Interview: Sean Astin Wears the Red Mask as Raphael 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles'

When Nickelodeon premieres their revamped version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles this Saturday, it will be Lord of the Rings and Rudy star Sean Astin in the role of the tough-talking bruiser Raphael. Astin joins Jason Biggs as Leonardo, Rob Paulsen as Donatello, and Greg Cripes as Michelangelo, as the Turtles reemerge from the sewers to take on the weird threats on the surface of New York City.

When I spoke with Astin recently about taking on the role of Raphael, he'd just gotten out of the voice over booth where he and the other actors were wrapping up some additional fight sounds for their characters. We talked about joining to the franchise, and becoming a Ninja Turtles super fan as an adult.

MTV Geek: So what brought you into the TMNT universe?

Sean Astin: It's funny--Rob Paulsen, who's playing Donatello, was a part of all of the animated series. And he played Raphael who I'm playing. And he's playing Donatello who was originally his character. When the show came up, it was too young for me--I was a sophomore in college. But when they told me two years, a year and a half ago [that] Nickelodeon's doing a reboot of Ninja Turtles, I was like "right on!" Even though I didn't like them when I was younger, I knew that it would be great. And when I saw that the other three turtles were cast and that Raphael's who they were looking for and [he's] kind of the tough guy--the brawler, the bruiser of the group--I was like, "right on, that's perfect for me!"

So I went into the audition and I think they were hungry to find him. I was the last person cast and they looked at lots and lots of people and I think somehow they just figured I was going to be perfect for it. And I came in and delivered what they were looking for so there was a lot of energy and enthusiasm about me getting to be the tough guy.

Geek: You described him as a "bruiser and a brawler." What else can you tell us about your version of Raph and the turtles?

Astin: Well this version of the show is first off being done by fans of the show--all of the guys doing this were fans who grew up loving it. They talked a lot about how much they loved it while they were making it. So it's made by fans, for fans.

And they wanted to do two things: one, they wanted to [visually] define stuff-- the look of it with new digital technology which has layers. So when they're coming out of the sewers, it has texture to it you can really see. They wanted some feature film angles, like you see in the close-ups on the eyes and a point-of-view shots.

But also important to them was to have a light quality, the humor--particularly with Michelangelo--to come bursting through. So I talked a couple of journalists and they said "It was really funny, I was laughing the whole time," and I said "Yeah, that's what they're going for." So they can be very moody when they've done something wrong and Master Splinter is dressing them down or helping them try and under-gird their moral foundation.

So it's got that kind of dual thing where's it's light and fun and uplifting and and it's dark and mysterious. And I think, having watched a few previous episodes that it works.

And [with] Raphael, when Michelangelo is being annoying and Raphael is doing his "stop talking, start fighting" kind of thing, it can be kind of dark. But as broody and grumpy and dark as he is, he can be kind of a fun guy when he sees what the rest of the group is up to, kind of smirking, kind of like the best brooding characters do. Like the Thing or Hulk who have this thing, I don't know, like a kind of perspective where they appreciate the environment that they're in. They know what their role is and they feel comfort in their role and they can be amused for a second by the others.

Geek: How long did it take for you to find his voice?

Astin: You know, when I came in, I was in the zone. I was in the zone when I did the first few lines. And they wanted to see if I could do this, and I did that. But the actual register, the temperament, the pace--you know, part of the reason I think I got the job when I walked in was because I already had it and felt very comfortable.

To me, it comes from the dialog. The dialog is very specific, the character is written in a distinct way. So when you're reading it, it's almost as if there's only one way to do it. It's just seems like the natural way for it to flow. [He's] just kind of tough, it's just kind of a tough voice. Every so often, I'll realize I'm too angry or shouting too much and so I'll bring it down and make it a little more intimate while keeping that level of intensity present somewhere in there in the voice.

Geek: You seem pretty well-versed in how the show's being approached visually. Have you been following animation and comics for a while or has working on this show really inspired you to pay attention to this kind of storytelling?

Astin: Well, I wasn't a comic book kid at all. So growing up, something about the way the panels were drawn, it was always too much for me to get my head into. But after I came back from Lord of the Rings, and I was trying to figure out the next thing I was going to do, I remember auditioning for Daredevil. And I didn't know anything about Daredevil and I said, "You know what, I need to figure out what this comic book thing is all about."

And so I went and bought 20 [trades] and I was with my friend's house and my wife and kids were outside playing, having a barbecue--this is a very specific memory for me--I was sitting to a chair, off to the side and there was a plane landing overhead and all of a sudden I felt this really powerful thing like I was going into the comic book, like the comic book world was sucking me in. And once I was in it, I could almost look around corners, and I cared about the friendships and relationships, and I wasn't as distracted by the dialog bubbles and the description boxes. And so I pored right through all of those.

I have an English degree in American Literature and Culture, so I think I was always snobby about comic books. But what I realized in that day, in that moment, was that there was as much literary significance and power in terms of the ability to communicate with an audience that I didn't really appreciate before.

Then I wanted to direct Fantastic Four and I put in this huge bid to direct it, and I remember going to Golden Apple Comics in New York and buying every [trade] that they had and reading through it. So I don't read them for pleasure, but my appreciation for the artistic side of it just kept growing. And you have to develop a vocabulary for how to relate to it.

And so I'm sitting here at Nickelodeon probably surrounded by 350 people who've spent all day, every day of their lives drawing, and so I don't think I'm as conversant--if I sat around the watercooler and talked, it'd go right over my head--but watching different techniques, we all see the colors, the depth.

We as actors have been looking at the episodes for over a year, and we're like little kids. And as an actor, it's very validating because when you're using your imagination when you're doing the voice, and then you come back and you're like "I had no idea that's what they were doing with that."

Geek: There's a bit in the premiere where Splinter chooses who'll lead the team. What would Raphael's pitch be to lead the other turtles?

Astin: [Laughs] That actually happened with several of the episodes. Because with Leonardo, he's made three decisions and they've all gone badly and he doesn't want to listen to me, so Raphael, I think sometimes he wouldn't make a pitch or articulate it, he would just physically grab the reins--he does it over and over again. I think Raph is more of a doer than a talker.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles premieres Saturday, September 29th at 11 AM.

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