EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Austin Basis (Math) talks about the greatness of Life Unexpected

September 13th, 2010 by

LIFE UNEXPECTED

Life Unexpected quickly earned a place on my TV and in my heart when it premiered last year. When I saw it as a pilot (with a different title), I was instantly reminded of the WB days of my youth. It made me laugh, cry and become a part of this little wonderful world for an hour. The show centers around Lux, a 16 year old who decides to emancipatcase herself from foster care and in the process, finds a family in her real parents — Cate and Baze. Baze lives in a loft above a bar that he owns with friends Jamie and Math, and Cate lives with her now husband Ryan. Their stories are poignant, and week after week intertwine in an incredible way. Last year there was a risk of the show not being renewed, and every review I wrote or mention of the show that I posted, I pleaded with Dawn Ostroff (head of programming over at CW) to renew this show. A lot of fans and critics and bloggers alike did the same, and it worked! Life Unexpected has its second season premiere tomorrow night and I could not be more excited. The season premiere is amazing, and I can’t wait for everyone to see it. I recently caught up with Austin Basis, who plays Math, and we talked about just how great the show is, the chemistry between the cast and what he hopes is in store for Math this season. Also, I will have a lot more coverage tomorrow and throughout the season so look out for that.

How did you first get the part of Math?
I got a call from my agent. This was around the holidays. I’m leaving Thursday to come back to Brooklyn, and I get the call on Friday, and go in on Monday. I read for the Executive Producer, the Casting Directors and I come back the next day and the director is not available. So I wound up coming in and auditioning again. They weren’t sure when the network test was, so I had to make a decision if I should cancel my flight. So I said “Screw it!” I postponed my flight, and ended up getting a cheaper flight. So I auditioned and did the studio test, and when you sign a studio contract, it’s void in five days, so they have to tell you within five days. Come the fifth day, we haven’t heard back. They had to show it to Les Moonves…

Big time!
Yeah, I was like I hope he likes me. I like Julie Chen and Big Brother. Anyway, on the 5th day, they asked permission to delay the contract. I came in for another test. At this point, Britt and Kris were cast. They said you’re their choice, but they want to pair you with who they want to choose as the girl. So they were closing in on the end of the contract, and my agent said I got the part. So we went out to dinner to celebrate. And on Friday, I went up to Vancouver and we started.

Did you read with anyone else besides Shiri?
I wound up reading with Kris and Shiri. We were all sitting around waiting, and Kris and I were practicing our lines. And Shiri was listening to Britney Spears. I thought she was listening to something serious and trying to get into an emotional place. I was like “She’s really focused,” and I treated it like a competition like “I’m going to be more focused than her,” and work on my lines more than Shiri. But we had a little chemistry there, and I guess it paid off.

Oh wow. Yeah, it completely paid off. Are you like Math at all?
In most ways, I am. I wasn’t 300 pounds in high school. Like most people, I was lighter in high school. I consider myself a pretty loyal friend and that type of person who gives good advice. But Math doesn’t always give the best advice, he gives his point of view and opinion and the only real difference, is he’s definitely more emotional and reactionary than I am. I would think about what I was going to say before I’m going to say it. He’s just going to go into a rant, not necessarily negative, he just speaks his mind pretty freely, and I definitely screen myself and choose when and usually not until someone asks me. It’s all with good intentions for Math. He’s definitely more emotional, he doesn’t think before he leaps. I’m not as nerdy as him, I’m not cool. I’m not a stud (aww). I have my geeky and dorky moments, and progressively more as you get to know me, but I don’t see myself as that inept or hung up on crushes of the past that I feel like I’m still in high school when I’m around them. Everyone has that little sense of that, but people are more mature. What’s fun on the show is when Cate and Baze are together, it’s like they are back in high school. Any time there’s that throwback, like Math and Cate, it’s like I’m back in high school. And for Cate, she’s back in high school when she’s with Baze. Whereas Baze is kind of living in and out, but he still hasn’t progressed past high school. So it’s a little bit for everyone.

Any cases of unrequited love for you?
Oh yeah. Some of it’s from college, some of it after. I’ve been on both sides of the feeling. Most of them start as friendships. The only way to get really deep is to get really deep. (I really loved this line and couldn’t cut it out)

What do you want to see from Math going forward?
I think since the formal episode, that was the only chance that Shiri and I got to do one on one scenes. I think we had a really good time, and there was really good chemistry. So in the future, we both simultaneously went back to Liz after we finished the episode and said “This was awesome. It was great working with Shiri.” It was just easy. And Shiri went into even further detail by telling Liz “I think it would be awesome if there could be that friendship of — she can’t talk to Ryan, she can’t talk to Baze, who does she talk to?” Besides Alice who unfortunately may not be a part of the first half of the season because she’s doing Being Erica. So there’s going to be a development of the relationship between Math and Cate. And I don’t know if there will be room for it, depending on what our season arc is, but there is definitely a potential love interest, because that’s definitely an awesome dynamic and an interesting one to work with. Because I’m sure you’ve been in the situation where you’re friends with someone, and you like them, but they don’t like you or you’re not going to make the move and you get involved with someone else, or someone else likes you, and you get involved but you’re like “Should I just leave myself open in case the other person changes their mind.” Do I hold onto that? Is that what it’s about? Do you hold onto that hope? Or do you dive wholeheartedly into the next one. And it’s a rebound syndrome, where you sometimes get involved because of the extreme emotion you had with the previous relationship, and it’s all residual in the new relationship.

I loved the scene with Math and Lux. That was one of my favorite scenes. Do you think that friendship might develop more in season 2?
Yeah I definitely think so. It’s definitely a possibility. I know Liz told me there will be a lot more scenes in school.

Will we get to see you teach?
My brother and my mom are both teachers. My mom was a teacher, she’s retired. So I have a lot to draw from. Probably if I didn’t make it in acting, I would be teaching too. I still might.

I love Liz, and her show, obviously. What has it been like working with her?
I can’t see any better situation, and anyone that’s going to simultaneously be more talented, energetic, open, collaborative and supportive of actors, directors and the show and have so much passion for it. It’s a privilege. In the beginning, I knew she had a great vibe when I auditioned. But you only get that first impression. But you find out really that I don’t want to take anything away from other writers who are awesome and wrote our other episodes, but she definitively put a stamp on everything she wrote. She wrote herself five episodes during the season out of 8, while at the same time coming back and forth to Vancouver, dealing with the network and the studio. The juggling that she’s done –I know she was working her butt off and so with all that in mind, she didn’t let us see any of the drama, any of the conflict — from the writer’s room, from the studio or network, anything that was happening that would negatively affect us on set was kept off set, to her credit and Mary Beth Bazile who’s the main producer –

Baze!
Yeah, she had an assistant who called her Baze. The name Nate is Liz’s high school boyfriend. I don’t know if I’m supposed to say that, but I’m sure he knows. It’s a show by Liz and she went out with him, she went to prom with him. I think they use real teachers’ names from her high school and all of her friends that she grew up with are like “I can’t believe you used Mr. so and so.” I just hope this goes on as long as it can, and maybe work with her again in the future. !Baze

Have you had a decent amount of input into your character development?
I’ve only done guest stars and a couple of recurring things like Ghostfacers, so I’ve never had the experience of acting a script knowing what the next script is, what the end of the story is. I sent Liz like 3 emails, full of character points, in no particular order. When Baze and I met, what we did when we were kids, my first meeting with Cate, how I first fell for her — then side things, because I was into sports, Math is not a sports fanatic, I think it’s a good choice to pick a sport that he was really fanatic about like the Seattle Mariners. You never know when each thing is going to play off, that he majored in english and his thesis was on Shakespeare and fools in love. And since he was an english major and an english teacher, I like to write poetry. And I use that as a catharsis for my personal feelings, but when I’m doing a character, I always find it interesting to write in the character’s voice. So I did three poems here. I did a poem when we [Cate and Math] first met, I did one when we were in high school, we were kind of friends but I had this unspoken crush on her…closet crush (laughs) and then I did one — the episode where I had that scene on the bench with Lux — drink-a-date event with the radio station and that was my big chance to ask her if she wanted a drink and make the move. So I felt like it was a short little moment and I wanted to make the most of it. So what I did, the whole day before when I was getting ready for the scene, I just kind of chilled out in my trailer and I wrote this poem about her coming back into my life and catching her up and to simultaneously build up the confidence that my character has after high school, and also still have that same feeling like a 16 year old kid with a crush and not really knowing how to pursue and continue it especially with all these circumstances for Cate — her fiancee, Baze — so I wrote a poem and then kind of went into the scene, I think it worked. It was good.

Well maybe Baze will find the poetry?
That’s another thing — this is important. He’s never read anything aloud. He’s never showed it to anyone, it’s kind of like his secret hobby.

The cast has really great chemistry. Was that instant when you started filming or did that develop over time?
The initial casting should be attributed to Liz and Gary, but also to Robin Lippin and Jeff Meshel who are the casting directors and who assembled us together. It was a choice of whether they were going to go for the stereotype [best friend] or go for the reality, the real version. And when they cast me, they felt at ease because they felt like it was in the right direction. In the work session, we all saw the scene in the pilot between Shiri and Britt, and we were all sitting there in tears. And we were like if she doesn’t get the role…” A week before the production and during the pilot too, we all hung out and we just got along. There was no drama, it was just an at ease, easy going bunch of people that individually and communally were trying to do the best work possible, independent of what type of show it was, the stereotype that the CW has, and independent of that, thinking as actors, writers, and directors, trying to give the best thing that is not stereotypical TV. It’s almost more like an independent film that could go places. This is just the start of it. I think the mutual respect was the beginning of that. The fact that we all had similar personalities and similar senses of humor which tends towards vulgar in most cases, not Brittany or Kris so much. I’ll go in the order of most vulgar: it’s Kerr, and then it’s kind of like Shiri and then me. Body humor.

I would fit right in!
Totally, I think a lot of people would fit right in, but most people try not to tote that as their sense of humor. Reggie was there, Reggie Austin. It was me, Reggie and Kris in the big first scene where Baze was going to sign the papers. And the way the loft was set up, we were kind of in the background. The question was whether we would sit on the couch or in the loft in the back which was like a step or two up. So I don’t know whether it was the lunch we had, or the craft service, but maybe it was just us. And I think it’s more us than the food that we ate that day. We worked there 2 or 3 days in a row, and we were like what is the best place because everyone was in the same room — what was the best place to you know, cut some cheese. (laughs) and so there was a window right there. We now deem this the fart loft. So that’s our thing. Little things like that I think bring people together. There’s another level that happens with chemistry and the real personalities of people. Because at the heart, that’s where all the choices for the characters are coming from, and you have just a deeper respect and understanding of a relationship that kind of goes beyond the script and what’s going on with the characters. I think we lucked out and that’s kind of why we are so passionate. Also, the writing is awesome. But we don’t want this to end.

No! I don’t either! For me, the show reminds me of old school WB/CW shows, going back to when it was really, really good. So why do you think it struck such a chord with fans, critics — everybody basically.
At its core, the story is about something that most people don’t really have contact with. Foster kids and the experience that adopted mothers and adopted children go through. There’s a curiosity that comes with the foster system and that experience of giving up a child which has been seen, and the experience of being adopted which has been seen, but what about the kids that are given up for adoption and what happens with them? And the fact that the person who was given up for adoption and was in foster care for 15-16 years and comes back into the custody of her birth parents, the rarity of that, the fact that I don’t even know if I’ve seen someone be fostered in the show let alone adopted. I mean, Different Strokes… (laughs)

But that’s a different story (laughs)
Yeah, a whole different animal. But that aspect of it, but the honesty and the reveal of the characters true feelings, flaws and I think Liz and Shiri have talked about this a lot, is that it’s the flawed aspect of the characters that are the most interesting of this show at least. And that’s what those other shows — the relationships and the maneuvering of those relationships and individual stories. So Math has his own individual story, Baze has his own, Lux and Ryan and Cate have all their own individual stories, but what happens when all these thing intertwine and it creates different dynamics. All of the characters are interesting in different ways. And when you have writing like we have, with Liz Tigelaar at the helm, the instinct is to go towards the not-smooth, not clean, not cool way to do things, but the most human, the most really human. And as actors we try to do that as best we could. And I think with those old shows, we were just talking about this [recently] where to watch those shows now, when you talk about the throwback to WB, she was watching Dawson’s Creek, she worked on Dawson’s Creek, and she realized it was just a different type of TV. If you showed that now on the network, it might not work. She was like this is a show about people talking about their feelings, which I think the best part of this show, is that you have that on Life Unexpected, but you also have people breaking up the tension with levity, there’s humor in some aspects, but not so much humor that it becomes trivial. It’s a human instinct when you’re faced with extreme circumstances and emotional circumstances — you’re sitting at a funeral home and someone makes a joke — like something to lighten the mood, and that is natural in normal life and that’s just what we’re trying to do. And it’s — if I might say so myself — it’s an improvement of those old shows because you have a different style of acting, a more human, genuine style of acting, you have the writing that is taking all those cliched things and adding the 15 years since those things were like that, and everything that’s happened in the past 10 years that’s happened which is a lot in the state of the world, and with all that taken into account, and changing iPods, cell phones, everything influences it, so it’s just more specific to being a show that’s just really, at our purest trying to imitate what we think would be the most entertaining reality show to watch. But doing it with people that are creating fiction. Maybe we’re paving the way for a new generation of that type of show. Because I don’t think there are other shows like this on. I don’t think — like a CBS or NBC — actually NBC with Parenthood, so you have one other show, which came kind of after our show, or before it then after, but that has the patience and the trust of the audience to watch it and be entertained by human drama as opposed to medical, crime, mystery, sci-fi, there’s no gimmick, there’s no genre besides who we are and trying to figure ourselves out in the world. Especially with people in their 30s now — it’s like a whole new quarter life crisis. So when you’re having a kid and dealing with that in your 30s, it adds to the drama or the crisis.

What resonates so well, is that life isn’t perfect. A lot of times on TV relationships are perfect, and great and everything’s great, and maybe there’s a little bit of drama, but it’s just a perfect world. I don’t like seeing that the whole time.
Oh yeah. And I feel like I knew that was going to happen, there was going to be a split after 9/11 where there was going to be a road that went away from reality and went into fantasy and escapism and something that doesn’t resemble anyone’s drama or horror in their real life. And there was going to be another road that split off and went more towards the heart of it to work through those things, and I think that — for me — that’s the stuff I enjoy most, that’s the stuff that is more productive in the world. Some people are like “Oh I can’t watch it and cry every night,” but you’re crying about our show, and releasing whatever tension or emotions you have and at the end of it, maybe you learn something or connect to it in a way that allows you to work through things. To me, that’s awesome. At the end of each hour, you’ve experienced something that will lead you to better things. You learn by seeing other people stumble and fall, and I think that’s what our show is about. Stumbling and falling and picking themselves back up and going on.

Life Unexpected is sort of the little show that could, which really had a big campaign to get a second season, so I wondered if you had a message to the fans of the show.
Thank you, because I really think the efforts of the fans paid off, and the efforts of the bloggers and the critics and people that were behind us before we even aired because they saw the potential and they saw the quality of the show and were never deterred by the numbers that were not that bad but weren’t like blow you away…after the first episode, second season! And most shows don’t do that. So, that stuck with us til the end, kept us afloat while we were up in Vancouver still shooting, and it’s amazing what facebook can do and having these fan sites. We had 2 or 3 fansites before the show aired. And it was cool that Liz had an open relationship with the fan sites. She’s so open and I htink in general, that’s what our energy has been. With the Twitter stuff, there’s an awesome experience that is totally apart from performing and being in a show and and audience watching it. That experience, even though it’s not in the same room, it’s not in the same country, is brought together and extended into a relationship of sorts through facebook, through these websites, where interaction, though not face to face most of the time, is a genuine interaction. People sharing that experience, and having things in common, and enjoying the product that we’ve worked so hard to put out there. Just that alone, the appreciation of that is success enough for us, but we want to go further and impress you more and not let you down, so it’s a give and a take, and it’s an interesting thing because it’s definitely the first time I’m experiencing it. I did it a little with Ghostfacers, just when that came out, we had some fans in England that started the UK facers that are like doing their own web videos, and they’re really supportive and they were the first people to support me when the show came out, with a fan page. I guess always the first fans you always have a special bond too. Even though it was originally with Ghostfacers, they have come on the Life Unexpected bandwagon. And hopefully the Life Unexpected people will get on the Ghostfacers bandwagon. So yes, just thank you, and we hope for your continued support and to make you proud — and tell ALL your friends and double our ratings! Tell a friend a week!

I will do one better and tell a friend a day! The second season premiere of Life Unexpected is tomorrow night at 9 pm on the CW. Don’t miss it!

2 Comments

  • AustiNights
    posted on September 13th, 2010 at 4:31 pm

    This was a really great interview. When I first saw Austin’s performance as Math and later episodes – I thought the casting was perfect and his natural ability to perform this character was “spot on.” I was hoping that his participation in later episodes increased – and they did. And, how could I not like the dude that brought BOLT into our lives. Great job with this interview. Keep it going.

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