ONE OF THE problems with playing a high-school student on TV is that it doesn’t give you much time to be one in real life.
Forest Hill native Shenae Grimes was “in the middle of ninth grade”when she landed the role of Darcy Edwards in the Canadian TV series Degrassi: The Next Generation.“It was just a small little part as one of the cheerleaders, just a couple of lines,” she remembers. “But I earned my keep, and by the fourth year on it, I had won an award.”
The prize was a 2007 Gemini for Best Performance in a Children’s or Youth Program or Series. By the following year,Grimes had left Degrassi and Darcy behind to take the role of Annie Wilson in 90210, the latest spinoff in the Beverly Hills, 90210 franchise.
Darcy and Annie may have had dramatic high-school lives that befit a youth-oriented TV series, but not Grimes. Not yet 21, she sounds grounded, even serene.
“I kind of grew up a lot behind the scenes,”she explains.“I was working my way through high school, so I had different experiences than an average teen. I find myself having to do a little extra research to play the bumbling teenager in high school learning to be herself.”
It helps to have two non-showbiz brothers, aged 16 and 19, back home in Toronto.The younger plays in Ontario’s provincial rugby league, and the older is a fitness instructor, as is Grimes’s mother. Grimes lives in Los Angeles now, but the Forest Hill neighbourhood where she grew up will always be her first home.
“I like to think of myself as bicoastal,” she says. “Whenever I’m on hiatus [from 90210], I spend a good chunk of it in Toronto. It still feels like home.”She relishes home-cooked meals and every minute she can spend with her siblings, although she admits they’re sometimes pretty busy.
“I feel like the eager mom who’s waiting at home for the 10 minutes they get to talk to them.”
Grimes’s career got rolling while she was attending the Randolph Academy for the Performing Arts, which is run out of an old church near Bloor and Bathurst.
Local agent Amanda Rosenthal, who also helped launch actor Michael Cera’s career,approached her at the end of a recital with an offer to represent her.
“She stuck out the fourhour- long recital in a very, very hot church,” Grimes remembers. “I was a little skeptical, but I thought, for the summer, why not?” It turned out to be a wise move.
During her first year on Degrassi, Grimes also got to play the role of a young Shania Twain — twice. Once in an episode of TV’s Biography, the other for the TV movie Shania: A Life in Eight Albums. There’s a striking similarity between the petite brunette actress and the famous Canadian singer, but Grimes laughs, saying that it goes further than that.
“People make fun of my name,” she says. “Shenae. Shania. And they say I look like her. I swear my name probably helped me get the job.” She recently had another brush with Canadian music fame when she appeared in a video for the song “All You Did Was Save My Life,”by Toronto altrockers Our Lady Peace.
“It was perfect for a Toronto girl,”she says. “We were in the woods in Hamilton, and after my bit in the morning, the boys came out and did their performance in the middle of the woods. It was so cool, like a private concert.”
Though she’d always been a fan of the band, the offer to be in one of their videos came out of the blue. “I’ve been listening to them my entire life,”Grimes says,“but I had admired them from afar. They contacted my agent asking me if I wanted to do it.”
Back in L.A., however, friends and colleagues hadn’t heard of the band. “I had to play them the music and turn them all on to Our Lady Peace,” she says.
Grimes was back in Toronto this June for the MuchMusic Video Awards, bringing both her brothers as her dates to the event. “I was so excited to be there,” she recalls.
But, it doesn’t take a major musical event to make her happy to be here.
Going home to Strathearn Boulevard — “right by the Village”— is still a joy for the actress. “It’s such an urban city, but it’s still such a tight-knit community,” she says. “I walk around and I see people that I know every day. I love going to restaurants, the little holein- the-wall spots, the graffiti-covered walls.”
Still, L.A. has its charms, particularly when winter grabs hold of Toronto. “I love waking up in sunshine every day,” Grimes admits. “And I’m so happy that I discovered hiking in the mountains.”
But compared to her Toronto haunts, like Kensington Market, she finds West Coast life “a little more one dimensional.”
Grimes says the role on 90210 came at the right time for her.
“I was going to be one of the alumni of the next season [of Degrassi],and I got the role of 90210 in the hiatus,”she says.“Most of the kids that I had been there with were leaving for other reasons. It felt like the perfect time to graduate. It was actually very harmonious.”
She’s come a long way in the six short years since her first season of Degrassi. In fact, she remembers that, before she started on the show, she had been such a fan of the series, which has been on the air since 2001, that she knew everyone by name — just not the right name.
“I literally had nightmares before going on the show about being on set and calling the kids by their characters’ names,” she says, laughing at the memory. “I was very nervous. I made sure that I memorized everyone’s name.”
As 90210 moves into its third season, Grimes is starting to look at new projects. She recently directed a short film for Fashion TV that will air in September. Another more personal short features music she wrote herself.
“I really just dove headfirst into it and came out smiling and feeling a new passion for a new direction,” she says.
She’s also writing an article for Nylon magazine, about six up-and-coming Canadian designers.
But she’s not planning to leave 90210 any time soon. “That show is our baby, and we are theirs as long as the audiences want us,” she says. “I think fans will be excited by all the new directions and storylines” in the new season.
Grimes may have moved beyond Degrassi, but she remains a part of it, too.In the 2009 TV movie Degrassi Goes Hollywood, Darcy Edwards is nowhere to be seen; the character was said to be volunteering in Kenya when Grimes left the show.
Nevertheless, another character makes a reference to actress Shenae Grimes on 90210, making her the first actress to exist independently of her character in the Degrassi universe.
Some may say you make it big when you make it in the States. For Grimes, being remembered at home is just as much an indication of her growing success.