“Degrassi” stars Melinda Shankar and Jahmil French welcome incoming class

It’s the show that seems to go on forever, a rite of passage series that’s been an education in itself for many going into and attending high school. Degrassi returns with the second half of Season 11 this Monday, Feb. 20, on TeenNick, and in preparation and celebration, its cast has been making the rounds, hosting premiere screening parties in select cities, meeting fans and talking to press people like me.

I sat down with Melinda Shankar and Jahmil French, who play troubled Degrassi couple Alli Bhandari and Dave Turner, to talk about where they left things off at summer break and where things are headed.

Things got a little complicated at the end of midseason. How are your characters doing as we enter this second half of Season 11?

Melinda Shankar: Well, my character’s always been the one to have so many problems. Home life problems; school problems; problems with boys. But she’s also had a pretty strong foundation with her brother — that connection has always been really good — and with her best friend, Clare. So even if there were problems, you always have that one person that you think you can confide in. But the brother’s going to university, and they’ve kind of had problems and are a little bit shaky. And Clare — she and Alli are not getting along because my character kissed her character’s love interest. Not really a good ‘best-friend’ move. … And also with her boyfriend cheating on her — I feel like Alli’s just not in a good place at all.

Jahmil French: I think Dave is in — I’m not going to say a completely negative place. When we had the whole breakup — I mean, I didn’t really cheat on her, technically. We were on a break and we had the drama when she was doing the gambling and all that bit, so I feel like Dave almost was in an uplifted, powerful position, because he sort of — I mean he got the girl that he wanted after, you know, [in] Season 9, he was always trying to prove himself and he finally got the girl, and he finally sort of had the balls to say, ‘You’re not good for me. What you’re doing is not right for me.’ I know he feels bad about the whole summer incident — but I think, coming into it, Dave’s going to find himself in a situation where he can redeem himself … I think overall, Dave’s in a good place to grow as a character.

So what can you tell me about what people can expect for this next portion of the season?

MS: We’re introducing four new characters. When I came on the show five years ago, I was a new ‘niner’ character, and I was lucky enough to be established, with a brother who had already been on the show, so I came on with kind of a thicker plotline, because it already had someone who was there, and the people knew him, so I was known as the little sister, the new niner — the girl who had a crush on the older guy. All these things. So it’s kind of nice to see, now, the parallels with the new niners coming into the show. Two of them are siblings of already-established characters, so it’s nice to see the same kind of things. But the writers are talented in a way that although there are so many characters, we’re still each individual persons. They haven’t blurred the lines at all, and even although there are the parallels between the new niners, there are no similarities in terms of storylines — no repetition. It’s always fresh and there’s always drama — catfights; breakups; all the fun stuff that makes Degrassi this drama-filled, crazy place.

JF: The writers — like she said, they’re very talented. They’re very good at writing things that come in and surprise me, but not in an unrealistic manner. When we come back, you’re going to see the episodes — we always find a way to segue into something that really shocks the audience and sort of is like the highlight, I’ll say, of that section. But I mean, yeah, there’s going to be new stuff. … Like I said, the writers always come up with something.

Are you able to draw on your own high-school experiences to any extent? Do you feel Degrassi mirrors your experiences at all?

JF: I feel like I don’t resemble my character whatsoever. I haven’t gone through anything that he’s gone through, but I think that the one thing that has always been true and honest is the fact that we both come from a place of need and want. That’s sort of what I draw on. My approach to the acting side of it is just coming from that place of honesty, and need and want, and feeling like you have to have some sort of self-validation and reassurance in going after what you want, whether it’s a girl, whether it’s a part in a school play. So I feel like in that sense, me and my character Dave — I think we have the same ambitions, and the same integrity of going after what we want, having to have that girl to feel good about ourselves, getting that part in a show of feeling good about yourself — that’s as close as I come to my character. That place of need.

MS: I was only actually in real high school for about a year and a half. My character’s kind of like the popular one, with lots of friends, and I can relate, because I’ve just always been, like, a floater in each group. I’ve always had friends everywhere. I’ve never been the kind of person to, like, be the catty one, or make enemies or that kind of thing. I wasn’t there enough, to be honest. I was always auditioning five hours away in Toronto. My dad had to drive back and forth, so I think through having a balanced and strong foundation at home with my own parents, like Alli does, I feel like I’ve just been raised with having a good head on my shoulders and not getting myself into all the craziness that Alli has, which kind of goes hand in hand, because I’ve had most of my experiences through someone else’s eyes — of the character. …I’m kind of living my high-school experience through a character, which is kind of funny, but also good, because I get to go through the dramas and the boy stuff without having it be real life, so I kind of got it easier than the average teenager.

Do you feel like you’ve missed out?

MS: In some ways, but in other ways, it kind of amplified high school because it was me moving to Toronto when I was 16 and kind of on my own, coming to this big city to a school, pretty much — Degrassi — with all of these new characters that are pretty much like high-school kids. So it’s kind of that thing of, like, new girl at a school, or starting a new season, starting a new grade, where new characters are coming in. I mean, they’re still real people — you don’t get along with everyone, but luckily, there’s how many characters? Twenty of us? And don’t we all get along royally?

JF: Oh, yeah.