Hashtag, Austin Basis
Interview by Rachael Drummond (Editor)
Images by Austin Basis
“I wanted to be a Renaissance man like Leonardo da
Vinci – and was up until I was halfway through
college & decided that I'd rather try to be great at
—Austin Basis one thing than be pretty good at everything” — Austin Basis
Since his arrival in LA, Austin has appeared on numerous television shows and has been cast in lead roles on a number of films, traveling as far as India to shoot them. Austin played the role of MATH for two seasons on the critically acclaimed CW drama “Life Unexpected.” Currently, he plays J.T. Forbes on CW’s “Beauty & the Beast”- winner of the 2013 People’s Choice Award for Favorite New TV Drama. He is also a published poet & artist. Austin’s first collection of poems & drawings “An Actor Without An Audience: Poetry For Artists, Lovers And Everymen” can be found on iTunes, Amazon, Smashwords & BarnesAndNoble.com, among others. In his spare time, Austin is an advocate for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. The JDRF is the world’s leading fundraiser for Type 1 Diabetes research.
Austin Basis plays J.T. Forbes, the beast’s best friend, on the CW’s “Beauty and the Beast.” He has been called a one-man social networking phenomenon, interacting extensively with the show’s fans, self proclaimed #beasties. This has resulted in the #beasties, as Austin says, “earning us a 2nd and 3rd season.” He is also an activist, raising money and awareness for Type 1 diabetes. Here, he answers my questions about playing J.T., why he credits his own diabetes with his success, advice to aspiring actors and, of course, fan art…
Rachael Drummond: Did you watch “Beauty and the Beast” in the 80’s? (I was 12 and somehow thought it was the end-all, be-all of romance.)
Austin Basis: Unfortunately, I didn’t. I watched sports, horror/sci-fi films & sitcoms as a kid in the ’80s. Lion men & sewer-romances weren’t among my interests! I spent most of my time running around outside like a vilda-CHaya, as my Grandma Lee used to call me… It’s Yiddish for “wild animal”!!!
RD: If so, how do you think it compares to the current incarnation?
AB: Despite not watching the previous incarnation, I know that the two shows are vastly different. Besides the character names & setting, most of the essential story points have been changed. The one unifying theme is romance. Whether it’s the classic fairytale, the Disney movie, the ’80s TV show or our edgier, post-9/11 version, the epic love between the “beauty” & the “beast” is at the center of everything else that happens.
RD: Do you consider yourself a romantic? I had the honor of being a guest at your wedding and I know you and your wife wrote your own vows. I was floored by the beauty and romance. That doesn’t just come out of nowhere.
AB: I’ve always considered myself a romantic… A hopeless one before I met my wife! I happen to be an actor, but that is only an extension of being an artist. I always saw the world through a creative prism that I expressed with poetry, art & performance. I wanted to be a Renaissance man like Leonardo da Vinci- and was up until I was halfway through college & decided that I’d rather try to be great at one thing than be pretty good at everything! I still enjoy writing poetry & the occasional blog.
“I firmly believe that having Type 1
Diabetes for almost 30 years has directly
contributed to my success in life.”
— Austin Basis
RD: Your character, J.T., is getting to have a relationship of his own with Tess after the show focusing mainly on Vincent and Catherine. Are you moving from romantic to professional heartthrob?
AB: “Professional heartthrob” is a little bit of a stretch for me! I do like the way the writers have juxtaposed the #VinCat relationship with #JTnT …Both are equally dynamic, but the epic romance of Vincent & Catherine is balanced by the down-to-earth, opposites-attract relationship of JT & Tess. Nina & I try our best to bring a three-dimensional couple to the screen, with all the awkwardness, sarcasm, levity & love of a real relationship. I think this helps the audience look past the superficial reasons JT & Tess shouldn’t be together. As an actor, I always try to choose the most interesting & unexpected choice. In the past, I’ve always played the nervous geek, but I think JT is different. He’s an unconventional hero: The leading man of his own love story with Tess.
RD: As an actor are you learning about new sides and levels of J.T. through this relationship? Has anything surprised you or does the progression seem very natural?
AB: Most stuff hasn’t necessarily surprised me, except how “natural” the “progression” has been! The difference between JT in Season 1 & 2 has been amazing to play as an actor. It’s a character that has remained true to his core identity from the beginning, but has been allowed to slowly evolve. I have to thank the writers who have taken the risk to create a highly intelligent character with a sense of humor that has all the flaws & emotions of your average biochemist, hacker genius, beast’s best friend! In addition to having the confidence to show JT’s romantic & heroic side, the writers have also allowed him to be affected by all that he’s experienced. That’s real- and has been truly fun to play.
RD: You have become such a force on social media, interacting with your fans and effecting change for your show and your causes. Can you tell me a little about how that started and what it’s become?
AB: It started way back when I graduated school [blank] years ago. I had to be my own agent, manager & publicist. Whether it was submitting myself for auditions or spreading the word on my latest appearance through mass emails (which I still do). Initially it was a networking thing and a way of keeping my family, friends & colleagues in the loop with my career. But with the explosion of social media over the past 8 or so years, I had to step it up & embrace it as part of the job. Besides promoting the show & causes like the JDRF (Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation), it allows me to connect with the audience- something I miss & thoroughly enjoy about doing live theatre. With film & TV, there’s a disconnect between the experience of the actors & the experience of the audience- separated by months, sometimes years. With theatre, there’s a tangible experience shared in-the-moment by everyone present. I think Twitter & also Facebook provide an opportunity to bridge that gap. I used to think that tweeting lacked an attention-span & was for people younger than me- but now I love it & have tried to use it for positive things. I think too many people in the public eye take their fans for granted & attract negativity, so I’ve made it a point to do the opposite.
RD: Did it ever feel risky to interact with strangers online?
AB: Always. Twitter is a little safer because of it’s simplicity & brevity. But there’s a fine line between tweeting & opening up your life to the masses. I try to keep things personal & interactive without it becoming too familiar or falsely intimate.
RD: Have any unexpected things come from your social networking with your fans?
AB: Besides their collective voices earning us a 2nd & 3rd season…?! Just a realization that the fans’ support for the show has lead to support for one another & a truer sense of community than I thought was possible online. I call the Beasties a “FANmily” because their affection for each other is just as strong as their affection for the show. The most unexpected thing for me came in March when they banded together to raise over $15,000 for my charity, JDRF…! It’s amazing how 140 characters & a TV show’s fans can affect real change in the world. They’re actually in the process of creating a fan-generated cookbook now to raise even more money for JDRF!
“All I can do is take each audition, each
project, each day, each moment and do my
best to prepare for it & be present… And
then let it all go & try to have fun.”
— Austin Basis
RD: You have shared a lot of beautiful fan art. I will admit to having drawn many sub-par portraits of the stars of “Some Kind of Wonderful” as a teen but I didn’t have the twittershpere to share them with Eric Stoltz, Lea Thompson and Mary Stuart Masterson. Have you ever made fan art for anyone?
AB: Not that I’ve actually sent them! I used to draw my favorite N.Y. Mets baseball players when I was a kid & make posters to bring to the game. Most of the art that I’ve created has been inspired by a particular project, whether it was for a class or a gift for someone or a playbill or t-shirt design- or it was making my parents & family homemade greeting cards! I think I was more likely to dress up as my favorite characters… so maybe in a different world, I’d be into cosplay right now!
RD: I’ve seen the inspiring quotes and images you surround yourself with at home. You’ve generously photographed some bits of your bulletin board for us. Will you share a few favorite quotes and how they have inspired or fed or bolstered you?
AB: The few that have been with me for awhile are:
“Why be normal?” (a button I used to wear on my jean-jacket in 5th grade… yes, I wore a jean-jacket adorned with buttons!)
“Everything happens for the best!” (from the hebrew expression “gam zu l’tovah”)
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto to you” (has always worked for me, personally AND professionally).
RD: You have to be very self motivated as an actor. What do you find helps you with the ups and downs and the element of the unknown in the career of an artist?
AB: The fear of failure! More specifically, the fear of letting myself down. Being a Virgo, I’m a perfectionist- so that need fuels my work ethic. But as an artist “perfection” is an impossible concept. It’s subjective to the individual who is experiencing what I have created. All I can do is take each audition, each project, each day, each moment and do my best to prepare for it & be present… And then let it all go & try to have fun. I have to trust that if I keep working hard & putting myself in the best position to succeed, then I will. If nothing else, the process & effort will yield a sense of creative fulfillment. Also, being LAZY- or rather, the fear of being called “lazy”- has been a great motivator of mine. It’s amazing how tedious inertia could be after awhile.
RD: Do you have a philosophy for yourself that keeps you inspired creatively or does that continually change?
AB: The philosophy is consistent, but the conditions & environment are ALWAYS changing. Overcoming the challenges before me or creating new challenges to overcome have helped me make life interesting. I grew up playing team sports, so I’m extremely competitive! Since acting is more of an individual sport, I’ve been forced to be competitive with myself. I think perspective is key. I find inspiration everywhere, the difficulty is in choosing what to do about it & how to translate that creativity into action.
RD: You have raised money to find treatments and raise awareness for Type 1 Diabetes. Has your own diabetes shaped who you are as an actor in terms of sensitivity, compassion, physical awareness?
AB: Definitely, physical awareness. Sensitivity & compassion have been a byproduct of many things, diabetes included. (Being a “late bloomer” & my awkward adolescent years probably had more of an impact, though.) I firmly believe that having Type 1 Diabetes for almost 30 years has directly contributed to my success in life. You need to be high-maintenance in order to remain healthy. And it’s a 24/7 balancing act. The responsibilities that come with taking care of myself through the years have made me a better person. The regimen of being a Type 1 Diabetic were the building-blocks for my acting career.
RD: Have you ever played a diabetic character?
AB: Not exactly, but I’ve pitched it before. I thought it would be an interesting story to have Vincent as a doctor take care of JT for once. Unless it’s mentioned, I always make my characters diabetic… Why deny it? I’ve seen Type 1 Diabetic characters before (i.e. Julia Roberts in “Steel Magnolias”), but not in awhile & definitely not in a modern sense- with an insulin pump & all the technology that has made a healthy life possible. I think it would be a positive influence for kids with Type 1 to see a character like that.
“Know how people see
you. Know your strengths
and lead with them.”
— Austin Basis
RD: What does the term “raise awareness” mean to you?
AB: “Raise awareness” means to shine a light on an issue like Type 1 Diabetes; to inform people about the differences between Type 1 & Type 2 Diabetes; to create a channel through which other adults & children affected by this disease can take comfort in a sense of commonality; to raise money for organizations like JDRF to fund research & development of life-saving, cutting-edge technology to treat & ultimately cure diabetes in every form; and, to provide kids with Type 1 Diabetes an example of hope that they can be or do anything they want to in life, despite their diagnosis. (SEE www.jdrf.org )
RD: You have acted in movies, television and commercials. How does your creative preparation differ for each, or does it?
AB: The only two differences are the amount of rehearsal time I get, and the magnitude, depth & expression of my emotional truth. For film & theatre, I get weeks maybe months to prepare. This allows for a thorough investigation of character, including script analysis, creating a backstory & emotional history, developing physical & vocal choices, etc. And the subtleness of film acting is multiplied by the size of the theatre, so that every moment reaches the people in the back seats. For TV, there’s much less time to prepare & no rehearsal, so I tend to lead with my instincts. I still break my scenes down into beats & work with my acting coach, but it’s much more about absorbing the lines as quickly as possible & making the boldest choices. There’s a “get it & go” dynamic on a TV set that forces me to be as prepared as possible while still remaining flexible to the unforeseen circumstances & directions that you will undoubtedly face. This is especially true when you get the final script less than 24 hours before you have to shoot… which happens more often than you think! And I believe you’re better equipped to answer the question about commercials, #SwaggerWagon!!!
RD: Aw shucks! Well the commercial advice I always give is “get your butt in improv class!” What advice do you find yourself giving most often to aspiring actors in Los Angeles?
AB: Stay in a class or work with a coach- especially if the auditions are few & far between. Martin Landau likens your acting instrument to a violin. You can be amazingly talented & have a Stradivarius, but if you haven’t practiced & it’s not tuned- it’s gonna sound like S#!T no matter how well you play! Conversely, if you have a cheap violin from a second-hand store, you’re well-rehearsed & it’s perfectly tuned, you can make it sound beautiful. I would also say know how people see you- know your strengths & lead with them. And take care of them. I also find it helpful to belong to a community of actors, artists or creative people. I’m a member of The Actors Studio, for example. It’s comforting to share you’re struggles with a group, to challenge each other to overcome them & help each other grow as artists. It’s also nice to share the success of friends, because if they can do it- why can’t you? (…that’s rhetorical)
RD: When you are out of town shooting “Beauty and the Beast” in Toronto, what is the best thing about being away from L.A.?
AB: The food. And city life… It’s fun to get to live in the city & walk places (like bars) & not have to drive home!
RD: What is the best thing about coming back to L.A.?
AB: Besides the people 😉 …The weather. DEFINITELY. And the scenery, taking hikes. Winter in general is not pleasant, but the past two in Toronto have been BRUTAL. Like bone-chillingly cold. And this is coming from someone that was born & raise in Brooklyn, New York!
RD: Thank you so much, Austin!