It all started with a middle school production of Aladdin. Then in Grade 5, Matthew Isen was cast as the title character, giving him his first glimpse into the world of acting. “It really sparked my interest, and I begged my parents to let me start classes. It just spiralled from there,” said Isen, now 19.
He started acting professionally around 13 when he spent some time working as an extra. Since then, he has been in numerous productions, including Murdoch Mysteries, and the upcoming feature film, Brotherhood.
His big break was playing a lead role on the Family Channel show Backstage, a two-season drama that revolves around the lives of students in a performing arts school. Isen plays Jax, a DJ and a musician. Since premiering in Canada in March 2016, the series has been shown in the United States, New Zealand, Australia as well as in European and Middle Eastern countries.
“It was a very challenging experience because it was very fast-paced; we filmed 30 episodes in 30 days, which is unheard of,” said Isen, who was a student at Westmount Collegiate Institute in Thornhill, Ont. during this time. “But it was an amazing experience, and I’ve made so many friends from it because the main cast is a group of kids around my age.”
Isen is now taking a gap year before studying engineering science at the University of Toronto. Though he hopes to make acting his career, Isen still wants to go to university and get a degree. “Taking the year off was specifically for acting, so I could take classes and really prepare for auditions,” said Isen, who recently got representation in Los Angeles. “I’m really trying to make a go of it.”
Isen attended Camp Solelim, went on March of the Living in high school and he said his Jewish identity is prevalent in all of his endeavours. Though his parents, both doctors, were initially hesitant about their son’s desire to pursue acting, Isen said they have been very supportive of him throughout his career.
For Isen, the best part of acting is being able to bring different characters to life, and the challenge of completely immersing oneself into an entirely different world.
“Each project is a completely different character, completely different story,” said Isen. “Every project and character poses its own challenges for me as an actor, and there are new things for me to work on.”
With nearly 54,000 followers on Instagram, Isen has also been using his large following to raise awareness about issues close to his heart. After reaching out to the United Nations Environmental Program, he became a youth ambassador, using his Instagram to share posts about ongoing issues related to the environment and climate change.
“Especially because I have such a big following of kids, I felt like it was a great opportunity for me to get kids involved, and caring about it,” said Isen. “It’s such a big issue and I feel like it’s something everyone should care about.”
Isen has participated in panels with international “change-makers,” and was part of the official UN delegation in the 2017 World Environment Day celebrations, where he went to a dinner with Canada’s Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, and even met Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Though acting is a tough industry to break into, Isen remains hopeful for his future despite the “constant rejection” that he experiences.
“I’ll go to three or four auditions a week, and it’s very hard, because you’re putting in all this work to prepare and you never know if you’re going to hear back,” said Isen. “That’s just the thing with acting, you never really know what’s going to come up. You just have to take it day-by-day, do your best and hope things are moving in the right direction.”