Sean Astin (aka Sam - 'The Two Towers')
”Protector of The Ring”
Hobbits, Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin are back with a bang in ’Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers’ - the stunning second movie in the J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy. Packed with awesome special effects and breathtaking battle scenes the sophomore outing is guaranteed to be another box office smash.
In ’The Two Towers’, the mighty Aragorn, played again by Viggo Mortensen and wise wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) help the halflings take on the twin evils of Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Sauron. Elijah Wood as little Frodo and pals Sam (Sean Astin), Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan) shine as the forces of Dark and Light clash.
This time around the slimy Gollum is introduced and it is almost impossible to remember he is a phenomenal computer-generated image voiced by British actor Andy Serkis ! And don’t forget that the frenzied chaos of the final battle; the Battle of Helms Deep is all hell is finally unleashed and the skies are filled with arrows and blazing missiles !
Sitting down with Sean Patrick Astin (aka Sam the Hobbit) you get the feeling that these three cinematic adventures meant much more to the actors than at first meets the eye. Astin is the eldest child of actress Patty Duke and actor John Astin (best known for his portrayal of Gomez Addams on the ‘Addams family’). Born on February 25, 1971 in Santa Monica, CA, Astin has been acting since 1981, when at the age of nine he starred opposite his mother in the made-for-TV special ‘Please Don't Hit Me, Mom.’ He was propelled to fame in 1985 when he played Mikey, the lead character in Steven Speilberg's ’The Goonies.’ Since then, Astin has worked steadily, starring in numerous films. Likely his most well known role was in the movie ’Rudy’, although most people might now argue that ’The Lord of the Rings’ will outpace that flick. Astin has even taken a turn writing and directing with his short film ’Kangaroo Court’ being nominated for an Academy Award for Best Short Film in 1995. He and his wife, Christine, have two daughters, Alexandra (who will “possibly” appear in ’Return of the King’) and Elizabeth. He and his wife are also founding partners in the production company Lava Entertainment.
Honestly, where the hell would Frodo have ended up without Sam by his side ? ”Frodo may not have survived without Sam’s help. No, but Sam is nothing except for what he is in relationship to Frodo. To me, you have to say both things in the same sentence. You can’t just say that Frodo couldn’t have survived without Sam, because essentially Frodo sacrifices more than Sam does. As Frodo is the ring-bearer, Frodo has to allow the sanctity of his soul to be compromised and therefore to experience utter darkness and despair. Sam has to deal with confusion, with a sense of frustration with all the survival things, but on an emotional scale I think Frodo sacrifices by degrees more than Sam does. A lot of people say to me that Sam really emerges as the true hero of the piece, but Sam only bares witness to it; to the experience, and Sam is never tempted but he doesn’t need to be in order for Middle Earth to be saved. Frodo does so you can’t have one without the other.”
Sure, but there’s way too many times as these films progress where Sam has jumped in to save Frodo from evil for him to be just nothing more than an innocent bystander ! ”Oh sure, yeah, and it’s wonderful to experience that kind of bravery in a little creature and it was fun to play and I felt great about it. Especially as Sam relates to Gollum and the Trifector – Frodo, Gollum and Sam - the three characters play of each other both intellectually and psychologically. It’s really fun stuff and an incredibly richly drawn relationship in the books and we wanted to try and deliver that in the films. But just because for some reason Sam is ever devoted to Frodo, Sean is ever devoted to Elijah and I just feel like the second movie is a snap shot of the middle part of the story and I know – as we’ve already filmed all three parts of the movie – where Frodo goes; the depths of darkness that he achieves – so the second film, well, it’s a little bit more psychological and a little bit more difficult to try and dramatize. But Sam and Gollum sort of come more immediately to the fore in the mind of the newer viewer to the movies. But, just wait till the third film. Just wait and see where Elijah and where Frodo goes. It takes your breath away.”
Can you reveal anything from ‘Lord of The Rings: The Return of The King’ for us to look forward to ? ”Well, just as people were aware of, on the internet sites and things, for a long time that there’s three signature things about ‘Film 2’ to look out for: Gollum, Tree Beard and the Battle of Helms Deep – which is; and just as an audience member, I was blown out of the water when I saw the film two weeks ago – in ‘Film 3’ what you can look forward to – and one of the things that I’m most excited about – is the fight that happens with Shelob. That should be pretty extraordinary, but the third film is arguably going to be the best of the three films. I don’t know what to say is better between ‘Film 1’ and ‘Film 2,’ because they’re different tonally - and in terms of the story and narrative they’re just different from each other - but the third film I think is, pretty objectively, the best movie. You get to see a resolution, you get to see whether or not they make it to the crack of Mount Doom and what happens when they get there. There’s a lot about ‘Film 3’ that is worth waiting for.”
When did you complete filming the final film ? ”Well, we filmed all three movies simultaneous, so any given day we’d be filming a scene from the end of the third film or the beginning of the first film. So, we’ve known about what was in ‘Film 2’ and ‘Film 3’ last year when we were promoting ‘Film 1,’ but we just couldn’t really talk about any of it ! One ‘cause the studio didn’t want us to, but also, two, because people weren’t ready to hear about it if they hadn’t read the book. It’s been all about needing to be patient and waiting until people sort of catch up with what we know we’ve done. But we also did go back this summer for four weeks and do some additional principal photography. With the success of the first film much more money and time was spent in continuing to try and make this film better than the first film.”
How long was the entire shooting process for you ? ”For me, fifteen months on principal photography and then there were a couple of weeks of re-shoots and additional dialogue recording and things so it’s extended - I can safely say – into eighteen months worth of work over two-and-a-half years !”
What did you learn about yourself during these times ? ”I think my personality and my life transformed as a function of making these movies. It’s easy to kinda to get hyperbolic or something, but you can’t overstate …. I mean, it was 15 months living away from my home and my country. But I did have my wife and little daughter with me every step of the way and I put on 35 lbs. for the part and so to be that fat and to be that far away from home and to be part of such an extraordinary cinematic endeavor; twenty-five hundred people coming together with skills ranging in everything from model making and prosthetics design to thousands of extras, you just can’t understand what an unbelievably transformative experience for me. I learned so much, I mean, how long do you have Doctor as we could talk forever … ?!”
I have until the bell goes off ! ”Well, if I had to sort of crystallize it in one sentence, I learned that it’s okay to take things as they come. You sort of just can’t have everything you want right away and if with a little bit of luck and a whole lot of hard work and persistence you can discover amazing things about yourself and you can achieve more than you might have thought capable of. I mean just in terms of your own physical stamina. It was a non-Union shoot and we’d work six sometimes seven day weeks and fourteen-eighteen hour days and there were moments were I thought, ‘Oh my god, I won’t be able to survive this process.’ And yet you do and whether you’re forced to do it, you just do it.”
What’s been the worst thing about filming this trilogy ? ”Even though I voluntarily chose and wanted to pout the weight on to play the part so that I could get the part; because I wanted to play this character very badly, that was the most painful thing for me. My knees hurt, my back hurt, my neck hurt. I was constantly getting injured because they’d ant me to run up hills or run down slops and with the prosthetic feet on and having your body sort of out of balance ‘cause your carrying so much extra weight, it changes the way you run physically. I mean, things fell on my head, I punctured my feet. I mean, I was like ‘Danger Hobbit’ !”
What weight did you get to ? ”This June or July when we were doing the retakes I was 196lbs. and today I weight 155lbs and it was a lot of hard work and determination getting there.”
Where does this trilogy now place you on the Hollywood scale of ‘got-to-have-actors’ ? ”Well, I hope at the top,” he laughs ”but, in fact, I don’t know. I was offered the buddy parts and the friend in some pictures this year, some which I wanted to do and was unable to and other which I didn’t want to do, but I really see myself as more of a leading man-type person and so I was determined to lose the weight. I don’t know how the executives see me. I did notice that on the front cover of the new issue f daily Variety that Frodo, Gollum and Sam are on the cover and we’re also on the cover of Hollywood Reporter ! So, I think we’re on people’s minds,” he laughs ’but whether or not they’re gonna offer us jobs or not that remains to be seen. If there’s anything you can do to help me, I’d be greatly appreciative ....”
Sure, yeah. Life’s too short and so I’ll help anyone I can at any time ’Me too. So, how can I help you ?"
Well, when that damn bell goes off you could just keep talking to me ! ”Alright, I’ll do it. I’ll do it,” he answers, as it turns out, truthfully.
Is it true that your eldest daughter, Alexandra is going to appear in ‘Lord of The Rings: The Return of The King’ ? ”I haven’t seen it yet,” he laughs ”so you never know what gets cut out and what gets left in. I’m being circumspect about it because I don’t want to jinx the Gods and I haven’t wanted to talk about it too much just until we get to the third film and she gets a little bit older and everything. But she’s very proud of talking about her experience with me and her mom on the making of the film and very proud of being able to spend some time actually on the sets. She just celebrated her sixth birthday, but she was two years old when we went down to New Zealand for the first time and she celebrated her third and fourth birthdays in New Zealand and she’ll be seven before the third film – which she may or may not be in – is presented to the world.”
Is there ever any confusion about your last name being Austin instead of Astin ?! ”Yeah, my daughter always says, ‘Daddy, how come there’s a bad word in our last name’ and I’m like, ‘Well, that’s the way it is kid, sorry !’”
How did playing Mikey in ‘85s ‘The Goonies’ change your life at such a young age ?”Well, I don’t think it effected me as much as you might think. I know it probably created some career opportunities for me that I wouldn’t have had, had I not have been in it. But I saw those as more kind of specific and isolated moments. It’s like if you ever go and take one of those pictures of yourself - so that you’re on the cover of Time Magazine as a parlor gag – you look at it afterwards and you sort of think, ‘Hey look, there I am on the cover of Time Magazine. But when a film you’re in is actually on the cover of Time Magazine somehow, even though they are the real magazines, there’s a weird feeling that you have like it’s all still a parlor game, you know. It doesn’t feel real and you don’t feel the weight of the impact of it as it’s hard to experience it personally. So you just think of it as another picture of yourself and you just keep moving on. So, I know that it had an incalculably positive impact on my life, but it wasn’t distracting to me.”
What was your youth like ? ”I was lucky enough to have parents who helped me lead a very traditional and stable existence and school was important to me. Little League baseball was important to me, making my home movies and spending time with my friends, getting a high quality education were all things very important to me growing up."
Looking back on your TV and movie career, is there anything that you reflect back on and say, ‘Man, why the hell did I do that’ ?! ”Well, no I wouldn’t say so. I’d say that everything that I did I knew why I was doing it while I was doing it and I don’t sort of disavow it in hindsight. But, there are certain things that I know are bad work and that I’m not too happy about the quality of them. And when they’re printed on my resume I sort of cringe a little just because you sort of think, ‘Wow, I can’t believe that I was apart of something that was as bad as that and that I was a bad as that !’ It’s just one of those things, but I’m not an apologist for myself. I sort of accept the decisions that I’ve made and I’ve never done anything that I didn’t realize what it was while I was doing it.”
What’s the most interesting thing to know about Sean Astin ? ”I would say the fact that I was nominated for an Academy-Award for directing my short film and at that exact moment instead of trying to capitalize on my career as a filmmaker – which was something that was important to me – I chose to go to college and study History and English at UCLA. I think that and the fact that at 31 I've been married for ten years and have two children. I think those are the two most interesting facts about me !”
You’re a very lucky man, then ”Well, I was lucky enough to meet the right girl early and I’m always the kind of guy that knows what I want and I wanted her. And she was dumb enough to say yes and so now she’s gotta suffer with me for the rest of her life,” he chuckles.
Your English accent in these films was absolutely fantastic and spot on. How long did it take you to get to that level of comfort ?”Wow, that’s a great compliment, thank you, but it’s not the best compliment that I’ve gotten ! The best compliment that I’ve received was in London (England) ”after the premiere (‘Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring’) last year and two British girls came up to me and were (he now puts on his dynamic British accent),‘Ohhh, can we have your autograph ? We just love you. Sam is such a dear character …’ And I said (now back to an American accent), ‘Sure, that’s not a problem’ and they looked at each other and said (back to the British accent !), ‘Are you American ?’ They were gutted. They were absolutely flabbergasted that I was American and totally disappointed and I’m pretty sure that they didn’t want my autograph after that ! So, I took that as the best compliment to me, but it’s really a testament to two people – Andrew Jack and Rochen Carter - the dialogue coaches who worked with us for six weeks in advance of filming the movie. They really helped me learn the shape of the mouth, the tongue in the teeth and the diaphragm and how you make sounds and were there from the starting bell to the finish line and listened to very word that I uttered and corrected it and kept me on track. Gloustershire is not as easy as the kind of standard pronunciation British accent. It’s kind of obvious Americanized cockney, the American perception of cockney. It’s all sound and it was hard for me to get my head around and so if it wasn’t for Andrew and Rochen I would have sounded like an idiot or I would not have been able to do what I did. So, I’m incredibly grateful to them for helping that happen, but it’s a testament to how at every level of the movie that the company of Peter Jackson wanted to make sure that the attention to detail was followed.”
”I’ve also got one final anecdote, as they’ve been giving me the wrap up signal now for about six minutes, but I just keep telling them, ‘No, I can’t see you. La, la, la, la, la !’ But, at one time one of the lines Sam was supposed to say was (breaking back into British once more), ‘Get down,’ and that was how I was supposed to say it (in British accent), ‘Get down.’ But, Rochen came up to me and said (in British accent), ‘Erm, Sean, that one was a little bit (now full on, Americanized accent, circa 1970s) ’Git dowwwan’ ! So, I was like, ‘Sorry Rochen. I’ll get it better next time’,” he laughs.
Interviewed by Russell A. Trunk
Back To Archives