After two years playing Alexander Hamilton in the Broadway phenomenon Hamilton and more-recently starring in celebrated playwright Conor McPherson’s Bob Dylan-inspired Broadway musical Girl From the North Country, Austin Scott caught the eye of none other than Tyler Perry, who promptly cast him in a starring role in his new Netflix drama, A Jazzman’s Blues. Below, we caught up with the Northern California native to discuss the transition from theater to film, working with Tyler Perry, and falling in love with jazz.
A Jazzman’s Blues is currently available to stream on Netflix.
Tell us about A Jazzman’s Blues.
It’s a story about unshakeable love, the complexities of family, and the willpower required to chase a dream when all the cards are stacked against you. I think it’s one of the richest, most nuanced stories Tyler Perry has ever told. I play Willie Earl, an aspiring jazz musician and deeply troubled man with multiple chips on his shoulder.
What drew you to this role?
I was immediately struck by how passionate Tyler was about the project. I was inspired that he held onto this story for 26 years, waiting for the right time to share it with the world. When he told me about his vision for the film, I knew it was going to be something special. He sent me the script and I read it not knowing which role he had in mind for me, and I was floored by the piece and instantly drawn to Willie Earl. I found him fascinating and complicated, and I remember thinking “Wow, I would love to play this role.” So when Tyler told me he was thinking of me for it, I jumped at the opportunity. One of the most influential media moguls of our time was offering me the kind of role I’ve always dreamed of tackling. It was a no-brainer.
Did you have to learn any instruments for the role?
Oh yeah. The audience needs to believe that Willie Earl is an impressive trumpet player, which posed an exciting challenge for me because I had never picked up a trumpet before in my life! Tyler made it clear that he wasn’t looking to capture audio of me playing, but I took it very seriously. I did my best to learn the physicality. I took lessons 2-3 times a week and studied videos of Terrance Blanchard, the legend who plays the music you hear from Willie Earl. My goal was to deliver a performance authentic enough that real musicians could watch the movie and say, “Sure, I buy that.” I also knew I would have an easier time connecting with the character if I could sort of trick myself into believing that I was actually playing the trumpet.
Another interesting challenge was learning to speak with a 1940s rural southern accent. Luckily, my dad and his whole side of the family is from Alabama, so it wasn’t completely foreign to me. I also had a fantastic dialect coach named Denise Woods who helped me discover Willie’s voice.
Were you a fan of jazz beforehand? If so, any favorites?
I’ve always loved jazz but taking on this role deepened my appreciation tenfold. When I got the part, I started listening to a ton of jazz from the early 1900s and fell in love. I listened to Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, all the greats. Tyler gifted us record players while we were filming, and the first thing I did was drive to the record store and buy an armful of jazz records.
Was it daunting working with someone as influential as Tyler Perry?
I was definitely a little nervous at the start. I mean, the man is a legend. But mostly, I was just super excited. Tyler always spoke to me as a collaborator and creative peer. He took me seriously as an artist and seemed genuinely interested in my take on the character and the story. I felt a great deal of trust and respect from him which made the whole process a lot less daunting. By the time we started shooting, I felt confident that we were on the same page in terms of our vision for Willie and his role in the story. Tyler definitely has a larger-than-life presence on set, but any fear or awe I felt early on dissipated by the time we started and I was able to focus on the work and the story we all wanted to tell. It was an honor bringing his vision to life.
What has been your favorite part of this experience?
The best part has been collaborating with this phenomenal group of artists. The cast and crew on this film was truly top tier. Willie didn’t come into focus for me until I started having character chats with the department heads and rehearsing scenes with my castmates. It was their vision and creative choices that helped open things up for me. I grew so much as an artist through this process.
You’ve also done a lot of theatre, including Broadway. Do you prefer one medium to another?
That’s hard for me to say because I find the two mediums so different. Theater will always hold a special place in my heart. There’s a unique bond I form with an audience when I’m on stage. Every performance is singular, and I love that. The story might be the same from night to night, but the way the story is told is always a little different. On any given evening, the audience, the actors, the crew are all experiencing something that is one of one, never to be seen or replicated anywhere again. There’s something really beautiful about that.
Film, on the other hand, is magical in its own way. I enjoy the freedom that comes with doing multiple takes and the comfort of knowing that when lightning strikes in a scene, that moment will be preserved forever. I also think there’s more permission for subtlety and nuance in film. On stage, many of the smaller moments get missed, but the camera captures it all. I love that attention to detail.
Do you have any hobbies that help keep you sane?
When I was little, my favorite thing in the world was going fishing with my dad. I feel the most connected to myself when I’m out in nature with a pole in the water. I also really enjoy reading and crocheting.
Who is your role model in your industry and why?
Wow, I have many. In the theater world, it would have to be Brian Stokes Mitchell. He’s the reason I started doing theater, and the first example I saw of someone who looked like me who had managed to build a legitimate career as a leading man on Broadway. He has also done so much for the community, and I really admire him for that.
On screen, I really admire the work of Olivia Coleman, Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, Robin Williams, Will Smith, Andrew Garfield, Javier Bardem and Tom Hanks. I deeply respect them all, both as artists and as human beings.
CHECK OUT AUSTIN
As Willie Earl in Tyler Perry’s A Jazzman’s Blues