Video Credit: Cassie Steele’s official YouTube channel
In talking to Cassie, you begin to understand that though they aren’t the same person, she and her Degrassi: The Next Generation character Manny Santos, are a lot alike.
They are straight shooters, tenacious, sarcastic, inspired, caring, and a little dark. They even share similar interests, and a tendency towards creativity and performance.
Cassie was born in Toronto, Ontario to a Filipino mother, and British father. As a kid, she recalls being quirky, and a little unpredictable. “I think I was just a little weird kid. I just really weirded people out,” says Cassie. “I was really outgoing, and loud, and said a lot of inappropriate things.” Her knack for grabbing attention caused her parents to suggest creative outlets for Cassie to explore. “My dad thought it was good that I go to improve, or theater, and meet other weird kids,” she says. “And I did it, and it was awesome, and I did meet other weird kids.”
By the time she was 9 years old, Cassie had an agent, and had started to work on commercials. She learned pretty quickly that commercials were not for her. “I was like ‘Fuck commercials!’” Cassie says. “I didn’t really like that I only got to work one or two days, I wanted to just do it all the time, and never be in school.” It was after that realization that she landed a role on a short-lived, Canadian television series called Relic Hunter, as the younger version of the lead character.
Not long after, at the age of 11, Cassie was cast as Manny on Degrassi, a role she would go on to play for 9 years.
As Manny, Cassie was shot to stardom, and grew up in front of the camera. Her character explored the tensions of friendships and families, as well as societal stigmas associated with homophobia, abortion, and promiscuity. And while she did not attend a formal high school, the education that she got at Degrassi High was invaluable for Cassie. “I wouldn’t change it for anything,” she says. “I made some really great friends. Im still really good friends with a few people, and they are just friendships that I know will last no matter what. The experience was great.”
After a few years on Degrassi, Cassie felt like she needed to do more. “I had been working on [Degrassi] since I was 11, so I had been making some money and I wrote poetry when I was younger,” says Cassie. “And I wanted to try out songs, so I was like ‘fuck it, why don’t I just make an album.’”
Her albums consist of work that is from a span of years, and sometimes, she says, she will scrap something that seems outdated for where she is at in life. For Cassie, the song writing process doesn’t happen all at once. “You come back to things that you’ve written and you know, being young, you just don’t relate with them, or you don’t want to,” she says. “Or you wrote new stuff that you’re really stoked about and you really want to do that.”
Her debut album, How Much For Happy, was released in early 2005 when Cassie was just 16. It saw great acclaim, reached gold certification in Canada, and took Cassie on two Canadian tours. Following her tours, Cassie went back to acting.
Then in 2008, Cassie made the big move from her family home in Toronto, Canada, to Los Angeles, California. “When I moved to LA, I was 17-18. Which is pretty young, not only to be moving out of home, but also to a different country, on the west coast,” Cassie remembers. “And for the first time ever, not having a job, and not having anything to keep me together – It was a huge learning experience being on my own, and making a ton of mistakes, and really fucking up. Getting over things, making friends, and choosing the right friends.”
Cassie says a lot of those experiences in a new place made it onto her second album, Destructo Doll (2009), and the sound reflects the emotions she was feeling at the time. “It was a good, awesome, compulsive, dark time for me, and it was so important to be who I am right now,” she says. “I feel like I would have been a shittier person if it didn’t happen. It was really just a humbling experience. You think you are invincible, especially when you’re young.”
In 2010, she left Degrassi for other endeavors.
In 2011, she was cast as Abby Vargas on Canadian drama The L.A. Complex. That transition, Cassie says was challenging, but well timed for where she was in her own life. “I guess she was really like me. I really related with her. She was just a ball of anxiety and drive,” Cassie says. “I just really loved the writing, because it showed exactly what its like to struggle and choose this profession. It was exactly like it.”
Trying to balance both acting and singing has definitely amplified that struggle for Cassie. As acting came first, and has been her primary career Cassie says, “It feels like music has been on the back burner, because obviously you have to make a living.”
But now, she says, it is time for the music. “Right now, [it is] music. It’s just been too long of not putting my all into it,” she says. “I don’t like doing that, you know? I like to do everything right.”
So this year, she is doing both. She just wrapped a movie called The Dorm, a psychological horror movie that focuses around a haunted dorm room. The film is being produced by MTV, and is expected to be out later in the summer. She also just released Mad in early April, which is the first single off of her upcoming EP.
The single is a nod to, and evolution of, her earlier music. As most of her music has been, the new track is definitely reflective of the music that Cassie grew up with. A fan of grunge and alt-rock like The Pixies, Sonic Youth, and The Jesus and Mary Chain, as well as ‘90s pop like Britney Spears, and the Spice Girls, Cassie has created a cool and unique sound. “I love spooky blues,” says Cassie. “I also listened to a ton of pop growing up… I like crazy power pop, and I love that garage, dirty sound, with a wicked bass.”
Lyrically, Cassie uses lived experienced to influence her songs. Now, at 24 years old, she is still working to find herself, and her balance between passions. The new single shows tells where she has come from, and where she feels like she is at in her own headspace. Somehow, Cassie has been able to showcase her outspoken independence, sarcasm, and edginess in her major career roles, and music has been no different. Mad is a jam that shows just what Cassie is capable of musically, and what she has already overcome and experienced to get to where she is now.
The rest of this year for Cassie is packed. Between the release of The Dorm, and the summer release of her upcoming EP, she is going to be touring. Jokingly, she says, “After I drop the EP, I will probably hit the road. Or however I’m going to get places. By boat, maybe. Hit the boat. Maybe ill just go around the great lakes.
As for the future of her career, she is hopeful about her music and acting. She is excited about the upcoming EP, and says that she really enjoyed making it, and hopes that listeners enjoy it just as much. And with acting, this year has Cassie’s movie year, and she says “I would really just love to kick it with the movies.”
It seems like Cassie’s life has been full of big transitions. From childhood to actress, from early career to Degrassi, from acting to music, and back, Cassie has had to learn how to roll with the changes. And while it certainly hasn’t been easy for the young actress, the 24 year old says that now, she realizes that each transition served its purpose. For Cassie, growing up hasn’t been what it is for most people. She has had to learn and grow, and realize her mortality, with an audience.
“People would recognize me, and you think you’re the shit,” Cassie says. “But eventually, all that goes away, and you have to get another job. That’s when you really find out who you are.”
**A version of this story was published by Naked Magazine in June 2014