Actor Austin Stowell, 33, was born and raised in Connecticut and spent many summers on Martha’s Vineyard. After graduating from the University of Connecticut, he moved to Los Angeles, where he landed his first leading role as Jesse in The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Since then, Stowell has appeared in Dolphin Tale, Dolphin Tale 2, Love and Honor, and the Oscar-nominated films Whiplash and Bridge of Spies. More recently, he played Billie Jean King’s husband in Battle of the Sexes, and he stars opposite Chris Hemsworth in 12 Strong, which will be released in January.
Jonathan Soroff: Before Battle of the Sexes, did you even know who Billie Jean King was?
Austin Stowell: I probably could have picked her out in a lineup. Growing up, I was one of those kids who would watch Sports Center while I ate a bowl of Wheaties. We were very into all things sports in my house, including tennis.
Are you a tennis player? I’m OK. I can kinda pick up any sport pretty easily. But I don’t actively seek out tennis matches.
Who’s better-looking, Liam or Chris Hemsworth? Pass. That question’s got all kinds of trouble written on it.
Finest actor you’ve ever worked with? That’s tough, because anyone I don’t mention is gonna come back and get me. But probably because I got to see the most of his process, I’ll say Tom Hanks. He’s pretty spectacular. I really got to watch and observe him, and there’s something just so natural about him. I spent a bunch of time with him off set. I asked him for his advice, and his answer was, “Throw deep, man. Throw deep.”
Anyone you’ve worked with who intimidated you? Well, Damien Chazelle didn’t speak to me for a week on the set of Whiplash. It wasn’t so much intimidating as a total mind-fuck. You’re sitting there, thinking, “The director will not talk to me. What the fuck?” Y’know, we’re actors. We need to be praised constantly. If we don’t hear applause after every single take, we question ourselves. So finally, I went up to him and said, “Are you getting everything you need?” And he was like, “Yeah, sure. What’s up?” I said, “You haven’t said a word to me except ‘Action!’ and ‘Cut!’ ” And he was like, “Oh, geez, I’m so sorry.” In retrospect, it’s so easy to see that he was so engrossed in the aesthetic of the shot, he was just letting us do our thing. He said, “You’re great. Everybody’s great. Miles, you’re great. J.K., you’re great. Anybody else?”
Wardrobe: Lanvin T-shirt, COS coat, Baldwin jeans, Clarks boots
Role you wanted but didn’t get? Well, I tested for Star Wars, and I was all geared up, full hair, makeup and costume. I did the test with J.J. Abrams at Pinewood Studios in London, reading with John Boyega. And the second I got back to L.A., I was on the phone with my agent. He said, “I’m gonna do this like a Band-Aid. You didn’t get it.” A role like that can change your life. It’s a game changer. Plus, I’ve always been a fan of the franchise. It’s so iconic. And I still very much want to work with J.J. Abrams.
Is there a director you’re dying to work with? After testing with J.J. Abrams, I’d say him. I love his expansive imagination, and I love his story telling.
Do you ultimately want to direct? I do. I want to produce, too. You get tired of having somebody else tell you what to do all the time, and being at the whim of somebody else’s creative journey. You have to do things as an actor, unless you’re rich, that aren’t necessarily to your liking. You have to take jobs, and at the beginning of your career, you have to do whatever you have to in order to move forward. Nobody signs up to be the fourth male on the call sheet. And the directors in Hollywood aren’t always telling the stories you want to tell, so at some point, I do want to do my own thing.
Do you see Broadway in your future? I love the theater, but funny enough, I’ve never seen a Broadway show. I’ve seen plenty of theater, but the tickets on Broadway are too expensive, and I’m too frugal. But the theater is electric. There’s no second take. It’s like getting to watch van Gogh actually paint. I think that’s why I love sports so much, too. The immediacy.
TV show you binge-watch? The Office. I watch it every night before I go to bed. It puts me in a good mood. There’s something very calming about it. That show walks a fine line between being completely slapstick and an accurate presentation of our everyday lives.
Thing you miss most about New England? The sports. The fall.
So what pro teams do you root for? I’m all New York, which I know your readers won’t be happy with me about. But here’s the thing: I’m a guy who appreciates the rivalry. In order to really love New York, you have to have a place in your heart for Boston.
Best beach on Martha’s Vineyard? South Beach, right fork, for sure. Although a very close second is Great Rock.
Favorite thing about L.A.? I have a pool, and I went in it on Thanksgiving. Growing up, I always wanted a pool. If you had one, it meant girls came over in bikinis. And now I have one. But L.A.’s a great city. The food scene is awesome. You can drive to the mountains and the beach in the same day. It very much feels like home
Dream role? Mickey Mantle. I think he would have been the greatest baseball player of all time if he hadn’t gotten injured. And looking at the man and not the player, I’ve become fascinated and obsessed with his life. I’d love to get that story made and portray him.
Do you like yourself better with or without a beard? Doesn’t matter to me, but I will say with, because I don’t shave when I don’t have to. That’s an old actor’s trick. I remember doing a show my freshman year at UConn, and this guy said to me, “Between every project, grow all your hair, because it’s easier to take off than it is to put on.” So I adopted that. And it worked out for me. That’s how I got the role in 12 Strong. They were like, “You already look the part!”
Greatest lengths you’ve ever gone to for a role? I put myself in the hospital for Bridge of Spies. I was running as far as I could run. It was not uncommon for me to be running 18 miles on a treadmill every day because I was trying to look like a guy who had been imprisoned for years. So, on set one day, my left leg just blew up. I’d done significant nerve damage on my lower left leg.
Why do you think you keep getting cast as a military guy? I’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for the armed services, and when I go in there, I connect to these guys who have sacrificed and are selfless. All I try to do is embody the person I’m trying to portray, but that means their parents, their children. … So I think you have to give it your all and then some because you’re going to be the embodiment of someone’s father, son, loved one, and I take that responsibility very seriously.
Biggest lie on your acting resume? Well, it wasn’t a lie, but my very first job in L.A., I was cast in a music video and my agent said, “There are motorcycles involved, but you don’t have to ride one.” I arrive at this abandoned mall and they say, “Here’s your motorcycle.” I had no idea how to ride one, and I got this guy to show me really quickly. I was like, “I got this.” Then they started wetting down the marble floor. And they say, “How about we put a girl on the back of the bike?” We do the first take, and the guy in front of me wipes out. I barely miss his bike, and they said, “We got it.” I totally got away with it. For Whiplash, I booked the role, and when I arrived on set, Damien [Chazelle] was amazed that I didn’t know how to play the drums. He said, “Your agent said you can play.” He called my agent, who said, “No, no, no. I said he’s musically inclined.” Damien was like, “I’m going to give you two weeks to learn a drumroll.” I was drumming on every surface, all day, for the next two weeks.
Worst audition disaster? Too many to count. But I will say that auditions are the most asinine way to get the best actor for the job. The casting process makes no sense, and when I do make my own projects at some point, I won’t ever cast the way most projects are. I know I’ll probably get in trouble for saying that, but I do not see how bringing a person into a blank room with one chair, when they’re supposed to be in a war, is the way to find the right actor. It’s an astonishingly stupid process.
Three qualities all great actors have in common? They’re great listeners. They’re great listeners. And they’re great listeners.
Sundance: Fun or work? Oh, it’s fun! C’mon. A: There’s nobody on the mountain, so my agent and I hit the mountain first thing in the morning, and you get in 20 runs before lunchtime, and B: there are endless sponsored tents, with someone handing you a hot toddy or free clothes. It’s like Disneyland in the snow.
Any weird fan encounters? Nobody knows who I am. Unless I’m at an event for a movie I’m in, no one recognizes me. I live a life of anonymity.
What happens when that changes? I’ll cross that bridge when I get there. ◆
Photo: John Russo; Location: Los Angeles; Styling: Jenny Ricker / Starworks Group; Grooming: Sydney Sollod / The Wall Group; Wardrobe at top: Cos shirt, Rag & Bone jacket, Baldwin jeans; Wardrobe on the magazine cover: Cos trench coat, Billy Reid shirt