Sean Astin, best known to con-goers for his role as Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings, is attending his first Dragon*Con. He agreed to sit down for a chat with the Daily Dragon. Before we began, Sean said with a wide smile, “I love Dragon*Con. I LOVE Dragon*Con!”
Daily Dragon (DD): What do you think of Dragon*Con so far?
Sean Astin (SA): I’ve heard about it for years. It’s like a lot of the conventions, but a little more. It’s like a campus. To me it feels like an institution—in the good old sense. Now that I’ve been in the post-Lord-of-the-Rings universe, there’s been no shortage of interaction with people.
DD: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
SA: It’s both, but when I come to something like Dragon*Con, I’m reminded of how, for other people, [it’s] having a locus where it’s permissible to say, “Hey, what are you doing? Look at what you’re wearing.” Whereas most of the time, when you’re wandering around in life, it’s not necessarily “appropriate” to do that. I like that the word “appropriate” gets a thorough thrashing at Dragon*Con.
DD: From your first appearance in The Fellowship of the Ring to the final farewell in The Return of the King, you were so true to my idea of Samwise Gamgee that I cannot imagine anyone else playing that role. I would like to know how you gained such a wonderful understanding of that pivotal character.
SA: Thank you. And you don’t have to imagine anyone else because I did it. For now. But it will eventually be reinterpreted—five years, a hundred years—by another filmmaker, and there’ll be another Sam. It took me a little while after the film came out to reconcile myself to that truth: that I got to carry the standard for Sam in a meaningful way, but it gets carried by others, both theatrically and in music and media.
For me, I think there’s something basic and fundamental about Sam: the fact that he’s a gardener. I both understood, because of my experience with my maternal grandfather and his gardening […] In terms of literature, I understand the sanctity of a gardener as a philosophical pillar. It’s putting your hands in the soil, communing with nature, and returning home. [It’s] what home means; a big word, [home]. A big sound and a big word. And I think, on a visceral level, I got that. I didn’t have to understand much more about the character […] The words themselves, the things that Samwise Gamgee has to say, if you understand what they mean, they can’t come out of your mouth wrong.
DD: It seemed that you really did understand the words.
SA: Understand, as like a lip-sync understanding. There are a lot of things I don’t understand about The Lord of the Rings […] Certain character lines and storylines don’t stick with me until I’m reintroduced to them, and I think, “How could I have forgotten that?” But then there are also some other parallels, the second world war parallels, some of the good and evil. The more I read as I get older, the more I experience […] I feel like, gosh, there’s no way I really understood what we were doing when we were doing it.
DD: It went by fast, didn’t it?
SA: It did. But I also had this sense of solid confidence on the one hand, and a constant sense that it was beyond my understanding. Just enough where you feel a little off, out of balance. Like I just couldn’t understand. And maybe that’s what Sam is, too.
DD: It was hard for him to understand everything that was happening.
SA: Yeah. But the things that he knew, he really knew.
DD: I read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings when I was younger. It was a pleasure to see the trilogy portrayed so well on film. To me, Sam was the pivotal character in the story, the one who showed the most character growth. Since you were shooting all three films at once, how were you able to keep track of where Sam needed to be emotionally at any given time?
SA: I couldn’t keep track of it. There are certain basic touchstones along the way, like everything before you leave the Shire, what you’ve done before you get to Rivendell—big sign posts, and those you knew. When you’re in Mordor, you look at your face and see what’s been put on and the props you’re holding.
DD: Did you have to shift to another film often?
SA: Within the same day. It’s was hard, not just for me but for everybody. But the attitude was “just do it.” The only limits were space and time. They had a finite budget, but the normal boundaries when you make a movie in Hollywood for the last thirty years—how many days a week you shoot, how many hours a day you shoot, the kind of shots and setups—didn’t exist.
The way Peter [Jackson] looked at it, we had 23 cameras, and everyone cared so much about doing their own thing. Basically, you’d get in these vans and drive over to another part of town where there’s a storage shed, and you’d walk in, and they’d set up a blue screen and some rocks, and you were going to be doing a scene from the second film, where you’re totally filthy. So you’d do that. And then you go back to the main unit, where Peter’s directing. You get changed, you get cleaned up, you shoot that shot. Bang. Hold on, we’re going to shoot this one. Okay. Wait, now we’re going to shoot this. Now go back over there to another stage. “Okay, wardrobe, let’s go.” You slide into your wardrobe like a surgeon.
DD: How did you keep up with it all?
SA: I don’t know. I think there were different people who kept things in line. At a certain point, you just punt. You go with, “what do I need to know so that I don’t get fired, so that when all these people who care so much about what they’re doing look at me because it’s my moment to be doing my thing, I don’t screw up?” Ian McKellen seemed to have a flawless understanding of where and what. Even though Elijah [Wood] never read the books, he understood every scene and where we were. I felt like I was missing it.
DD: It didn’t show.
SA: Well, we knew it didn’t show. We knew where we were going. There was a kind of chaos theory, a kind of logic in the pattern of it. I don’t know why, but it’s important to me to know what [there] is to be known. You can’t know everything…but there’s a certain level of ambient knowledge. The way you come to the book is important, and the way I came to the book was exactly how I experienced the making of the movie.
DD: As an actor?
SA: As an actor, as a person. My agent said to me, “You have to have a flawless English accent by Thursday.” I raced to the bookstore, I’m flipping through the books, and I’m getting the facts of the dialogue they want me to do. I see how many books are on the shelves. This must be a huge thing. New Line’s making three movies. Clearly it’s epic. Clearly they’re going to spend two hundred, three hundred thousand dollars, so I need to know what this is.
If this has touched people’s souls so profoundly that the books have sold as much as the Bible over the last 50 years, there’s something profound and awesome about it. So I’m coming into it like a fighter pilot, seeing what’s profound, and I’m flying over it, but the story never meant to me what it means to other people who read the story…not in the way it did to them.
DD: Because it was work for you? Because you weren’t just reading and enjoying it?
SA: I was fighting for it. You know, the closest thing was when we were on the set for a long time, I thought, “I’ve got to read the effing Hobbit.” So I picked it up, and maybe it’s because it was designed for a younger audience or something, but I just loved The Hobbit. For me, when anyone asks me about The Lord of the Rings, if they haven’t read the books or haven’t watched the movies or have some antipathy about it, I say, “Just read The Hobbit.” If you read the first chapter of The Hobbit and you’re not into it, then don’t waste your time with the books.
The Hobbit is easier to understand. It’s linear. You have dragons in The Hobbit—dragons! And then there’s the language, the tone that “I’m going to read you a story from your grandparents.” For as much imagination as I think I have, and I think I’ve got a fantastic imagination, I’m really quite limited. Spielberg did it for me with E.T. because it seemed so realistic, [even though] it’s a talking puppet.
DD: You and the rest of the cast did that for The Lord of the Rings.
SA: It was Peter Jackson. Steven Spielberg has [the ability], too. I just watched the most recent Raiders movie. As you watch the first Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the Ark is first opened—or when they’re going to the Mayan temples—[look at] the way he films it—the writing, the music, the haunting rhythms he uses.
Where does somebody decide to become acquainted with the occult? There was never a moment in my childhood where somebody said, “Oh, and here’s what’s really cool…” There must be something from the progenitors of the project like The Lord of the Rings, a sense of mysticism. I don’t mean in its classical literary terms, but there has to be a greater sense of the mythological, the fantastic, all of those things. Because if you just have the one, I don’t think you have the ability to wrap your head around the vocabularies. Peter Jackson speaks a lot of languages. He speaks digital, he speaks executive; he’s conversant across the panoply of cinematic styles and genres. You can watch the movie in any different sequence and say, “That’s a graduate school course of study, those five minutes.”
DD: Do you think he set a new standard?
SA: I think he did. There are extraordinary artists everywhere. When you sit in these lines here, people are doing different sketches of the characters they’re going to get autographs from. If, like Peter Jackson, you acknowledge it and you’re not threatened by it, you can amplify it. It’s a celebration of someone else’s work that, by coupling it together with your own ideas and other people’s ideas…sets a standard that will never be met because its premise is so massive. The premise of that standard [is to] include other people’s genius to help facilitate your muse. You can take that to the outer reaches of the universe
DD: In 2003, you directed an episode of Angel, “Soulless.” Did you feel under a lot of pressure because it was such a popular show? What was that like?
SA: Angel had been up and running for a long time, so the actors and the writers new what to do. They were in the zone, so to speak, and they don’t hand the reigns over to somebody they don’t think will keep doing what they’ve been doing. My audition was spending a couple weeks with [writer] Tim Minear, following him around at the show, demonstrating to them that I knew what was going on and would not drive their train off the tracks. So I had a great time. It was high stress, though.
DD: Where do you see yourself in the future? I know you have a few things in the works right now. There’s talk about another Goonies movie…
SA: There’s always talk about another Goonies movie.
DD: You’ve been doing some voice acting, too, and Cat Tales will be coming out soon.
SA: Yes, and I just spent a lot of time on this children’s character called Special Agent Oso, which comes out in January on the Playhouse block of the Disney Channel. It’s for two- and three-year-old kids, and I play this fat little panda bear who’s training to be a special agent. In every episode, he’s deployed to a kid who’s in need of learning a skill—like how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, how to jump a rope, or mail a letter. For example, Oso goes there, and there are three things they have to learn how to do: lick the stamp, put it on the envelope, and put the envelope in the mailbox. It’s a big deal because there’s always one skill he has to learn to be able to do it, and then he takes that skill back at the end of the episode to the mission he was trying to accomplish as a special agent. I had so much fun. I have three kids, so I really enjoyed it.
DD: Your daughters must love it when you play those parts.
SA: They really like the character I play with the blond hair—the gay hairdresser. My name is Big Girl in the film Stay Cool, coming out this spring. I’m wearing this [baseball cap] to disguise my blond hair and growing-out roots [from the movie]. I’ll probably have to die it to a brown color because I start a new movie next week. I’m having a good swing. It’s wonderful.
DD: Is there anything you’d like to share with us?
SA: The one thing that I’d love the fans to go berserk about on the Internet—to keep track about how many millions of people have read it, to create a furor that I really hope gets started—is a book that my wife and I just bought the rights to. It’s called Number the Stars, a 1990 Newbery Award winner by Lois Lowry, who also wrote The Giver. It’s set in Denmark in 1943, and there are a little over 9,000 Jews in Denmark at that time.
The Nazis had a nonaggression treaty with the Danes, so mostly there was a peaceful turnover of all their industry to the Nazis in return for being able to keep their king and their parliament in nominal power. But there was a moment in late September or early October of 1943, on one of the Jewish High Holidays, when the Nazis decided they were going to round up the Jews in Denmark. One of the German administrators leaked the plan to the Rabbi in Copenhagen. The Rabbi gathered the Jews together, and over the next few days, the Danes smuggled 95 percent of the Jews to safety.
DD: Are you planning to turn it into a film?
SA: Yes, a feature film. My wife and I wrote the screenplay adaptation of Number the Stars. I’m going to direct, Christine and I wrote it, and we’re going to produce it together. We would love to shoot it in Denmark. We’re putting together the schedule and raising the money. [We hope] people will keep us in their prayers for that.
DD: It sounds like a terrific project. Thank you so much for the interview. We hope you have a great time here at Dragon*Con.
SA: I love it. I met a winged demon. She was very nice. Meeting a winged demon here at Dragon*Con—that’s like having tea with the queen.