October 9, 2000
Interview With Sean
SEAN ASTIN IS SITTING BEHIND A SMALL table in his trailer on the studio lot of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, apologising for "big bulky hobbit feet that are dirty and probably getting in the way". He has turned off the black and white Orson Welles version of Othello that was playing on his small, suspended television and now, surrounded by a tray of sushi, a laptop, a cellular phone and a Kevin Brownlow book, he is ready to do something he's pretty fond of: talking. As with the rest of Astin's life, there's a lot going on.
A well-fleshed grubby face, dirt-smudged hands and, yes, spectacularly unattractive, hairy, splayed feet, offer tell-tale signs of his mornings work as hobbit Samwise Gamgee in Jackson's lavish adaptation of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Astin's life is at a good point right now. He's in good spirits but he's also tired, like a lot of the people working at The Lord of the Rings studios. "We've been working like slaves for a big chunk of time on the movie," sighs Astin. "I mean, willing slaves, but its been really hard work. I think when you build a movie and you build a character, it's like a kind of artistic marathon."
Astin's no stranger to the arduous nature of filming. The son of actors Patty Duke (Valley of the Dolls) and John Astin (Gomez in The Addams Family), he has been working in the film industry for almost 19 of his 29 years. When asked if his career path is simply a spin-off of his parents' profession, he speculates whimsically that perhaps if his mother had been a dressmaker, he might now be doing an interview about his attempts to influence Paris' latest fashions. But, as it happened, a career in film suited Astin. While still best remembered for early roles such as Mikey Walsh in The Goonies, Astin's film credits reveal an actor committed to his craft. Twenty-three films in almost as many years and a directorial role on a short film that earned an Academy nomination are testament to that dedication.
"I remember this moment where the Academy has a brunch for all the nominees," Astin reminisces. "That's the day where everybody goes and feels like a winner because at the actual awards ceremony, at least four to five people in every category go home feeling like a loser."
Kangaroo Court, the short film he directed in 1994 that was nominated for an Oscar, is something Astin is very proud of. A stark and dramatic piece that looks at the different faces of justice, it's the kind of film that even without the official recognition Astin deems worthwhile.
For Astin, selecting what films to work on has often meant weighing up his desire to work against his preference to only be associated with work he believes has some value. By his own admission, he has taken roles with the central purpose of getting paid. After rejecting a role in an as-yet unreleased film because of the unrealised potential of the script, Astin was approached again and he reconsidered the offer. "I thought: for four weeks shooting, that amount of money would buy me another six months of life while I search for whatever the 'real' artistic project is."
It's hard to reconcile this pragmatic Astin with the hobbit-garbed figure who constantly leaves sentences half-finished before switching to another topic that excites him. But years in the business have lent Astin perspective. While acknowledging the "gate-opening" power of large-grossing films, Astin is philosophical about some of his films that haven't exactly broken Hollywood box office records.
"It's funny," he says. "There's this little pattern that's developed. The films that I've had the best time working on are the films that the fewest people seem to have seen or enjoyed. But I think its a very dangerous thing that happens when you start trying to pre-empt what people are going to think of what you are doing."
Astins key role in The Lord of the Rings trilogy could very possibly propel him into the position where he has the power to work only on projects that meet his criteria. However, acting is only one facet competing for space in a crowded life.
At 22, in the midst of a publicity slot at an awards ceremony, Astin made the decision he was going to get a university degree. "Somebody asked me what I was going to do next and at that moment I could have tried to use my nomination to broker deals or put films together or whatever. But I really didn't know what my voice was. I didn't want to put the cart before the wagon, so I answered: I'm going to go to college."
He enrolled at UCLA, where he completed a double degree in history and English, passing with honours. Astin continued to act during his study. His wife Christine took the same papers and whenever her husband took time out from the course, she taped the lectures so he could keep up.
Christine notes that it was somewhat galling that from couriered notes and recorded lectures, Astin would return to college and ace the tests. "Yeah," Astin laughs. "The difference between an A and a B is the willingness to kiss ass. But you can't just be sucking up to the lecturer for the sake of sucking up. There has to be something genuine in why you're doing it."
The completion of his degree was a moment for Astin to take stock. "I'd already had a career because I'd been acting since I was a little kid but it was always that I was taking advantage of opportunities. But right then, I just remember feeling there was nowhere I needed to be. I didn't have a class scheduled. I didn't have a job. I just had a wife and a baby and all this knowledge. It was an inspiring feeling. I was looking at the world as my oyster. I could make of it what I wanted."
This mindset saw him start his own film company, LAVA Entertainment. Astin also continued his acting career, with lead roles and ensemble work, including a role in Warren Beattys political satire Bulworth. And he continued to develop his passion for writing.
Now 29, Astin is the father of four-year-old Alexandra and has been married to Christine for eight years. He says he's never made an attempt to compartmentalise his life and as he sits in his trailer musing over the virtues of acting Ali comes in to query whether she can speak to her Dad for a minute. She wants to play but the difficulty is she wants to play with Dad. A compromise is reached. She can sit in while Dad chats and play some of her puzzle games. For Astin, the idea of separating family and work, and life and work, is alien.
The length of The Lord of the Rings project is a prime example of the impossibility of separating the two. By the end of filming, Astin will have spent almost a year and a half in New Zealand. The only condition he made before accepting the role as Sam was that his family could join him. "Trying to suspend life while I worked would mean I ended up never living at all."
Astins family has made a temporary but significant transplant to life in New Zealand. Christine, co-producer of Kangaroo Court, is part of the editing crew for The Lord of the Rings. The family, after attempts at hotel living and apartment life when they arrived, now has a home in the heights of Wellington and Ali attends a local Montessori pre-school.
Despite the major upheaval, when the offer came for The Lord of the Rings, Astin didn't hesitate. But originally it was Peter Jackson's name, not Tolkien's trilogy, that drew him to the project. He knew of, but hadn't read, the books. Jackson, on the other hand, was known to him because he had directed his father John in The Frighteners. Astin had also been impressed by what he'd seen of Jackson's spoof documentary, Forgotten Silver. "Dad showed me the documentary and I was like, 'Wow! We should be showing this to CNN and CBS. This is going to change history.' Then Dad started laughing and I was like, "Oh no. This is a rouse. This is bullshit. And then I thought: 'This director is so talented."
From the outset, Astin was destined to play the part of Sam Gamgee. As soon as Jackson saw Astin's audition, he felt the American actor was the embodiment of Tolkien's good-hearted hobbit.
During one of the many debates Astin has with himself in the course of the conversation, he reaches the conclusion that a movie and its characters do not have to be pure or improving but should contain some grain of truth. He believes something contained within the film and the roles should be worth saying. Tolkien's hobbit Sam and his whole intricately detailed fictional world hold numerous irrefutable truths that Astin came to as he read the trilogy.
"As I was reading the books, I was reading them with an eye towards Sam, but he's just got such a warm, honest, pure good-hearted essence. And that's his position in the films and in the book. Its to be a kind of barometer against which all of the adventure and evil is measured. Sam has an unfaltering moral compass. He always knows who he is. As all the different characters, with all their different complexities, change and evolve and grow or fail, Sam just is... good. He has a level of experience at the end of the trilogy that he didn't have at the beginning that informs his goodness. It makes his goodness that much more admirable. It's easy to be naive and innocent and good but it's another thing to have been embattled and, despite all of the trials and tribulations of an epic adventure, to remain good of heart."
Although Astin's a seasoned actor, filming The Lord of the Rings has still proved a novelty, both for the length of its shoot and for the phenomenal talents it has brought together. Astins characteristic vivacity gives way to a type of hushed appreciation as he discusses co-stars Ian McKellen, Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Sean Bean and Liv Tyler, to name but a few.
"Despite the immense talent of everybody, there's a level of fun, a level of jocularity, among people whose work is so respectable you want to put your dinner jacket on and be on your best behaviour," Astin laughs.
"I remember being up at the Pass of Caradhras and we're all trapped by this snowstorm. There's a blizzard and an avalanche and we're all filming this scene and there was Ian McKellen and Sean Bean and Viggo and Elijah and me and we were working with all this fake snow, breathing it in and choking on it. And then we just had this fake snowball fight. I took a mental snapshot. I thought: 'Here is a group of people whose work is admired the world over and we're all as giddy as school children."
Looking at Astin, this scenario isn't difficult to imagine. He exudes a boyish eagerness as he darts through memories of his time on the film and his fellow actors. He comments that Jackson did more than choose a cast that would do justice to the books, he chose a group of people that would mesh well.
Most of Astins co-stars have also signed on for the long haul. With filming schedules that often demand 12-hour days and six-day weeks, they are each other's virtual full-time companions. But it seems Jackson has been successful in amassing a compatible cast. Astin recollects a forced five-hour detour that cast and crew made in convoy around the South Island, contacting one another on RTs and stopping on the back roads for sing-alongs.
Astin, the second eldest of the actors who make up the hobbit quartet that traverse Middle Earth, is the only one with a wife and child. For Astin, this has meant opting out of a few boys nights out but hasn't precluded him from their joint venture of learning how to surf while in New Zealand. However, while age may not be a disadvantage, Astin finds the extra weight he's carrying for the role of Sam is not entirely conducive to fluid motion in the water.
Musical guidance has also been forthcoming from the hobbit fraternity. Elijah Wood, who plays Frodo Baggins, has expanded Astins CD collection during the (infrequent) spare time on the project. Ween, Björk and Travis The Man Who now reside with Astin's Cat Stevens and Miles Davis CDs. As Astin flicks through his CD wallet, his trailer door is opened with an abrupt knock It's one of the film's assistant directors. Sam Gamgee is required back on set in five.
Later, away from the studio, Astin relaxes in his home high above Wellington's breathtaking Breaker Bay. It's an airless, crystal-clear Sunday and the actor's only day off filming, since six-day working weeks are the norm at the moment. Tomorrow, he leaves with his family for filming at an isolated location in the South Island. But for now, he's sitting on the couch in the study, drinking a herbal raspberry tea. Astins not exactly sure what he has planned for his post The Lord of the Rings future. He'd like to try a western. He wouldn't mind trying the role of a baddie. He wants to see some of his script ideas realised on film. He thinks he should probably go home for a while after this film and develop some stability for the family.
In other words, Astin needs the lifespan of a hobbit. "I hope to live a long time," he concludes. "I hope to live into my hundreds and I hope to work a lot over the next 70-plus years."
The first instalment of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy will be released at the end of 2001, with the sequels following a year apart.