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Sean Astin on The Strain, Prosthetic Makeup, and His Most Iconic Roles

Sean Astin. Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

When Vulture spoke with Sean Astin earlier this week about the events of last night’s episode of The Strain, he admitted that our question about whether he saw a thematic connection between the FX horror drama, which involves concentration-camp flashbacks, and Number the Stars, the Lois Lowry novel he has been developing that uses the Holocaust as a backdrop, “made my brain hurt.” (The short answer? There really isn’t one.) [Warning: Spoilers up through last night’s episode of The Strain to follow.] Perhaps the 43-year-old actor was merely suffering sympathy pains with Jim Kent, his character on The Strain, who experienced a massive, fatal headache last night after being shot point blank in the temple by badass exterminator Vasiliy Fet (Kevin Durand)? The mercy killing was imperative, of course, as the CDC lackey had been infected by the show’s CGI parasites, which quickly turn their hosts into icky vampires. Just before meeting with an electrician at his L.A. production offices, Astin called us to talk about leaving The Strain, why Jim was like Samwise, and staying respectfully distant from iconic roles.

Were you disappointed that you didn’t get to go through the full vampire transformation?
First of all, it depends if you’re pro-life or pro-choice. Like, when does the strigoi begin? At the moment they implant the first worms or once you’ve reached that critical mass where you’re gonna attack somebody else? For my money, the reason it’s worth dying at that moment is because you’ve been turned. It’s an interesting philosophical question. I’m in the “relieved not to have gone through full prosthetic makeup” [camp]. It’s quite the ordeal when they do it.

Did you at least get to meet makeup maestro Rick Baker, who did a cameo in this episode?
Oh, it was great. Rick and I spent the whole night [together]. It was freezing cold out there, the worst winter in over a decade for the Canadians, [but]  we were outside sharing stories and telling tales. The answer to this question, and what I should have said to the previous question, is your first instinct is to go to how cool [the makeup] is. If I wouldn’t have known earlier in my life to notice something that’s cool, I know now. I know the creativity that goes in, the artistry. And with Rick, what a cool cameo, and he’s so natural. Rick Baker cameos like he lives, with grace and aplomb.

The Strain is largely filmed in Toronto but takes place across New York City. Do you think you’ve done well with that?
The subway network that we’re going through … I can’t remember the movie that built those, but the movie finished up, and those sets were there and we got a hold of their sets, and they’re really sophisticated. The thing about comic books and graphic novels and science fiction, it’s almost like [New York] is Gotham; It’s an idea as much as it is an actual place. If you know what you’re looking at — if you know [New York’s] JFK [International Airport] and you know [Toronto’s] Pearson International — you can tell. To talk about it is to ruin it. But if people don’t notice it, then it’s New York. And if something buzzes for them, like, Wait, that doesn’t look like New York at all, then the question is: Are you in the story or aren’t you? I’m not distracted by the Toronto-ness of it.

The show plays fast and loose with character deaths. Do you feel Jim’s demise was premature?
Well, Jim was morally compromised from the pilot. If you believe in a certain kind of theology, it makes sense that Jim won’t recover from having chosen something small and personal and selfish at the expense of something big. The punishment doesn’t really fit the crime, because he thought he was just stealing medical equipment to save his wife’s life, [but] as it turned out, he was helping to unleash a plague on civilization, so it was like, Ooh, my bad. When it comes right down to it, in the books this character has a very abrupt, ignominious death, and they actually expanded [the role] for the series. When they brought me in, in the first meeting they were like, “We’d love you to be a part of this. You’re not gonna make it past episode eight.” Actor-hat on, it felt disappointing, but it’s kind of cool to be in on the suspense.

Doesn’t his story with Sylvia feel a bit unfinished?
Absolutely, it feels left unfinished. I don’t know if Sylvia will make a return. I don’t know if Jim made a strong enough impression on the narrative. Jim was a really cool flavor. He brought something really interesting, this moral ambiguity with a somewhat sympathetic take on it. That flavor, interspersed with the billionaire sociopath and this several-generation vampire, there’s such stark things that you’re seeing that to have a little hue of what Jim brought to it was sweet. But I think, basically, she’s a casualty of war.

Do you think you were cast for such a morally ambiguous role because of your likability?
[Creator and executive producer] Guillermo [del Toro] was [initially] going to direct The Hobbit, and he loved Lord of the Rings, so he said on a number of occasions that Jim is Sam, the best friend you could ever hope for. So we wanted to take that character and flip it upside down. [Laughs.] So, absolutely, my native, open-faced quality has been fun for people to play against. Guys like Guillermo understand casting, and every piece of casting finds some way to combine the essence of who the actor is with what’s being asked of them in the role. So the fact that I come [off] as a likable-enough guy when you meet me is absolutely what they were going for.

You and equally likable former LOTR co-star Elijah Wood were on overlapping FX/FXX shows this year, with his Wilfred ending. Did you have an impromptu reunion during any of the annual junkets?
We have connected via email. Actually, my wife connected with him on email while I was sitting in the room during this one convention where he was DJing at a party and I kind of came in late and couldn’t be there. But I haven’t seen Elijah in person in a really long time. We will likely be together in some Comic-Con setting. And when we’re together, it’s exciting for people, just because of what Lord of the Rings means to people. It’s exciting for us cause we’re friends. There was the FX upfronts, and South by Southwest, so the fact that we haven’t seen each other is actually kind of curious.

He seemed like a very thoughtful, nice guy when we spoke with him recently.
He’s old now! He was 19 when I met him. He’s an old man. It’s weird to see how fast time has flown, and everybody’s grown.

And we’ll pose you the same question we posed Elijah: Is there anything you’re working on now that you hope will one day be held in the same esteem as The Lord of the Rings?
Wow. You know, it’s really funny, if you’re lucky enough to connect the right actor with the right part at the right moment in time … I remember Tom Hanks said, “You go out there and make the movies. You make what you want, what you love, what’s available to you that seems right at the moment,” and some of them become immortal and some of them don’t. I don’t know if Joe Versus the Volcano is something he expected to be a really classic movie. I think with Goonies, Rudy, and Lord of the Rings, there was every expectation ahead of time that they would be important. If not important, that they would have a meaningful impact over time. But in terms of what I’m doing right now, Number the Stars — because I do believe it’s one of the most important pieces of American’s children literature — if we can figure out how to get the movie made, I think that could be a really meaningful contribution to the cinema landscape now.

And since you mentioned The Goonies, did you happen to catch the episode of The Goldbergs that paid tribute to the movie? Did they ask you to appear in it?
I was filming The Strain in Toronto, and there was a blizzard going on outside, and I was in a hotel gym that had an atrium, and the atrium was [like] being in a snow globe. And while I was running, I could see in the gym across the way The Goldbergs episode. I couldn’t hear it, but I watched it out of the corner of my eye, and I thought, “You know what? That seems like they really cared about it.” They did call for clearances and stuff like that. I didn’t really interact with it, but it’s better not to, because they did something and apparently [people] loved it, because everybody talks to me about it. People love that show.

Sean Astin on The Strain, The Goonies, and LOTR