Sean Astin Talks THE STRAIN, Those Worms, Working With Guillermo del Toro, and His New Film THE SURFACE

     September 5, 2014

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From filmmaker Guillermo del Toro and showrunner Carlton Cuse, The Strain tells the story of an epic battle for survival between man and vampire.  When Dr. Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll), the head of the Center for Disease Control in New York City, and his team are called upon to investigate a mysterious viral outbreak that is eerily similar to an ancient and evil strain of vampirism, they quickly realize that they are waging war for the fate of humanity itself.  The show also stars David Bradley, Mia Maestro, Sean Astin, Jonathan Hyde, Richard Sammel, Kevin Durand, Miguel Gomez, Natalie Brown and Jack Kesy.

During a recent interview to talk about his work on The Strain and the experience he’s had on the TV show, actor Sean Astin (who plays CDC worker Jim Kent) talked about what got him most excited to sign on, being a part of a new vampire world, the challenges of filming the convenience store episode (Episode 8), why he wanted to invest in this role, his most fun memories from the season, and working with practical and digital effects.  He also talked about how and why he ended up working in a movie theater in Westwood when he was 16, what’s next for him, what draws him to various projects, and whether he keeps up with fan feedback on social media.  Check out what he had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are spoilersThe Strain airs on Sunday nights on FX.

the-strain-sean-astin-4Question:  You’re no stranger to television, having done 24.  How was The Strain different for you, as a actor?

SEAN ASTIN:  First of all, I would say one of the most exciting things about it is spending time with Guillermo [del Toro].  He’s just so full of life and creativity and imagination.  You always feel like he’s both incredibly well-prepared and in-the-moment, and he’s able to be spontaneous, so that’s pretty great.  I have not, in my life, been a vampire guy, except when I was 16 and I worked in a movie theatre where my friend Corey Feldman’s movie, The Lost Boys, premiered.  That was probably the height of my vampire interest.  I missed the rest of the wave, from The Vampire Diaries, all the way through to the recent Twilight movies, and everything else.  Learning vampire lore was pretty cool for me, particularly in the cosmology of vampires in Guillermo’s mind.

What does it mean to you, to have been a part of this series?  

ASTIN:  Since being in The Lord of the Rings, this pop cultural wave of franchise inclusion has swept the globe.  These comic book franchises, best-selling book franchises, television reboot franchises just come in big waves.  It’s almost like being in one particular movie or one particular show isn’t enough anymore.  So, the fact that Guillermo and Carlton Cuse came along with this new incarnation of a vampire world meant a new franchise, and I feel grateful that Guillermo reached out and swept me up in it.

the-strain-sean-astin-8What were the challenges of filming the convenience store episode?

ASTIN:  Ironically, the biggest challenge of it was how cold it was.  Toronto suffered really the coldest winter, in most of the crew members’ memory.  It’s one thing to sit here in a 75-degree day in Los Angeles and talk about cold weather, but it was bitter cold.  So, you look outside at these vampires, who were in their post-mortem make-up, and you just figured that it wasn’t too far off from where they were going to be, if they had to stand outside any longer.  I was told in my very first meeting with Guillermo and Carlton that this character from the books, who didn’t last that long, also wasn’t going to last very long in the series.  So, they invited me to be a part of this show, knowing full well that in Episode 8, my character was going to get killed off.  There is a little bit of gallows anticipation that comes when you’re in Episode 5, and it’s only a few episodes away before I have to say goodbye to all my new friends.  And then, when you find yourself actually in the convenience store doing the work, there is an emotional responsibility that you have to the relationship between the characters.  The scene where Eph and Nora discover that Jim has been fully infected was really cool, with the first bit where they use the UV ray to see the worm in my face, and then they go and lay me down and do this butcher surgery, or field dressing surgery, that was all relatively straight forward and easy.  But then, when we got into blocking, Jim discovers that it’s all through his back and realizes that the only thing to do is for them to kill him.  I’m saying, “I don’t want to turn out like the rest of them.  I don’t want go after my parents.”

It was pretty powerful, emotionally, and everybody had this feeling that it was exciting to be doing one of the first big deaths of the show.  I guess there have been others, but for me, it was the big death because it was me.  The characters move on and the show moves on.  Jim’s redemption is petty redemption.  He’s the first one to plug in the UV ray lights and go out of the convenience store and extend his arm and burn one of the vamps with it.  It was cool.  I was at Disneyland with my wife and kids.  I had run the Disney half-marathon weekend, so we did a 10K on a half-marathon.  I was walking around and my legs were sore, and the kids are having a ball.  And then, I realized that the episode was airing, right then.  I hadn’t really been paying any attention to my phone for three days, but we were sitting on the train, going through Fantasy Land, and I was looking at all these messages saying, “All right, Jim, we’re going to miss you buddy.  It was a sad way for you to have to go, Jim, but we tried to have fun with it.”  What are you going to do?

the-strain-sean-astin-7What was it about Jim that made you want to invest in the role?

ASTIN:  Guillermo wanted me to do it, so I wanted to do it.  I think you could take a wide range of actors and put them in that part, and it would be a Rorschach test of who that actor is.  As Samwise Gamgee, I’m known for being a friend who’s loyal and likable, and who’s a nice guy.  I think Guillermo liked the juxtaposition of somebody doing something morally questionable or wrong who is likeable, at the same time.  There are all these apocalyptic franchises now and the question becomes how accessible, relatable and authentic can you make it feel.  If you’re going to use a vampire story as a metaphor for that, you want to find ways into it that feel natural.  So, what I came to like about Jim was the way that, even though he did the wrong thing, he really wanted to be of service as a CDC guy and as an aide to Eph.  He wanted to help.  I liked leaning into that.  Then, during the autopsy scene, during this scene in the eighth episode, and a few other times, something would happen where he’d just say what everyone else was thinking, in a basic way.  I think that made him even more entertaining for folks.

What are your most fun memories from the set?

ASTIN:  There are lots of things that come to mind, but it was really, really, really cold and it’s a vampire show.  You’re not supposed to be able to see their breath.  It was a challenge for the effects people when there’s outdoor stuff with the vampires.  There was also a moment when Corey [Stoll] came in on his phone, playing this fighter pilot video game, so I downloaded it and the two of us, with our phones or iPad minis, were competing, in between dissecting vampires and bludgeoning the turned captain in the head with a fire extinguisher.  Frankly, I was no match.  Even over the holiday break, when I had some time to practice, I showed back up and Corey just absolutely dominated the game.  Frankly, it was fun coming to work and seeing the different things that they had put together.  I keep going back to the autopsy because I don’t think a vampire autopsy has ever been shown on television.  It was such an expensive and intricate prop or special effect.  We had been working with this actor, and then we were dealing with his absolutely lifelike corpse.  It was really disturbing.  Another time, we were at the airport hanger set and everybody had been filming for a few hours.  They were on lunch break and my part started late, so I came in and I walked around and nobody was there, but a sea of 300 body bags, all stuffed with dead bodies with the morning de because they’d been filming all night long.  It was really, really creepy and haunting and arresting.

the-strain-sean-astin-5How did they do the special effects with the worms?  Was it all digital, or was some of it practical?  

ASTIN:  The worms were all digital.  Basically, they put little orange reference dots, all over the area where the worm would be.  But they had a brilliant piece that they put on my cheek, that they could sew and unsew.  That was really, really good.  People really responded to it on the set and I liked working with it.  It didn’t take very long to put on at all.  It was a piece that started at the top of my inner eye, at the bridge of my nose, and it went down under the eye, all the way around the eye, in a half-moon, and then up into the hairline, down around the jaw, underneath the jaw on the top of the neck, and then up and around the same side of the mouth.  It almost looked like the Phantom of the Opera’s mask.  And then, they painted it beautifully.  I’ve had lots of stitches in my life, and it felt the same.  When they numb you, they put a long needle in and they numb the area where they’re going to give you a stitch.  You can still feel it, but it doesn’t hurt, and that’s exactly what it felt like when they were threading the cut on Jim’s face.  The actual worms, though, were orange dots.

You said that you were working in a movie theater when you were 16, but back then, you had already been a successful actor.  How did you end up then working in a movie theatre, and what’s it like to be a guy who’s an actor, working in a movie theater and watching other people act?  

ASTIN:  It’s funny, I was looking online and there was this article about celebrities who live below their means and who are modest celebrities.  It talked about how Leonardo DiCaprio occasionally takes a commercial flight.  When I was 16, I had a car for a little bit, and then my mom wanted or needed the car back, and I was doing summer school and night school.  I really wanted to graduate with a better GPA than I had earned throughout the rest of my high school year, so I would take the bus into Westwood from my dad’s place in West LA.  I worked at the Bruin, and Mr. Francis was my manager.  I started by taking tickets at the door.  The fun story I have is with my buddy Corey.  There was the big premiere of his movie and Corey walked in, and I was wearing my blue blazer with my gray pants and my name tag.  I used my middle name, Patrick, and all the actors were standing by the concession stand.  Mr. Francis said, “Sean, you’ve got to go pick up that popcorn.”  I grabbed the broom and dust pan and I walked over.  I was like “Excuse me, Corey,” and he saw me and was like, “Sean, what happened?”  I worked my way up through the ranks.  It took all summer, but by the end of it, I was making bank drops from the box office and I cleaned the butter maker.  It was fun.  I remember my mom being shocked that I would do that job, but I liked it.  And that couple hundred buck check meant more to me than the $10,000 check that I got when I was eight.  That $10,000 check went into an account that I didn’t see until I was 18.  I don’t know.  I count that as one of the good experiences for me.

the-strain-sean-astin-3Now that your time on the show is done, what’s next for you?

ASTIN:  I play the voice of Raphael in the Nickelodeon Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle franchise.  I’m one of the many Raphael’s that there have been, and I like that.  I knew that I was going to die [on The Strain], but I didn’t know how.  When I got the script for it, which was only a few weeks beforehand, I loved it.  Before that, I had been a little bit sullen over the fact that I was just getting to know everybody and enjoy everything, and I knew I wasn’t going to be around very long.  But when I saw how cool the episode was, with this Butch and Sundance battle royale at a convenience store, and then there was the way that it was discovered on me, and how the relationship was resolved, I absolutely felt like I couldn’t have asked for a better send-off.  I was pretty happy with that.

So, I have an independent film that’s coming up, called The Surface, with me and Chris Mulkey.  It’s a two-hander meditation on hopelessness and suicide.  And then, I also have a little animated film that is being released independently, called Ribbit, about a poisonous tree frog that believes he’s destined for something more than the life of a poisonous tree frog.  I play Ribbit, and I think that comes out in September.  I don’t know if it’s in wide release or not, but it’s on my radar.  And then, I don’t know.  I’ve been getting offered lots of fun things in the sci-fi/horror realm, which I haven’t grown too tired of yet.  So, as long as there’s something to play, I’m willing to keep thinking about that.  And I’m just looking for the next thing to get excited about.

the-strain-sean-astin-6What is it that draws you to the roles that you accept?  

ASTIN:  I’m pretty promiscuous when it comes to what I do as an actor.  Oftentimes, it comes down to whether I feel I can do it.  There are times when it’s clear that movies have been written and are getting made for reasons that are other than purely financial.  It’s really hard, and I’m incredibly sympathetic to how hard it is to get things made, so there has to be an internal logic within the story.  The dialogue has to be credible, but it doesn’t have to be Shakespeare, for me to be willing to do it.  I’m happy doing lower budget movies.  I like doing big budget movies.  It’s really just a question of, if I’ve done a couple of really big things that have really scored, then I like the idea of scrounging around and finding a low-budget independent film where I can play a drug addict, or something like that.  If I’ve done a whole string of independent films that nobody has seen, then I find myself yearning to get back on the grid.  My career is very easy to interpret.  It’s about working.  I’m a working actor, so that’s how I see myself.

Do you keep up with fan feedback on your projects?

ASTIN:  I like scanning through the Twitter feed, now and then, but I don’t have a consistency to it.  If I’m working on a Kickstarter campaign, or if there’s something that isn’t going to get promoted anywhere else, then I get in there.  I have a talk radio show on TradioV called Vox Populi Radio.  It’s a political radio show.  So, once a week, I find myself digging in and hoping people are paying attention to the conversations that we’re having.  During those moments, I’m acutely aware of what people are thinking and saying.  What I’ve noticed with the people that respond to me is that they are just basically decent and have thoughts.  Even if somebody is critical, I usually agree with them.

The Strain Sean Astin Interview

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