Who's familiar with actor Austin Basis, whose many roles through the years include small parts on NCIS, Supernatural and Law and Order: Criminal Intent, as well as recurring characters on CW's Beauty and the Beast and Life Unexpected series and most recently on the Hulu show Casual and his own off-the-wall, adult-humored creation dubbed Not Your Buddy where he stars alongside a cartoon cat?
And did you know that through it all Austin has been navigating his own type 1 diabetes, as he was diagnosed more than three decades ago during elementary school?
He joined a cast of advocates hitting Capitol Hill in Summer 2017 to lobby Congress for their support of critical legislation for the Diabetes Community. And now in early 2018, we hear he's hoping to create a new comic book series for kids with diabetes and other disabilities! We're thrilled to feature him here today in this interview with the 'Mine:
A Chat with Actor Austin Basis
DM) Hi Austin. We always like to start with your diabetes story...
AB) I’ve been living with type 1 diabetes for over 30 years. Actually, I’ve just recently learned a new word: ‘diaversary” – and mine will be in early September and it will be 32 years. I was diagnosed shortly before my 9th birthday, going into the fourth grade right before school. I had to start school later because I was admitted to the hospital with a blood sugar that was off-the-charts over 800.
It’s funny that at the time I was diagnosed, my dad owned a candy store. My first impression of what diabetes was that I’d be staring at candy through a window without being able to eat it. The big lesson in life is understanding that the universe has a sense of humor. There is quite a higher level of awareness about diabetes and everything now.
What kinds of diabetes gadgets and tech have you used?
I was always the person to get technology later than everyone else. And then I’m adjusting to whatever everyone’s had just as the newest next technology is coming out. But I think I may have been a bit earlier than most when starting on an insulin pump. I got it in 1999, and there have been different forms and updates on just the pump. Just like the iPhone, there are times where you go a couple years where nothing major changes, it’s just aesthetics or colors. And then all of a sudden, they have this new innovative change – like a pump that's connected to a CGM. I wasn’t always comfortable with that, so I stuck with my pump and glucometer pair as it was. Finally in 2015, after doing a bunch of acting and JDRF stuff, I landed at the point for an update to the latest Medtronic system, and have been on it for a year-and-a-half.
What changes in diabetes tools have been biggest for you over the years?
Being diagnosed in 1985, there’s been an arc of technology that we’ve seen in our hands with our own eyes. And knowing now how far we’ve come, with the Medtronic 670G (Hybrid Closed Loop) just being approved in 2016 and the others out there making their way to market. Just knowing how long it takes for that type of device to be developed, from inception to actually getting into the hands of people with diabetes, is eye-opening. It’s like when we were using syringes to take two insulins like R and L in one shot, and then seeing the faster insulin and the insulin pumps… that had been in the works for a very long time before it even got to FDA, and finally approved for the market. So many products make life better, so educating Congress about why this funding is important is why I do all of this.
Times certainly have changed, especially with the rapid growth of our Diabetes Community these days…
It’s a club no one wants to ever be a part of, but once you’re in it, there is a certain pride and connection you have with fellow diabetics that’s something in a way you can cherish. It’s an interesting connection to meet a stranger and find out they have diabetes, and there’s a whole other level of intimacy and understanding. People around us don’t always understand, even if they do experience our Lows and Highs and different parts of our life with diabetes, from the outside. But it’s totally different to talk to someone who understands it from the inside. There’s vulnerability without even having to say a word.
Agreed! So please tell us how you first got into acting in theater and TV?
It’s a long fun story, but the gist is: when I was a kid, I had an artistic, expressive, loud family. My uncle was an animator and cartoonist and has done animation for films, so I had that in my blood artistically. Both my mom and dad performed and did that through years – my dad had a stand-up career earlier on, and my mom performed in college and as an adult, and she ran the dramatic programs at my summer camp, before she got into teaching for more than 35 years now. I was brought up on all of that, along with the classic comedy on Saturday mornings with Three Stooges, Abbott & Costello and sometimes The Marx Brothers. I used to love all of those, especially Abbott & Costello who did horror comedy because I loved dressing up for Halloween. As I got older, performing in plays and through summer camp and high school was just the way it was for me.
Did you want to study acting in college as a career?
Actually, I went to college looking to go into pre-med. As I took the science classes, I was actually pretty good at it until I got to bio… and then I was less and less inspired to become a doctor. Especially with eight years of school and have my life set out before me in just a straight path. I liked the adventure of an acting career, and being able to do that with my life. From grad school I went to acting and drama school in the early 2000s, and from there until now 15 years later, the arc of my career took me back to a place where I could give back to the medical world.
In a sense, it’s a way for me to give back and be the kind of person that I didn’t have when I was a kid with type 1 diabetes. I can be that kind of mentor now for kids growing up, which is amazing. That’s been my big inspiration to get involved in more diabetes advocacy over the years, and use the fact that I was working in the public eye to inspire and motivate kids with T1D that it’s not the end of the world. You can look at it as a blessing or gift.
So do you see diabetes as a blessing in your life?
That’s how I see it, yes. I kind of gave me a leg up in being able to use that as a way to overcome challenges. The advantage of having type 1 diabetes has served me well in every aspect of life, including in being a professional actor. That’s where the two worlds collide. I'm grateful to be able to tell kids that they don’t have to be held back by this, and it shouldn’t have to prevent them from accomplishing their dreams in life.
And in your acting on the 'Beauty and the Beast' TV show, you got to play the role of a medical doctor and researcher, JT Forbes?
The worlds collided there, too! Most of the science stuff I knew, from taking those classes in my early college days. But there was also the fact that I’d been giving myself injections of insulin for about 20 years, and knew that firsthand. It kind of prepared me to be more equipped for that role.
I would even get into debates with the writers sometimes, because one of the writers was a doctor and had gone to medical school, so I could tell when she wrote an episode. But with the other writers it was a type of fact-check because I could know what they wanted to be treated as fictional instead of reality. I’d still have to do it and talk convincingly as a biochemistry researcher and doctor. A lot of it was online research, but the fact that I had been my own nurse and doctor for 30 years served parts like that really well. It sure came in handy when I had to do injections on the show.
How do you navigate diabetes when you’re acting?
When I was just on injections, it was a little sketchier because you’re not in control as much as you can be when you’re on a CGM. One of the plays I did in college was a three-act, where the first two ran together without any breaks until the third act. You talk for about an hour and a half straight, and I didn’t leave the stage at all – while also wearing period clothing with tights, a tunic -- Shakespearean stuff. So it was hot and a lot of work, but luckily I didn’t have any low blood sugars. For the most part, as to a set, they are very controlled environments and I didn’t have any issues.
But just think about doing that now with a pump and CGM… I’d have to figure all of the logistics out, make sure no alarms would go off since you’re supposed to be in a time when electricity and technology hadn’t been discovered yet. I’ve heard stories of people who’ve had to go off stage when they’re not supposed to, and you never want that to happen.
Still, having a CGM on set now serves me because at any point between takes, I can just look at my screen and know where my blood sugar is and how it’s trending. That helps me be prepared so I can proactively tackle it. Apple juice is my go-to low blood sugar remedy, because as an actor it’s the cleanest fluid and the most sugary you can find. And liquid keeps me hydrated.
Off set, it’s strawberry milk. But that can give you flub in the mouth, and when you have lines, it's never good to have all that.
What have you been doing lately as to acting?
I look at it as embracing my independent spirit with a heart, instead of pure financial gain. When I am doing things like Not My Buddy or developing different TV series, I’m thinking with the mindset of advancing career and broadening horizons, rather than trying to just make a dollar. A lot of it’s about creative expression and putting your own vision and sense of humor out into the world, and not be limited to the parts you're cast into by other people. That’s hard to do. And in many ways, it does run parallel to how I live with diabetes. It’s not about being limited. There’s almost a need to do it, and the need motivates a little more skill and adeptness to putting yourself into a role that you want to see yourself in and not be defined in limited ways.
What can you tell us about your recent experience at JDRF’s Children’s Congress in Washington, DC?
It was amazing go there and being able to talk to Congress about type 1. Part of what we said there was about petitioning them to renew the Special Diabetes Program, to keep the money coming from both the government and private sector to fund diabetes research. It’s a trifecta of coordinating efforts, to educate Congress and help them see why this is so important. I always learn something new about diabetes technology and what’s happening now, with management and care and eventually a cure.
BONUS Question (Feb. 28, 2018): Since we spoke last summer, we've heard you're creating a new comicbook series for kids with diabetes and other disabilities. Can you tell us more about that?
Austin:) I’ve never been comfortable with the sob story you often hear at fundraising events. I understand it’s used to help raise money by eliciting sympathy from donors, but I choose to look at my diagnosis as a gift and to empower young people to do the same.
My goal, instead, is to raise the self-esteem and confidence of kids with T1D, instilling in them the idea that they can be and do anything they want to in life -- and nothing should get in their way. That even a type 1 diabetic kid from Brooklyn could be a superhero, or at least be an actor who plays a superhero on a TV show or in a blockbuster movie some day! This is how the idea for The KINETIX was born.
The KINETIX is a comic book series that I co-created, with Dave Maulbeck and Josh Taub, about a remarkable group of high school kids with disabilities -- who are students by day and a team of superheroes by night. These “disabilities” are the very source from which their superpowers emerge. If you have what the world sees as a “disability,” we believe you innately have a greater potential energy than those that don’t have one. You carry that energy with you at all times and have the power to turn it into kinetic energy, and use it for good. The KINETIX isn’t an after-school special. These are flawed, three-dimensional characters with a full range of emotions. But they don’t get bitter — they make the world better by turning their perceived weakness into their greatest strength.
In a world that is sometimes cruel and unsympathetic, we want to inspire and uplift kids to turn their perceived weaknesses into their greatest strengths. This is what The KINETIX is all about. People with disabilities and chronic conditions like T1D are an extremely marginalized community -- an overlooked, highly undervalued part of society who’ve been left out of popular culture and entertainment, yet have a perspective of the world around us that is unique, insightful and powerful. The KINETIX is a story in which that power is a SUPER one... and the time to tell that story is now.
Our hope is that a comic book series like The KINETIX will give kids the opportunity to see and read about fictional characters like themselves, and empower and motivate them to aspire to do great things in their lives -- not despite a medical diagnosis, but because of it.
That's pretty awesome! Where can people find out more info about the Kinetix project?
This is crowd-funding Kickstarter campaign, so head over to The KINETIX Kickstarter page to find out how you can help make this comic book series a reality!
Thanks for taking the time to talk, Austin, and for raising your voice on important advocacy issues!