Buddy of the Beast: Austin Basis
Austin Basis has a long and varied career in acting -- and lately a lot of it has been at the CW. As the newest season of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST gets underway, we spoke with the actor about his career and where things are going for his character on this fan-favorite television show.
You’re a very persistent actor. You’ve taken the traditional route from playing unnamed characters and bit parts, and worked your way up the ladder. Which I actually like to see over the “I just discovered somebody, let’s cast them and write them a million dollar check.”
It’s a longer road. And to be honest, however long BEAUTY AND THE BEAST lasts, who knows what the next chapter will be? But I always prefer the natural evolution of things. I always felt like, even before I started working, the evolution of my decision to be an actor was very similar to my actual career. So I try to listen and take those baby steps and climb up the ladder. There’s a lot of rungs on my ladder. So if I do stumble, I have a couple rungs underneath me. But if it’s like there’s thirty feet to the next rung, like an overnight kind of thing, which is rarely true but, if I get a million dollar contract out of grad school and then I stumble, then I have nothing to catch me; the original rung is ground zero! So I prefer it, too.
It’s a much stronger foundation. So where was the tipping point in your career where you realized that being an actor was actually working out for you?
I graduated at the Actors’ Studio Drama School, and I became a member of the Actors’ Studio, and I feel like getting lifetime membership to the Actors’ Studio was my first validation of the work that I’d put in in grad school. The positive feedback was confirmed by outside sources, because there’s the school, and then there’s people like Estelle Parsons and Ellen Burstyn, Harvey Keitel and Al Pacino – you’re getting a huge stamp of approval that all the money, time and energy you invested into your talent paid off. So that was my first step in the right direction.
I think financially, being able to act as a career and make a living at it other than waiting on tables or getting gigs when you can… When I moved to L.A., I’d booked a pilot already. That didn’t get picked up. I got a LAW & ORDER, and, for the most part, those are two major credits. I had some independent film experience, but it wasn’t union, it wasn’t paid. So when I moved to L.A. after the pilot didn’t get picked up, I started working with an agent. I auditioned more in two or three months than I had in all my career previously – and I still didn’t get anything. It was a little frustrating, because I had just come off doing a pilot. I felt like that gave me confidence. So I was like, okay, there’s no more money from the pilot, I’ve got to get a ‘real job.’
It wasn’t until two years later, after doing commercials, independent films, walk-on roles on TV shows… two solid years I was able to work and save money to the point where I booked a gig where I couldn’t work for two months because I had to go to New York. I was actually going to be working as an actor, but I decided not to come back to a ‘day job’ because I felt I was at the point where the momentum was starting to pick up, and that I was being held back by the fact that I had to have responsibilities at a job just for the paycheck. When I had an audition, my focus was split. I had to do my job where I was working, but I had to work on the audition and do the best I could, and I felt like I couldn’t do that with a ‘day job.’ So I had saved some money up, and put the challenge to myself: let’s ride this money out and take every opportunity and try to get every audition I can. It was a little bit of a rough year, but it took about a year before I started getting something, and it didn’t stop after that.
That cycle early on – you get some money in the bank and you ride it out until there's not that much money left; now you have to put more hours in on a day job, and then maybe you get to do a non-paying or low-paying independent film that you can go off for a month and do, and then come back to your job. I lived that cycle for a long time. Trust me, when you're not working and you're unemployed, that cycle kind of clicks back into gear and that mentality clicks back into reality really quick.
Eventually you came over to the CW family with your first role on SUPERNATURAL. And maybe this is just my perception, but I see a lot of the CW actors as almost the studio actors of days past. If you're in one CW show, it's likely you'll come up in other CW shows. You went from SUPERNATURAL to LIFE UNEXPECTED to now BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. Is that sort of what it's like, that you're seeing all familiar faces when you take a CW job?
The CW is like a family, and loyal in that same way. They’ve progressively been better and better to me, but it's always been a nice environment to work in. I think Mark Pedowitz is one of the most down-to-earth and one of the most active and progressive studio network heads out there. There may be some networks that have more of a history, but it's still a new network. When he took it over from where it was, and to where it's headed now, that's really kind of a fast turnaround. He was coming in just as LIFE UNEXPECTED was going out, and once he started getting his full plan in play, it's been an upward rise since then.
All the executives have been the same for a while, and I know most of them by name – which is good to know, because I've had contact with them. I've never felt that stereotypical thing of "the network suits." I really feel like the CW's not really like that. They're definitely loyal to their actors. Lori Openden said to my wife, "We love Austin! We're happy to have him," when the show got picked up and I got the pilot. And she said something that I think is true, and what I've been alluding to. "We may not be the biggest network. We may not get the best ratings. But we're a family, and once you're part of the family we like to keep it that way." That's just a nice environment to work in. It's nice to know as an actor that whenever in the future BEAUTY AND THE BEAST will end, there's always a possibility or an opportunity that I'm going to be on another CW show.
You could always audition for any yet-to-be-cast villains for THE FLASH.
Yes, that's true. I would love to play the villain!
At the close of season two for BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, it almost looked like you'd be out auditioning again. An eleventh hour save brought us season three and season four. Was there a lot of nervous tension as season two was wrapping?
Always. I think it's very rare to get on a show that is guaranteed to get picked up every season, especially in the changing entertainment landscape. I always say every six months the next six months of my life is decided. Your show gets picked up, and you're like, "Okay, we've got thirteen episodes," and then you wonder whether you're going to get the back nine. So from May to November, those are decision time. And then you go through the cycle again if you get the back nine. So we got the back nine, we won the People's Choice Award. Does that guarantee that we have a second season? I think that may be the only time that I was the most confident. I think we all felt that we were going to have a second season, and so that was a nice year, 2013 – I knew I was working the first half, and it looked like that second half of the year was mapped out. That was the first time in my career that was like that. I had a year of stability.
And then the same thing happened the second season. You get to episode 13, and you go, "Are we going to have the full season?" Some people say, "It's guaranteed." And then it's not really guaranteed until I see the contract and we're doing it. So that happened, and I think the third season getting picked up was another point where I was, "Okay, I'm not really sure now." And it's been like that since. It's weird, because there's an enthusiasm and an excitement to get out there and have the opportunity to do a different character or do something on a different scale, whether it's movies, theater, different show, different network… cable, maybe. So there's that excitement, but that excitement is a little drowned out by two things – one, the exhaustion of that post-partem depression of, "I just did this, how am I ever going to get another job?" You're exhausted and you kind of don't want to dive back in, but you have to. And then there's that panic every actor knows, of will I ever work again? And that's irrational in a way, but it's also completely rational because it's happened before to other people. I had a rough year after LIFE UNEXPECTED. I felt like I was going to jump on another show, and I worked only a couple of times that year. I felt like I was back years before when I was going paycheck to paycheck, and counting the dollars on my credit card, and maneuvering my bank account so I could pay rent and stuff.
So it's a weird combination of excitement and anticipation, but also utter fear. I would liken it to being in a long-term relationship, and the relationship ends and you have to get back out there on the singles' scene – and you became really good at a relationship, or not-so-good because it didn't work out, but you feel like you're better suited for a relationship than you are for starting a relationship. So you're like, now I have to relearn how to start a relationship and get back to where I was. It's the same way being on one show, being one character, knowing the parameters, knowing the world very intimately – especially season four. I mean, some shows have gone ten years, like SUPERNATURAL. They know those characters so well, what's the next stop once that show's done? How big of a leap is that next character that you play, and how quickly are they going to be employed after that?
So that's always a fear with everyone, and even the most successful people, like Jason Alexander – he made a character famous for years on SEINFELD, and everyone thought of him as that character. It was really hard to break out of George Costanza, when really he was doing an impression of Larry David, who then went on and did his own show and succeeded. So you can never predict, no matter how successful or how popular the show is what your future is. So I'm definitely appreciating it as long as it lasts.
One thing about CW fans that makes them unique is that they like to 'ship their favorite characters. So now your character, J.T., has been shipped with Nina Lisandrello's character, Tess Vargas. I guess it's going to be "J.Tess," which I think gets to add a lot more depth to your character beyond the superficial "Best friend of leading man" role. So where do you see J.Tess going, particularly after the way season two ended?
I have to credit Nina. It has a nice ring, and we sometimes call it J.Tess, but we'd like to put out there that JTnT is the best shipper name. It's almost better than VinCat. So I think just in shipper name alone, we win. So JTnT is what we like to call it. It's also less characters on Twitter! And it's more fun to say.
I think what's great about what the writers have set up is just the natural evolution. On shows, a lot of what happens is that characters get together eventually in different relationships. So why would this be different? The only difference is that the show centers around a main relationship – a very romantic and epically framed relationship. And then as a juxtaposition, the writers have allowed for this "very not obvious" coming together of two characters from way different worlds and different points of views. And they serve a similar purpose – they're the best friends, they're the straight talkers to the Beauty and the Beast. In their relationship, juxtaposed to the romance and the romantic magnitude of the relationship between Vincent and Catherine, the writers can go back and forth to play the different levels of a real relationship, and play more of that stuff into J.T. and Tess's relationship. And that's fun, because we get to bring ourselves to it and our senses of humor, and also our sense of reality to ground the show in a real relationship so that the love and the romance of Vincent and Catherine are that much more special. They're both positive, but it just seems like if it were just Vincent and Catherine, there's no framework to compare it against. So when you have J.T. and Tess together, you can say, okay, so they're dealing with more real issues on a ground level, and then Vincent and Catherine… it elevates that relationship because you can see the destiny and the epicness of that relationship compared to the real problems and struggles of the relationship of J.T. and Tess, which outside of all the Beast and supernatural type talk, they're talking to each other as human beings. We try to bring out the humanness and the vulnerability of people navigating through a relationship that is just starting off in fairly extraordinary circumstances.
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