Sam He Am: Sean Astin on Life with Frodo, Hobbit Feet and Björk
Sean Astin's been doing plenty of scampering lately--down riverbanks in Orc armor, across rocky mountain ranges in prosthetic Hobbit feet and in and out of the food tent to bulk up for his role as Samwise Gamgee.
Astin, as humble, portly Sam--the yin to Frodo's yang, and his faithful companion to Mount Doom and back--is responsible for a character who transforms from naive gardener to experienced war hero over the course of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
That's a lot of personal growth, even for a Hobbit. But it's nothing Astin can't handle. He's been around, after all. He grew up in Hollywood as the son of Patty Duke (The Miracle Worker, The Patty Duke Show) and John Astin (Gomez from The Addams Family). He also survived his time as a child star in the '80s, most notably in Steven Spielberg's The Goonies. Then he went on to star in Rudy and Bulworth, as well as notching a directing credit--and an Oscar nomination--for his short film, Kangaroo Court.
Now 29 and happily married with a young daughter, Astin is poised for some major personal growth himself--if LOTR lives up to expectations. We caught up with him on set just before he flew back to Los Angeles for a monthlong holiday.
You're halfway through the shoot now. What have you done, and what's left to do?
I've been everywhere, man! We were in the Shire in January, we've been inside the crack of Mount Doom, to the path of Kathhardrath, Lothlórien, the swamps of Mordor...I can't imagine we have anything left to shoot! [Laughs.] We've got the Shelob stuff coming up--and the internal scenes at Hobbiton, though.
What first attracted you to the project?
My father worked with Peter Jackson on The Frighteners and came back to America after seven months' work with rave reviews about Peter and [cowriter] Fran [Walsh] and their work--and about his experience living for an extended time in New Zealand. It created in my mind this ideal working experience.
How did you become involved?
I was driving down a freeway in L.A., and my agent called on my cell phone [and said], "Peter Jackson's doing The Lord of the Rings in New Zealand."
How Hollywood of you.
Yeah! And I'd never read the book--so much for my double degree in history and English from UCLA--so I literally turned my car around on the freeway, trying not to kill anyone, raced to Barnes & Noble and purchased the trilogy. After the audition, I sent Peter a letter telling him I know this is going to be the adventure of a lifetime and that I would love to be a part of it.
What attracted you to Sam?
Sam is the personification--I should say the Hobbitification--of loyalty and goodness. He doesn't talk very much; he's not Gandalf or Frodo or Saruman--vocally grappling with these weighty issues. But Sam is always there and always faithful to Frodo. That's something you don't see a lot of in contemporary society.
Some critics have criticized those aspects of Tolkien's writing--that he's glorifying a lower working class.
It's certainly there in the book, but I think there's a lot to admire in him. Sam isn't a servant or a slave, and yet he is completely willing to die for Frodo and take care of any of the minor details of his daily life--preparing his food, getting things in order. As Frodo is thinking about the big things for the quest, Sam is cleaning up after him, thinking about the little things.
Why do you think Sam resists the power of the Ring?
Everyone who reads LOTR will have a different take on this. For me, there's a certain simplicity to him. It's very easy to overlook simplicity--it frequently gets mistaken for stupidity. Sam has an amazing commitment and loyalty. He's aware of what Frodo is up against, and he's terrified about the dangers of the quest, but he sticks with Frodo and remains loyal. I don't think he's untarnishable, because anyone can fall victim to the dark forces of the Ring, but he has an inner strength, and he just doesn't give way to the evil, even though he faces death. That's what I love about him.
What's it like to track Sam's personal journey through the film? He begins as a frightened gardener and ends up mayor of Hobbiton.
Both Frodo and Sam are compelled to go places emotionally and physically that they both never could have imagined. Their truer selves emerge through that. Frodo is a sacrificial lamb--he sacrifices his part of himself and his innocence to preserve the ideal world of the Shire. By the end of the movie, Sam has a wisdom that only experience can bring, a world-weariness that will inform the rest of his life as the patriarch of Hobbiton.
He seems to have a fetish for Elves, too.
Yeah! Frodo is curious about the outside world, but Sam, not so much. He's desperately curious about the Elves. He's heard these stories from Gandalf, but he's never seen one. So, the thought of leaving the Shire to see an Elf is incredibly compelling. But he's also so desperately afraid of everything--of his shadow or of wizards turning him into--
Yes! Frodo is able to help Sam move into the adventure, but Sam is there because he won't leave Frodo. They need each other to get through the quest.
Tolkien seems to admire the little guy. It's the Hobbits--the smallest people--who go the distance.
Peter kept reminding me that Tolkien was railing against the Industrial Revolution and how these big smokestacks and machines were making the world polluted and crowded. I think Tolkien is yearning for a pastoral world and "plain folk." Yet if it was Sam alone, he would have died. You have to have the full complement of Elves and wizards and dwarves and humans to combat the forces of evil.
What's it like working with Jackson?
I'm learning so much. He has this quality of being incredibly focused but really relaxed. He's not laying back on an easy chair with a piña colada. He's very hands-on. He literally grabs the camera, throws it on his shoulder and lays down in the dirt or jumps onto a stand. He's forever as dirty as anybody else on the set.
He seems to encourage a lot of collaboration.
Peter is willing to trust, and [he] expects the people he's hired to come to the table with a lot of intuition and ideas. He encourages us to direct our scale doubles, to make sure their posture and body language and movement are the same as ours. It's more than an acting job--you're part of this great moving machine. He knows he's going to get what he wants, and other people are going to work with him to get the job done.
What are the physical demands of the part like?
Well, I have to eat a lot. I was told I had to gain a lot of weight to play this character, because [Hobbits] are very...
I prefer "stout" to portly! Peter is forever suggesting I have more food. "A little more shepherd's pie for Mr. Astin, please!" "Another dessert for Sean!" Carrying more weight on your body is a physical demand. I can't wait to get back to L.A. and break into Jane Fonda workouts!
What about the prosthetic Hobbit feet?
We do a lot of running and hiking, and the feet are absolutely remarkable. They're form-fitting, they're comfortable, they're durable. But at the same time, they're cumbersome. It's a challenge running up and down uneven terrain or on the rocky shale on the tops of these mountains we get helicoptered to. You have to make sure you don't twist an ankle--or pull a groin muscle.
How do you cope with shooting all three films at once? How do you fit in with the spectrum of the story?
You take a lot of your cues from the costume. If you put on a lovely, clean cloak, you think, Oh, we'll be in a lovely Elven paradise today, and if there are tattered rags hanging in your dressing room, you think, Right, it's time to get grungy and half-starved in Mordor! Peter has the scenes mapped out in his mind's eye, so it's about focusing on that scene and bringing the subtleties and nuances of character to the moment.
Is it important to engage in things other than Tolkien?
It's absolutely imperative. I've been reading, like, one book every three days, and last week Elijah [Wood] took me CD shopping. I'm this unhip married guy, but now he's got me listening to Ween and Travis and Björk.
Guess it's a long time to be away from home.
My wife and daughter are with me, so that's a great luxury. We're getting to spend an awful lot of time together and travel around. My daughter is in school here in New Zealand, so that's great. New Zealand is one of the last unspoiled places on earth, and yet it's competing in the world marketplace--as many as 4 million people and 68 million sheep can compete economically. But I'm glad my daughter's starting to sound like a Kiwi.