Never stop learning…It’s easy to be complacent. But there is always something new, something challenging, something that will help you grow as an artist and human being. The more I learn, the more I realize how much I do not know. And the more you learn, the more useful and versatile you will become.
As a part of my series about pop culture’s rising stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Matt Westin. Matt was born and raised in blue collar family in a middle class suburb of Pittsburgh, PA. From a young age, he pursued various paths of passions, including academics, sports, acting, and music. After years of searching, Matt found true fulfillment in the creative outlets of acting and singing, dedicating himself to his artistic pursuits, and walking away from a promising career in engineering. His passion and talent quickly won over his family’s initial disapproval of walking away from an engineering career, and they became his biggest supporters. After working in independent films, theater, and TV, Matt landed in Los Angeles with aspirations of building a lifelong career. Tragically, after a bravely fought battle with Leukemia, Matt’s father succumb to complications with chemotherapy in April 2016, only a year after Matt’s move to LA. As a true family man, Matt was utterly devastated and struggled day to day with the reality of his father’s death, prompting him to move back to Pittsburgh to be with his family. Matt’s acting had been put on the back burner, and after months of depression, instead of self-destructing, Matt decided to honor his father’s memory by switching gears and pursuing his music career, as his father had encouraged, making a country record in his father’s honor. Very quickly, Matt’s music career and acting career collided in Pittsburgh, as he is slated to portray a young Johnny Cash in the upcoming film “116 MacDougal”.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Matt! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in a middle class neighborhood just outside of Pittsburgh, PA. It was a great childhood. Actually, I find myself thinking back to those days quite often. My dad worked as a machinist in the steel mill, and my mom took years away from her work as a nurse to be a stay at home mom. I’m the middle child of three boys, so there was plenty of horsing around. Boys will be boys! My poor mom! We grew up with a local golf course on the other side of our back yard fence, so I would ride my bike all the time and sled ride in the winter. I learned to golf (for free, wink wink), and my brothers and I would search for golf balls in the woods and sell them back to the golfers at our little lemonade stand by our fence, while our dogs would beg the passing golfers for treats. My brothers and I all attended the same high school where my parents had met, so we still feel a close connection to our hometown. Life really seemed simpler back then. It was a great childhood.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
What brought me here was quite a winding road. Here’s the short story. I started out as an engineer, and I was miserable, spending my days in a cubicle. When I lost my job, I decided I was not going back to engineering and I took the insane risk of pursuing acting, which had been a passion and hobby of mine for a while. After owning a small independent film company for a few years, working on some independent projects and a TV show on Destination America channel, and a black box theater play, I ended up in Los Angeles to continue pursuing my dreams. But, tragedy struck when my father passed away from leukemia about a year after I moved to LA. In a downward spiral of rage and depression, I moved back to Pittsburgh to be with my family. I was utterly lost and destroyed. Acting was on the back burner, as I had left it on the other coast. Just about everything in my life took a back seat to my grieving. I knew I was going downhill and it worried a lot of people. I knew I had to get myself together, and that’s when I began pursuing music, which my father had always encouraged. He loved my singing. So, I dedicated my debut album to him and it was a huge part of my healing process. What’s incredible is that my pursuit of music has led me back to my original passion of acting! Through connections I’d made years before, I was contacted and quickly cast as a young Johnny Cash in the upcoming film 116 MacDougal. Now, my passion for acting and my passion for singing has collided, and it feels like I’m finally on the right path!
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
It’s hard to pick out one thing, because I’ve met and been able to work with people from all different backgrounds and there have been so many experiences. But I think in general, being able to work both behind and in front of the camera has been interesting and enlightening. I can appreciate the hard work that goes in behind the camera to make the people in front of the camera look good. So, I have an even deeper appreciation now, personally, for the art of filmmaking.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One mistake that sticks out to me immediately is when I was in a black box theater performance called Scarcity. I played a drunk deadbeat father. Well, I skipped a line in a conversation with my “son”, which in turn forced him to skip his line. So, we were just sitting there for what seemed like an eternity (it was probably a few seconds), and he told me later that he wasn’t going to bail me out of it! So, I just started burping! Hey, I mean, I’m a drunk guy sitting in a recliner wearing boxers. The burping bought me a few more seconds to think, and I moved on without the audience suspecting a thing. I actually just seemed to be even more of a drunk deadbeat, so the burping worked out beautifully and I continued to use it in the following performances. That experience reinforced to me that it’s important to know the script intimately, including other people’s lines, because I had to improvise a section of it while still making sense in the conversation and not get lost in front of a hundred people.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
The feature film “116 MacDougal” is the current project I’m involved in. I want to see this film, but I actually get to be in it! And I get to portray one of my all-time favorites, the legendary Man In Black, Johnny Cash! It’s set in the late ‘50s/early ’60s in Greeenwich Village, at the iconic Gaslight Café. It was the beginning of the counter culture movement that changed American and music history, and where many folk musicians and beat writers, such as Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg got their start. The story follows the owner of the Gaslight, John Mitchell, and how he protected his artists and writers from the mob, the FBI, the police, and the local government, and ultimately changing history. Tons of iconic characters came through there. Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, and on and on. But I get to play Johnny!
We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?
Diversity in film and television is an accurate depiction of the real world in which we live. We live in a colorful world with so many differing cultures and ideas and ways of life. Every culture has intrinsic value that is unique and deserves to see the light of day. Diversity in film and television helps to educate people, celebrate people, and unify people. Representing this diversity reveals how we are all more alike than we sometimes realize, and we’re all on this ride together.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Be careful who you work with…I had a small independent film company for a few years with a couple friends of mine. I ended up getting used and burned. Unfortunately, it’s caused me a lot of pain, due to losing friendships and lots and lots of money. Basically, you can’t trust everyone who says they are your friend, especially those who only see you as useful to their agenda. I was producing our projects, funding them with money from my engineering job. When I lost my job, they disappeared because the money was no longer there. That was a tough life lesson. I knew it was a risk, and risk is important for getting ahead in life, but this one hurt.
2. Be open to different opportunities…I had been told I would be pitched to soap operas by an agency in LA that wanted to sign me. I wish I would have explored that option. At the time, I thought it was not what I wanted to do. I wanted to be in films. Bonehead move. Who knows where that could have led. But a few years later, another opportunity, where I stepped out of my comfort zone to star in a black box theater production, actually led me to signing with another agency in LA. I didn’t set out to do theater, but I gave it a shot, and it introduced me to a whole new world and to some amazing people. It was a huge growing experience for me as an artist and as a person.
3. Time flies and patience is key…I remember thinking that I’d just transition to an acting career from my engineering career. I had this feeling that I could do it and it will just work out if I gave it a try. Well, years later, that feeling still compels me to pursue my passions, but not in the timeframe I had dreamed up when I first decided to pursue acting. Even so, that’s no reason to stop trying. It’s a journey, not just a destination.
4. Networking is essential…In my own experience, and also when watching other people’s careers evolve, it’s incredible to see how knowing the right people can really boost a career. I have always been terrible at keeping in touch with people. It’s honestly ridiculous. I have best friends that I talk to twice a year. I’m terrible! Networking and, more importantly, relationship building has opened doors for me, such as with my upcoming project “116 MacDougal”. Had I not formed lasting relationships with certain people, I wouldn’t have been cast as Johnny Cash in an incredible film, with two songs on the soundtrack!
5. Never stop learning…It’s easy to be complacent. But there is always something new, something challenging, something that will help you grow as an artist and human being. The more I learn, the more I realize how much I do not know. And the more you learn, the more useful and versatile you will become.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
There are a lot of ways to burn out. Some people are overworked and constantly living a script, some go through endless auditions without any luck, and there’s everything in between. In the end, it’s about balance. You have to find time to be yourself, to clear your head, and get back to the heart of who you are outside of acting and working to pay the bills. You can be sitting in your living room, but still be a million miles away, which takes a toll. So, it can be therapeutic to just be present.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’ve always had a big place in my heart for kids and animals. They’ve always made me smile no matter what I might be going through. There’s something special about their innocence and joy at just being alive that has always resonated in my soul. They all deserve a chance to live a good life. I don’t know exactly what I’d do, but I wish I could help them all somehow. Of course, giving to charities and shelters and programs is always a great way to help. Those Sarah McLachlan commercials for the ASPCA are a good example of what I’m talking about. I can’t watch those things! If you’ve seen them, you know what I’m talking about! My heart can’t take it! But, changing the hearts of people who abuse the innocent or are indifferent to their suffering is a job for a higher power.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I can go on and on about people who have helped me, who have shaped me, who have supported me through so many phases of my life. And each person is equally important. I feel like life can be a mysterious journey of “connect the dots.” Each dot is an important part of the story, and you can’t quite see the big picture until you look back on it years later. It’s incredible. Honestly, there have been people that supported me and people that used me, people that led me on and people that truly believed in me, but there’s not really one specific individual who I can point at and say “they are the reason I am where I am.” It’s been a giant game of connect the dots, and sometimes a step backwards or a step sideways can set you up for a jump forward. That’s really how I look at it. However, one constant I can say that has always been there are my parents. I owe them everything, and I miss my dad tremendously.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
It’s not so much a quote, but a belief. Have faith. Some people talk about energy or “the universe” as they journey through life. I am a man of faith, so I call it God. Having faith has given me bravery in my fear, strength in my weakness, and kindness in my anger. It takes a certain amount of faith for anyone to take a risk in life, but for me to pursue my passion and believe that I have a purpose in that passion, it all comes down to faith for me. Have faith. Also, “everybody wang chung tonight.” Lol I kid I kid.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Sylvester Stallone has inspired and intrigued me since I was a little boy. Rocky is my favorite character of all time, and if I could choose one movie character to be a real person, it would be Rocky Balboa. I could go on and on about why, but the world needs more people like that. Humble, brave, kind, loyal, and willing to put it all on the line when it comes down to it. Sly is such a brilliant guy, and brave as hell, if you read about how Rocky even came to be. He’s an amazing athlete, a brilliant artist and writer/director, and a fun loving, down to earth family man who sets a good example for all of us. Actually, I think I’d rather hit the gym with him than have lunch!
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can find updates on my acting/music career on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/MattWestinMusic/, Instagram @matt_westin, and Twitter @Matt_Westin. My music is also available on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, and all the major platforms.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!