Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: It makes a certain amount of sense that Sean Astin grew up onscreen—after all, he comes from a family of actors, including his parents, the late Patty Duke and John Astin, and his half-brother, Mackenzie Astin. And just like his mother, Astin went from playing precocious kids to troubled teens. But he’s also carved out a niche all his own: the unexpected hero. Whether warding off developers in suburbia or thwarting the forces of Mordor, Astin has always shown exceptional pluck. But his performances are always grounded, often serving as the emotional center of even the most fantastical and supernatural stories. The A.V. Club spoke with Astin ahead of two of his latest projects: a B-movie and a Netflix phenomenon.
The A.V. Club: It can’t have been easy to audition for Steven Spielberg and Richard Donner for your first movie role.
SA: Yeah, it’s funny because a lot of times, when you’re a kid, you just have no concept of anything other than what you’re doing. So confidence comes easily, but for some reason, I was pretty aware of the room I was in. Actually, the thing I remember looking at when I was waiting in Spielberg’s foyer area at Amblin Entertainment was a poster on the wall and it was R2-D2 handing a crown to E.T. because E.T. had just surpassed Star Wars for top box office gross or something like that. And there was the box office number up above it, and I was looking at that and taking in the enormity of what that meant, and then they were like, “Okay, you can come see Mr. Spielberg now.” And all of a sudden, I was like, “Uh.” I just got scared, so I went in, and I never successfully got through the entire scene. I got through enough of it, I guess, but I always messed up at the very end, and Spielberg walked out of the room in between takes, so to speak, and I was sure when I left that I had offended them and I didn’t get the job. So I was kind of shocked when I was told I got the job.
AVC: This was one of your first roles, and you’ve managed to work steadily since. Do you look back and feel like you watched yourself grow up onscreen?
SA: I’m always surprised at things when I catch a glimpse of it now. Two years ago, I was sitting in a theater in Pittsburgh or somewhere on the East Coast, and I watched Goonies with a group of people, and it was almost like I was looking at somebody else. I think it’s like anybody looking at photo albums when they were a kid—only there’s music set to mine. But also, it feels like certain movies are a pin in a bulletin board. Sometimes I don’t feel the sweep or the flow or transition of a life in different movies. I feel like, “Oh, that was that movie,” and, “Oh, that captures who I was at that period.”
One thing that actually defines it is a film called White Water Summer. It was a David Putnam film, and he was released from the studio from Columbia, so we had to go back to New Zealand twice, then to Canada and back up to the Sierra Nevadas, and then finally to Beverly Hills. They couldn’t figure out where to do it. So I actually go from being 13 years old in it to, like, 17 years old, and in the same movie. And sometimes in the same scene, there will be an angle where I’m two years older than I was in the other angle, and so when I look at that, I think, “Oh, that’s sort of the chronicles of my puberty in that movie.” But in a weird way, the other ones, when people ask me what it was like when I was 12 years old, I think of The Goonies as this kind of fixed point on a wall somewhere.
AVC: Have your kids seen Goonies? Do they like it?
SA: Yeah, they like it. I think they’re very proud of it. They’re girls, so they weren’t raised like a bunch of boys, picking up worms and going in the backyard. Not that girls don’t do that, but my girls in particular didn’t do that—actually Bella might have. My point is, I think there’s a self-consciousness because their dad is in it. One of my daughters wears a nightshirt that’s just a Goonies shirt. Like every night, I’ll see her in it, and I’ll think, “Oh, that’s so cool.” So I think they’re proud of it, like, “That’s my dad’s movie.” They own it on some emotional level. But I don’t know if it was experienced by them the way that other kids have. It’s a little different for them.
AVC: You’ve worked with some great ensembles, but how does the cast of Goonies compare with, say, the Fellowship in The Lord Of The Rings trilogy?
SA: Well, there was a similar feel in terms of the camaraderie we all felt. Everyone on The Goonies and everyone on Lord Of The Rings knew that we were a part of something that was going to be big. I guess it could have been a flop, but there was this sense [on Goonies] where you walk on the set and there is this huge pirate ship. And you go, “Wow, this is a big pirate ship set and the odds are, people are going to want to see it because it’s so cool. And it’s a Spielberg film, so it’s going to be released in all the theaters.” Well, the same thing was true of Peter Jackson and this trilogy we were doing. So there’s something that happens when you’re a part of something, that there’s an expectation of greatness or at least size and scope of what you’re doing, and it makes you swallow a little bit. It makes your heart kind of beat a little bigger in your chest and makes you look around and feel like, “I’m a part of a big team here.” So I think that was similar. But one of the big differences is that we were all old enough to vote in Lord Of The Rings.
AVC: Some people would argue that Sam’s the real hero of the story, because he’s so selfless and brave. But he could’ve easily been this bumbling sidekick. How did you strike that balance between this very thoughtful portrayal and also occasionally being the comic relief?
SA: There’s a moment in Farmer Maggot’s crop where the boys—the other hobbits—have been stealing cabbages, and I come up to them and I’m angry. And at the moment I’m angry at them, I’m still, as you described, a little more serious, a little more thoughtful. And then they throw the cabbages to me and they run off, and now I’m holding the stolen cabbages as Farmer Maggot is coming through the field. And in that moment, it felt totally normal to be silly and to be whimsical and to have a light, comedic beat. But for the rest of the show, I did not want to be anything like what I saw in Ralph Bakshi’s version of Lord Of The Rings, with the hobbits who are bursting into tears and they just sounded sniveling. I just hated it. I didn’t hate it when I looked at it later. I really appreciate what Ralph Bakshi did. But in the moment when I thought, “My god, my entire life is going to be wrapped up in this character. I am not going to be that guy.” Sean wanted to be what Samwise wanted to be, which is strong and brave and dependable. All those things. That’s what I wanted for me, Sean. And it just happened, thank god, to work out for ole Sam. And when we got there, you put the hair on and the ears go on and the feet go on and the big backpack with the sausages and the pots and pans go on, and all I could think when all that stuff was going on is, “I’m not this stuff. I’m me. I’m the center. I’m the foundation of this.”
AVC: What other creature or character would you have played, given the chance?
SA: Aragorn. I know, there’s something wrong with me. A friend of mine, who’s a TV director, told me, “Sean, you’re trapped in this world.” And it was something about science fiction or fantasy or something, and the way he said it was so horrifying because he finally made it clear to me what my consciousness was. And even with E.T. or Star Wars or any of the cool fantastic things, or Back To The Future, I really wanted those things to be real, like really real. Like I could really get in a DeLorean and go back in time. Like I could really find myself. I wanted it to be real. So instead of enjoying the power of imagination and the exploration into the fantastic, I was like, “I want it to be real.” There’s two main illustrators of Tolkien’s work: Alan Lee and John Howe, who are both award-winning, brilliant illustrators. There are others who were good, and Tolkien did some of the illustrations, too.
But when I was looking through to find which books I wanted to get for me to read, I saw Alan Lee’s illustrations, and I grabbed onto them and loved them. And I loved it because he cared as much about a branch or leaves or a river as he did the orcs or the elves or the trolls. And to me, it made it feel like history, like real history, and not mythology. So I’m a little bit trapped in this world sometimes.
AVC: Would you step into those hobbit feet again?
SA: No. If I wanted to go back, I’d do the golden years, the Shire Golden Years when Sam Gamgee, in the book, he becomes mayor. He has 15 kids with Rosa Cotton. If we were going to do the series of that, I’d probably go for it because I wouldn’t want anybody else to play Sam yet. Eventually it’ll get redone and that’ll be fine. I bet in the next 15 years it gets redone actually.
AVC: Given how seriously you take fantasy and adventure, this must have been a dream come true.
SA: It was actually a very traditional casting hire for me. I got an email saying they were casting and would I like to consider the part? I was a fan of the show, so I said, “Absolutely. I would love to go in for it.” So I went in and read for one part. They liked it a lot, but they thought maybe I’d be better for a different part. So they sent me that part, and I went back in and I auditioned and got the role. It all happened very quickly, which is nice.
AVC: What was it like joining the cast of a hit show?
SA: It’s familiar. I’ve worked with some of the greatest filmmakers in the history of the medium. And they all have something in common: a quality that is creative, comfortable, and thoughtful. And they’ve set the game up so that they can do what they want. And it’s like going home when you’re with people like that because you can have ideas, and if they like your ideas, you can do it. It doesn’t have to go through a whole committee. It feels like the people who have created this world that you’re inhabiting and who are the protectors of the world, it’s a one-to-one connection, and there’s something so great about that. And they’re lovely gentlemen. Everybody who’s ever met the two of them will tell you that they’re twins, so they look alike and they finish each other’s sentences—they literally finish each other’s sentences. They have a kind of psychic connection with each other.
AVC: Have you ever played Dungeons & Dragons?
SA: I’m not smart enough to play Dungeons & Dragons. Maybe if someone were to take me by the hand and slowly and carefully walk me through. Actually, I’ve been developing a TV show that’s a role-playing show, like Pathfinder and D&D. I love the storytelling aspect of them. We’ve spent so much time trying to get this show mounted, but I still couldn’t tell you any of the rules, and I still couldn’t survive in the game. Maybe I could if I was one of the players, but I definitely couldn’t be one of the game masters who tells the story, or at least not without some serious emotional work in my life. I just don’t know how to do it.
SA: It’s really interesting to look back now because there’s so much information coming out about how dangerous football is, and I grew up loving football. My mother wouldn’t let me play football, because she was afraid I would get hurt, so I played flag football. And then when I did this movie, it’s really about this guy Rudy who’s so tiny, that at every second, how is he not breaking, they’re hitting him so hard. And now we’re in a moment where kids will come up to me, football players who were playing tackle football at their high school, and I just thought, “Oh no. Don’t play football.” And it’s such a sad feeling, because it’s such a great sport, but at the moment, the story, the character, the whole theme of the movie, is not really about football. It’s about not letting other people determine who you are, about claiming your own identity for yourself. And it’s about determination, hard work, grit. And it’s about education. At one screening I attended, people gave a standing ovation when Rudy got accepted to college. That’s a unique thing. So I think it’s amazing that it’s a part of film history and sports movie history. I always love seeing those lists of influential sports movies and knowing that it earned a spot on that list for what it has to say. That it honors the last guy on the bench, not just the captain of the football team.
But you asked that question, and my first thought was like, “Oh, those helmets.” I don’t know how everybody in those days didn’t have brain damage, because the little webbing that was in there, it was almost worse. It would almost have been better if you had no helmet because of how poorly constructed they were. And helmets are a lot better now, but that’s just so they can hit better. So I’m concerned about football’s place in the world, but I’m so grateful I got to be in that part, and the fact that it’s touched the lives of so many people will be probably one of the things I’m remembered for, if I’m remembered for anything.
SA: You know, when you’re 18 or 19 years old, there are not a lot of parts where you’re the main hero. So after making Memphis Belle. I had switched over to CAA, the most powerful agency in Hollywood, or one of the top two, three. And Toy Soldiers came along, and I had to be in it. I just had to be in it. And I remember the director, Dan Petrie Jr.—who has since become a mentor of mine and a dear friend—I wasn’t his first choice. But Mark Burg, who was president of Island Pictures and Charlie Sheen’s manager at the time, he was a producer on the movie. I actually got Warner Bros. to set up a screening of Memphis Belle before it came out for Mark in New York, and I watched it with him. And afterward, he was like, “It was the best campaign for a movie.” It was the opposite of Stranger Things, where all I had to do was audition to get the part. This was people are calling and executives and agents and producers, and it was a whole federal case to get it.
AVC: That’s a lot of effort, even if you did get to work with Wil Wheaton, Jerry Orbach, and Lou Gossett Jr. What was so appealing about the project?
SA: It was a cool idea, of these rich kids, senators’ kids, mafia bosses’ kids who are all in this fancy boarding school together, which made it a perfect target [for terrorists]. There was this fantasy of being the Bruce Willis Die Hard character in it. It just gave me a chance to live out the fantasy of being a swashbuckling kind of star in a movie, running and sliding and jumping and climbing on things. Grabbing a gun and helping evacuate. It was just awesome. I got to put a Humvee in a power slide. And we had Blackhawk helicopters. It was awesome. I remember we were watching dailies after a shooting, and you walk in and you’re like, “This is a movie.” It looks and feels like an actual movie. It wasn’t like a big studio film on the set. I don’t know how many chucks there were with the movie equipment and stuff, but it wasn’t a big movie, but it looked and felt like one. So that one—and by the way, you’re not alone. When I go to Comic-Cons and people stand in line to get autographs and take pictures and stuff, countless people bring up VHSs or posters. This was the big thing outside my theater in Ohio, and so they bring it in, and I autograph it for them and stuff, so you’re not alone in your experience.
SA: I did not want to do that movie. I thought it was stupid. But I was wrong. I was wrong for not wanting to do it. It was stupid, but it was stupid in a wonderful way, and I was too self-important at the time to really appreciate what it was. And in an interesting way, it’s almost like Sam in Lord Of The Rings. You’ve got Pauly [Shore], who’s using the juice and the nugs, and then you’ve got Brendan [Fraser], who’s a cave man, and I’m like the normal guy in the middle. And I think that’s why they wanted me for that part because I was the normal anchor. And I felt it was a little bit of a wink and a nod to John Hughes movies, where the biggest stakes are whether you’re popular or if you’re going to get the girl. It was almost like Sixteen Candles or one of those kind of movies.
But the other upside is that I only agreed to be in the movie if they would let me direct a short film. So I directed the short film Kangaroo Court, which was nominated for an Oscar, and that was the real reason that I did it was for the short film, not for the movie. And now that I’ve said that, I’ll never forget when I was with my brother-in-law, who was 14 at the time, and we’re just sitting around, and he’s just a kid, a punk kid. And he looks at me and he goes, “You know, Sean,” and he said it, he may as well have been Leonard Maltin. And he has never used this phrase or spoken this way about anyone else. It was a totally out of space and time comment. And he goes, “Sean, you know, Encino Man is your best work.” And I go, “What?! What are you saying?” And when he said it—he was this 14-year-old—he really felt that way. He knew what he was saying. So maybe I’ve just been totally self-absorbed because I played a drug addict in a big picture, and I wanted to be a serious actor and it was hard to think about being a serious actor. Once you do Encino Man, you’re never going to not be a guy who did Encino Man. That will always be a part of you. It was a huge hit for what it did. It was a big hit for them.
SA: 24 is the greatest casting story ever. I was having back issues. My back hurt, and I go into the Starbucks in The Commons here in Calabasas. I see John Ratzenberger from Cheers—I had met him at a celebrity poker game or something—and he’s like, “How are you doing, buddy?” I told him about the back pain I was having. He’s like, “Well, you need to see a chiropractor,” who he was waiting to meet, a guy named Spagnoli, “Spags.” And I just hang out for a minute, because Spags is going to be there. So up walks a guy who looks just like Joe Pesci, and he comes up and he’s like, “I’m Spags. How you doing? What’s going on? How you been?” I’m like, “Oh, my god, and he’s a chiropractor.” He’s like, “You need a chiropractor?” I’m like, “Yeah, I need a chiropractor, I guess so. Yeah.” He goes, “Come to my office in an hour.”
So I go in there, and I’m sitting in the kind of outer little room area, and here comes Spags going, “Hey, Sean, hey, Sean. Are you a fan of 24?” I’m like, “What?” He goes, “Are you a fan of 24?” And it started to dawn on me that he was talking about the show, and all I had seen of the show at that point was the pilot, which I watched when I was trying to get directing work on [it] because it was brilliant, and I was like, “I want to do this show,” and they’re like, “Yeah, you’re never going to do this show. It’s a hit, and you’re not going to get it.” I’m like, “Oh, okay.” So it was, like, four seasons in, and I hadn’t watched any of it, and he goes, “Do you like this show?” And I’m polite. I go, “Yeah, I love it. Why not?” He goes, “You want to meet the creator?” And he walks down the hall, and he goes, “Joel,” talking to Joel Surnow, the creator of 24. He goes, “Sean’s a big fan of 24.” And he throws open the door, and there’s Joel Surnow in his underwear. Shirt off, pants off, on the table. And I’m like, “Hey, Joel.” And he’s like, “Hey, Sean. How you doing?” I was like, “I’m doing great, man.” And he goes, “You want to be on the show?” I said, “I’d love to be on the show.” He goes, “Great. You’re on the show.”
I walked outside, got on my cellphone and called my agent, and said, “Who the fuck needs you.” He’s like, “What?” I’m like, “I just got a job on a hit show myself.” So that was that. And it happens to be the season that won the Best Drama Emmy.
AVC: I take it Guillermo Del Toro and Carlton Cuse were fully dressed for your Strain audition?
SA: The Strain was a lot easier. Guillermo Del Toro, the legendary, and the great Carlton Cuse brought me in to Warner Bros. And they said, “We want you to be on our show.” And I said, “I would love to be on your show.” And they said, “We’re going to put you in episode eight.” I didn’t even know what I was a part of, but I was like “Oh, my god.”
AVC: Would you say Jim and Lynn were decent dudes caught up in something bigger, like so many of your other characters?
SA: Jim Kent had a personal philosophy that’s sort of noble for doing the wrong thing—even though, in this case, the wrong thing is destroying civilization. If you have to choose between your wife’s life and protecting civilization, the normal person would have to choose to protect civilization. Jim chooses to protect his wife, and it takes many episodes to forgive him and to know that he is still trustworthy. But in a sense, in 24, everybody thought, “Oh yeah, bad guy,” because Lynn McGill came in to run the counterterrorism unit. McGill was a by-the-book guy. So when they’re having a tactical thing at a mall, and there’s 700 people in a mall, they’re like, “We’ve got to take out the mall because they’ve got to kill all those nukes that they’ve got.” And they’re like, “No, don’t do it. If we don’t, he’s going to kill 20 million.” So it’s worth killing 700 to save 20 million. And Lynn McGill saw that as a cut-and-dry thing. So I always wanted to do that. So people would be like, “You’re such a jerk! You’re such a bad guy,” when I walk into airports, “Dude, why did you do that?” And I’m like, “What? I saved Jack Bauer’s life three times. He’s actually a good guy.”
AVC: You sport an epically bad wig in Dead Ant.
SA: We had to go big or go home on the wig. The wig did everything. I didn’t do anything. I just stood there and let the wig blow. It was the opposite of Samwise, where I’m wearing a wig and all I’m wanting is to be this force, where the wig doesn’t ultimately matter. With this guy, Art, I know this guy. I’ve interacted with this guy a lot. Art imitated life, because I’m from Los Angeles, where there are a ton of rock groups, and I’ve just been to a lot of concerts.
AVC: How’d you end up involved in the project?
SA: My manager, Matt Luber, called me up and was like, “I know these guys who are doing this movie. I don’t know if this is anything that you’d want. It’s like a little horror movie. It’s tiny.” And I’m like, “Well, what it is?” He’s like, “Dead Ant.” And from the title, I knew what it was and that I wanted to do it. The first movie I was ever terrified in was Attack Of The Killer Ants at the outdoor cinema on Wilshire. It’s funny because it’s not realistic, but it’s also the sound the ants make, the kind of clicking sound with the ants—it’s frickin’ terrifying. And the ants’ point of view where they use different lenses to make it look like you’re in the ant point of view. So I was instantly like, “I get it. Yep. I’m happy to do it.”
AVC: You also had a small role in Cabin Fever: Patient Zero. Are you slowly trying to build your horror cred?
SA: At some point, I want to earn an Indie Spirit nomination, and at some point, and maybe this is it, I want to be accepted into the horror film world as a legit guy. In Cabin Fever: Patient Zero, I play Patient Zero. I was really proud of what I did in that. We were in the Dominican Republic, and Hurricane Sandy went by there, and we were all stuck in this house. But it was an awesome experience. I’m a team player when it comes to stuff like, “Will you do a horror movie?” I’m like, “Yeah, I’ll do a horror movie. Let’s go. Whose character?” It took me a long time in life to really appreciate horror films because I don’t like them. I don’t like that feeling of being scared. I’ll watch Alien because it’s a classic and those sorts of things. Even though I worked with Paul Reiser on Stranger Things and want to support him, I don’t want to see that movie. I don’t want the scary feeling. But I’ve watched a lot of people and I’ve seen what horror films mean to them. There’s a bond that’s created with people who love horror movies that’s really powerful. It has to do with fear of dying and acceptance of death and dying and mortality, and it also has to do with just how people wrestle with their fears.