Look up "heart" in the dictionary and you might just see a photo of Sean Astin. Or at least one of the characters he's best known for playing, like Mikey ("The Goonies"), Rudy ("Rudy") or Sam ("The Lord of the Rings" trilogy).
So it's no surprise that in his new movie, the horse-racing mockumentary "And They're Off…," the 40-year-old plays a horse trainer with – you guessed it – loads of heart.
Astin's career has slowed down over the past few years -- by design, he says -- but these days he's keeping extremely busy. We sat down with the cordial and candid actor-director-producer to talk about hitting the racetrack and, of course, all those "Goonies" and "Hobbit" rumors.
You worked with some pretty renowned comedians, like Cheri Oteri and Kevin Nealon, in "And They're Off." Was it hard to keep up with them?
I'd love to do [more comedy roles]. I was the straight guy. So I was just doing my thing while they were just going berserk. It was fun to watch them. I'd be in a scene and sometimes I'd forget to do my line because I was just kind of watching them do their stuff, like, "Cheri, God, I remember on 'Saturday Night Live' when she—oh, I'm supposed to talk!" And Martin Mull, I mean, their professional comedy chops are flawless … I haven't really acquitted myself in that arena but I felt really comfortable at the same time because I knew what my thing was.
The movie has an unscripted feel. Was there a lot of improv?
A lot. We'd do a scene, we'd film a few takes, and ... they'd say, "Okay, do what you want." And you'd come up with stuff and then it would get better and funnier, sometimes it would dud out or whatever, but sometimes it got really funny. Then after that, you go back and you'd do the original scene again—the takes of the original dialogue—and it was better, because you got to wander away a little bit and then got to come back, and it was like coming home to mama.
Were you a horse-racing buff before this movie or did you study up?
I was neither a buff nor an aficionado, but I revered it. I spent time at the race track, spent time around horses, and understood the power and pageantry of it, and loved it.
Were any of the characters based on real people you had met at the racetrack?
Well, Alan Grossbard, the producer and writer, loves it so much—not just the sport but ... the whole culture and the people. He kept saying, "The people in this world are so funny and they're so realistic and they're begging and crying out to be made fun of." He certainly didn't tell me if anything was based on one specific person but they kind of fill those jokey stereotypes for each role.
Will we see you directing anything else soon?
I'm working on "Number the Stars." It's a children's book—a Newbury Award-winning children's book—about two 10-year-old girls in Denmark in the war. The Danes evacuated 95 percent of their Jews by smuggling them on boats over to Sweden, so this is a fictional story about two families and how they respond in that time. We've been working very hard for a long time and hopefully we'll have the money [to produce it] soon.
So there's a petition online right now to get you in "The Hobbit," are you aware of it?
I heard something about that. I want to know who started it. I wonder if it was random or someone I know. I certainly like that they're doing it. It's flattering to see people go out of their way to try to include you in something that's epic.
Any word on a cameo?
No, that won't happen. If they wanted me to, I would do it of course, but I think it's distracting to them. Elijah went down and did a little bit. I'm proud of them. I predicted it from day one—I knew they would do it. Peter's the only right person to direct it. I don't know how they're going to make two movies. That will be interesting.
You just did a reunion photo shoot with Elijah Wood, Billy Boyd, and Dominic Monaghan. How often do you guys get together?
Very rarely. It's rarely, for me. They make time to hang out with each other a little bit more.
Who has more heart: Rudy or Sam?
Wow. I don't know. This is funny. I'd probably have to say Sam because Sam is prepared to die. For Rudy, if he fails, it's an accomplishment that he's failed at, but it's not his life.
Have your kids seen "The Goonies"?
Oh yeah, they love it! It's great when they see stuff and think I'm cool for a minute. Like, "Oh, Dad! You're not just a lump over there that doesn't do anything!" And then they ask a whole flurry of questions, and then they don't care anymore.
Have they seen "Lord of the Rings"?
They're a little scared of "Lord of the Rings." They're 15, 9, and 6, so there's a lot of 9-year-olds who watch it and love it, but they're delicate little flowers with that stuff. It will be neat when they finally do watch it. It will be neat.
Are there still talks of a sequel and/or a remake of "The Goonies"?
I've always predicted 1,000-percent that there will be a sequel, they just have to make a decision on what they want to do. They have all these scripts written. I know what I would do with it. I know my version of it.
Do you want to be in it, or be behind the camera?
Wow. [Director] Dick Donner for a long time said he didn't want to do it. And then I said, "I want to direct it." And then Dick Donner said, "Hey, what are you doing? I'm directing this movie." So the order of operations is Dick directs it, and then maybe someday in the future if he doesn't, they would let me direct it. Probably not, but it depends on what I do first.
Would you be willing to be in it?
Sure! If the money was right, and if it was good. Odds are, the older we get, they'll diminish our roles and beef up [the roles of] whoever the next "Goonies" kids are. So, I'd want to make sure I didn't feel, you know, underappreciated, to be honest. I'm at an age in my life now where I'm just honest about stuff. "Uh, who did you meet who you didn't have a good interaction with?" "Well, Mel Gibson" [laughs].
What's next for you?
I've just done a flurry of work. I've done, like, six things in the last two months. I'm about to go to Mexico and do a thing called "Little Boy," and then I'm going to go do a thing called "Napa" in Napa with Rose McGowan, playing her love interest. I mean, it's staggering how much work I'm doing and also trying to get a movie made, so I'm grateful for the work.
I did a little movie called "The Ghost of Abu Ghraib" with Luke Moran, who wrote, directed, and produced it, and it's really good. I play a prison guard and that gave me haunting, haunting nightmares for weeks afterwards. It was filmed in New Mexico.
If you look online, you can see an animation thing that's been announced that I'm doing. I can't acknowledge that I'm doing it at the moment, but, I am doing it. The characters are green.
I made a decision a few months ago that I needed to work, I needed to make money. The kids are in private school, I needed to focus on my career instead of just focusing on "Number the Stars" and I just called my agent and said, "Let's go. I want to work now. I don't want to wait." And they found something, and then another thing, and then another thing, and it's all just sort of built up.