Stephen Austin Interview
I had the opportunity to speak with Stephen Austin, the man behind the pak'ma'ra mask, at Dragon*Con 2000.
Stephen Austin began his theatre work in high school. "I starred in a production of Oklahoma. It got the fire going. I really enjoyed it."
Austin didn't follow his calling professionally at first. He served in the Navy and gave in to the advice of others to get a "real" job. However, he started doing standup comedy in the early eighties.
His first television work was in Space Rangers. "Claudia Christian was actually in the pilot of it, and Marjorie Monaghan was one of the lead actresses. I shot seven episodes of that, and then it tanked. I played the lead maintenance dock worker. It was cool; it was fun. We had a great time, but then I had one of my first experiences with show business. You get cancelled. You have to pull the numbers in right away."
On Babylon 5, Stephen Austin is best know as the pak'ma'ra Ambassador. The pak'ma'ra are the hump-backed, tentacle-faced carrion eaters and prominent members of the League of Non-Aligned Worlds.
Stephen Austin, the pak'ma'ra Ambassador from Babylon 5.
Anytime a pak'ma'ra was featured, whether he was the Ambassador or a storekeeper, Stephen Austin played the role. "In one case I was a pak'ma'ra transport pilot who was under attack from Shadow vessels, and there was a communique going on between the pilot and Babylon 5 when I was under attack. I'm taking on fire. I can't escape. They've hit me. The smoke's filling the cabin. Yeah, that was kind of cool. I liked doing that."
The pak'ma'ra was a physically challenging role to play because of the heavy mask and costume required to transform the actor into an alien.
"The biggest challenge, of course, when you're wearing makeup is that as an actor a lot of what you convey is beyond what you say. It's in your facial expressions, your body language, your hands. That particular costume has a mask on that covers up all my face, so my face was eliminated as a communicative device. For the most part I had no hands. Every once in a while you could see a hand, but for the most part I didn't have hands. Consequently I lost that as a communicative tool. So, I had to find other ways to express myself as far as feeling what the character was feeling."
"Most of it took place in the shoulders, how high I stood, how low I stooped, did I have a lean, did I stand upright, how was my head cocked, all those other things. As an actor it was great because it trained me to be more expressive and pay more attention to what the rest of my body was doing. As an acting lesson or an acting workshop, four years on that show was fantastic."
Austin had to convey slight differences for the different pak'ma'ra characters he played. "If you were a pak'ma'ra who was selling something at a kiosk you wouldn't stand the same way as the Ambassador would stand. You have to kind of translate that. I spent some time in front of a mirror just to see how much of what I did could be communicated through the costume, and how much I'd have to exagerate. I'd have points where I'd find that I'd have to bring my arms out and then move in order to make that move detectable. Otherwise it was too subtle."
Austin also show up several times in Babylon 5 without the pak'ma'ra costume. "I had a recurring guy that showed up about four or five times a year. Unofficially he was called the Drug Dealer." He was called in anytime Joe Straczynski needed somebody to be in a scene that look a little menacing or underhanded. "At the time I had a beard so I guess I looked that way. From time to time you'd see me in a bar in Downbelow, or you'd see me on a different planet like in 'Whatever Happened to Mr. Garibaldi'. I was conducting a little clandestine kind of deal."
Stephen Austin with Mike Helba
In addition to acting in television, Stephen Austin works in live comedy and on the stage. "Most of the time I do standup comedy, so I'm on the road a lot. My current project right now is I'm working on a play opening July 14 called The Goodbye Girl by Neil Simon." Unlike the movie, this is a musical version of the story scored by Marvin Hamlisch. "Now there's song, there's dance. I don't know how the heck I got the part, but I got the part and I'm going to set musical theatre back thirty years, I'm sure."
While Austin enjoys the pay for television work, he gets more fulfillment from stage work. "To me it's not a real competition other than financial. I mean there's more money to do stuff for television. Theatre has a lot of very positive rewards that you don't get in TV: basically instantaneous reaction to what you're doing. You don't have to wait for six months to a year for a film to come out to see how well your work is. On stage it happens every night; it's a challenge, and it keeps you sharp."
"I get a lot of that satisfaction when I do my comedy. It's live; it's right there; I go out; I throw myself into it; I put it out there. What's nice about that is I write that, and I deliver that. That's me. I produce, direct, and write my own shows. People like it? It's me. People hate it? It's me."
Austin will be taking a break from his standup touring during the run of the The Goodbye Girl through August 28, 2000, but at the end of the Summer he should be back on the road. When he's touring, his schedule can be found at his web site at stephenaustin.com.
Austin urges aspiring actors and others to stay true to their goals and ignore the naysayers. "Follow your dreams, man. Just keep doing it. I had no idea twenty, thirty years ago that I was going to end up doing what I'm doing. I love every minute of it. The only times I ever had any kind of problems in my life were when I listened to people tell me I couldn't do something. You want it, and you want it bad enough, figure out what kind of cost you're willing to pay for it."
"You've got to try it," he adds. "You've got to do it."