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How Michael Theo’s Real-Life Inspired His Role in the Groundbreaking Series ‘Austin’

Michael Theo and Darren Ashton

In Partnership with JMC Academy

When Darren Ashton first saw Michael Theo on “Love on the Spectrum,” he knew he had the ‘it factor’. “He just had a great charismatic presence, that’s the bottom line,” Darren tells host Poppy Reid on the Variety Australia Podcast – recorded at JMC Academy’s Sydney campus by their creative students.

It didn’t take long before Darren approached Theo about a project of their own, an eight-part Australian-British comedy-drama series on ABC iView called “Austin,” which premiered on June 9th to rave reviews and is loosely based on Theo’s personality. 

“I showed [co-creator Ben Miller] that opening sequence [of ‘Love on the Spectrum’] and I said what do you think about an idea that this neurodivergent young man knocks on your door and says ‘I’m your son from a fling you had with my mother 28 years ago’?” Darren shares. “That [opening] segment, and of course Michael throughout the whole of season one, really inspired the show.” 

Recorded by JMC Academy’s students studying Audio Engineering and Film & TV, the podcast dives deep into the creation of “Austin” and created a real-world learning opportunity for up-and-coming creatives from JMC’s Sydney campus. 

In the show, Michael plays the unexpected son who comes out of the woodwork after his father Julian Hartswood (played by Ben Miller) gets ‘cancelled’ online. What follows is a heartwarming exploration of family and identity, through the lens of neurodiversity. 

For Michael, stepping into his role was both a career highlight and a personal victory. “[Darren] actually took me by surprise by offering me an acting role, which I did not expect,” he says on the podcast episode. “I saw it as a chance to pursue acting all over again [because] it’s one of my main passions.”

Michael’s journey from a fan of childhood animated films to the lead in a groundbreaking Australian series encapsulates the unpredictable nature of creative careers.

Throughout the episode, the director and actor discuss the nuanced portrayal of Austin’s character, emphasising their commitment to a depiction of neurodiversity that avoids clichés and stereotypes. This considered approach was deeply informed by Michael’s own experiences and relationship with his family.

In fact, the character of Austin’s mother (played by Gia Carides) was loosely based on Michael’s real life mum. “I did a screen test in September last year and it was slowly beginning to dawn on me that Gia would most likely be selected for the role,” Michael explains. “Because when I was doing that screen test with her it was like I was talking to my mother.”

For Darren, honouring how Michael felt about certain decisions, like casting his on-screen mother, was an important part of the creative process. “The idea of representing neurodiversity and a neurodivergent character, you have a responsibility to that,” he says. “But I always go on my gut instinct and what is important for a story on a human level.” 

One of the unique things about the show is its lack of comedy at the expense of another person, and the absence of swearing and profanity. 

This was largely informed by Darren’s personal health struggles during the creation of the show, and his desire to create something positive. “I had cancer during the period from when we first came up with the idea and then through the middle,” he says. 

“You reassess your life [and] I just thought to myself, what do I want to leave on my epitaph? A snarky comedy about a family or he made a beautiful warmcore comedy that made people feel a bit better about the world in which they lived.” 

In front of the live student audience, Darren and Michael touch on everything from the logistical challenges of shooting overseas, to the acting tips Michael learned from his castmates, and their advice to the next generation of aspiring actors. “Relentlessly pursue it and find yourself a mentor in the industry. Someone that will point you in the right direction, like Darren did with me,” Michael tells the students.

It turns out, Darren always plans shows in three-season storyline. “We have been thinking about season two [of “Austin”]. I mean, I always think of shows in a three season arc, so if we get to season four, I’ll be in trouble,’ he jokes. Luckily for viewers everywhere, we’ll likely see the magic of this collaboration on screen again soon. 

Keen to learn more? Listen to the full episode with Darren Asthon and Michael Theo or check out the huge range of study opportunities designed to kick start your career in the entertainment industry at JMC Academy.  JMC Academy’s September intake is the perfect opportunity for mature creatives to get a head start in the creative course they’ve always wanted to study. Apply now to learn more about JMC’s flexible study options and your future creative career opportunities.

Stream the Variety Australia Podcast below or anywhere you get your podcasts.