Jake T. Austin: Wizards to Fosters
By: Lynn Barker
After years of playing Max Russo on Disney’s “Wizards of Waverly Place”, 18-year-old Jake T. Austin plays a foster kid on the edge of adulthood in the new ABC Family series “The Fosters”, produced by Jennifer Lopez.
Q: The new series is about kids in a foster home. Did you have to research the role and talk to some kids and teens in that situation?
- Jake: As actors, we did our homework, and we did some research into the foster care system; also getting to meet with some foster kids and people who had had firsthand experience and firsthand knowledge. The show picks up where I play a twin who had been through the foster system and [was adopted by the family five years ago]. He’s, along with his sister, living in a new traditional family home. So he’s moved on from the foster home when the series picks up.
Q: Can you give a little more information about your character?
- Jake: I play Jesus Foster, who is the brother to Mariana. They’re a set of twins who have been in and out of the foster system pretty much since birth. They’ve embraced the idea of welcoming new foster children into their home and they live under the same roof as a same-sex couple in San Diego. The show picks up in a time when Jesus is coming into his own as a man and also assuming a paternal role for his sister.
Q: What drew you to your role as Jesus Foster?
- Jake: What drew me to the role of Jesus was the opportunity to tell a groundbreaking story, in my opinion, and to be a part of something that was so real and so relatable. It’s a blessing to be working at a time when jobs are slim and unemployment is rising, so I’m very grateful to be in the position that I am and also to shed light on some of the topics that we’re going to be introducing on the show. For me, it’s just an opportunity to explore my depth as an actor and also to tell a great story.
Jake with cast members
Q: What are you hoping the fans will be able to take from the show as far as the portrayal of the foster home aspect?
- Jake: I’m hoping fans will be able to relate to the message, which is the definition of family doesn’t necessarily have to do with who’s in your family, but more so how you look at the relationship. More importantly, the show will hopefully shed light on some bigger issues and some larger topics that may be controversial to some.
Q: Twins are always supposed to have that special bond. What did you and your costar do to get that twin vibe going?
- Jake: To fall into that, the cast and I have spent a lot of time together and we’ve built a great chemistry. So going into the series, we were just really looking forward to exploring new storylines and new avenues that our characters can take. But we’ve gotten along so well, and I think our relationship off-camera really plays into our performance.
Twins Mariana (Biance Santos) and Jesus (Jake) with mom Teri Polo
Q: This show is groundbreaking in that it’s featuring a same-sex household. What does that mean to you?
- Jake: It’s great to fit into this show, especially at a time when a lot of issues are being brought to light. And to also act as a voice for a lot of those issues and to portray a character that feels very real and grounded and someone that’s very close to me. The show can open the doors to so many new families, hopefully. That’s just what I’m looking forward to.
Q: What sets The Fosters apart from any other drama series that’s on television today?
- Jake: The Fosters just wants to tell an honest story, using very relatable and with real people and real storylines. We’re able to share in the hardships that the family experiences, the triumphs that they feel at the end of the day, which is really where we see the story going: a story of ups and downs and really telling a tale that hopefully a lot of Americans can relate to. And also international folk.
Breakfast time at The Fosters
Q: You’ve mentioned Jesus’ relationship with his twin sister. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
- Jake: Jesus assumes a paternal role over Mariana’s character. Both Jesus and Mariana have been in and out of the foster system since birth, they’re reluctant to welcome any new faces or any new members of the family into their home, at first, but ultimately find serenity and they find happiness in their new family. Through their misadventures and through their mistrials, they are able to build a closer bond as they enter that next phase into their lives, which is adulthood, which is where the series picks up.
Q: Do you still have fond memories of working on “Wizards” with Selena Gomez?
- Jake: Working with Selena Gomez was a blessing. Getting to do “Wizards” was a huge, instrumental part of my career. For me, it was just a huge part of my life and a huge chapter in who I am. Getting to work with Selena Gomez was definitely impactful and so much fun, because she’s so talented and she’s awesome.
Younger Jake with Selena on Wizards
Q: What are your thoughts about the success she is currently having with her career?
- Jake: I think it’s great. It seems like she’s exploring new sides to her career that people didn’t expect. It’s just interesting to see where everything is going. We’ve tried to stay in touch, most of the cast. Some have been better about it than others. But with everyone’s schedules and with everything that’s happening, it’s hard to keep tabs. It’s hard, also, to find a time when we’re all in the same location. But we have kept in touch.
Jake on the red carpet
Q: How hands-on is the show’s producer Jennifer Lopez with establishing the show and creating your particular character? Has she helped you get to know him?
- Jake: I do know Jennifer Lopez had firsthand say and handpicked a lot of the characteristics that are going to be featured on the show as well as incorporating her style and implementing her own flavor and charisma. Jennifer Lopez has had a lot of control over style. It’s been great to have someone that you can emulate and be so involved in a series like this.
Q: We’ve seen Mariana kind of wanting to see her birth mom, meet her, but twin Jesus is more standoffish. Is that something we’re going to see in more episodes to come?
- Jake: I think Jesus’ apprehension to meeting his biological mother deals with his distrust of the foster system as well as a lot of skeletons in his closet that he’s unable to release. Hopefully, as the show grows and as the character develops, audiences will be able to see that backstory with Jesus. Hopefully we’re able to learn more about where they came from and how he deals with moving forward. Right now it’s so early and it’s very fresh. For me, as an actor, to remember the pain and the hardships that foster children endure everyday is essential to me playing the character.
Jake (seated with phone) and cast of The Fosters
Q: Do you have much in common with your character?
- Jake: Although there are so many differences in our personal lives, Jesus and I feel very parallel and I feel very parallel to Jesus in similar ways. There are certain things about our personalities and our characteristics that are identical. So for me, it’s very easy to fall into the shoes of this character. But, as well, it’s hard to contrast and show differences.
Q: How was filming “The Fosters” different from filming “Wizards”?
- Jake: Filming “Wizards” at a time when I was younger, was very different from “The Fosters”. I think “Wizards” (helped me gain) knowledge of the industry and also it was my first, live action, major series. So having done that and then moving onto “The Fosters” improved my game and improved my performance. Drawing from the experiences I had on “Wizards” and learning from either mistakes or improvements that I was able to make throughout the show, I can put that toward “The Fosters” which is more challenging, longer in length because it’s an hour drama, and it’s also different in the subject matter. So for me it’s, all across the board, a new way to express my talent.
Poster for the show
Courtesy of ABC Family
Q: Some of the “Disney Channel” stars have a rough time transitioning to older roles on other shows. Has it been that way for you?
- Jake: It’s hard when everyone can put you in a box and say this is going to happen and, almost, depict your future based on what they’ve seen in past experiences with other people. Taking my life and everything that I’ve gone through into account, I don’t see myself as just a one-sided actor or just somebody of 15 minutes of fame. To ensure more work, I feel it’s vital that you treat everyone with respect. If you go into everything with an eagerness to learn, which is where I see myself anytime I go on set. Anytime I step on set, for me it’s an opportunity of being at film school, in my opinion.
- I’m not so concerned with the impact that being involved with the Disney Family is going to have on my career. More so I’m concerned with the impression that people have of me as well as my dedication to the craft, which is something I want to prove through my work.
Q: Are you worried that fans will always associate you with Max Russo and have a hard time accepting you as Jesus?
- Jake: I want to embrace being Max to the fullest extent, because that has led me to so many greater opportunities. So, whenever a fan comes up to me and mentions Max, whether it’s now or 20 years from now, I’ll speak about it like I just stepped off set. That’s something that is very close to me and that’s something that I’m not ashamed of at all. “Wizards”, in my opinion, will always be at the fans’ disposal; people can always see it, people can always know where to find it. It’s nothing to run from.