This past December, American Studies senior Kevin Machate was named one of UT’s “Most Impressive Students” by Business Insider. We sat down for a chat with Kevin about his experiences in American Studies, working in the film industry, and where he sees the two intersecting.
Say a little something about yourself and what you do in the film industry.
I wanted to be an actor from the time I was very young, but growing up, I didn’t have support for that. I was raised in a military family. It wasn’t necessarily militaristic, but it was very much like, “If it doesn’t make sense to do that, then don’t do it.” Going into the military was the thing my parents wanted me to do. Both parents were military brats themselves, so they thought that at least in the military I would always have a job. Then in 1992 when George Bush decided he was going to do a big reduction in force, we found out that wasn’t necessarily true. I took advantage of that and got out early and came back to Texas. I was 21 at the time, and I decided that I was going to go back to college. But I enrolled and never went.
I got married, went into business, got divorced, moved back to Texas, worked and worked, and then in 2009 lost one of my dogs suddenly, and that was my big eye opener. I knew I needed to do something that was going to be more of what I wanted to do, but I had no idea what that was. So I took a year sabbatical and did as little as I could get away with to regroup and figure things out. I was actually going to re-enlist in the Reserves so that I could get a job because I was waiting tables at the time, and I wasn’t really going anywhere. I had never taken chemistry for this one military program, and I had to have it to get back in, so I started a class in Waco.
Around the same time, there was a call for extras for this movie Sironia, which they were filming in Waco. I volunteered to be an extra, and I got paid minimum wage to go and sit around and do nothing, because they didn’t use me. But a couple weeks later they called me back and said they wanted to use me for this other thing, so I went in and learned a lot because I realized it took three and a half hours for them to film 45 seconds of the movie.
But it opened a door and the same casting director called me back about two months later and asked me to be a police officer on a show called Lone Star that had a lot of big names in it. At this time I was doing a lot of extra work. I did eleven episodes of television and three films in about eight months. For these roles, you don’t have to audition, you just have to look the part and pay attention and mostly sit down and shut up, because there’s a lot of sitting around and waiting. So I did that for a while, but I got to the point where I wanted to start actually talking, so I auditioned for a student film at the University of North Texas at Denton and got the part. Being in Waco, I was able to go back and forth to Dallas and Austin. After a year of doing that, I started taking my first professional acting class in Austin, and that was when I decided I needed to move back down here. I had still been taking classes in Waco, but I transferred to UT and kept going.
After I transferred to UT, I started pre-production on the first short film that I produced, which I also co-starred in. After having worked for a while in the industry, I thought, “I can do just as good as these other people are doing,” so I found the scripts, the crew, and a director, and I found another actor. I picked the script because it had minimal locations, it only had two characters, there wasn’t a whole lot of extra stuff–it was just a basic storyline. So that was the first film I produced, and it is now in the festival circuit. It screened in Belarus about a month ago.
The directing part of my work was kind of an accident; there was no one else available to do it at the time. So I said, “OK, I’m going to do this.” And it worked out. Not long after this I got an idea for a film that we just finished and is being edited right now. Me not being a screenwriter, I have to draw on people to help me with that aspect of the film. I have been lucky enough that the same writer has written three of the films that I’ve directed. When you find someone you work well with, you want to stick with the same thing, but at the same time I am trying to branch out so that I’m not always doing the same dumb silly comedies. As an actor I used to get either a cop or a serial killer as roles. Within a month I think I played three different serial killers in three different projects. All of them dies at the end, by the way. Earlier this year when I switched my major to American Studies I realized that I was going to be able to continue the whole film thing in my studies as well. Maybe not every single time, but this last semester I was able to incorporate some aspect of my film projects into all of my classes, or a film that I enjoyed–writing about it or using it for a project.
You talk about putting film into your schoolwork. Does this happen the other way around, where your general interest in American culture informs what you are doing on set?
Not yet, but it does definitely make me aware when I am watching other people’s films or television. In class we talk about Boardwalk Empire and how fictionalized it is even though it is based on historical fact. There are a lot of things that aren’t really accurate. I am very anal when it comes to certain details, and when I see something in a film that is not historically or culturally accurate, it makes me not like the movie quite as much. When it comes to the point that I am making a film with a clear cultural message about something like masculinity or femininity, my American Studies training is definitely going to make me more aware to the extreme, so I will make sure that the details are exactly right even if I am the only one that understands them.
Can you talk a little bit about your future after AMS? What does your next year look like?
I transferred into the program as a senior, so I am crunching everything into one year. But it allows me to only have to take AMS classes and one class for my minor and a language. I’m able to focus on AMS and really figure out what I do want to do next. I want to make my interests in film and pop culture and history converge in a way that hasn’t already been done. I graduate in December and I want to go to grad school.
Anything else you want to add?
My newest film is called Hashtag-RIP. We’re hoping to premier it at the L.A. Comedy Shorts Film Festival in May. It’s about the Hollywood mentality but also about pop culture and Twitter. We are getting the third rough-cut tomorrow; we’re still working on sound and color correction and music. I have a four-time ASCAP award-winning composer doing our score. He’s an old friend who just happens to also work for TV Land on Hot in Cleveland. Pop culture is a big focus in the film. Miley Cyrus gets a mention. Hopefully she will still be relevant. I don’t see her going away any time soon.