Interview: Sean Astin on Who Told Him “Every Human Interaction is Sacred”

Sean Astin has acted in some of the most beloved and successful films of all time. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, in which he played Samwise Gamgee, has generated worldwide grosses in the billions. So finding him at at a Birmingham bowling alley, shaking hands and signing autographs, after a long day’s shoot on a Christian movie set is more than a little challenging to anyone who might have too rigid stereotypes about what Hollywood movie stars are all about.

“My [parents] taught me that’s part of what it means to be an actor,” Astin says of graciously accepting the attention that celebrity brings. They are also cited as the source of the advice to attempt to be “better off screen than you are onscreen.” For Astin, that might be particularly hard given that Sam Gamgee, the role for which he is most famous,  is an archetype of goodness. While conceding that Sam is idealized, that nobody, himself included, might be able to be as consistently good as Sam, Astin does believe that playing good characters has a “residual” affect on actors even after the cameras stop.

While it may have been characters such as Sam or Rudy Ruettiger that helped Astin become associated with goodness onscreen, it was his parents, Patty Duke and John Astin, who he says instilled in him that treating people well was a requirement, not an option. Experiencing how people “years later” might come up to him and speak of how meaningful a chance encounter or gracious moment was to them, only served to reinforce their parental wisdom.

That lesson had to be modeled, not just instilled. Astin speaks of his father as a man who would not only learn a stranger’s name but bits of his or her life story, prompted not just out of a sense of duty but also a genuine interest in other people. The actor recalls expressing exasperation at his father once when such an encounter made them late for a family event. Being gracious to people was nice, sure, but was it always necessary? “Well, just shoot me in the head,” he reports his father saying, “because that’s life; every human interaction is sacred.”

The importance of family is clearly  part of what motivated Astin to sign on for Mom’s Night Out, a comedy by Andrew and Jon Erwin (October Baby) about what happens when a man watches his kids to give his wife (played by Sarah Drew) a much-needed night out with her girlfriends. “I really, really like this movie,” Astin said, praising the production values of the early dailies he had seen (“gorgeous”) despite the smaller budget that the Erwin brothers had to work with in comparison to many Hollywood directors. More importantly the actor said he welcomed the opportunity to be in a film that he felt supported a “strong woman” character.

Kevin Downs and Sean Astin in Mom’s Night Out

Astin said of his character in Mom’s Night Out, also named Sean, “this character is me” and thus, in many ways, a composite of many of his other characters. It is not surprising then that the husband of twenty-one years and father of three drew from his own life lessons when called upon to embody what it mean to support a wife and mother.  An early lesson from his marriage that he shares is on the importance of listening. While undergoing premarital couples counseling, he felt a little challenged and went into attorney mode, meeting each query of the man who was going to officiate the wedding ceremony with a self-justifying reply. When the last session was over, the counselor asked him to remain and said: “You know, you interrupted her every time I asked a question. [Years from now] I won’t remember what you said, but I’ll remember that.” Two decades of marriage now under his belt, the actor still tries to remind himself that sometimes the quality of an interaction is determined less by how many problems he solves than by how willing he is to be present, to give his full, undivided attention to the person with whom he is interacting.

Mom’s Night Out is scheduled for release in 2014. The film’s co-stars include Patricia Heaton, Trace Adkins, David Hunt, Alex Kendrick, and Robert Amaya.

Ken is the editor of 1More Film Blog and a frequent contributor to Christianity Today Movies & TV. He is guest posting on this blog.