ACTOR, DIRECTOR, PRODUCER, writer, Richmond Hill native Matt Austin has worn many hats during his time in the film industry, and, at the age of 30, his resumé reads like the biography of an entertainer twice his age.
With a career spanning everything from writing and directing Most Likely To — a raw drama about a high school reunion — to a turn as the beloved Green Ranger on the hit children’s television series Power Rangers: Space Patrol Delta, Austin has proven his chops both behind and in front of the camera. And now, as the host of Taste Buds, TVO’s innovative new children’s cooking show premiering this fall, Austin can add one more credit to his list of accomplishments.
“I think I just have a busy brain, and I have a hard time turning it off,” explains Austin, of his ever-growing body of work. He’s dressed in a casual jean and T-shirt combo and has the air of an eager film student as he describes his latest ventures.
“It’s just hard to stop once you get those creative juices flowing, because sometimes you have writer’s block, or director’s block or creative block, and so, when it’s happening, you want to do everything,” he says.
Come winter, Austin will need that extra energy, as he and wife Debra prepare to welcome their first child in December.
“I love kids,” he says, his eyes lighting up. “I’ve always just had that natural thing where kids come up to me. So, it’s pretty exciting to think that soon I’m going to be a dad.”
The acting bug hit early for Austin, who also displayed a passion for filmmaking while a student at Langstaff Secondary School. Here he first became involved in drama and eventually auditioned and won the lead in the school play, while at the same time convincing his teachers to let him submit films instead of essays for his class projects.
Austin says growing up in Richmond Hill provided him with ample opportunity to sow the creative seeds for his future projects, as well as inspiration for his filmmaking.
“I lived like a minute walking distance from my high school, and all my best friends lived a bike ride away,” he recalls. “When they built the movie theatre there it was a huge deal, and we had somewhere to go all the time. And now the kind of movies I gravitate toward are more about those kind of suburban landscapes, and not so much about the downtown inner-city sort of things, because I think I’m still kind of naive to that. The John Hughes movies are the ones that I relate to more than, say, New Jack City.”
However, it wasn’t until he earned the lead in a play when he was attending the University of Western Ontario that he thought he could actually make a career out of performing.
“It was when I auditioned and got the lead, and that was against 80 people, that I thought, ‘OK, so acting it is,’” he says. With that decision made, his first big break came shortly after, when he was hand-picked by director Shawn Postoff to star in his short film Coming to Terms, the story of a gay teen coming out to his parents. The film screened at more than 30 international film festivals and earned Austin “best male performance” awards at both the Manitoba Film Festival and the Yorkton Short Film Festival.
After that, Austin’s career began to take off, with stage work; gueststarring roles in Spynet, Queer as Folk and This Is Wonderland; and appearances in films like the remake of George Romero creep show Dawn of the Dead, with Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames, and Jackie, Ethel, Joan: The Women of Camelot alongside Lauren Holly and Jill Hennessey.
On top of that, he gained acclaim for his work behind the camera, as the writer and director of the darkertoned Most Likely To and Jimmy, a short film about a child heroin addict that screened internationally and won an Awareness Award at the Seven Minute Film Festival in Canmore, Alta., and went on to play at the Canadian Film Centre Worldwide Short Film Festival.
However, perhaps Austin’s most well-known gig so far began in 2005, with an audition for the role as Bridge Carson, a.k.a. the Green Ranger, on Disney/ABC’s number one show Power Rangers: Space Patrol Delta.
“The audition was this scene where I ramble on and confuse everybody on the show, and the second half was like some sort of physical activity,” he says. “They asked us to wear tight clothing to see what kind of shape you were in, and I ended up wearing, like, my tightest jogging pants and a shirt I hadn’t worn in three years because I had shrunk it when I washed it. I felt really awkward, and they said, ‘All right, let’s see you move,’ and I basically … let’s not call it ‘breakdancing,’ but let’s call it ‘flailing with passion.’ I just wanted to show them that I could move and I had rhythm, and I think I achieved one of the two.”
Whatever he did must have impressed the higher-ups, because soon he found himself on a plane to New Zealand where he and his fellow Rangers filmed on location for eightand- a-half months.
“When we got there, we trained for three weeks with some of the most amazing martial artists in the world,” he says. “The whole thing was pretty spectacular.”
After the shooting wrapped, Austin had his first taste of celebrity with letters arriving in the mail and meet and greets at fan conventions.
“I’ve got some interesting mail,” he says with a laugh. “People send me presents, and people send me pictures of themselves. It’s really crazy for me that three years later people are still sending me things.”
However, Austin recalls one fan in particular who made a huge impression on him.
“There was a kid named Zachery who had a tumour, and I was his ‘Make-A-Wish’ from the Make-A-Wish Foundation. So they flew him to the convention to come and meet me and then organized this whole pizza party where he and I just hung out eating pizza and playing Wii.”
Since then, Austin has kept in touch with Zachery and gets updates on his progress.
“He’s doing phenomenally well,” says Austin, his pride evident. “He just got his green belt in karate, and he sent me a picture he drew of his family and had included me in the picture. That’s been very special for me.”
And now, with his new kids’ cooking show, Taste Buds, premiering on TVO this fall, he’s sure to add to his legion of young fans.
“The other kids’ cooking shows I’d seen, it’s the adults doing the work and the kids helping by putting pepperoni on the pizza or sprinkling in the chocolate chips, but this is the exact opposite. The kids are doing all the work, and I am just there to help,” he says. “That’s what this whole show is about. It’s about teaching them about foods they’ve never tried, while daring them to try it, while at the same time saying it’s OK if you don’t like it.”
And what’s next for Austin after Taste Buds hits the air?
“Right now I’m developing an animated series for kids called Simon Orion, about a young kid who wants to be a horoscope writer,” says Austin.
However, with parenthood on the horizon, Austin says he looks forward to focusing more on directing. One project he is excited about is directing an upcoming music video for the launch of Me To We Social Enterprises’ new music label. Cofounded by Richmond Hill activist Craig Kielburger of Save the Children, Me To We includes international volunteer travel programs, a publishing house, leadership workshops and a clothing line created to encourage ethical living and support Save the Children financially.
“This is my way of helping spread the the word through arts, through music, through this amazing organization,” he says. “Just being around them you feel like change will happen.”
Austin says he draws inspiration for his eclectic directing choices from the career of Steven Spielberg.
“The guy is the master of all these genres, and I think it’s what makes me feel like I can jump from Simon Orion, my children’s cartoon, to something like a sci-fi film thriller in the vein of The Bourne Identity,” says Austin. “It’s two different worlds, but someone did it before me.”