By Terrell Atkins
It was as a child in Texas that Jacob Matthews was introduced to theater, which forced him out of his comfort zone and allowed him to break out of his shell.
“It’s a weird dynamic when you meet someone that’s extremely shy, and they go on stage and do so much,” said Matthews, a student at Ole Miss. “I guess in a way it’s easier to be out of your shell on stage because you’re not facing people. You literally have lights in your face. You can’t really see the audience.”
Matthews was born in Arizona and later moved to Texas. Matthews played in two small junior shows at a children’s community theater in Plano, following in the footsteps of his sister and cousin, whom he saw participate in theater.
“That was my first time testing it out,” he said. “I didn’t do much with theater after that. I would sing to myself sometimes, but never publicly. I wasn’t that good.”
Matthews and his family moved frequently. When he was in the third grade, they moved from Texas to a completely new environment in Biloxi, Mississippi.
After taking a hiatus from the arts, Matthews decided to give it another run when he entered his freshman year of high school, and he fell in love with it instantly. He was an active member of his school’s theater competition team for three years, participated in state festivals and joined the show choir his junior year.
He realized the arts were his passion when he performed in his first musical in the spring of his junior year, Little Women, with Downstage Productions Theater in neighboring Gulfport, Mississippi. “After that,” he said, “it was set in stone that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life. Performing on that stage was incredible. I loved it.”
Matthews’ first big break came when he played the lead role in The Monster, an adaptation of Frankenstein, his senior year. “I got the lead role and I was extremely grateful, but there was a time when I thought that the only reason I got the lead was because the people who normally would get the big roles graduated, so I was the only option.”
However, Matthews did not let his insecurities get in the way of his first time to shine in the spotlight. “I took that and I ran with it,” he said. “I learned from it, and I used it as a source of drive and determination and a way to show everyone that I deserved that role and I wasn’t just given it. I had to remind myself that I was given the role for a reason. That role turned me into the actor I am today.”
After graduating from Biloxi High School, Jacob decided to attend the University of Mississippi as a BFA in Acting for Stage and Screen major. During the summer before his move into the university, he received an email from one of the school’s theater directors announcing that he was looking for understudy roles for the school’s fall production of Into the Woods.
“A few days after we had the audition for it, a lot of friends were telling me that they were offered understudy roles. I hadn’t heard back yet, so I assumed I didn’t get it. However, a couple of days later, I got an email to be the understudy for ‘Jack’. I was ecstatic,” he said, referring to a character in the musical.
It was not long before Matthews noticed a change in pace when he entered the Ole Miss program. “When you are majoring in theater knowing that you are going to pursue this career for the rest of your life and that it’s extremely difficult to become successful in the field, you find more dedication and a lot more people taking it seriously,” he said. “There’s a certain headspace compared to someone doing it for a high school competition show versus someone wanting to do it for the rest of their life.”
However, Matthews finds himself fitting into the mindset of those around him in the theater program. Libby Lang, another freshman in the BFA in Acting for Stage and Screen program, can attest to this. “In everything Jacob does, he carries himself with a sense of diligence and determination,” she said. “You can genuinely see his eyes light up when he’s working on something that means a lot to him. You can tell it’s what he was meant to do. Seeing Jacob perform gives me goosebumps. I can always feel the emotion he’s conveying.”
As a performer, Matthews hopes to give directors a performance they’ve never seen before, not only to showcase his talents to others but to himself as well.
“I feel like that’s anybody’s driving force in performing arts,” said Matthews. “You don’t want to do bad. You don’t want to embarrass yourself. It’s also a sense of you wanting to be professional about what you’re doing. You’re earning a role and you want to do that role justice for a lot of different people. You want to do it justice for yourself, your directors, your castmates, the playwright… there’s a lot of different people you want to make proud in the process”
Matthews’ roommate, Earlie Garth, has seen him put in countless hours towards his craft even in the comfort of their room. “There’s been numerous times,” Garth said, “where I’ve stepped into our room and I caught him making music or humming or trying to come up with ways to help this music program and showcase his talent even though he’s an understudy. He wants to be able to show what he can do on and off the stage.”
Growing up, Matthews saw himself acting only on screen, but after flourishing in theater in high school, he fell in love with stage acting as well. “That’s why I chose Ole Miss’ program,” he said. “It’s BFA Acting for Stage and Screen, so you get a good sense of both. So that’s the goal… that’s the desire—to be in New York or LA living your typical acting dream.”
Matthews acknowledges that he once had doubts about the arts in the past, saying, “There have been times where I thought I wasn’t good enough or I didn’t know why I was attempting to do this because the industry was so cut-throat.”
However, through all of the self-doubt and second-guessing, Matthews’ resilience and ambition continue to drive him toward his dreams.
“Acting isn’t a guaranteed career, but I don’t see myself doing anything other than performing,” Matthews said, grinning to himself. “So, I’m going to do everything I possibly can to make sure that this is my life and I can live it successfully.”