Brisbane’s own Matthew Backer chats to QNews about his career as an out gay actor, being a Play School presenter and his big year ahead.
Matthew has just flown in to visit family for the holidays and joins our video interview from his childhood bedroom.
He explains that his parents have turned it into a spare room, although they still have some posters of him on the wall.
It’s clear his parents are proud of his achievements and they have every reason to be.
Matthew’s rise as an actor and TV presenter has grown each year over the last decade and it feels he is on the precipice of something even bigger.
Matt grew up in Brisbane because of his dad’s rugby league career. His father, Bradley Backer, played for Easts and was in the first-ever State of Origin series for Queensland.
Other pursuits were Matt’s passions though.
“I went to an all-boys Catholic school in the 90s, enough said on that, but that’s where I found acting doing school musicals and plays,” he tells me.
Despite his love of acting, his first career went down a different path.
He studied journalism at the University of Queensland and went on to become a cadet reporter at the Fraser Coast Chronicle in Maryborough.
Maryborough was his family’s home town and despite not living there he knew the place inside out as a regular visitor.
Although he loved the job and living with his grandparents, he started to feel it wasn’t the right path for him.
“I just constantly had that little voice going like ‘you should be acting’. So at the end of that cadetship, I was like It’s now or never. I just really wanted to audition for NIDA, so I came back to Brisbane for a year and did every amateur play you could think of and short films and promo work and then I auditioned.”
Matthew got into the National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA) on first go and then moved to Sydney for his new life as an actor.
Matthew’s credits since then are extensive.
After landing his first professional gig as Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys he went on to a substantial theatre career.
In 2016 he won a Matilda Award for Best Male Actor in Queensland Theatre’s production of Switzerland and a 2016 Broadway World Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role in Sydney Theatre Company’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
He hasn’t shied away from screen roles with credits in Wellmania, Five Bedrooms, A Place to Call Home and Home and Away to name just a few.
The versatility of roles and medium has helped shape the longevity of his career.
“You just gotta take what you can get, the industry is not big enough,” he says.
“Thankfully, I can act and I can sing and I can move well. So I tick a few boxes, which you have to be able to do in Australia. Otherwise, there’s just not enough arenas for you to play in. But thankfully, I’ve got many fingers in many pies.”
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Being boxed in as a “gay actor” has been a frustrating experience for Matt at times, particularly early in his career when the roles he was typecast for were consistently going to his straight colleagues.
“Six, seven years ago, it was pretty much all straight actors playing gay roles and the gay roles were not even that developed. I think some of the soaps had two gay stalkers on there,” he says.
“I don’t subscribe to the belief that only gay actors should play gay characters. That’s not it at all, but when the seesaw is like this [he puts out his hands to symbolise unbalanced scales] we have to level it out a bit.”
However, since he first began acting he has seen a demonstrable difference in the industry.
“I’ve noticed much more developed interesting queer characters that are really exciting. My mate Tim Draxl just got nominated for two AACTA awards for playing two gay roles and he’s openly gay. Like, that was not happening when I graduated, there was no gay actor openly succeeding that you could go ‘cool, I can do it’, but it is changing,” he says.
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For all his thespian prowess, there’s one role he is probably best known for: Play School.
Matt became a presenter on the iconic program back in 2017.
“It’s just so fun. It’s so silly. I mean, it’s in the name. We just get to go in and play and be big kids, and I’m such a big kid,” he laughs.
He has also been part of the program as so many children in his life grow up with it.
“When I started, I had two nephews and they were like, in the right age bracket. So they’ve grown up with Uncle Matt on TV. Now I’ve got two more nephews and a little niece and so they’re all watching and my friends are having kids and I think I got it at the perfect time. It’s a reminder of how special it is, it’s like the funnest job I’ve ever had.”
With his exposure across so many different mediums, I ask him who recognises him the most. He says kids often spot him but he also gets approached out on the scene.
“I was at Mardi Gras, and you know, everyone’s dressed up and having a good old time and a lovely gay guy skipped up to me and pointed in my face and was like you’re on Play School and skipped off into the night!”
A big year ahead
2024 looks to be a big year for Matthew.
On January 18, the Stan series Prosper comes out where he stars alongside Richard Roxburgh and Rebecca Gibney which he describes as “his biggest TV role so far.”
The show has been described as Succession meets Hillsong drama series.
Also coming out during the year will be Die Bully Die.
The film is one that Matthew and his friend Drew Weston co-wrote and will star in together.
It’s a comedy horror that takes some inspiration from Matt’s experiences at that 90s Catholic school in Brisbane as well as an incident he had later in life at Tropical Fruits.
“I looked across the dance floor and saw one of my worst bullies and they’re shirtless and gay. It was fine, he came up and gave me a big hug, but I felt really angry and I didn’t show it. I remember thinking, gosh, there’s so much drama and conflict in what I felt because I was happy for him, but also really angry at him.”
“So we developed this idea, based around a character who maybe hasn’t let that go and is a little warped. Horror is my favourite genre, so we just made it a horror comedy. Hopefully, people love it, it’s it’s bloody entertaining.”
The film’s budget was crowdfunded and the pair are hoping to have it played in a number of festivals this year.
Matthew’s ability to be a chameleon throughout his career stands him in good stead.
He’s gone from journalist to theatre and screen actor, Play School presenter, and now film writer. All while fully embracing his queer identity.
There’s no doubt there is more to come in his career and the boy from Brisbane will continue to do his parents and his community proud.
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