Things are looking decidedly up for Austin Stowell. He’s on the brink of an exciting career with one film opening this weekend and one in post-production that’s already getting some attention. Previously, Austin had been part of the popular show The Secret Life of the American Teen. (In case you were scratching your head, trying to figure out where you’d seen this guy before.) I spoke with Austin about working with dolphins, Morgan Freeman and his impending stardom.
Dolphin Tale, opening this weekend, is Austin Stowell’s first big movie role. He has a small part in Puncture, starring O2W4 Chris Evans, also opening this weekend. But that’s more a “blink-and-you-miss-him” type situation. In Dolphin Tale he is front and center as Kyle, an emotionally and physically shattered young man and older cousin to Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), the young boy who rescues the injured dolphin named Winter.
“Kyle is outgoing, the golden boy of community and state championship swimmer. He wants to [compete in] the Olympics but doesn’t have the money to train for it. He goes into the army because they will sponsor his training. He is hit by an IAD overseas and is paralyzed. When he comes back he’s very cold and shut off. He and the little cousin switch roles. Before, Sawyer was shy and antisocial and the dolphin brought him out of his shell. Now that Kyle is back, he’s the one who is antisocial. Sawyer introduces me to the dolphin and it has the same effect, shows me that there’s a new path in life for me. I become the inspiration for the tail because they built a brace for my leg to help me walk again. My little cousin says ‘if they can build you a new leg why they can’t they make her a tail?’ And that’s exactly what they do. “
Given the complexity of the character I asked about how Austin prepared to play Kyle. “I spoke to vets to see what it’s really like for these guys that are coming back dealing with injuries. Even with all the training that they’ve gone through there’s nothing that can prepare them for their life without a major limb as well as dealing with the memories of being in a war zone. I thought it was a responsibility of mine to go and talk to these guys and represent them completely and respectfully.” Though the story of Winter is true, the character of Kyle is not. “Kyle was loosely based on a friend of the director. I represent all of the soldiers Winter has helped out in the past.”
Austin said that the first 2 weeks of production in Clearwater, Florida were spent at the aquarium just so Winter could get comfortable with the actors. “Dolphins are very sensitive, both physically and emotionally. In order for her to spend a lot of time with someone or make a movie where you’re needing to do take after take – they wanted her to be as comfortable as possible with all the actors who were going to be working one on one with her. Being around her, helping out with feeding and [administering] her medicine (the vitamins that she takes) you develop a relationship right away.” He laughed as he said “It’s unbelievable the connection you have with an animal you can’t even talk to. You feel so close to them. Of course on the day, when the cameras are [rolling] she’s ready to go, she’s not scared.” But assured me, all this success hasn’t caused Winter’s head to swell. There were no prima donna requests for a heated tank or to only be shot from her good side. “All she really wants is more fish.”
The story of Winter’s rescue and rehabilitation was national news back in 2006 so I asked Austin if he had heard of the famous dolphin prior to getting the job. “I didn’t know and I was kind of ashamed of myself for not knowing because I know it was a national story. My mother is an elementary school teacher so I was surprised that I hadn’t heard the story before. Once I read the script and realized it was a true story I got online and tried to learn as much as I could, not only about Winter but about dolphins and what’s happening with dolphins these days, especially with all the poaching that’s going on. That movie The Cove brought a lot of that to light. You can read all you want about Winter but nothing compares to seeing her here surviving and thriving, playing around with kids and watching them get so much enjoyment out of watching her. It’s an amazing experience.”
Dolphin Tale boasts a terrific cast: Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd, Kris Kristopherson and Frances Sternhagen. I asked Austin if he learned anything he learned about acting or his profession while working in such an esteemed company. “All of them have this larger than life persona because we’ve seen them on the big screen so many times. I got to spend a lot of time with Morgan. He is just a very down-to-earth and pretty casual guy. But he has this self-confidence and that is what draws people to him. He’s this charismatic, confident guy who has played God, twice and two presidents. That’s what I picked up on: be ok with yourself and to have the faith that there’s a reason why you were selected to be here. Go with it! Be yourself and allow others to enjoy you.”
Being a relative unknown I wondered what his audition process was like. “I only read for the part one time. I read on tape with an assistant to the casting director and didn’t hear anything. A month and a half went by and then all of the sudden one morning my agent calls me and goes ‘What are you doing? Well it doesn’t matter whatever it is cancel it. You have a meeting with the executive producer of Dolphin Tale in an hour. And make sure you shave.’ Of course I think to myself ‘What the heck is Dolphin Tale?’ We go on audition after audition after audition and nobody can remember every single character. So I had to go back and look. “Oh ok, this was the one about the dolphin. Gotcha!” Of course Dolphin tale should have clued me up, right away. Little did I know they were just bringing me in to see if I was a good guy and somebody that they wanted to spend a few months with down in Florida. I waited the weekend and got the phone call from Alcon that Monday morning. Threw my phone down and jumped in the pool with all my clothes on. That’s my ritual now: whenever I get the phone call I’ll go back to my house – whatever I’m wearing, all the clothes, in the pool.”
You can follow Austin on Twitter at AustinTheMoment. Knowing how instantaneously information is disseminated these days I wondered what Austin’s thoughts were on social media and its uses. “It’s a great way to reach out to people and be able to have that personal connection with them that so many people look for. I try and use it as a real way to touch people’s lives. You have to be very aware of what you put out into the world. You want to make sure you’re representing yourself the way that you really are, not saying things that are over to top or in the heat of the moment. Not that I really use it in that sense to begin with. I like to share my experiences with people because it’s almost like the get to live vicariously through you.” And who does he like to follow? Conan O’Brien, Tom Hanks and model Kate Upton.
Austin has just wrapped on his next film called AWOL. In this movie he, once again, plays a soldier, but this time it’s the Vietnam War. In the film Austin plays a young GI who goes AWOL after his girlfriend back home dumps him. Friday Night Lights’ Aimee Teegarden plays his girl and Liam Hemsworth, hot off his work on Hunger Games, plays his best friend. Since Liam is getting so much attention now, it’s added another level of exposure to this normally small indie film and making what was already Austin’s big breakout role, even bigger. I asked Austin if he was ready for the next level of recognition.
“Being with Liam out in Ann Arbor for dinner after a day at work, he can’t even sit down at a restaurant without people taking pictures. While that’s very flattering, that’s part of it all. At the same time I really enjoy the anonymity right now, being able to go and do whatever I want to do without worrying about the paparazzi or having people disrupt dinner. I know they don’t mean to. It’s a whole new world that I hope I’m ready for. “
A big part of being ready comes from the training he’s received. Back in high school in Berlin Connecticut, Austin was mostly interested in football and sports in general. But repeated injuries forced him to take a different tact. After a performance in the school production his senior year, law school turned to a spot in the Fine Arts Program at UConn. So how important was his theater education?
“100%. I totally attribute everything I’ve accomplished to my training. Not to say that people can’t do it without it but it gives you guidelines to work off of. It gives you that structure and work ethic. Having that in place for me allowed me to not worry about my process. It was all in place for me. I know that I have the correct training to approach any character and any role with confidence and can bring anything to it.”
I teased Austin a bit. Between shooting Dolphins Tale in Clearwater and AWOL in Ann Arbor he’s been hitting some seriously exotic locales. Kidding aside, I wanted to know how shooting in small-town America contributed to these films.
“It’s weird, when I get a new project I’m excited to leave a LA and then when I’m coming back I’m excited to come back to LA. I’ve always been the kind of guy who makes himself comfortable, wherever he is. I love going to those small towns and getting to meet those small town folks. That’s kinda where I came from so it feels like home to me. I’m always looking forward to the next step and what’s around the next corner. Everything now around the next corner now is exciting and new in my life. It’s a bit of a roller coaster but a fun ride to be on.”