A beard almost stood in the way of Ehren Kassam landing the role of Jenny Cooper’s (Serinda Swan) son Ross on CBC’s crime drama Coroner. You see, Kassam is 21, and Ross was originally supposed to be 16.
“They were just a little skeptical about choosing me because I was a little bit older than the character they were going for,” says Kassam. “And they did want to cast it authentic.”
But, despite his status as a legal adult, he was called in for a chemistry test with Swan and the results upended any reservations the show’s producers may have had.
“Serinda and I really clicked instantly, and Adrienne [Mitchell] the director, was there, too. We all sat and talked for like 15 minutes, and it was really just this natural, electric feeling, and we were all sort of like, ‘Shit, this is really going to be cool.'”
In the end, Ross’ age was inched up to 17 to accommodate Kassam’s scruff, and the former Degrassi: Next Class star was handed the part, which, he says, led to the “best filming experience of my life.”
Ahead of this Monday’s new Thanksgiving-themed episode, “All’s Well,” we gave Kassam a call to learn more about what makes Ross tick and what will be coming up for him in the second half of the season.
You said you had an ‘electric’ chemistry test with Serinda Swan. What was it like working with her throughout Season 1?
Ehren Kassam: I honestly couldn’t have asked for a better partner because she was the most focused actor I’ve ever worked with for sure. She knew exactly what was going on in every character’s head in every scene, and it was so cool and so inspiring to see that because she does take it as seriously as possible, and I really, really respected that. And we just really clicked. I don’t know how else to describe it. We really got along well. We were always joking around and had this really nice chemistry and really nice balance, and we could always sit and have an actual conversation and talk about the scene before doing them.
We would always sit down with [showrunner] Morwyn [Brebner] and Adrienne and sort of discuss wherever we wanted the scene to go, and it was kind of a new experience for me as well because, as a younger actor, you’re sort of used to just being kind of told what to do, and you’re not really given the liberty to experiment as much as you might want and as much as you might think, at least for Canadian network TV, where most of my experience has been. You kind of just get told, ‘This is your character, you’re the heartthrob teenager and play that as much as you can.’ So this was kind of cool because we really got to sit down and experiment with things and try out different things. And I never felt rushed, and I can safely say that it was the best filming experience of my life.
I was going to ask how being on Coroner compared with some of the other shows you’ve been on, such as Degrassi.
EK: Degrassi, don’t get me wrong, was fantastic and I met a lot of people who I’ll call best friends for a long time. It could have been that my character on Degrassi, I really was just the boyfriend to three different storylines for four years. So it was a great experience and a lot of fun, but I didn’t get that experimentation, getting to sort of try out things at my liberty, maybe because the scenes were never really about me then. So it’s interesting when you then switch to a show that has scenes that are focused on you and relying on you, that you are given the liberty to experiment at your will.
But there are pros and cons to both. I was definitely more stressed being on Coroner than I was on Degrassi. Because when I walked on the set of Degrassi, I always knew what I was doing for sure, and it was almost down to a science. Where on Coroner, I would walk in and I would have no idea where the scene would go. So it was definitely an interesting experience.
I understand that you had to learn to swim the butterfly stroke to play Ross.
EK: Yeah, within the first couple of months of casting, there was a little back and forth about, ‘Can you swim?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I can’t do a competitive level stroke, but I can swim.’ So I ended up booking it, and they said they wanted me to learn how to do the butterfly stroke, and I said I could hopefully learn that, which was me confidently, casually saying that I could learn something that I knew nothing about. Because looking back, I definitely had no business doing that stroke. But I did learn it, and I actually went to the woman who taught me how to swim when I was a little kid. I went back to my hometown a couple times a week and had an hour-long lesson, and then I learned I had to get a full-body wax.
Oh, my. How did that go?
EK: I laid there for three hours, and it was not fun. I thought it might have been blown out of proportion, it can’t be that bad to undergo it. For maybe the first 45 minutes, I thought, ‘Oh, this isn’t so bad.’ And then the next hour and a half, I remember being actually angry just wanting it to be over so bad. And then I thought she was done, and she said, ‘Now we have to do your other side.’ I was so upset. But I shouldn’t have to do it again, because I’m pretty sure Ross has quit the swim team forever.
Yes, Ross has been really struggling with his dad’s death, particularly after finding out that he gambled the family’s money away. Are things going to improve for him as the season progresses?
EK: One of my favourite things about the character was the opportunity to portray a real mental illness at that age. He had to go through so much and then he decides he’s going to quit school and you see that scene with Matteo in Episode 3, where Matteo is like, ‘When are you going to come back? I can’t bring your homework forever.’ And that’s a very clear indication that kids that age aren’t used to actually dealing with mental illness and knowing how to deal with somebody who is going through that. Because Matteo is like, ‘What do you mean? Why don’t you wanna come back?’ And Ross can’t even explain why he doesn’t want to come back. How do you put that into words? So that’s definitely a big scene that ends up playing out, and the way he then finds out how to deal with that—like meeting Liam in Episode 4 and deciding to work on the bridge with him—that’s a nice way that he ends up being able to cope with it. But that’s not the end of the unfortunate things that do happen to him, so he definitely also finds ways to deal with it that may be less orthodox.
When you say mental illness, do you mean Ross is suffering from depression, or is there something more going on with him?
EK: It’s primarily depression and a lot of anxiety that he goes through. The depression stems from the actual things that are happening to him, and then he develops this fear and overall anxiety about going to school and leaving the house. At the end of Episode 2 when he’s crying about how he can’t go back, that’s a real feeling of a simple task, which is going to school, and just not being able to do it.
It seems that hanging out with Liam is helping him a lot. What is it about Liam that he’s drawn to?
EK: It’s actually funny because in the read-through, the first scene where he goes to meet Liam in the woods, I think it was originally written as Liam was outside his house doing chin-ups shirtless and Ross walked in on him. And, the way the scene was written, a bunch of us really got the vibe that they were going to have a love triangle between Ross, his mom and Liam, and that wasn’t what happened at all. Éric Bruneau actually suggested that maybe he isn’t shirtlessly doing chin-ups because it just kind of gave a weird intimation to the scene that probably didn’t need to be there.
But I think in Liam, he finds that he doesn’t have to just go through the motions, he doesn’t have to go to school, he doesn’t have to swim if that’s not going to be working for him anymore and if that’s affecting his mental health. And he finds this really nice way to do this co-op with Liam and I think it helps him heal a lot. And I hesitate to say that it may have even given him an older male role model in his life that he might have been specifically craving at that moment because of his dad.
We only got to see Ross’ dad, David, in one scene before he died, but from just that one scene, it appeared that he was very hard on Ross. Is that the backstory in your head?
EK: A lot of the sadness that comes from Ross is the fact that he and his dad didn’t have a great relationship, is the read that I got. He wasn’t a mean and awful father, but he was definitely a stern, very focused, very strict father. And that opens up to a lot of feelings that he might want to talk about, like, ‘Hey, why are you being so hard on me?’ And then his dad just dies. And that’s interesting to me because when someone dies and you’re mad at them, or when somebody dies and maybe you’re not on the best terms with them. it’s a really hard thing to deal with because, as sad as you that they’re gone, obviously, those feelings that you had aren’t not real or not valid because the other person is gone. You’re still allowed to be angry at the person for the way that they treated you.
He had very real feelings of embarrassment and fear toward his father because his dad put so much pressure on him to be the best swim team member, and his dad was a surgeon and he really wanted Ross to follow in his footsteps, so there’s a lot of that and a lot of unspoken feelings that Ross is definitely feeling about his father. And it’s sad because he won’t ever get the closure that he wants. He can’t talk to his dad, he can’t have that conversation.
Ross and Matteo are very sweet. Will we be seeing more of them?
EK: Not as much as I wanted you to see. You do see him in a few really important moments to Ross, but you don’t get to see as much of the Ross and Matteo and Jenny hanging out and eating pizza kind of stuff. That scene was super cute and I really wanted to see more of that. But we do get a lot more plot development with Matteo and Ross, in terms of things happening to Ross, and Matteo is there helping him understand and cope with it.
Do you have a favourite episode or moment from Season 1?
EK: Honestly, the end of Episode 2 was probably the scene I was looking forward to the most, and then there’s another one in Episode 5 when we have Thanksgiving. Overall, I’m excited for people to see the relationship between Ross and Jenny grow and a lot more scenes with Nicholas Campbell, because he is a great grandfather and he is loads of fun to work with. He comes back in Episode 5, so you do get a lot more of him. I find that our scenes are so electric, and we have so much fun on camera together.
Coroner airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on CBC and CBC Gem.
Images courtesy of CBC.