A PROFILE OF CHRISTINA SCHMIDT
by Heinrich Saint-Germain
The drive to Kitchener provides me with an opportunity to escape from the city for a while. The leaves on the trees by the roadside glow red and gold, as if tanned by the sun, and the blue sky stretches off into the distance, seemingly without limit. I pass by farms separated by hedge-rows and fences, more evocative of the English Lake District than of Southern Ontario.
Kitchener itself—the centre of Ontario’s German-Canadian community—is holding its annual Oktoberfest celebrations when I arrive. The city streets are lined with festival tents, and the citizens are decked out in traditional Bavarian folk dress. There is a palpable spirit of good will and cheer. I feel as if the drive has taken me out of Canada altogether, and brought me back to…the old country.
My interview with 17-year-old actress Christina Schmidt, one of the stars of the Canadian television series Degrassi: The Next Generation, is scheduled to take place at the restaurant of largest German-Canadian club in Kitchener. Punctually at 11:30, the young actress and her mother arrive at the restaurant, and now, the old world meets the new.
Christina is dressed in a modish, contemporary fashion—a fitted black top, black slacks, a silver crucifix around her neck, and big silver hoop earrings. Her brunette tresses tumble over her shoulders in a thick, luxuriant mass. Her wardrobe is chic and sophisticated, but demure, while her femme fatale hair suggests a touch of wildness lurking beneath the surface. Her skin is fair—very fair, with a delicate pink flush—and her lips are naturally full, embellished with pink lipgloss.
The camera hasn’t lied about her beauty. Christina is a perfect embodiment of the Classical feminine ideal. She could have stepped right off the pedestal of an Antique sculpture, or emerged from the painting of a Baroque master. But her contemporary wardrobe tells me that she is every bit a 21st-century girl.
We walk into the restaurant, which similarly unites traditional and contemporary elements. The décor has a mediæval appearance, with half-timbered beams supporting the ceiling, and the flags and escutcheons of many European principalities decorating its walls. The waitresses are dressed in old-world costumes. However, the music playing faintly over the loudspeakers is not a Bavarian folk melody, as one might expect, but an ABBA tune—Dancing Queen.
We sit down to enjoy a traditional German meal, which I am far too nervous to eat. My meagre capacity for small talk eludes me, so instead, I launch right into the interview, beginning with the inevitable opening question: “What made you decide to get into acting?”
“I was always interested in performing arts, dancing, that kind of thing,” Christina recollects. “My mom gave me the idea, and I started taking acting classes.”
“Can I add something?” her mother interjects. “In grade two, she started at the local community centre. They had an acting class, and the teacher she had was just wonderful. And she really brought the liking for this craft out in Christina.”
“Is your mother a ‘stage mom’?” I ask, noting Mrs. Schmidt’s irrepressible enthusiasm about her daughter’s career.
“Yeah, she encourages me,” the young actress says, exchanging a knowing glance with her mother. The two obviously share a close bond.
The reaction prompts me to question Christina about her mysterious pre-Degrassi screen credit, Notes from Mother. She describes the experience with affection, and a touch of nostalgia that belies her age.
“It’s a short film. A Canadian short film. And it is about a guy who forges his mom’s name on notes to get things—like excuses from his homework, and candy, and such. And then he writes me a note, also pretending it’s from his mother, saying, ‘Please go out with my son, he really likes you.’ And I go out with him.”
The story sounds charming, and it occurs to me that this represents a thread in Christina’s career. Her characters frequently attract shy but devoted admirers—from the boy in this short film, to the various young lads on Degrassi who developed helpless crushes on her character, Terri MacGregor. It must be her “look,” I think to myself. Her beauty undoubtedly prompts casting directors to tag her as someone who would stir romantic impulses in even the most bashful characters.
The conversation now turns to Degrassi itself. The night before this interview was to take place, I watched Christina’s original screen test for the series, which is included among the bonus features on the newly-released Degrassi DVD. In this test scene, the young actress exhibited the prodigious acting talent that undoubtedly earned her the plum role of Terri. Her performance was compelling, and communicated a sense of inner pain in a way that was utterly convincing.
However, I venture to point out to Christina that Degrassi dramatically broke with television convention by casting such an attractive actress to play the show’s full-figured character. Hoping not to embarrass the young starlet, I ask her if she thinks that her looks contributed to her winning the part.
I need not have worried about any impropriety, because Christina takes compliments very graciously. She replies that Degrassi represents “a regular high school, which has everybody—different shapes and sizes—and I guess in Terri, they were looking for someone who is not exactly like everybody else.”
As the Degrassi discussion continues, I realize what a dedicated actress Christina really is. She speaks about her craft with passion and enthusiasm. It is obviously more than just a dilettante interest for her. “Acting is my favourite thing,” she says, adding that she loves “getting to explore being another person.”
What is particularly encouraging about her attitude towards “the business”—considering the shortage of positive full-figured role models in the media—is that Christina doesn’t resist the aspect of “fame” that attends a career in the performing arts. Quite the contrary. She genuinely loves being in front of the camera, and enjoys her renown.
“She’s recognized all over the place,” her mother tells me. “We were in L.A. in January, and kids on the street in Santa Monica recognized her, and in Boston she was recognized, and in Toronto.”
Christina’s affinity for the spotlight distinguishes her from the overly-self conscious Terri. I ask her what personality traits she shares with her Degrassi character.
“There are some things that are the same, and some things that are different. Terri, she’s shy, she kind of keeps her opinion to herself.” And with a little laugh, she adds, “If I want to say something, I’ll most likely say it!”
But does she prefer playing roles that are closer to her own personality, I wonder, or roles that are markedly different?
“Both,” she explains, adding that this doesn’t really factor into her assessment of a part. “In an acting class,” she recounts with wicked glee, “I once played a cracked-out prostitute! And I’ve played little schoolgirl nerds. Everything. It all expands my range of acting.”
The reference to the acting class intrigues me. I am impressed by the fact that she has continued to hone her acting skills, even after landing such a significant television role.
But while Christina describes her Degrassi experience with genuine affection, and would undoubtedly love to continue chronicling Terri’s character development, she is also keenly interested in exploring new dramatic territory, with roles that differ from her past efforts.
“Most of the time,” she says, “I audition for shows like Degrassi. And I enjoy them. But I want to try something serious. Maybe more of a mystery.” And, like any young actress with healthy ambitions, she adds that she would naturally love to do “a big movie, one day.”
The prospect fascinates me. Christina in a film-noir thriller, cast as the femme fatale? I can definitely see it—and not just because of her black wardrobe and beguiling hairstyle. Anyone who watches Degrassi’s “Cabaret” episode will undoubtedly see her potential for playing darker parts.
And although it is hard to envision Christina as a “cracked-out prostitute,” it is easy to imagine her in the role of a more refined courtesan—perhaps Vittoria Corombona in Webster’s The White Devil. When I ask Christina if she would care to appear in a theatrical production, possibly in an Elizabethan tragedy, she seems intrigued. “I would be interested in doing Shakespeare,” she states. “It’s something new, that I haven’t done before.”
However, I get a better sense of her real ambitions when I ask her to name an actress whose work she especially admires. Her choice will surprise many of her fans: Angelina Jolie.
“All big actors have somewhat of a range,” she explains, “but she’s played Girl Interrupted, that kind of role, then she’s played in Tomb Raider. She can do everything.” And she adds, “She’s so pretty.”
I can’t resist telling Christina that, when it comes to “pretty,” she far outshines anyone on the Hollywood A-list. But it intrigues me that what she admires most in her favourite celebrity is Ms. Jolie’s versatility. It’s a case of one actress admiring the craft of another, and I respect her choice on those terms.
By this point, Christina has warmed to the interview, and I take advantage of the opportunity to inquire about her acting technique. Does she like a lot of direction, I ask, or does she prefer more latitude from directors?
“It’s good to have the freedom so it’s not just, ‘You have to do this, at this time.’” On Degrassi, she explains, “They’ll give us the layout of how we have to move and stuff, but it’s all up to us in how we say the line.”
That is more freedom than I expected, and I tell her so. But Christina adds that the directors sometimes offer suggestions about how to shape certain line-readings. “Not, ‘Say this word like this,’” Christina specifies, “but, ‘Say it more…“happy”’.”
And what about rehearsing?
“For some scenes, rehearsing is good,” she says. “But in the scenes where I do get hit a couple of times—referring to a moment in the Degrassi episode “Never Gonna Give You Up,” when Terri’s boyfriend turns abusive—“we kept the rehearsing to a minimum because I kind of wanted to show that shock.”
It also occurs to me to ask her whether she prefers single takes—remembering Frank Sinatra’s famous insistence on performing each scene once, and once only—or multiple takes, with opportunity to experiment.
“It’s nice to have stuff in one take,” she concludes, after a pause. “But then, for the people who are putting the show together, it’s good for them to see different ways of doing each scene, to see which they like best, and to see which looks best on camera.”
This response fascinates me, because it speaks of her interest in the overall process of assembling a show, and not just in her own performance. I ask if she espouses Method acting, and she nods, offering an example of how a Method approach helps her to prepare a part.
“When I’m doing a scene, or even an audition, one thing I do is ask, ‘What was I doing before the scene? Why am I saying this at this time?’ It helps me become the character.”
This is a process that cinéastes find compelling, because it is based on the premise that the life of a character extends beyond the confines of the scripted page. I am curious how far Christina takes this approach, and if it means that the emotions of an intense scene remain with her, even after shooting stops. Christina acknowledges that they do.
“If I do a scene where I’m getting hit,” she recounts, again referring to Degrassi’s abuse plotline (which obviously affected her deeply), “I can still feel it afterwards. I’ll be myself, but I can still feel…getting into the scene.”
Christina’s adoption of the Stanislavsky technique prompts me to ask her a well-known Method question—and Degrassi fans will undoubtedly find her response intriguing.
“Tell us something we don’t know about Terri.”
She gives this some thought. And when she finally responds, she has a look of roguishness in her eyes, like she is sharing a genuine secret.
“Maybe something that isn’t said…she wants to be the popular girl. She’s not, but it’s brought out through the episodes.”
My jaw drops open. “Do you think that’s true?” I ask, leaning over the table. “Okay, you’re on the spot now. Does Terri secretly want to be ‘the popular girl’?”
“Yes,” she answers more firmly. “She’s friends with ‘the popular girl,’ but I think sometimes she wishes that she could be in the position of Paige” (Paige being Degrassi’s head cheerleader, and all-around prom queen).
I am astounded. I think back to one of the early Degrassi episodes, “Eye of the Beholder,” in which an intoxicated Terri showed a wilder side of her personality. And I think about the various scenes in successive episodes, when the usually meek Terri found the inner strength to confront individuals who treated her disrespectfully. Christina’s theory is astonishing, but upon reflection, it makes perfect sense. And it makes me more eager than ever to have Degrassi bring back the Terri character, to show us how her journey towards self-actualization would progress.
Throughout our discussion, I consistently find myself distracted by Christina’s wardrobe, in its modest chicness, and in the wonderful contrast between the demure attire and the alluring hairdo. From time to time, Christina plays with her tresses, absent-mindedly curling them around her finger like an ingénue in a Dickens novel.
“You’re back to dark hair?” I ask, noting that in the second and third season of Degrassi, Terri was a blonde.
“Actually, it’s not this dark,” she says. “It’s just gelled and wet right now.”
More twisting. She has real silver-screen glamour, this actress.
I inquire about her about her personal fashion style.
“It depends on where I’m going,” she explains. “Yesterday, I was wearing a soccer jersey. But if I’m going out somewhere nice, I’ll have high heels, a collared shirt, and a nice skirt on.”
I am fascinated by the abundance of black she is wearing, and ask if this is her “actor’s look,” or reflects a general preference.
“I don’t know. I wear a lot of black, for some reason. I like black.”
“I like Le Château. This is from Le Château. My pants are from Old Navy.”
Her lavish hoop earrings contribute a great deal to her look, as does the shining silver crucifix that she wears around her neck. A vision of Christina playing Mina or Lucy in a Dracula film flits through my mind, and I ask her if she favours elaborate accessories.
“Yeah. Everybody notices my earrings,” she admits. “I always have big, crazy earrings.”
Christina has such a keen fashion sense, that it occurs to me to ask if she had any influence over her character’s look during the second season of Degrassi, when Terri was permitted to wear more interesting outfits, undoubtedly to correspond with her modelling storyline. For the most part, no, she tells me, apart from getting the chance to offer her opinion during periodic wardrobe fittings.
“They have wardrobe people [on Degrassi] who coordinate with the writers,” she explains. “Usually at the beginning of the season, or a couple of times during the season, we’ll have a whole bunch of clothes, and the wardrobe person will ask, ‘What do you think of this?’ And then I just try everything on, and tell her what’s my favourite.”
One of the reasons why the plus-size model plot was so convincing was because everything Christina wore on the show, from the more conservative outfits to the more attractive ensembles, always looked terrific on her. In fact, many young full-figured girls took fashion cues from Terri’s wardrobe. It occurs to me that Christina would make an ideal plus-size model, if she were to pursue modelling professionally. With her photogenic qualities, her ability to move in front of a camera (she studied dance for an astonishing ten years), and her ability to communicate emotions through facial expressions, she would undoubtedly be a natural.
However, no still images could ever capture every facet of Christina’s presence. Her voice, for example, sounds a tad different in “real life” than it did on the show. It’s slightly softer, and has an almost musical quality. I ask her if she is a singer, as well as an actress and dancer.
“I used to take singing lessons,” she acknowledges, although she adds that, “I don’t really do it professionally.” But she has a keen interest music, and enjoys mixing her own CDs.
“I like European dance music,” she says, when I inquire about her musical preferences. “I like hip hop. I have such a range. I don’t really like country or rock music or punk music, but all in the same day, I’ll listen to an Italian song, and then I’ll listen to a rap song, and I’ll listen to an opera song.”
Opera? My heart leaps.
“You like opera?” I ask, eagerly. “You like classical music?”
“Not all the time,” she admits, “but I like Andrea Boccelli, I like Sarah Brightman, I like Josh Groban.”
As with her choice of acting projects, and her wardrobe, Christina’s musical taste is an eclectic mix. I am beginning to form an impression of her as an adventurous spirit, eager for new experiences, and open to heterogenous influences.
I am still contemplating this aspect of her personality when Christina casually volunteers an even-more-exciting bit of information.
“I’m going to Europe in two weeks.”
I nearly jump out of my chair.
“Where?” I ask.
“To Italy, Spain, and Germany. Celle, Berlin…”
“Oh my goodness.” I can barely suppress my enthusiasm. “You’ll have the time of your life.”
“Yeah, I love travel.” she says, and I soon learn that she enjoys this activity more than any other endeavour, apart from acting.
“Maybe next year,” Christina goes on to say, “I’m thinking about going over there for the year to travel and work.”
I am utterly fascinated. I tell her that while fans would love to see her back in front of the camera, she would experience adventures in Europe that she would remember for the rest of her days.
But Christina tells me that she is already an accomplished traveller, and has toured Europe extensively with her family.
“I’ve been to Berlin and Celle,” she recalls. “And I’ve been to Italy, Switzerland, Austria, France, I’ve been to Liechtenstein. What I did experience there is awesome. It’s so beautiful.”
And what does Christina enjoy about travelling?
“Just experiencing different cultures. I get to experience a whole other culture there. And my family’s over there, so it’s good to visit. I like Europe too because the countries are so close, and there’s the French culture,” she says, tracing her past journeys on an invisible map on the restaurant table, “and the Italians, and the Germans…”
Christina is far more than just a modern girl with beauty and talent to spare, I realize. She is keenly interested in the world around her—the entire world, not just one corner of it. She is eager to live life to the fullest, in all of its wondrous variety.
Out of sheer curiosity, I put the question to her, “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” (although I probably should have used the “du” form). And Christina responds with a perfectly-accented “Ja, ein Bißchen.”
Her mother tells me that Christina attended German language school throughout her youth. “Every Saturday morning, for years.”
“I actually quit in grade eight,” Christina admits, “but then I wanted to go on with it, and I went back after a year.”
I tell her how much this linguistic instruction will benefit her later in life, especially in her travels, when she finds many countries and cultures open to her in a way that they would not be, if she only knew English. But I suspect that she already realizes this.
Perhaps the most significant part of our discussion concerns body image and the media. With her character on Degrassi, and especially in the famous plus-size model episode, “Mirror in the Bathroom”—when Terri faced down a schoolyard cretin who insulted her—Christina created one of the most size-positive moments in television history.
Christina herself identifies this as her favourite single scene on Degrassi, and when asked why it caused such a sensation among full-figured girls, her answer is simple:
“Because she’s standing up for herself. Like, a lot of non-skinny girls stand out, but she stood up for herself, and that’s good.”
In general, Christina says that she enjoyed every Degrassi episode in which Terri’s confidence emerged under difficult circumstances. But for her own part, she discloses that she is refreshingly free of undue concerns about body image. In that, she truly represents the young women of today, who have overcome the body issues that plagued earlier generations.
“I’m pretty confident,” she says, although when pressed, she concedes that “everybody has bad days. Even one of my best friends—she’s skinny, and she’ll say, ‘I’m so fat.’ Everybody has those days, if you’re skinny, or if you’re bigger. So I’m confident—but like I said, everybody has those days. But I don’t get myself all upset. I’m happy with myself.”
After the interview is over, and I begin the journey home, leaving the Gemütlichkeit of Oktoberfest behind, I find that even the bleakness of the big city cannot dispirit me. Christina is more than just inspiring. She is a revelation. Unlike most celebrities, whose tawdry escapades are described in salacious detail in the tabloid press, Christina is very grounded. While she may indeed be the “modern girl” that I initially took her for, she also genuinely appreciates her cultural heritage. She holds time-honoured values, but enjoys the positive self-image of today’s generation. She embraces the best of past and present, and seamlessly integrates both into her own personality.
And that, I realize, is what makes this goddess of Antiquity a vision of the future.
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