By Sarah Mosqueda
If you are familiar with Jake T. Austin at all, you probably recognize him as sandwich-loving Max Russo on Disney Channel’s Wizards of Waverly Place.
As the family friendly wholesomeness of that role and subsequent roles suggests, Austin most certainly found a lane. But to say Austin is a “child actor” is a disservice to all the other things Austin is.
Austin is a voice actor, a television and film actor, and philanthropist who is dedicated to getting Latinos the representation they deserve in the entertainment industry and beyond.
If anything, he is a Jake of all trades.
“I started performing when I was really young,” Austin says. “I was in a skit when I was 4 years old…and it just so happened that skit was on The David Letterman Show.”
Austin was born Jake Austin Szymanski in New York to his Puerto Rican mother, Giny Rodriquez Toranzo, and his Polish/Irish father, Joe Szymanski.
Austin followed his debut on late-night television with a voice role of Diego on three episodes of Nickelodeon’s animated series, Dora the Explorer, which led to his breakthrough role of Diego on the subsequent spin-off series, Go Diego Go!
Austin was only 10 years old when he worked on the Go Diego Go! series, but the fact that he was playing a title character that was also a person of color isn’t lost on him.
“Thinking back to when the show premiered in 2005, conversations about race weren’t as pronounced in mainstream media like they are in 2021,” says Austin. “Now I understand that kids in the Hispanic community could see a person that ‘looked like them.’”
Austin says the visibility of a character like Diego is important for non-Spanish speaking viewers, too.
“To Anglo-European households, they could have their eyes opened
to other ethnic groups that may not be prevalent in their own schools or neighborhoods,” he says.
Diego was a bilingual character, and the show borrowed from the Dora format by sprinkling Spanish words into the English-language TV show.
“In 2018, studies estimated that 20–27 percent of the U.S. population were bilingual. So, think about 2005 and how unusual it must have seemed to have the hero be a person who spoke English and Spanish,” says Austin. “Diego was such a positive character: rescuing animals and talking about environmental issues. It’s humbling to have been an instrumental part of that show.”
The work the show was doing didn’t go unnoticed.
The series was commended for its bilingual Latino lead character and earned four NAACP Image Award nominations for “Outstanding Children’s Program” from 2008 to 2012.
Austin didn’t go unnoticed either.
He earned nominations for the Imagen Award and Young Artist Award for his role.
“It was such a great experience, and the show is still on the air on streaming platforms and people tell me how much they’ve learned from watching it,” he says.
He followed his success in voice work with a role on Disney Channel’s Wizards of Waverly Place, alongside a young Selena Gomez and David Henrie. The series, which followed three wizard siblings with magical powers, ran for four seasons and earned an Emmy in the category of “Outstanding Children’s Program” in 2009. When the show ended in 2012, an estimated 11.3 million viewers tuned in to watch the one-hour series finale, making it the most-watched finale for a Disney Channel Original Series.
Austin’s character, Max Russo, had a known Hispanic heritage and his mother (played by Maria Canals-Barrera) often tried to get the kids to learn about their Latino heritage.
Austin continued to juggle voice and acting work, and in 2009, he starred in the film, Hotel for Dogs opposite Emma Roberts. In 2011, Austin voiced Fernando, an orphaned Brazilian boy, in the animated feature films Rio and Rio 2 from 20th Century Fox. That same year, he was cast in the film New Year’s Eve, directed by rom-com veteran Garry Marshall. In 2017, Austin voiced the character of Alex in The Emoji Movie.
Balancing the two professions of actor and voice actor isn’t difficult for Austin. He sees both as forms of storytelling, which he takes very seriously.
“Performing is an experience that, in some ways, is hard to articulate,” he says. “You’re taking words on a page and creating a walking, breathing character that the viewer experiences.”
And when he straddles the two occupations, Austin isn’t just working to establish himself as multifaceted. He is also hoping to help audiences see the Latino community as more than just one homogeneous group.
“I think the biggest stereotype about the Hispanic community would be the notion that we are a monolith,” says Austin. “People whose familial line is from Cuba are different than people with experiences from Peru, who is different from people in Argentina.”
Austin says pushing for more diversity in the storytelling we see in entertainment is critical.
“I’m a big believer in people sharing their stories and learning about other cultures, and the change I would like to see is more micro-communication of information about specific countries and regions, and not painting all Latinos with an overly broad and singular brush.”
And that can start with expanding the roles we see as “Latino characters.”
“I think about the movie New Year’s Eve,” he says, “I played the love interest of Abigail Breslin. She’s Caucasian and also a totally nice person and terrific actress. But the role I played wasn’t written as a ‘Latino’ boyfriend, per se.”
Just because a character isn’t defined as being a person of color doesn’t mean a person of color can’t play them.
“Across any realm, my message to the person in charge of casting in a movie, a hiring manager in an office or an authority figure in a medical building: Be conscious and go beyond your possible racial bias,” he says. “When there is a person in front of you, think about their skillset, enthusiasm and dedication. Freeing the candidate of the hiring person’s preconceived ethnic/racial assumptions would be the ultimate equalizer.”
During election season, many critics noted the way the Latino vote was courted by both parties, either by engaging with Latino voters as a stereotyped culture, or worse, not at all.
Austin worked to impart the importance of the Latino vote by working with Voto Latino, a grassroots political organization focused on educating and empowering young Latinx voters.
“Voting is a fundamental of our constitutional republic and people, especially young people, should learn about the issues and make their voice heard at the ballot box,” says Austin.
He chose to align with the non-partisan organization because of how they encourage Latinos to exercise their rights and promote election-related engagement, like volunteering at the polling place.
“Regardless of race, we are Americans. So I think it’s great that Voto Latino is increasing awareness about the importance and the process of voting.”
When it comes to philanthropy, Austin says it’s about deciding what you are passionate about and committing to being a part of the change you want to see.
“I encourage people to think about causes that are important to them and see how they can get involved,” he says.
As a young person himself, Austin says youth-based services are close to his heart.
“My Friend’s Place is a great organization in Hollywood whose
mission is to end youth homelessness,” Austin says of the organization that serves 1,400 young people a year.
“I’ve also been active with the Boys & Girls Clubs, which operates over 4,000 clubs nationwide.”
At the start of the 20/21 school year, Austin paid a visit to the Boys and Girls Club Pasadena Slavik branch, which is located near Los Angeles.
“Many schools in Los Angeles County have been closed due to COVID and parents rely on those schools to provide child supervision while they’re at work,” Austin says. “BGC Pasadena has stepped up with a renovation to their facility that was funded by The Ahmanson Foundation, Helen and Will Webster Foundation, Pasadena Community Foundation, and Sahm Family Foundation.”
The updated Boys & Girls Club has structural improvements, computers for learning and homework assistance programs.
“COVID has disrupted many lives, and for kids, going to school is so central to learning and social interaction. It’s awesome that the Boys & Girls Clubs provides resources while we all get through this.”
Austin’s new film, Adverse, was pushed back from a September 2020 theater release to January 2021. Adverse will also be on Digital, On Demand and DVD on March 9.
Adverse is set in current day Los Angeles and tells the story of a rideshare gone wrong, and also stars Mickey Rourke, Lou Diamond Phillips and Sean Astin.
“It was great to work and learn from such experienced actors,” says Austin.
The film also addresses the effects of the opioid epidemic, another health crisis gripping America today.
“For me, the takeaway from the movie is that drug addiction affects the user and also their loved ones,” says Austin. “Prior to doing this movie, I didn’t especially think about the ripple effect that addiction has on the people around the addict. And with the opioids epidemic sweeping across the US, I think it’s the familial facet of that struggle that should be brought more into the light.”