Jake Epstein On Candy Cane Candidate, Degrassi, And More - Exclusive Interview

If you ever watched the Canadian teen drama "Degrassi: Next Generation," then you probably remember Jake Epstein for his role as Craig Manning. Since his time on the hit series, Epstein has been on other TV shows you may have seen, such as in "Designated Survivor" as Chuck Russink and "Suits" as Brian Altman. And, at this time of year, you can usually catch him in one of several holiday movies he's starred in, including "Christmas at Maple Creek," "A Storybook Christmas," and "Mistletoe & Menorahs."

This year, you can see Epstein in yet another heartwarming holiday film, "Candy Cane Candidate," premiering December 20 on Lifetime. The movie follows former high school rivals, Parker, played by Epstein, and Julia, played by Jacky Lai, who face off again in a small-town mayoral race. 

During his exclusive interview with The List, Epstein shared his favorite parts of shooting and why he's so proud of the representation in this film. He also teased the upcoming season of "Umbrella Academy," in which he'll appear, and discussed his time on "Degrassi" and the proudest moments of his career so far.

How Jake Epstein relates to his character in Candy Cane Candidate

So, what can you tell us about your character in your Christmas movie "Candy Cane Candidate"?

Well, I play Parker, and he's the town principal, and he's the head of the leadership program. He's extremely arrogant, but kind of has a heart of gold. I think he's a very good person underneath all of that cocky bravado. And he was a former high school rival with Julia, who's the lead of the movie and famously beat her for class president back in high school, which she has never lived down, and neither has he. And that rivalry is sort of ignited again with this story in this movie.

Would you say there are any similarities or big differences between you and your character?

Totally. Like anything, it's like yes and no. There's a huge part of me that is Parker. I was a class president. I was a valedictorian of my elementary school. I certainly have had moments where I think I'm a lot of talk. I can play myself up in ways that are maybe not always true. I'm probably a hopeless romantic, or at least I certainly was when I was younger, and those are elements that I think are definitely Parker for sure.

And then would you say there's anything that's a big difference between you and him?

I mean, Parker, he's a principal of the school. He's a teacher. I mean, that's not a path that I've gone down. I feel like I have an easier ability to speak my mind when it comes to my feelings. In fact, I have a history of if there's something going on, I have to tell the person. I have to get it off my chest. I think Parker has a hard time communicating what he is thinking. He's very guarded of his feelings and his heart, which I think is at the heart of why it's so hard for him to sort of properly communicate how he feels about his former rival Julia when she comes back to town. And in fact, he goes in the opposite direction, and he tries to just kind of mess with her the entire movie.

He loved working with costar Jacky Lai

What was it like working with Jacky Lai on the movie?

It was honestly amazing, and I'm not just saying that as like an interview answer. She's so professional. She's so kind. She's such a great leader. We had a great friendship throughout the movie and made each other laugh a lot. I just saw a cut of the movie, and they used a lot of us ad-libbing during scenes, and I think that's only because of our rapport and how much fun it was to hang out on set with her.

Oh, that's so fun. Did you have any favorite scenes that you did?

There were a few favorite scenes. I loved the mayor debate scene, which we actually shot on day one. And our director, Pat Kiely sort of became known for throwing — we called them alts — like Pat alts that he'd throw out. Like you know, "Let's throw out the script. Let's do it totally different this time. Let's do it this way." And we all weren't expecting it. And there was this scene where our names are called, and we're walking down to begin the debate. And Pat wanted me to just start dancing — there's a song that's played — and that I open up my jacket and just start dancing as I come down the aisle, and it's all completely in the movie. That was very ridiculous to film and super fun.

I also love the final one. There's the final sock hop, which is at the barn. And that was just a big party. There were a lot of that extras on set with a band and us literally dancing together for many hours. So that was just really fun, especially because we obviously filmed it during COVID, and everyone was tested, and I hadn't been around that many people in a really long time.

Like you said, you and Jacky were kind of playing as these rivals. Was it fun to [have that competitiveness] with each other?

It was fun. Jacky will take a swing on camera. She'll go after me, and I have to respond. I mean, it was very fun. And again, our director gave us a lot of freedom to really play up the rivalry. We sort of became like children fighting or trying to one-up each other in so many different scenes, some of which is used and some of which isn't. But it was constantly on your toes and sort of trying to mess ... we were sort of like spy versus spy on set, just trying to mess with the other person as much as we could.

Why Jake Epstein is so proud of Candy Cane Candidate

Also in this movie, you both have causes you care a lot about, like she's all about environmentalism and then Parker cares a lot about community outreach. What was it like for you being in a Christmas movie that kind of touched on more serious topics amidst the more classic Christmas movie stuff?

Yeah, I mean, I particularly loved all the research that went into everything that Julia says about the environment. Certainly, yeah, the youth outreach, which is sort of Parker's angle, and his whole thing is that he's a candidate, [but] he's not about politics — he's about people, which I really related to.

And to be honest, the thing that excited me most about this movie that I was most proud of is that it features an Asian family, an Asian lead, and it has a love story between two Asian men, and that is not part of the story which is how it should be. That's not the entire story; it's a baby step for a holiday movie coming from Lifetime, but it's a step in the right direction. So I really felt proud to be part of a story like that.

Yeah, definitely. What do you think viewers will be most excited about when they watch this movie?

I think they're going to enjoy Parker and Julia trying to mess with each other as much as possible. But what's so fun about their relationship is that they're totally trying to beat each other at this race, and they're also great friends. So there's a lot of love between the two of them. There's a lot of joking and laughing.

And I also, again, I think the story of Julia's family, her supportive family is kind of amazing. They're kind of my favorite characters in the movie. And then there's this other really sweet love story between these two other characters that, again, I think is just like very adorable and heartwarming. And I think it's super refreshing, and people are going to like it.

How Epstein and his wife celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah

And do you have any holiday traditions you're looking forward to this year?

Yeah, I mean, my wife celebrates Christmas, I celebrate Hanukkah, but I always feel like it's some let-down if I say that out loud or something because I am in Christmas movies. But I sort of discovered Christmas about five years ago when I was serious with my now wife and fell in love with it.

And it's sort of a joke in her family because I'm the most gung-ho about Christmas. I love all the traditions. Family is so important to me, so I love just the idea of having this time of year to really spend time with the people you love and letting them know how much you love them. I get to spend time with my nephews around this time of year. I think that's probably the thing I'm looking forward to most is just kind of that quality time with people.

But we do a Christmas where we're hosting our family for Christmas Eve this year. And there's a drinking tradition. There's a ping-pong tournament tradition. Everyone sleeps over; we get up and have a huge brunch in the morning. So I just think what's cool is that someone like me who's actually not Christian, that I really just appreciate the holiday so much and love it.

And then have you also been able to introduce her to your Hanukkah traditions?

Yep, 100%. Absolutely. We just went to my family's Hanukah party, and there's a whole lot of traditions there; there's a talent competition in my family. It's very serious, actually, if you want to eat, you have to perform, so it's a nightmare for guests who show up. There's a Hanukah bingo tradition. Again, it's like all about the kids. It's all about making sure the younger kids in my family have a great time and laugh, and it's just super special.

Epstein is 'sworn to secrecy' about the upcoming season of Umbrella Academy

Switching gears a little bit, you're also going to be in the upcoming season of "Umbrella Academy."


Can you tell us anything about your character (Alphonso) in the show?

You have no idea how much I've been sworn to secrecy about this. I can't tell you anything about it other than the fact that it was one of the highlights of my life. I'm a huge comic book fan. I was a huge fan of the show. And one of the really amazing things for me about working on the show was getting to meet and work with Elliot Page, who not only is he doing just incredible things for trans rights, but also he's a phenomenal actor. So that was a huge highlight for me, for sure.

What was it like coming in and joining a cast that had been working together for a few seasons now?

Terrifying, absolutely terrifying. Not only like a show that it's like this well-oiled machine, but a show that you're a really big fan of. But what was cool about it — and again, I wish I could, but I can't go into it — is that my character and some of the other new characters really get to kind of change up the game, change up the show, so we got to kind of come in with our own rhythm and kind of our own thing. So that made it easier.

And you said you're a fan of comic books; what was it like when you got the part originally and realized you were going to be in this superhero world?

I couldn't believe it. I immediately called my two little cousins who are obsessed with comics, and that was my first thought when I got the part. I was like, they're going to enjoy this so much, which they did, and they're really excited. I was thrilled. I mean, as a fan, I was thrilled, and as an actor, I was just really excited to get to be part of something like that. It was just a whole [lot] of excitement, really.

And then I know you probably can't say much, but I have to ask, is there anything you can tease for fans to expect from this season?

Of "Umbrella Academy"?


No, I can't say anything. Just know that I want to, but I can't say anything. I can't say anything other than I think this season's going to be amazing. It really changes up the structure of the show. I'm excited. I haven't even seen all of it, so I'm excited like a fan of the show waiting for the next season.

Oh, that's fun. Are you going to get to see it ahead of everyone else, or are you waiting?

I hope so. It's so funny when you're part of a big show and then it's such a huge machine that happens. I saw a little bit of a preview of one episode. I'm hoping I'm going to get to see a little bit before it airs. I know how secretive they are about all of it, so I have no idea, but I really hope so.

His favorite memories from his Degrassi days

You also played Craig on "Degrassi." What was it like being on a show that was so popular, especially once it started streaming and new people were watching it too?

It was crazy. I had an interesting experience filming it because I was one of the only cast members that went to a normal high school at the time of shooting it. Most of the other cast went to a specialty school, which was mostly filled with Olympic athletes and child actors and young adults that had to miss a lot of school for a bunch of reasons, but I begged my parents to go to a normal school. And I'm so lucky I did because I feel like it's kept me relatively normal as a person, but I was surrounded by the fan base of the show. So I was really aware like when people liked an episode, or if my character did something that people didn't agree with, people would tell me.

So I was very aware when the things started to become popular just because it was all around me. But you could never predict anything like that and certainly not the popularity in the U.S. It's this little Canadian show, so we couldn't really predict that kind of popularity. And when we would go down for events, we were always really surprised when anyone would show up, to be honest, and not only would people show up, but it would be like this packed event. So the whole experience was super surprising and fun because there were so many of us that were all kind of experiencing it together at the same time.

Do you have any favorite memories from working on that show?

There's a lot of great memories. I was a huge fan of the actor who came into play my dad. It's really a serious storyline, but he was abusive to my character, Craig. But when I found out they hired Hugh Dillon, who was the lead singer of the Headstones, which was Canadian band that I was a big fan of, I just thought that was the coolest thing in the world. And I loved filming scenes with him. I was obsessed with music — I still am, but certainly when I was in high school. So all of the scenes when Craig is rehearsing with his band, and I just have memories of all of us with our instruments, and they would tell me to shut up because I would just be like trying to play during every scene.

I loved that so much, and that was such a normal experience for me because I was in a bunch of bands, and that's how I would hang out with my friends, so those were always really fun. And during lunchtime, I would jam with some of the other cast members who were musicians too.

So I think those were probably my best memories, was playing music with the cast and then kind of discovering that this little Canadian soap opera you're on is popular and popular in the U.S. and getting to go to events with the rest of the cast. Those were always crazy fun.

Epstein's time on Broadway and the one-man show it inspired

Obviously, people know you sing on the show ["Degrassi"], but you're also a singer yourself, and you've been in Broadway shows. What can you tell us about your music?

I love music, I love singing. I had never been properly trained as a Broadway singer, but I sang in rock bands and ended up getting cast in a bunch of shows that were rock musicals, and I was a great fit for some of those shows. And it was amazing. It was exhausting. It's so much work. I mean, every few months, I try to go back and do a play just because I just feel like it's so invigorating and challenging and puts you in that direct contact with an audience where you're receiving [an] immediate reaction, whether it's laughing or applause or you can tell if something isn't working immediately. Because when you're on camera, you're in a bit of a void where you don't always know what's going to work, what's going to resonate, how the editor is going to put the scene together. But I digress; I feel like I've gone off on a huge tangent from your question.

I grew up loving theater, loving Broadway, and I studied at the National Theatre School of Canada. I knew that I wanted to go and pursue theater and ended up getting cast in these American Broadway shows, and that sort of led me to move to New York. And then these other shows happened, and they were just such crazy things, such crazy joys, like to perform for 2,000 people every night. I mean, it was just insane. And the friendships you make, you immediately bond with everyone so much just because you're experiencing this huge high with so many people every single night. So it was a total thrill, and I hope to do something like that again at some point, for sure.

Would you ever want to play another character where music is incorporated into the storyline like that?

Oh, absolutely. I'm searching for those roles just because I love it so much. Any opportunity I get to record music or to play music or ... it's such a part of my DNA. So I'm definitely attracted to those parts for sure.

Would you ever want to release your own music, or are you more interested in going with it with acting?

Yeah, I haven't been writing for a long time, to be honest. Or at least, I wrote a one-man show that was about my experience in New York, and it's supposed to open in Toronto actually in a month.

Oh, congratulations!

It's called "Boy Falls From The Sky." you can check it out online. So that's something that I've been working on. It's a series of stories and songs. But in terms of sort of earnestly releasing my music, that hasn't really felt like an avenue that I've been most attracted to in the last little while. For me, it's been more about writing scenes, writing stories, and trying to get to perform them like that. But I've played on a bunch of my friends' albums recently, and who knows? I would definitely love to — again, at some point — get into that.

These are the proudest moments of his career

What do you feel like has been the proudest moment of your career so far if you could pick one?

The proudest moment of my career ... I've been so excited by so many different projects, so it's hard to have a great answer to this question. I think, to be honest, putting together this one-man show has been one of the most personal things I've ever done. I'm kind of terrified about putting these stories out there, but I'm really proud of myself for doing that.

I mean, certainly "Degrassi." I'm really proud of it and also just proud of the storylines that the show tackled. And I think a lot of people, a lot of young people, related to those stories and found a lot of comfort in those stories. So any time that I'm part of anything like that, sort of like this Christmas movie "Candy Cane Candidate" where there's a bit of a social commentary. There's again this a large Asian representation in a movie. There's a gay love story that nobody protests to it; it's absolutely accepted. I mean, those are the things that I'm the most proud of is being part of things that kind of advance society along a little bit and have something to say in a really entertaining and fun way. So getting to be part of those things are what I'm most proud of.

"Candy Cane Candidate" starring Jake Epstein airs December 20 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Lifetime.