Jake Epstein has some showbiz stories to tell.
The erstwhile Degrassi: The Next Generation star went down to the United States to follow a musical-theatre career, making his Broadway debut in 2012 with the now infamous flop Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark before originating the role of lyricist Gerry Goffin in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.
After returning home the conquering hero, but totally burnt out, Epstein decided to channel his complicated feelings about his experiences into a song-filled solo show, Boy Falls From the Sky. It was picked up by Mirvish Productions after its sold-out premiere at the Toronto Fringe Festival in 2019.
Now, after a pandemic delay, the 35-year-old actor is finally opening the show at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto on April 19.
Epstein spoke to The Globe and Mail’s theatre critic, J. Kelly Nestruck, over the phone.
You describe Boy Falls From the Sky as a show about show business. Just the trajectory of this show illustrates what a funny business it is.
I feel like I could write a whole new show just about the making of Boy Falls From the Sky during the pandemic – and all of the ups and downs and everything in between. The irony of doing my show right now, during COVID, is it is about making peace with life’s disappointments, which has been the theme of my life at least for the past two years.
You talk about playing the Artful Dodger in Oliver! at age 12 at the Princess of Wales and how you went on with food poisoning and fever. That “show must go on” mentality has only really started to fracture during the pandemic.
I feel like every performer has that instinct in them. As a kid, my dad was a massive tennis fan. We’d talk about Pete Sampras who very famously got food poisoning in the finals of the U.S. Open, vomited on the court but still finished the match and went on to win. I grew up with that kind of folklore.
When did that change for you? As you say in the show, when you started rehearsals for Spider-Man, there had already been 12 reported injuries.
I don’t even know if Spider-Man could have happened today. I do feel like times have changed a little bit, or are heading in the right direction in terms of protecting performers. But, at the time, I was elated to get cast as Spider-Man despite the fact the show had this infamous reputation around the world for injuring its actors. And even though I didn’t get seriously injured doing the show, I did sprain both my ankles and my wrist. People from back home were just so excited and so proud of me, so I never told anyone about it. I kept it a secret.
That theme in your show – how does it come up regarding Beautiful?
Without giving too much away, the version of that musical that I auditioned for was very different than what became the final product. The director and playwright, who were amazing, came to me and, rightfully so, said we need to make your character the antagonist. While this was happening, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, who was alive then, and his team would reach out to me and tell me to not make him the villain! I was in my mid-20s, it was my first time originating a role in Broadway show, it was my dream come true – and I was getting booed [as the character] and it was weighing on me in a really deep way.
Your show was moved from the CAA Theatre to Royal Alex. Is that exciting or intimidating?
It’s both! It’s only because of Come From Away closing at the Royal Alex – which was devastating to me, as someone who’s worried about the future of Canadian theatre and someone who had a lot of friends on stage and behind the scenes. I will say it’s a real full circle moment because I made my professional debut at the age of 11 at the Royal Alex in Soulpepper’s Our Town.
Sometimes I’m very blinkered because I focus on theatre. You were on Designated Survivor, on two seasons of Suits, you’re going to be on The Umbrella Academy soon. So, this may a funny question, but how famous are you?
I’m the worst person to answer that question! I’m going to say: I’m not famous. I suppose when I was younger, I had a level of fame from Degrassi. I quit the show to go to the National Theatre School, which a lot of people thought I was crazy to do.
The Degrassi level fame is an interesting level of fame.
In Toronto, even when I used to get recognized for Degrassi, it was never like: “You’re the guy on Degrassi.” It was like: “My former roommate played Lou in that scene with you on Degrassi.” Or: “My uncle was the lighting gaffer on Degrassi.”
Okay, so a related question then: How well do you know Drake? You were most recently in his I’m Upset video.
Well, I grew up with Drake – so I knew him as a young person. As a friend who you party with and hang out with and got to shoot Degrassi with … Seeing someone like that become the most famous rapper on the planet is a really weird incredible thing. I’m pretty happy for the guy. But yeah, not sure if he’s showing up to the show!
The only time I recall him going to theatre in Toronto was at Soulpepper right after Weyni Mengesha took over.
I had someone come knock on my door the other day, he was like: “I paved your neighbour’s driveway … Aren’t you the guy from Degrassi?” I said, yes. And he said: “I paved Drake’s barber’s driveway.” I didn’t totally know what reaction to give.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Boy Falls From the Sky runs April 19 to May 29, mirvish.com. Keep up to date with the weekly Nestruck on Theatre newsletter. Sign up today.