting room, but she is a lot stronger than I was. It’s really tough, but I feel like she is the person that I wanted to be,” she says.
The pilot episode features a botched audition in which Abby leaves a distinct, ahem, impression upon the director. “She’s got bad luck, a lot of it” notes Steele, “but she makes the most of it.”
Girl Next Door
Evicted from her apartment, a broke Abby gets lucky when her friend Nick (Joe Dinicol) hooks her up with a room in the Deluxe Suites motel. Based on the party scene shown in the previews of the pilot episode, I’d sign up for the Deluxe in a heartbeat. Her new neighbors make up the primary cast of the drama, each one at a different point in their Hollywood career, but all struggling to make ends meet.
After ten years with the recognizable stars of Degrassi, Steele was the new girl on the block amongst a cast of fresh faces, including Johnathan Patrick Moore as Connor, Chelan Simmons as Alicia, Benjamin Charles Watson as Tariq, and Jewel Staite as Raquel.
“Working with them is really fun, you learn and you grow every day,” says Steele. “Some had much more experience than I did, so it was nice to get out of the box and have people push me. It was really inspiring to be around the cast, and we’re all really close. At least, I think we’re close,” she chuckles.
Next on Steele’s agenda is her music. She has been singing since before her Degrassi days, and has released two albums over the past few years: her debut How Much For Happy in 2005 and Destructo Doll in 2009. When I spoke with her, she had just released three new tracks on iTunes on her EP Shifty. Check out “Shape Shifter;” you won’t regret it.
“When I’m not doing this, in my free time I just keep myself busy. Or else I get into trouble. You know, hiding under a table among a big mess of people who throw red cups at your head,” Steele laughs. “Just kidding, that didn’t happen, but you can leave it in for dramatic effect.”
Tune into The CW tonight at 9 p.m. for the premiere of The LA Complex. Try not to get addicted, I dare you.