“The Strain” Exclusive: Sean Astin on Hobbit Jokes, “Goonies 2” and Rudy
by Fred Topel
As a member of the Television Critics Association, I often get some really cool interviews twice a year when the TCA gets together. This summer, I got to sit with Sean Astin for 45 minutes to talk about his role in the FX drama The Strain. That is an unusually generous amount of time, but Astin was happy to go down memory lane about his classic film roles – Lord of the Rings, Rudy, The Goonies and even Toy Soldiers – with me. I had previously met Astin at the Hollywood Park racetrack when he was filming the comedy And They’re Off there and he was generous with his time too, as long as it was between takes.
Now The Strain has been renewed for a second season, continuing the story of Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s trilogy of vampire books. Astin plays Jim Kent, a CDC worker who sold out the agency to make money for his wife’s cancer treatments. The Strain airs Sunday nights on FX.
Nuke the Fridge: You said Guillermo makes Hobbit jokes?
Sean Astin: Oh yeah, he’s always having fun.
Is that because he worked on it for a little while?
I think it’s because when he looks at me, he sees me as a hobbit. Obviously, he knew of me from Lord of the Rings. I love watching guys like that. He’s so smart. You can go to a museum and listen to a curator talk about an exhibit you’re looking at or a remodel that’s happening with the museum and where they’re getting the funding from, and you get a sense that that’s the full complement of that person’s life’s work. But Guillermo, you can talk about a hundred different things and he’s got the knowledge of the curator. So you find yourself needing to blink when he’s talking. And he loves to just be very present and immediate too. He’s always making fat jokes, all different kinds of jokes.
What’s an example of one of his hobbit jokes?
It would all be in context. It would be in the context of whatever we’re doing. We’re standing somewhere and he’d be like, “Oh, a hobbit would do that.”
Does he ever call you Samwise?
I can’t remember. I can’t remember if he ever called me Samwise. He might’ve said Sam a couple times. No, I think he must have felt very close to Sam because a lot of times when he looks at me, there’s this great affection. It’s from another time. That’s why I think he liked me playing this character. He could take that thing that he liked for what it was and mess with it a little.
Is doing 13 episodes of a series any comparison to doing the three movies of Lord of the Rings?
I’ve thought a lot about the fact that the 19 months of principal photography on Lord of the Rings was the most extraordinary and challenging work of my life. And how the story of how long it took became a part of the fabric of the discussion about movies and culture. But Big Bang Theory has been shooting three times longer than we did so I definitely note in my mind the commitment of a certain period of time. But also, listen, when you’re a part of an ensemble like in The Strain, you’re living in Toronto. Wellington is an amazing city. It’s a brilliant, beautiful, capital city, the capital of New Zealand. It was pretty tiny. I guess you notice after a while, if you’re used to living in L.A. or someplace like that, it feels pretty tiny. Toronto’s a big city. Huge sporting events. There’s sporting events in New Zealand too. It’s just psychological. I definitely note that Lord of the Rings took, for the production, I mean the actual preproduction took four more years, post-production took another three years so in the totality of Peter Jackson’s life, once you add in all three episodes of The Hobbit, it’s like 25 years of his life. But for Sean, it was the better part of seven years, five to six years maybe because we’d go back for reshoots and then do the publicity. It was more like popping back to see the family. I’m going to pop down in New York and see some theater or something. I thought a lot about Guillermo being down there for as long as he was.
It was a good two years before he dropped out.
Is that all? I thought it was more than that. I don’t know. That’s when he wrote this, right? He and Chuck wrote this down there. Everything happens for a reason and people who are great, their greatness will find its place.
The scenes with your wife are heartbreaking. How did you work with your costar Melanie Merkosky to gauge that?
Just watching the pilot, people were either upset that I let the box through or they liked it that Rudy let the box through. It clearly meant that to some extent I’m a bad guy, one would suppose. So when Kent’s wife comes into the picture, I always root for my characters, even if I’m playing a homicidal maniac. In this case, Jim Kent’s role is to serve, to be of service. That’s why he’s on the Canary team. That’s why he’s useful. He wants to help Eph, help Nora and help the mission. He’s good at getting things, so when he goes against that core part of himself for some reason, it’s painful. I think that when his wife comes in, it really does round out the moral picture that is this character of Jim Kent.
But it’s also not heavy handed.
Guillermo does both things really well. Guillermo can be incredibly overt. The Master reels up and a six foot retractable tongue shoots out and crushes Andrew Divoff’s head. There’s not a lot of subtlety going on there. But then there is a lot of subtlety, like a little drop of blood when the worms are going. So Jim Kent’s relationship with his wife I think takes something that’s powerful and draws it from its simplicity. She’s wonderful.
Is Kent starting to redeem himself by helping Eph with the keycards?
I think it’s fair to say that Jim is desperate to atone.
Will he ever come face to face with the Strigoi?
He comes face to face, not with The Master yet, but he does interact with Eichorst.
Was there a lot of practical props there for the autopsy scene?
Well, they had the actual body of the pilot. They recreated the pilot’s body for the autopsy. I don’t know, but I would suspect it’s a very expensive piece. It was beautiful. It was like another character and you could do things with it so you could really film it. Very disturbing, and the weight of it, like if you got somebody on a table and you move the leg over, lifting the leg up and moving it over, it’s heavy. Legs are heavy. And it had that kind of weight to it but also the silicon. It’s just really well done, really, really well done. I can’t imagine parents would want their kids to have that as a toy.
What else is cool about The Strain?
I would think the worms, just watching how those things work. I remember watching Guillermo, we were at the airplane set. Sometimes you wait for things. We were waiting for a half hour and he had one of the effects guys there with a laptop open. They were talking about the worm. They had done the worm and I looked and I was like, “Oh, that’s cool. It’s a worm.” Guillermo’s like, “No, see if you can get it…” Watching him describe the physiological properties that he wanted these worms to have. I can’t even describe it but that’s why he’s Guillermo del Toro. He can look at a worm and describe the way he wanted it to lay over, and he came up with analogies and metaphors. He must’ve done 10 minutes on how the worm moves. I couldn’t wait to see what the final verdict was based on is it going to look like my idea of what I heard him describe based on what I saw. When I saw the worms in the pilot, it was unbelievable. Whether or not they got it right away after that or whether they went back and forth until he could finally get his vision, the fact is the worms’ behavior, because it is pretty unique. I’m not talking about the closeup where it goes at you with the blood. I’m talking about a CG worm. It’s hard to create that. There are certain things in animation that are harder. Water is hard to do.
That’s why you can tell a Guillermo del Toro creature from anything else.
Mm-hmm. The thing was he was describing certain things with a twist, like maggots with a twist. Worms that you’d find in some sort of dung pile with a twist, with a slightly different attitude on them. So when Eph is holding up that box and he’s looking at it, those worms are really cool. The other thing is the cosmology of the vampires. The Master, if you read the books, there’s a lot going on. They have many seasons of story to tell depending on how much they want to go there. My other favorite character is Fet, the exterminator.
Dick Donner seems to be starting the Goonies 2 rumor mill again. Have you heard anything real?
No. I mean, for him to say what he said to TMZ is real. He’s a substantial director with a huge resume. He’s not just going to flop stuff out there for no reason. I know Steven wants to do the show, but when you say, “Have I heard anything real?” I hear, “Has there been any job discussion, job offers.”
Yes, that’s what I mean. There was a script a while ago. Is there a new one?
There’s a bunch. They want to do it.
Even Spielberg wants to?
Oh, he wants to most of all. They just can’t get it right and he’s not going to do it unless it’s right, which is pretty cool.
Would Goonies today be helped or hindered by all the technology kids have now?
That Goonies would not be helped. The next Goonies will be. The thing that was so cool about Goonies was it’s very much of its time.
Kids went outside and played back then.
And played, yeah. But more than that, even just the jokes. The movie literate jokes that you’d have. There are little things in there that I accidentally call Brand, the character, Josh, the actor, and they leave that in. We talk about the octopus. That’s kind of famous. The octopus was cut out but he leaves the kid saying octopus in there. There’s just a whimsy about it that somehow captures that specific time and place. It would take a really special moment for that to be grabbed for now.
I think it was strategic of Donner to say it to TMZ. Maybe he wants to do it but there needs to be some heat outside the studio system.
Any time any sophisticated person says something to a media person, there has to be some net value to it. It must be that Dick believes that’s happening.
Did you notice any spike in Rudy viewings after The Newsroom mentioned it?
With social media now, you get a pulse with lots of things. There was a definite pulse on social media after that happened. I don’t know if the actual downloads, it’d be interesting to cross-pollenate, like somebody mentions this here. Did 800 more people download it today than would’ve downloaded it yesterday? I don’t know. I’ll tell you what, I just did an ESPN commercial for the NCAA playoff and NCAA championship game. This is the first year they’re doing it so we went back and recreated the locker room scene of Rudy.
I’ve felt a little bit of ugliness creep into sports fandom so it would be nice if young people saw something like Rudy and kept it pure and simple.
Like the Dodgers?
Yeah, the beating incident and just hostility when everyone should celebrate fandom, even if it’s different teams.
Yeah, there is a playful quality to the thing we put out there. What I’ve noticed about greatness, I’ve been so blessed and fortunate to meet all stars and legends when you go to golf tournaments or banquets or awards show. A World Series pitcher loved Lord of the Rings. Well, I love watching the World Series so now we get to have a conversation together. The one thing I’ve noticed is the people who are truly great are really relaxed, easy people. They have good senses of humor.
Oh, I get that. Bad sportsmanship is a sign of insecurity.
Yeah, so that’d be nice. I think I’ve done three sports movies. Can you consider the horse racing movie a sports movie? It is technically a sport. I did a baseball movie. They’re all about people who are earnest and try really hard to do something. I hate the idea of ugliness. The whole point of sports is to be able to have the contest, the battle take place within the confines and the rules of the game. That’s the whole point of rules. Otherwise, why not just take your bat down to first base, hit the first baseman, knock ‘em out and just keep running? There’s rules. It bums me out. A lot of time it has to do with poverty and drinking.
One of my favorites, a little more obscure than Goonies, Rudy or Lord of the Rings, was Toy Soldiers. Was that pitched as “Die Hard in a school?”
Probably to the executives. It’s funny, you couldn’t make that movie today, terrorism being what it is. Or maybe you could. Maybe it’d be more interesting to see, with the school shootings and everything else. When I read that, that’s basically what it is but I liked the fact that, if you think of John McClane in Die Hard, he really was a good guy. He was a cop, his wife was leaving, he didn’t want his wife to leave and he didn’t want to be away from his kid. And obviously Die Hard is a classic and Toy Soldiers is a minor catalog thing, but I loved it. I love that my character was a rebel. Yeah, “Die Hard in a school.” People come up to me a lot at conventions and talk to me about that one. They’ve got their video cassettes they want [me to sign]. What’s a video cassette? Will Wheaton was in that and Keith Coogan, the late Denholm Elliott. Andrew Divoff who played the Colombian drug lord’s son is the head of the control tower here in The Strain. When he and I found ourselves on a tarmac standing next to each other, it was like oh, it’s been 20-something years since we did Toy Soldiers together and now we’re on the same side of the fence so to speak. I like that one.