Tonight, the TNT drama Public Morals makes its television debut. Created by Ed Burns and produced by Steven Spielberg, the series spotlights Irish-American cops in New York City trying to deal with crooks both petty and major, with the focus on NYPD’s head of the Public Morals Division, Terry Muldoon, and the various people that report to him and the people he reports to.
One of the subplots focuses on an Irish mobster, played by Timothy Hutton, who’s an all-around douchebag. His son, Sean, joins Terry’s efforts to shut down organized crime as a way to spite said douchebag father. Sean is played by Austin Stowell, whom you may know as the star of such family-friendly fare as Dolphin Tale and Dolphin Tale 2, Secret Life of the American Teenager, and some movie with Liam Hemsworth where he played a Vietnam vet desperate to get his girlfriend back. This fall, he’s starring as the central “Private Ryan”-esque character Tom Hanks is working to save in the Steven Spielberg directed, Coen Brothers written Bridge of Spies. The guy is on a rocketship to stardom, and he’s even earned his own celebrity couple portmanteau (“Stobrev”).
I went to theater school with him. I’ve known him for twelve years.
I am THRILLED for him, and simultaneously, it’s the weirdest feeling ever. I was at the gym the other day reading the most recent issue of Vanity Fair, and Austin was featured in one of those “People to Know” things and I barely recognized him. When I realized that it was Austin, I almost fell off my elliptical and then proceeded to text my friend Mal oh no big deal just Austin in Vanity Fair!!
I know a lot of famous people! Why is it that this particular famous person that I knew way back when makes me freak the hell out?
I will not proclaim to say that I know Austin very well anymore. But at one point, we were good friends. And given all of the publicity about him right now, I figured I’d share my story of the Austin I knew, before he got all “cool” and stuff. And this isn’t going to be a blog that spills a ton of juicy dirt (not that there is any dirt to spill), so if that’s what you’re looking for, get out now!
I first met Austin in the summer of 2003 during college orientation. I ended up rooming with a girl named Leeanna, whom I automatically adored (and still adore to this day – Hi Lee! Happy birthday, Harper!). The very first time I saw Austin in the orientation group, I instantly thought – WOOF. I mean he’s good looking to the point that I got uncomfortable looking at him for too long. And you all know that pretty boys are my kryptonite. But I quickly came to learn that beyond his appearance was a super good guy. When I left, he gave me a big hug and told me how glad he was to have met me, and that he couldn’t wait to get started in the fall.
That fall, when I saw Austin on the first day of class, he picked me up in a giant bear hug (which was NOT an easy thing to do, considering I was about 200 pounds at this point) and from that point on we were friends. Not BEST friends, but friends. I learned about his backstory, which is now gracing the pages of the aforementioned Vanity Fair – he started out as an athlete, and when an injury sidelined him from ever playing professionally in sports, he was urged to try out for some plays in high school. The acting bug bit, and he auditioned for the conservatory program at UConn and got in.
The thing that stuck out to me during those years at UConn about Austin was his laser focus. Any time he got a part or a scene to perform, he hammered away at it until it was correct. He was like Tom Cruise, only not terrifying. Even if it was something he wasn’t necessarily good at right from the off, he worked tirelessly to improve himself. For three years I watched him work and I wanted to do a scene with him, but nothing really came up. I ended up doing a lot of scenes with the same few people, not that I minded! I got my first stage kiss (Hi Teddy!), and doing the same scenes with the same people forged a lot of intimacy and growth (Hi Joe! I want some Alcreamist!). But I’ll never forget the one day where I had to do scene work in front of the entire class and it ended up getting pretty emotional, and Austin raised his hand at the end and told me “I think this was very important, because you showed the entire class how beautiful you are, and you are a beautiful girl, inside and out, and you need to own that.” When a goodlooking guy tells you you’re beautiful when you’re 18 years old and horrendously insecure and fat? You spend the rest of the year feeling like this –
The second semester of junior year was the time that I looked forward to the most. That was the semester we got to do Shakespeare, and I was dying to do some pretty epic scenes. One of our first projects as a group was to split up into two separate sections. Half of us would do the same scene from Romeo and Juliet, and half of us would do the same with The Tempest, in order to illustrate how different people can do different line readings. I got paired up with Austin, and I about died inside.
We immediately decided that since we were both pretty physical actors our scene was going to be very straightforward and full of physicality. Austin decided that he wanted to move around a lot of blocks (in the scene, Ferdinand is doing hard labor at the command of Miranda’s father and ends up engaged to Miranda at the end) and I made the choice to have Miranda be much more forceful and funny.
Halfway through our first run-through of the scene, our director, Helene Kvale, called out “Austin! Take your shirt off!”
We have talked about how insanely virginal I was during college, so you can imagine my reaction when Austin, in the middle of his impassioned “Admired Miranda” speech, ripped off his shirt and used it to wipe his face. I remember trying to keep my face organized and calm while on the inside I was like –
Our scene was passionate, funny, and adorable, and we got high marks for it in the mid-semester evaluations.
My favorite Austin Stowell story as it relates to theater happened the next year in a production of Shakespeare in Hollywood, a parody of the Max Reinhardt directed film adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was cast as gossip columnist Louella Parsons (which allowed me to deploy a HILARIOUS mid-Atlantic accent) and Austin was cast as Daryl, the super nerdy “Yes man” to Reinhardt. He’s basically the “Urkel” of the play, so when Austin got called back for it, I was like “….this will either be terrible, or AMAZING.” I was in the room when Austin did his callback, and I knew immediately he nailed it.
Now, the big plot point of the show is that Oberon and Puck have landed in the world of Hollywood, magic flower in hand, and everyone gets duped into falling in love with everyone else. So….I think you know where this is going. Louella gets the flower, sees Daryl from across the room, and proceeds to pin him up against a piano and mouth-assault him while an entire scene happens in the foreground. When I read that portion of the script, I did this.
I mean, come on. I had spent the first three years of college getting cast as the fat butch girl, and now I got to play a glamourpuss that makes out with a hot guy (let’s just ignore the fact that in the script it’s against his will)? GOD HATH BLESSED ME.
The day we had to do the scene, I pulled Austin aside and I asked him “how much is too much?” Austin laughed, handed me some lip balm, and said “do whatever you want to me.” That’s the kind of guy he is. So I literally threw him over the piano and at one point I had him on the floor. We basically went at it until the director told us to take it down a notch. It was awesome, and I laughed the entire time, and Austin had zero complaints. (Also, this was the show my best college girlfriends smuggled a bunch of ponies into and they got drunk before the curtain went up, and they treated the entire thing like an NSYNC concert. It was awesome.)
Now, I see Austin in big budget dramas and high profile serious movies and I’m just filled with a sense of pride and also love for a guy that just works so damn hard and also deserves every bit of success he gets. The last day of college, Austin gave me a giant hug, told me how glad he was to have met me, and that “We’ll see each other soon.” That’s the last time I saw him. He moved to LA and through luck and hard work scored an agent and he is where he is today. And I’m…typing these words in my Manchester, CT, kitchen while kale is slowly braising on my stovetop. Life takes us in different directions than we planned. But I’m happy. And I know Austin is, too.
The other day, he was on The Today Show, and I could tell from just the three minutes he had in his interview that he hasn’t changed. He’s still the gregarious, fun-loving, good-hearted person I knew at UConn all those years ago. So here’s to you, Austin “Freaking” Stowell, and if you find yourself in CT at any point soon, I owe you a massive hug. I can’t think of a person more deserving of this boatload of success than you are.
Also, Nina Dobrev? Take care of our guy.