Imagine starring in a major cult film at the age of 13 and not instantly becoming, at the very least, the biggest star in your family.
Sean Astin would have been happy with third place. But, even after landing the role of Mike in The Goonies in 1984, he had some catching up to do.
“My family has sitcom bona fides,” he says. “My mom [actor Patty Duke, who passed away in 2016] had a hit show in the ‘60s. My father, John Astin, was Gomez in The Addams Family, and my little brother Mackenzie was on [US sitcom] The Facts of Life for six or seven seasons when we were kids.”
He’s anything but bitter however. The Goonies, Lord of the Rings and Stranger Things star jokes that he has only recently become a “part” of his family, having landed a regular slot on a sitcom – Netflix’s No Good Nick – for the first time.
It’s a far cry from the film work that defined his early career, but he calls it “the ideal working situation”. As a middle-aged father, having work that is “almost like a factory job” is a game-changer.
“I get to come home to my family every night,” he says.
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The 16-month Lord of the Rings shoot by contrast was seminal, award-winning – and incredibly gruelling.
“You get into Mordor, you walk past the fiery landscape, you’re dirty and you’re exhausted, and it’s been 11 hours of movie that you’ve been trying to get there, and you know you can just see that it probably took all day to get two of those shots,” he says.
“Whereas with this, it’s 24 minutes, everybody looks nice and it’s colourful. The comedy and the drama turns happen kind of fast and then you recover from them kind of fast.”
Sounds like a no-brainer.
In No Good Nick, Astin stars alongside fellow former child star Melissa Joan Hart as parents who welcome the young con artist of the title (Siena Agudong) into their family.
It’s a family-aimed show with a young cast, whom Astin can relate to, having started acting at such a young age. It’s his second Netflix show in three years, following a guest role in season two of Stranger Things.
As fan favourite Bob Newby, he served as a living, breathing Easter egg in a show that mines 80s movie and TV history and weaves it into a traditional teen adventure.
Astin joined the cast in the months after Millie Bobby Brown, then 13, and Finn Wolfhard, then 14, had skyrocketed to global fame. Though he would never call himself a mentor, it seems he was the perfect person to help the show’s young stars to come to terms with the fame that greeted them in the wake of the show’s release.
“I might have thought showing up on the set that, as a former child actor who had enjoyed some success, I might be able to offer them some guidance,” he says. “But it was clear within minutes that these young performers were totally switched on, and the way we related with each other became more collegial.”
That said, he is acutely aware that child stardom has to be handled with care.
“My mother was exploited when she was a child actor, and was very instrumental in helping get child protection laws passed, which dealt with hours and protecting kids’ money and stuff like that. But with fandom – elicit, overwhelming fandom – there’s kind of a learning curve for everybody. For fans, for the studios, for the families – and most importantly for the children.”
He added: “They were thrilled, and grateful for all of the support, but the mathematics of the numbers of people who love a hit show is something to contend with.”
In 2017, Wolfhard sent out a tweet pleading with fans not to “harass” him and his family members after he had been accused of being “heartless” for not stopping to sign autographs outside his hotel. Co-stars and industry friends, like Shannon Purser (Barb in Stranger Things) and Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner leapt to his defence.
Hey everybody! I don't wanna ex-communicate anyone from this fandom, but if you are for real you will not harass my friends, or co-workers. Ya'll know who you are.
“People can be disrespectful,” Astin says, “and when people are disrespectful they should be made to understand that they’re being disrespectful. That’s not the responsibility of the children that are involved; that’s the responsibility for the adults.”
He dismisses any suggestion that he gave the Stranger Things stars the key to dealing with fame, but having experienced child stardom with The Goonies followed by the huge exposure of Lord of the Rings, he is certainly worth listening to when it comes to what awaits them.
“Those audiences that love them so much now, they’re hardwired to feel that affection for them over time as well,” he says. “When they all grow up, they’ll see that the people who love them now are going to love them in the future too, because they’ll have the shared experience of making and receiving the show.”
Damn… seeing fully grown adults wait outside the ‘Stranger Things’ kids’ hotels etc , and then abuse them when they don’t stop for them…
In Stranger Things, Astin played the dorky, earnest boyfriend of Winona Ryder’s Joyce Byers, and quickly became a fan favourite – helped in part by his heroic death at the latter stages of the season.
The role felt like a spiritual successor in some ways to Astin’s Lord of the Rings character Samwise Gamgee, the loyal everyman who tags along as his friend Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) attempts to destroy an all-powerful piece of jewellery – literally carrying said friend for sections of the journey.
“It reaffirms your faith in humanity when audiences embrace a character who’s not the strongest guy, not the best looking guy, but he’s got a big heart,” he says.
Astin may well be the poster boy for this archetype. Why does he think he keeps getting cast as the unlikely hero?
“I was raised by actors, and actors quite often have an idealistic world view where, if you just do the right thing, the heroes win and good wins out overall. Even if you have to fight through turmoil and drama, you know there’s a pathway to enlightenment.”
Some road bumps were bigger than others. Though he bristles mildly at what he perceives as my desire to unearth conflict – “you’re as much of a dramatist as we are” – he does admit that he became downtrodden on a couple of occasions after major success did not immediately lead to more roles.
“Not the strongest guy, not the best looking guy, but a big heart” – a scene from Sean Astin’s 1992 film Encino Man
The years following the release of Rudy (Astin’s second major film success, in which he starred as an aspiring American footballer) were not easy. Astin went to college and had a year and a half without any acting work. After that, he says, he feared that he may not be able to break back in.
“I didn’t know what my place in the world was going to be,” he says. “My parents were famous: my mother won an Oscar when she was 14, and was President of the Screen Actors Guild Union. My father had done Gomez Addams and he was such a wonderful, classically trained actor who was performing all over the world – and I just wasn’t sure…”
“Goonies was Goonies, and Rudy was Rudy,” he adds. “Those were wonderful movies, but when you’ve done something that’s behind you and you’re living in the present and thinking about the future, I experienced uncertainty in a way that wasn’t fun.”
Things were particularly difficult, too, after The Lord of the Rings came out. Astin was famous in a way that he hadn’t been before.
“My normal personality is to embrace people, to have a positive sort of energy – not necessarily because of acting or anything or because of fans, I’m just a passionate enthusiastic guy who likes to relate to people. But there was definitely a learning curve to figure out how to manage the volume,” he says.
He also, inadvertently, was at the centre of the greatest love story that never was.
Sam and Frodo’s incredible friendship is the emotional heart of the trilogy – although clearly some fans wished they could be more than friends. Nowadays, its relatively commonplace for fans to ‘ship’ on-screen characters, but in the early 2000s, Frodo and Sam were in a league of their own.
“We enjoyed it, we thought it was fun,” Astin says of the fan culture. “There was a lot of fan fiction about what their relationship might have been, or the direction it might have gone in, and to me those characters were beloved.”
Did he feel any of the memes or jokes were insensitive?
“People might have faced backlash for the kinds of jokes they would do back then as opposed to now,” he says.
“But one of the things that Lord of the Rings and Frodo and Sam’s relationship did for people was it kind of gave them a path; it kind of opened the conversation for a lot of people. So when that happens, when a public dialogue is facilitated in that way, there’s bound to be a broad cross section of responses, and some of them are not pretty.”
For the most part, Astin takes the responses to his characters in the most positive way possible. Fandom is, after all, a result of “the shared experience of making and receiving the show”.
And even if he’s not a traditional hero, there’s a reason he has a place in the hearts of so many different generations of fans.
“I’m a flawed person,” he says. “I’m nowhere near the kind of sentient hero that Samwise Gamgee is, but there’s enough of those qualities in me that I am able to portray them credibly. Or, at least I have access to them in my mind – because I was raised to believe that that kind of stuff was possible.”