Sean Astin at the premiere of ‘The Strain’ (Getty Images)
In a career that now stretches more than three decades, Sean Astin has starred in a beloved childhood classic (The Goonies), a quintessential sports film (Rudy) and one of the most successful film franchises in history (The Lord of the Rings). Now, at 44 years old, Astin is investing much of his time in a smaller (yet growing) genre: Christian films.
This weekend, Astin stars in Woodlawn, his third Christian-themed movie in three years,and a true story in which he plays the traveling minister named Hank Erwin. The evangelical leader helped unite a newly desegregated high school football team in 1973 Birmingham, Alabama — and launch the career of future college and NFL star Tony Nathan. The film was written and directed by Erwin’s sons, Andrew and Jon, Birmingham-based filmmakers also directed Astin in the 2014 Christian family comedy Mom’s Night Out.
A father of three, Astin was drawn to the material by both his relationship with the filmmakers and the appeal of working on a film that so emphasizes family (when he called up Yahoo Movies last week, Astin — the son of actress Patty Duke — was on his way to Boston to see his oldest daughter perform in a college play). The actor, who also does a lot of voice work these days (including Raphael in the new Ninja Turtles cartoon) and starred in FX’s The Strain, spoke with us about Christian films, a potential Goonies sequel, and his recent Ironman triumph.
You’ve done a bunch of Christian films now, starting with 2012’s Amazing Love. How’d you first get involved in them?
There used to be a time in Hollywood where the industry was so small [that] if you worked with people, you could find yourself working with them over and over again. In the Christian film space, it’s pretty small. The numbers are growing, the audience is showing up, but it’s still relatively intimate in terms of the number of filmmakers who are able to raise money to have budgets that have good production values. I was offered a part on one about three or four years ago, and it seemed like a good fun part. I knew it was a Christian film, but it didn’t bother me. And, then the next thing I know, I made a couple friends and the next [Christian] film comes along.
Some Christian films are overtly about faith, but Woodlawn is largely about football and race.
The Erwin Brothers wanted to tell their dad’s story, and they wanted to offer something about their city that’s different from what most [people] know about Birmingham and the Civil Rights movement. I think of this as an evangelical movie, but one that is done in a way that is easy to experience: They’re talking about how Jesus is the way, the truth and the light, and they hold up the one finger and say this is what happens when God shows up. They’re using the relationship to Jesus and the relationship to their faith as a way to say, “We need to live in peace. We don’t want to live in a community that’s torn by violence and discord. We’re tired of that.”
There’s still so much violence and discord in this country. We have a system that disadvantages people of color, and so you have things like the Black Lives Matter movement that are out there looking for tactics to get [these] problems addressed. But there are other ways to accomplish it, too, and this movie depicts one way of going about providing leadership and helping to create an environment of peace.
Has doing these Christian films helped you find or express your faith more?
I think I’ve gotten more comfortable talking about how I feel about life and the world and God. I realize it’s tricky for an actor to talk about faith and movies because you run the risk of interrupting the audience’s experience of the film — by feeling that the performer is trying to proselytize or something. But I’m definitely more comfortable saying the name Jesus. I don’t know that I said the name Jesus a lot before. And that’s not a subtle thing, actually. If you are in polite conversation with your family and there’s a secular vibe or a spiritual vibe without really being religious, and you invoke Christ, it’s a showstopper for a second.
The movies you’ve done really stick with people. They still ask about a Goonies sequel, 30 years later — though I have no idea what that could look like.
I don’t know what it would look like either. But I’m absolutely convinced some version of it will happen eventually, because people really want it. And when people want something that bad, it’s the job of the studio to deliver.
Would it be a new generation of Goonies, or adults going on another adventure? It’s hard to fathom…
I don’t know. I think it depends on just how long it takes. We’re all getting into middle age —I’ve got a kid in college now. I don’t know if it’s [the Goonies] and their kids, or they just do a total reboot. Is it about people later in life rediscovering the magic? I don’t know. They have lots of ideas and they’ve been developing in different ways, but I just don’t think they’ve arrived at what they think the best option is. I wish they’d just break the logjam, because it’s so popular, they could probably do a cartoon and a Broadway show and other versions of movies. I think they’re just holding on too tight.
Spielberg did Hook, which had an adult Peter Pan finding his roots.
That’s the power of the medium: You can do whatever you want. I have my thoughts of what [the new Goonies] might be, but that’s not so important. What’s important is people remember the magic of it. It’s an older movie now, but the fun of it is so magical, and I think the reason they haven’t made it yet is they want to keep that same magic.
Sean Astin finishing the Ironman (Twitter)
Speaking of magic, you run Ironman competitions.
I just last weekend participated in the Ironman in Hawaii. I trained for that for four and a half months, and that was almost exclusively my focus. They were chanting “Rudy” all 140.6 miles of the journey. They were yelling out Goonies quotes and people were jumping on to the track dressed as Samwise Gamgee, with their Hobbit feet flip-flopping around. It’s a celebration of what I’ve done. At the end I was really focused on finishing. I was aware and enchanted, but I was in the final minutes of a long, magical test.