An Interview with Michelle Goodeve, Degrassi's Ms. Avery
It’s the second installment in a two-part series, Interviews with the Teachers of Degrassi Junior High! My Degrassi Junior High recaps, which got off to a modest start nearly four years ago, are continuing to get noticed by people actually involved in the show. I have to say, when I was a teenager watching Degrassi every Saturday afternoon on WYES, I never dreamed that someday I’d actually be corresponding with members of the legendary Playing With Time Repertory Company.
And not just any cast members. Earlier this year, I spoke to Dan Woods, Mr. Raditch himself, and through that connection I got the opportunity to interview the other much-beloved teacher from the series. I’m talking of course about Michelle Goodeve, who played Ms. Karen Avery for four seasons on Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High.
What you may not know is that Michelle’s been busy ever since as a producer, screenwriter, and story editor, writing episodes of several Canadian TV shows, including White Fang, Mysterious Island (based on the Jules Verne novel), and the animated series Redwall.
But if that’s not enough to pique your interest, Michelle is also a licensed pilot, with a special passion for flying antique airplanes. She even started an online magazine, WhyFly.aero, with articles and photographs all about the love of flying.
Yes, in real life, Ms. Avery flies airplanes. Seriously!
In this interview, Michelle talks about the Degrassi Junior High auditions, how flying makes her a better actor, having to say goodbye to Ms. Avery after four seasons, and the time she spent barnstorming with a literary legend, and it all starts after the jump…
First, let’s go back to Toronto, 1986, when you auditioned for the role of Ms. Avery on Degrassi Junior High. What were you doing at the time, and how much prior acting/performing experience did you have back then?
I hit the stage at three as a tiny dancer and never looked back.
Whoa! 1986. I have no idea what I was doing in ‘86… Oh wait, it’s coming back to me. I remember I had just finished shooting a commercial for Harlequin Romance books. (I know… but I was hungry.) I learned on that set to never claim bogus skills during an audition, or you’d end up black and blue, galloping bareback on a stallion called “Comanche”.
Then, through a dance connection, I started performing in kids’ afternoon theatre in Toronto. I played a bunny… No, not a Playboy-type bunny, but the long-eared furry type. (Not the most sophisticated of roles, but I gave the kids a lot of laughs.)
At night I commuted to a bartending job at the Royal Hotel in Guelph, Ontario, AKA “The Bar from Hell”. This particular pay-your-dues job was good for quick cash, and I was able to work around auditions and performances. The staff and patrons at that bar taught me a lot about the nature of compassion and the unexpected humanity of people living on the edge. I have fond memories of the place, and to this day I am still very quick at dodging flying ashtrays!
How did you first learn about the Degrassi auditions, and what made you decide to try out for the role of a junior high school teacher?
I got a call from my acting agent (whose office—amazingly—was on the real De Grassi Street), re: the Degrassi audition. I used to play at being a teacher when I was a little kid. (Thinking back, I suspect it was more the chalk and the blackboard I was interested in…)
Luckily, I just happened to fit the female profile of the type the producers were looking for, along, of course, with a crowd of others.
The audition process was lengthy, several callbacks facing increasing numbers of producers and broadcasters with stress-testing techniques, like, “…you have three minutes to memorize this page of dialogue.”
At first, I didn’t really think I had a chance of getting the role, as the main producer seemed so disappointed that I didn’t have kids of my own. But when they asked me to write my own monologue, I began to feel more confident. My partner, screenwriter Glenn Norman, and I wrote a piece that summed up what I’d love the character of Ms. Avery to be. When I delivered that speech at the final audition, I saw a bunch of quick smiles flash around the room. We were on the same page re: Avery, and wonder of wonders, I got the part.
That was a great rush of a moment and together, I thought, Degrassi and I could nudge the world a little towards the better… and hopefully we did.
A lot of Degrassi fans strongly associate Ms. Avery with the episode ”Rumor Has It”, where there are lots of subtle hints that Ms. Avery is a lesbian. When I talked to Dan Woods earlier this year, he said there was a deliberate attempt to keep Mr. Raditch’s sexual orientation ambiguous. Was it the same deal with Ms. Avery? The episode leaves it open-ended, but while you were filming it, did you make up your own mind as to whether Avery really was a lesbian or not?
Only Avery knows the honest answer to that question, and she ain’t talkin’! 😉
After four seasons, Ms. Avery was a big part of the Degrassi family, and she even got her own special farewell episode “Stressed Out”. The series was still doing really well in the ratings, so what made you decide to walk away from Degrassi at that point?
The four years of playing Ms. Avery on two Degrassi series was a real rollercoaster ride. I loved the series and felt the show was great and still doing the job that television, in my view, should be doing: not preaching but telling the truth; exploring the human condition and entertaining at the same time. And while I was pleased to have made the cut to Degrassi High, promises were made to Avery and not kept, so I asked to be written out.
But let’s just say, “water under the bridge”, and whatever other clichés I can drop here so that I don’t have to fully answer that question and disillusion any fans.
I requested a final episode in which the audience at home could bid a fond farewell to our mutually beloved character. The episode “Stressed Out” was my goodbye to Ms. Avery and her Degrassi fans.
I must say, I really enjoyed your performance in that last episode. What was it like playing a mean, bitter version of Ms. Avery for once? And who would you say you’re more like in real life, the sweet, polite, touchy-feely Ms. Avery, or the Ms. Avery from hell?
Yikes! “Mean, bitter Avery.” Hmm. Seeing those words together gave me a bit of a jolt. As they say in TV, “Bitter doesn’t play.”
Yan Moore, the series head writer (and a great guy) and I decided Avery could be a little bit tougher on exit than she had been throughout the series. Yan did a great job of writing the episode, and despite a repressed, nagging misgiving that I might be doing Avery a small disservice, I must say I thoroughly enjoyed playing those final scenes.
Karen Avery was the best of me. I used to tell folks that I was her evil twin. 😉
One more question about that episode: your big going away present from the students was a clock, which if I recall correctly was built into a big shellacked hunk of wood carved into the shape of a book. What are the current whereabouts of that prop?
Wow, a never before asked question! Very impressive.
That “hunk of shellacked wood” posing as a clock, though somewhat dusty and not actually ticking, has nevertheless travelled with me from house to house, and currently has pride of place in my country kitchen.
Were you ever asked, or did you ever consider returning for an appearance in later episodes? Was an cameo on Degrassi: The Next Generation ever a possibility? We could have found out that Avery was Raditch’s estranged ex-wife or something.
Raditch’s estranged wife! Dan Woods and I used to intentionally stir up potential gossip by holding hands while taking the stage during televised Degrassi reunions and such. It would have been fun to explore the possibilities of something extra there…
Most Degrassi fans probably don’t know you’ve had a lifelong passion for flying. And not just for flying any planes, but antique airplanes. When did you first decide you wanted to fly, and what types of airplanes have you flown, and what is it that attracts you to vintage aircraft in particular?
I started flying when I was about sixteen. My partner, Glenn Norman, took me flying on our second date, and I remember feeling like I had just come home. Life as an actor needs balance. You have no control at an audition, and if some director thinks you look like his ex-wife, you don’t get the part no matter how perfect you may be for the role.
Flying gives me back the control I need in my life. It’s black and white. When in the air, my life is literally in my own hands. So, in a way, flying made me a better actor, because I could just give myself over to it and still stay sane… Well, sane-ish.
I love the challenge, the history, and the freedom that vintage aircraft can afford a pilot. The sky and an open cockpit airplane are true passions for me.
It’s my understanding that you’re good friends with novelist/aviation writer Richard Bach, and you even barnstormed with Richard back in the day. How did you come to meet Richard? Also, some of our readers might not be too familiar with what barnstorming was all about, so can you clue them in on what barnstorming entailed, and some of the interesting things you saw as you made your way across the country?
Way back when, before he became rich and famous for writing his book Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Richard Bach was a stand-out aviation writer for flying magazines. Richard’s articles were not about tech or being macho; his words were full of passion and the beauty of flying. His writings spoke to us and Glenn contacted him. We all hit it off, and the next thing we knew, Richard had invited us to fly with him on his next barnstorming tour. Richard invited two “hippies” to fly along with our few planes, as he thought this mix of disparate folk would make for interesting days: landing in fields, sleeping under the wing, and taking people flying.
Richard was right; we were all profoundly changed as a result of this magical flying trip through middle America. We saw many amazing sights: morning mist flowing over meandering rivers that stretched to the horizon, sunsets that bathed our planes in surprising sheets of rainbow colours, the veil of fear dropping from a passengers’ face to be replaced by awe, a farmer’s tears at seeing his ancestral homestead from the air for the first time… The things we learned about flying, about the people we met, and about ourselves were invaluable life lessons. We will always be thankful to Richard for his written words, our many shared adventures, and his friendship.
The little known art of Barnstorming became popular after the First World War, when traumatized pilots arrived home after the fighting and could no longer fit into so-called “normal” society. Planes were cheap post-war, and some flyers took to a new type of life in the sky. These “Barnstormers” would fly from small town to small town, doing stunts to draw interested folk out of their houses to a nearby flat field where the planes would land and then take people for rides for a small fee.
It was a difficult, gypsy-type life that proved quite lucrative at the start. But as the numbers of planes and pilots increased, the “Flying Circus” evolved to where several different stunt and passenger planes would join together, putting on air shows and vying for rides. Unfortunately, some desperate types began performing increasingly dangerous stunts to stay competitive, which lead to accidents and the eventual demise of the lifestyle.
But the legacy of those early days of flying were the highly trained pilots and perfected planes that went on to form the birth of air mail and passenger flight, that eventually formed the safer and ever-expanding forms of aviation we see today.
After Degrassi, you continued to work in TV, but taking on more behind the scenes roles, like producing and writing. How did you decide to get into screenwriting, and how does it compare to acting?
I’ve always written, and screenwriting seemed like a natural direction once I branched out from theatre and started working in television. Sometimes I’d get a script during the casting/audition process and I’d think, “Man, I could do better than this in my sleep!” And then, one spring, I just started “seeing” scenes unfold in my head while I went running, and soon enough, I starting writing out the movie that my brain insisted on playing in my head.
Once I’d finished one screenplay and got a literary agent, I was hooked. I started story editing TV shows, and several times I was invited to write in a character for myself to play in a series.
As for producing, I suppose again it was inevitable after I realized it was sometimes necessary to get what was in my head onto the screen without seeing it wrecked completely. That doesn’t always work, but hey, there’s really no consistency in this business. One of my favorite quotes about TV is, “Nobody knows nothin’.”
Dancing, singing, acting, writing… it all seems to me to be a different part of the same thing: creativity. For me, creativity is a double-edged sword which must be utilized, or it will turn against you.
Do you still keep in touch with any of the kids from the Degrassi cast? I think I speak for many when I say I’d love to know what became of some of the kids who decided not to stick with acting. While we continue to see Stefan and Amanda on TNG, what can you tell us about where some of the others are now? Also, did you ever try to get any of them up in the air with you?
Most recently Facebook has improved my ability to keep in contact with some of the Degrassi cast.
Stacie (Caitlin) and I saw a lot of each other for a while when I was travelling to L.A. We’d take each other to dinner and when she came back to Canada we’d get together, go flying. Stacie seems to love the adventure in the air as well. We shot a pilot for a TV series together about flying, which Oprah was going to pick up… but her production company changed their mind and wanted a show that was more urban. We really felt the loss of that one.
And there was some talk of doing a play in Toronto, but we get so busy it’s hard to nail things down and make everything work out. I also took Dan flying one summer before we were going onto the annual Degrassi cast boat cruise and bash—lots of fun.
Some of the other “kids” guard their privacy, as there has been some trouble with whacko stalkers and the likes… So I’ll leave it up to them to make themselves known or not.
Can you say any more about the pilot you shot with Stacie? What it was called, and what was it about?
The pilot that Stacie and I shot was called Flights With Mom. Stacie played a young woman that my troubled character had given up at birth because I was down on my luck and living on the streets when she was born. I come back into her life when she is about to play it safe, quit university, marry the wrong man, and settle for a life that was much less than she could accomplish. There is a confrontational first meeting and a challenge… then mother and daughter set out to cross the continent by air, and through the people they meet and the experiences they have, both women are changed forever.
Stacie and I love acting together, and it will happen again someday.
Also, this is the first I’ve heard of an annual Degrassi cruise. Is it still happening annually? Who’s on that cruise, and where does it take you? I’d love to go on a Degrassi cruise, but I’m afraid the onboard entertainment would be people performing that one Zit Remedy song over and over.
It wasn’t a cruise per se, but a wrap party idea that the burgeoning cast, crew, producers, broadcasters and whole bevy of significant others could really get into. We boarded at Toronto Harbour and cruised to Lake Ontario and around Toronto Island. It was so beautiful at night; outdoor lights ringed the ship like extra stars, the music was rocking, and our dancing sounded like some kind of tribal foot stomping on the wooden floor boards of the big boat deck. As the “kids” grew up, the age gap closed between cast and crew. We all felt like we were on an even keel together, close like soldiers in the TV trenches—it was us on the inside and the rest of the world (for the moment) on the outside. Great nights.
I remember our first season wrap party was special as well. We had a posh deal, with long dresses and champagne at the Royal Ontario Museum, where we all sat in mute silence to watch our show for the first time. Nothing had aired as yet, and we felt like the best kept secret in television… ever. For one night, the show was ours alone. We were amazed to see ourselves several stories high as the chosen episode “Rumour Has It” played out on the giant screen in front of us. The whole thing began to feel impossibly real that night, and the “kids” joked about their 6 foot zits or rumpled costumes. It’s a memory that just came back when you asked me about the boat bash. Thanks for that.
I see that these days, you’re involved with an aviation-related online magazine called WhyFly.aero. Can you tell us a bit about the site, and about your involvement with it?
Right now, Whyfly.aero keeps Glenn and I very busy. This is a free online site, a journal exploring the passion for flight through art, pictures, and words. Glenn is the editor, I’m the creative director, and Francois Dumas is our multi-talented tech and creative partner (he lives in Holland and, part time, in France). We publish roving writers, filmmakers, and photographers from all over the world, and have readers in approximately 97 countries. It’s a huge project and lots of work, but we are driven to continue by the encouragement and gratefulness of our readers.
I’m into photography in a big way now and post many photo essays on the sky and antique aircraft, as well as contributing an ongoing column and feature articles. You don’t have to be a pilot to enjoy the site, as it has something of interest for almost everyone.
Recently, WhyFly is suffering a little from a lack of time, as Glenn and I are also busy working on, and shooting a promo for, a new television series. It’s hush-hush right now but I’ll drop a hint… Yes, there will be airplanes, and yes, there will also be a whole new batch of disenchanted teens gaining self-esteem and learning to be self sufficient.
I asked Dan this, so I figured I should ask you, too: What do you think Ms. Avery would be up to these days? In that last episode, they shipped her off to a school in “the North” and she was never heard from again. Do you think she’s still up there, teaching geography in the frozen tundra?
By now, I believe Avery would still be teaching in some capacity or another, because she believes that is how you change the world for the better. Maybe she has adjusted to the future by teaching online, that way she could fulfill her dream of travelling the world. (My personal preference would be for somewhere warmer.) She would definitely be volunteering in whatever hot-spot country that is in need and experiencing the latest catastrophe.
Or perhaps Ms. Avery is simply kept on the run—busy repulsing inappropriate advances from her nemesis Mr. Raditch who pursues her across the globe. 😉
A huge thanks to Michelle Goodeve for taking the time to do this interview, as well as actually read some of my Degrassi recaps.
And to those of you eagerly awaiting more Degrassi Junior High recaps on the Agony Booth, I can promise you don’t have long to wait!