For anybody who ever thought a pimple on prom night was critical, ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager offers some perspective. Created by 7th Heaven’s Brenda Hampton, the show centers on Amy Juergens, a 15-year-old who gets pregnant at band camp after losing her virginity to bad boy Ricky Underwood (20-year-old Encino native Daren Kagasoff).
The serious subject matter and huge success of the show — it’s been renewed for a second season — may seem like familiar territory for a seasoned actor, but The Secret Life was Kagasoff’s sixth audition ever.
After attending San Francisco State for three semesters, Kagasoff returned home to pursue acting despite having no previous acting experience, not even in high school productions.
“I always had this thing to perform, but I grew up a baseball player and my dad wouldn’t have been too fond of my saying I wanted to be an actor,” says Kagasoff. “I got to the point where I was like, ‘this is my life and I’ve got to do what I want to do.’ I said I wanted to come home and start acting and [my parents] were very supportive.”
After eight months of acting classes and an unpaid gig in Suburbia, a “very low-budget” play in North Hollywood, Kagasoff went through The Secret Life auditions and Hampton won over hesitant network executives — anxious about his lack of experience — to cast him as Ricky.
The novice actor recalls his first day on the set as “probably the most terrifying day of my life. Every second the make-up artist had to pat me down because I was sweating so much from nerves.”
Though Kagasoff is a surprisingly down-to-earth kid for being the heartthrob on a successful show, his risk-taking and determination echo Ricky’s character. But Ricky, the actor asserts, is more conniving and confident.
“Sometimes I try to be suave with the ladies like Ricky is, and it doesn’t work,” says Kagasoff, “but in the show it’s working great for me.”
Indeed, Ricky seems to be working an angle with all the female leads, whether it is his friends-with-benefits relationship with Adrian (fellow Valley native Francia Raisa), faking born-again to gain the attention of conservative Christian cheerleader Grace (Megan Park), or pretending to be sympathetic to the plight of Amy (Shailene Woodley).
Kagasoff says his favorite part about playing Ricky is “being so forward with all these girls. It is not my nature in my daily life so it is just so fun to go full throttle in the show without anyone judging you and thinking you are a sleaze. My character has many different levels to him so you never know what you are going to get.”
But pregnant Amy, whose mother is played by former bratpacker Molly Ringwald, is not the only one dealing with secret issues; the first episode revealed Ricky’s sexually abusive past with his father. Ricky’s issues go beyond everyday raging hormones and prompt fireworks in his interactions with his foster parents, and interesting scenes with his therapist, played by ernie Hudson.
“His therapy sessions are the only time he is true to himself,” says Kagasoff. “The therapist knows you and has got your number. That is the only time you get to see the true humanity within Ricky.”
So how does Daren Kagasoff find the motivation to play such a troubled character?
“I’m lucky to have worked with Jason Priestley, who was the director on one of the episodes, and he gave me the best advice: ‘Your character is always trying to keep his head above water, regardless of the situation…he’s like a shark: he just eats what he can and spits out the rest. He does whatever he wants to do when he wants to do it, and if he doesn’t get his way he will just try harder and be more manipulative to get his way.’”
While Ricky’s sensitive side comes out only in therapy, Kagasoff is more public about his soft spot for Encino and for his family.
“The Valley is very homey,” says Kagasoff. “It’s a part of me and I know Ventura Boulevard like the back of my hand. It’s a great place to raise a family.”
His main gripe is that with the exception of fast food restaurants, nothing is open late, though Jerry’s Deli is a hangout.
“I go late at night and get matzo ball soup,” says Kagasoff.
The Secret Life’s success has already enabled the young actor to buy a car and he’s looking for a place of his own, but fame will also help him bring attention to a disease that hits close to home.
“My brother was diagnosed with fragile X syndrome (the most common inherited cause of mental impairment) so I joined the fragile X foundation.
When they have a charity event I will definitely be there.”
Only time will tell what lies in store for Kagasoff, but one thing is for sure — we’ve seen only a fraction of his potential and fans are eager for more.
They’ll get it in January when season one, part two premieres.