Few actors exude more endearing nostalgia than Sean Astin. From his breakout role as asthmatic dreamer Mikey in the iconic ’80s adventure The Goonies to his role as Samwise Gamgee in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Astin has infused so much good-guy energy into his roles — let’s also not forget he portrayed the ultimate underdog Rudy Ruettiger in 1993’s Rudy — it’s a no-brainer that the Duffer Brothers thought him perfect to play the well-meaning, if not a little dorky, Bob Newby in Stranger Things 2. Vulture spoke to Astin, 46, about his brisk indoctrination into the whirlwind that is the Netflix phenomenon, how he lobbied for Bob to have a heroic moment, how his mother, the late, venerable actress Patty Duke, protected him early in his career, and why he hopes the actions of Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein will spark a cultural reckoning about power and bullying.
What has life been like for you since Stranger Things 2 premiered?
It’s the first time I’ve been part of something really successful in the social-media age. Lord of the Rings was 2001, 2002, and 2003, but Twitter didn’t start until 2007! So I rewatched all the episodes again last weekend as all the fans were watching too. I had my phone next to me with Twitter open and I’d see, “Okay, they’re clearly this far along.” I tried to keep up with the all-nighter binger people. It was like, “Wow, I’m a part of something whose fan base is freebasing it.” I felt like I was at the party.
Tell me how you were approached for the role of Bob. How much did you know about the character when you were first cast?
You’d think I’d have a better answer to this question [laughs] but all I know is that I got an email from my agent saying, “You have an audition Monday at 9 a.m. for Stranger Things.” I don’t know if the casting director reached out or if someone in our agency was covering it. I actually first auditioned for the part of the private investigator/reporter/conspiracy guy [ultimately played by Brett Gelman]. They said it was great, but “we’d love for you to come back and read this other part.” So the next day I auditioned for Bob. The Duffer Brothers told me later that Bob wasn’t really clear to them when they were writing.
Is it true that he was supposed to die earlier in the season?
I do think they kept Bob around a little bit longer than planned, maybe because we enjoyed interacting with each other so much. When I get near guys like the Duffers, who are so talented, I get so excited, especially if I get to participate. Like, “What do you think of this shot?” or “What do you think of this line of dialogue?” Oh my God. Also, Bob’s kind of energy didn’t exist in the first season; that bubbly, happy thing wasn’t around that much. Certainly not for Joyce!
Did you actually lobby for Bob to stay alive longer?
I definitely lobbied hard. [Laughs.] But I lobbied for Bob to get to do something heroic. The fact that he made it all the way to episode eight, and got to do something as spectacular as helping unlock the door to the facility, that was pretty great. There are definitely similarities between Bob and [LOTR’s] Samwise, too. Sam is the guy you want to have with you when stuff gets hard. As it turns out, even though he’s a dorky wannabe stepdad, Bob is also a guy who isn’t overwhelmed by a terrifying reality.
I have to imagine the Duffers were giddy that Mikey from The Goonies was in their series. Although I must point out that they were only 1 in 1985, when that movie came out.
[Laughs] They definitely felt that way about Goonies and me, but they feel that way about everything they do. It was all very serious business and they work very hard, but they had these smiles on their faces the whole time, even when they were just thinking.
What did your kids think of your arc in the series?
My 12-year-old daughter binged it. She got home from school on Friday night and sat in the same spot all weekend, disheveled, earphones on and plugged in. When the final episode was over, she gave this “woo,” pulled the earphones off, and set them down in her lap.
Was she traumatized?
She had kinda gotten over being traumatized because they’d come to Atlanta to watch the filming of my big episode. She’d actually refused to watch Stranger Things before that, but did become very interested in the special-effects makeup on set. On many days, she’d have these spectacular gouges and scrapes across the face. [Laughs.]
What was her response to seeing her dad die onscreen?
This is a direct quote from her: “I think it was a really good death where it came in the story.”
How did it feel working with so many young actors who are essentially the same as you when you started? Did you give them advice about navigating fame and fandom?
They definitely wanted to hear stories from the days of yore, so I had lots of those at the ready. They’re pretty sophisticated and total professionals in terms of their dramatic work. But it’s easier to be totally well-adjusted now, when everything is still going on. It’s when all of it stops that your true character starts to show itself. But I have total confidence in them. I spent a lot of my screen time with Finn [Wolfhard] and Noah [Schnapp], though Noah was on the gurney most of the time, so mostly Finn. We really hit it off, but I told him I wasn’t gonna be able to watch his movie It because it was too scary. [Laughs.] But I feel like we’re all fighter pilots in the same bar, waiting for our next mission.
How well did you know Winona Ryder before the show? I have to assume you met back in the day, but I don’t recall a project in which you co-starred.
We actually made a movie together like ten years ago called Stay Cool, but we hadn’t worked together before that. We obviously knew all the same people growing up and we couldn’t remember if we had actually met! Though I did audition for [Ryder’s debut film] Lucas. In any case, we instantly really cared about each other. They wouldn’t have hired me to play her love interest if she wasn’t into it, which made me feel so great. She was particularly sad that Bob had to die because the days we worked together were really fun.
Have you stayed close with your Goonies friends?
Corey [Feldman] and I are close. Jonathan Ke Quan and I are close. I just saw Kerri Green for the first time in a decade. That was really sweet. I see Jeff [Cohen] every now and then, he’s a lawyer now. I haven’t seen Josh [Brolin] or Martha [Plimpton] in forever. I feel like I’m close to all the Lord of the Rings and Goonies people, but I’m kind of sequestered with my wife and kids. But as soon as there’s some reason for all of us to be together, it’s like no time has passed, lots of hugs. Corey can always be counted to rustle everybody up for a Goonies reunion.
Even before current events, Corey was very outspoken about predatory behavior in Hollywood, specifically toward children. Have the two of you discussed this?
We’ve talked a lot about it. And he knows my main concern is his well-being. I’m like an old auntie: “Are you eating and sleeping?” He’s very focused and an advocate for what he’s doing. This is all a watershed moment now, with what has happened with Harvey Weinstein.
Like you, your late mother Patty Duke started acting when she was a child. Did you feel more protected than your peers knowing she knew what you were facing as a young performer? Was she maybe more paranoid?
Yeah, I think that’s true. I remember Michael Jackson once called to see if I was feeling okay because I had gone home sick from the set of Goonies; they’d shut down production for a couple days. I was so excited he called, but he didn’t leave his number. [Laughs.] And the first thing my mom said was, “I don’t understand. What does he want? Why is he calling you?”
She was worried that it was inappropriate for a man to have a friendly interest in a 12-year-old.
Yeah. But if you listen to Corey talk about all of this now … people ask him, “Why don’t you go to the cops about the people who abused you?” he says, “I did go to the cops. I told them I’ve been molested, here are the names, but Michael Jackson is not that guy.” All they wanted was to get Michael Jackson, so they didn’t follow his leads. But I always root for Corey.
Did you ever personally experience or witness inappropriate behavior coming up in the business?
No. I’ve never observed a crime, or seen anybody in an illegal circumstance. When the Weinstein thing first happened, I wrote this treatise on social media about the fact that more than anything, we have to deal with bullying. This guy was a primo bully and everyone knew. He used rage or the threat of rage as a weapon. So my whole thing is, we need to expand the conversation to include bullying and ask, “How does power manifest?” And one clear manifestation of power that’s widely accepted and almost admired in our business is bullying. We all need to be on point now. A lot of people feel ashamed if they heard rumors and didn’t do anything. I don’t think they should feel ashamed. This is hard…I think we should all feel vigilant going forward.
Unfortunately, there are so many parallels to be drawn between Weinstein’s conduct and that of our own president.
I know. I still don’t know how we watched that guy bully his way through a field of 16 candidates — one by one, knocking ’em off. We created this classic kind of Central American dictatorial propaganda in him with The Apprentice. Literally, the song “Money” is his song. He has jets and helicopters, and now he can look at the brightest people in the world and fire them. Those other guys couldn’t leverage a thing against that. And 60 million people voted for the guy. Sixty million people.
You were an active campaigner for Hillary Clinton. What do you think she should she have done differently?
She couldn’t figure out how to clean up the mistakes she’d made in insulting the people in coal country. She could’ve gone to Wisconsin. She could’ve talked Obama into releasing the Russia story sooner. I don’t know. I do know the Electoral College needs to go. I resent the hell out of people saying, “Well, if you take California out of it, then this and that.” California is arguably the most important, most diverse, and most productive state. And all 3 million of those extra votes should have counted. I want to wrap myself in the California flag and tell people who talk about the West Coast to fuck off.
I also think Americans need to find a way to produce better candidates. You have to take the money out of politics and make sure districts are drawn in such a manner as they reflect the actual demographics of the people who live there. And when Trump goes after the media and calls it fake news, he should be impeached — and everyone should say this. But the media lives in fear. I watch CNN and MSNBC, and they screw it up by going too far and making the wrong points. You’re like, “Oh, no. You’re locking in the opposition rather than inviting people to think in a nonpolitical way about these issues.” Just because all these outlets have points of view doesn’t make them intrinsically incapable of reporting accurately. But Fox News is absolutely beyond the pale. It’s now essentially state-run media.
Seems like we need your passion in politics. Can we count on you to run for office anytime soon?
[Laughs] Yes, I’ll be running for local dogcatcher. I’ll be the most passionate dogcatcher. Street to street, fence to fence.
Out in the world, does it seem like Bob is starting to eclipse Mikey, Rudy, and Samwise?
I think Bob’s gonna be pretty heavy for a while. But Mikey from Goonies is shockingly the thing that still gets me most recognized.
Thirty-two years later.
And I’m 46! People are like, “I knew it the second I saw you.” I think my voice is mostly the same, but lookswise? I don’t know. My body can get big and little. And it’s harder to get little these days. [Laughs.] But back to everything we’re dealing with right now in Hollywood and politics, I want to leave you with a word that I hope will be the future of our planet — humility.
I’m sorry, I work in Hollywood, I don’t know what that means.
I think it’s like when you have a cough and you put it in the corner and it makes steam?
Actually, I thought you were gonna say “easy-peasy” as your closing thought.
Yeah, that’s what I meant to say! People are telling me already, “If I hear Bob say easy-peasy one more time …” The Duffers loved it, though. They also loved “Bob-mobile.”
Well, worst-case you have more catchphrases to add to your collection. What are your favorites, by the way?
Definitely “It’s our time down here” and “Goonies never say die” from Goonies. I liked “Having dreams is what makes life tolerable” from Rudy. And “Who is the wild man now?” is what people yell at me in the airport sometimes. [Laughs.] That was said, of course, by Jon Favreau in his first film role ever.
And for Samwise?
“Potatoes” is popular. Also, “There’s some good left in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.” And of course, “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you.”
Finally, you mentioned that you feel like you’re waiting for your next acting mission. Do you know what it will be?
Not yet. I actually already do a lot of voice-over work. I’m on four shows right now. I love it. I drive from Calabasas to Burbank and my wife packs me lunch. I guess I’ll have to get a Stranger Things lunchbox now. I’ll get made fun of so much. It’s going to be awesome.