"Life With Derek" Stars Reprise Their Roles During "Vacation"
by Adam Nayman
"The thing about a movie is that the characters in it need to grow and change somehow," says Michael Seater when asked about the biggest difference between Family Channel's long-running sitcom "Life With Derek" and the feature-length presentation "Vacation With Derek." The film, which premieres Friday, June 25, at 8 p.m., finds Seater's eponymous teenaged protagonist trapped at a lakeside lodge with his stepsisters and younger brother, trying to make the most of a summer excursion he didn't want to take.
"Things start out the way that you would expect," says Seater, "with Derek and Casey fighting with each other. But by the end, I think they've both learned something, and maybe even reversed their roles a little bit."
Reversed or not, they're roles that Seater and his co-star Ashley Leggat - whose straight-laced Casey is the polar opposite of her slacker stepbrother - know well after four seasons of "Life With Derek." Certainly the film, directed by Genie nominee Michael McGowan ("St. Ralph," "One Week") works the same as the show, playing up the fractious dynamics between the McDonald Venturi kids - including middle children Edwin (Daniel Magder) and Lizzie (Jordan Todosey) and family baby Marti (Ariel Waller). But it also takes the time to build a narrative that owes more to 1930s musicals than sitcom hijinks: after learning that their vacation spot is going to be bought by a greedy land developer, the family bands together to put on a benefit talent show.
It's a plot development that allowed at least one of the stars to showcase a heretofore un-exploited talent. Leggat, an experienced competitive dancer who recently starred in the Toronto production of "Dirty Dancing," says that she was thrilled when she learned that the talent-show part of the story would give her a chance to strut her stuff, culminating in a performance with Nicholas Archambault. The "So You Think You Can Dance Canada" champ plays a waiter at the resort who encourages Casey to practice her moves, and offers a few close-quarters pointers of his own. "I that there is a similarity there with 'Dirty Dancing,'" laughs Leggat. "But maybe only a very little one."
If anything, she's more vividly reminded of her own youth as diva-in-training. "My poor parents and brothers had to put up with me putting on these little shows all the time," says Leggat. "Every night for three years straight I acted out the death scene from 'Evita' in a rocking chair in front of my family, and they had to sit there for forty-five minutes telling me that it was wonderful." Seater recalls being similarly easy to please, singing old vaudeville tunes for his grandmother - "hello my baby, hello my darling, that sort of thing" - which convinced his mother to send him to his first open casting call.
Funnily enough, both actors think of themselves as veterans - of a sort. "We've grown up on this show," says Seater. "The characters have grown up, too, along with our audience." Asked if the "Derek" cast keeps tabs on the stars of other Family Channel series, Seater admits that they do, and that he's having trouble keeping up with the influx of new talent. "I used to know every teenager who was working in Toronto," he says, because it's sort of a small world. But now there's a new generation, and I feel like I'm a bit out of touch."
At this point, Seater and Leggat may be ready to move on from the "Derek" universe, but they emphasize their pride in creating characters who at their best - and their endlessly bickering worst - were unusually relatable for tween-oriented programming. "I can't tell you how many times I've had a little girl tell me about how she also has a brother who's mean to her, and how she learned [from the show] how to stand up to him," says Leggat, who had plenty of experience as the only girl in a group of five siblings. "It's nice to think about what this little show might have meant to those people."
"When we started doing 'Derek,'" adds Seater, "I called it 'the Brady Bunch Gone Wrong,' because the kids didn't get along perfectly. But that's part of the show's success. A lot of kids' parents are divorced and seeing other people, and so they can identify with the people on this show. I've had a lot of parents come up to me and thank me for being part of a show that they can watch with their kids. It was always a little less goofy than other shows...and maybe a little bit more real."