Inside ‘The Strain’ with Sean Astin

Sean Astin The Strain Interview
Sean Astin in ‘The Strain’ (Photo © 2014, FX Networks.

This interview with Sean Astin (‘Jim Kent’) includes details on FX’s The Strain up through the August 31, 2014 episode, and I wouldn’t want to spoil the experience of watching the riveting series by releasing spoilers without first issuing a warning: If you’re not caught up on season one of the thriller from executive producers Guillermo del Toro, Carlton Cuse, and Chuck Hogan, do not read any further.

For fans of the series who are caught up, Astin provided a behind-the-scenes look at the events of this first season during a conference call in support of the show which airs on Sunday nights at 10pm ET/PT.

Sean Astin The Strain Interview

How has The Strain been different for you as a actor?

Sean Astin: “First of all, working with Guillermo is a unique experience. For most people who are working on these shows, I would say one of the most exciting things about it is spending time with Guillermo. He’s just so full of life and creativity and his imagination, and you always feel like he’s both incredibly well prepared and in the moment and able to be spontaneous, so that’s pretty great. And then I have not in my life been a vampire guy really except when I was 16 and I worked in a movie theatre where my friend Corey Feldman’s movie The Lost Boys premiered. That was probably the height of my vampire interest. I sort of missed the rest of the wave of Vampire Diaries and all the way through to the recent Twilight and everything else, so learning vampire lore was pretty cool for me, particularly the cosmology of vampires in Guillermo’s mind is really cool.”

Jim was an interesting character who we neither completely liked nor completely hated. What did you think about him?

Sean Astin: “Jim is basically a morally compromised guy and I think he has the occasional quips that he has, comedic quips reveals some kind of personality that it might be fun to interact with. But his wife is suffering and so he’s a compromised guy is basically the way I see him.”

What does it mean to be part of this series?

Sean Astin: “Since being in Lord of the Rings this pop cultural wave of franchise inclusion has swept the globe where these comic book franchises, bestselling book franchises, television reboot franchises, they just come in big waves and it’s almost like being in one particular movie or one particular show isn’t enough anymore. So the fact that Guillermo and Carlton Cuse came along with this new incarnation of a vampire world meant a new franchise, and so I feel I’m grateful that Guillermo reached out and swept me up in it.”

Can you talk about the challenges of filming the convenience store scene?

Sean Astin: “Ironically, the biggest challenge of it was how cold it was. Toronto suffered really the coldest winter in most of the crew members’ memory. It’s one thing to sit here in a 75º day in Los Angeles and talk about cold weather, but it was bitter cold. So you look outside at these vampires who were in their postmortem makeup and you just figured that it wasn’t too far off from where they’re going to be if they had to stand outside any longer. But the emotions of it, I was told in my very first meeting with Guillermo and Carlton that this character from the books, who didn’t last that long in the books, wasn’t going to last very long in the series. They invited me to be a part of this show knowing full well that in episode eight my character is going to get killed off. So there is a little bit of the gallows anticipation that comes knowing we’re in episode five; it’s only a few episodes away now before I get to say good-bye to all my new friends.

Then when you find yourself actually in the convenience store doing the work, there is an emotional responsibility that you have to the relationship between the characters. Blocking the scene where Eph and Nora discover that he’s been fully infected, it was really kind of cool the first bit where they use the UV Ray to see the worm in my face and they go and lay me down and do this sort of butcher surgery or field dressing surgery, that was all kind of cool and relatively straight forward, relatively easy. But then when we got into blocking, Jim discovers that it’s all through my back and then I realize that the only thing to do is for them to kill me and I’m saying I don’t want to turn out like the rest of them and I don’t want go after my parents and asking Setrakian to basically explain what that is with these vampires go to the ones closest to them. It was pretty powerful emotionally and everybody had this feeling that it was exciting to be doing maybe one of the first big deaths of the show. I guess there had been others, but for me it was the big death because it was me.

This dual feeling that the show…the characters move on and the show moves on and that was definitely a dynamic, unlike 24 where I never knew from one week to the next what was going to happen and I open the script or sitting in the makeup bus for episode whatever it was 13 and my character has this spectacular Sentox nerve gas death. So you’re like it’s sort of shocking, but you know anything can happen on that show and that is a very heroic death. This one, Jim’s redemption is kind of petty redemption. I think I’m the first one to plug in the UV ray lights and what I think is kind of, for me, it’s iconic where I come out of the convenience store and I’m the first one to extend my arm with the thing and burn one of the vamps with this UV light; and then of course everybody does it because Jim did it. But that feeling is, yes, I don’t know…it was cool. I was at Disneyland with my wife and kids. I had run a marathon, this Disney half marathon weekend, so we did a 10K on Tuesday and a half marathon. So I’m walking around and my legs are sore and the kids are having a ball and I realized the episode is airing right now. I hadn’t really been paying any attention to my phone for three days, but we’re sitting on the train going through Fantasyland and I’m looking at seeing all these messages saying, ‘All right, Jim, we’re going to miss you buddy.’ It was a sad way for you to have to go, Jim, but we tried to have fun with it. What are you going to do?”

Sean Astin at Comic Con

You said you were 16 and working in a movie theater, but back then you were already a successful actor. How did you end up working in a movie theater and what’s it like to be a guy who’s an actor working in a movie theater watching other people act?

Sean Astin: “It’s funny. I was looking online right before I got on the conference call and there was this article about celebrities who live below their means or something, modest celebrities, and it talked about how Leonardo DiCaprio occasionally takes a commercial flight. When I was 16 my mom and I, I had a car for a little bit and then she wanted or needed the car back, so I basically was doing summer school and night school. I really wanted to graduate with a better GPA than I had earned throughout the rest of my high school year and I would take the bus into Westwood from my dad’s place in west LA. I just worked in a movie theater. I worked at the Bruin and Mr. Francis was my manager. I started by taking tickets at the door.

The fun story I have is with my buddy Corey. It was his movie. I worked a couple of days on the end of Superman’s run. I can’t remember what it was, but anyhow and then it comes in and there’s the big premiere and Corey walks in and I’m wearing my blue blazer with my gray pants and my name tag. I used my middle name – and Patrick is my middle name. I used my middle name and all the actors are standing by the concession stand and Mr. Francis who is, I don’t know, 147 at that point he’s since passed away and he’s just a known guy; he’s a known figure/character/personality and he said, ‘Sean, you got to go pick up that popcorn.’ I grabbed the broom and dust pan and I walked over. I was like, ‘Excuse me, Corey,’ and he looked and he saw me and he’s like, ‘Sean, what happened?!’

I worked my way up through the ranks. It took all summer, but by the end of it I was making bank drops from the box office and I cleaned the butter maker and it was fun. I remember my mom sort of being shocked that I would do that job, but I liked it. That couple hundred buck check meant more to me than the $10,000 check that I got when I was eight because that $10,000 check went into an account that I didn’t see till I was 18 and now I was 16 and I could go spend that money. I don’t know. I count that as one of the good experiences for me.”

What was it about Jim for you as an actor that really made you want to invest in that role?

Sean Astin: “I didn’t really care. Guillermo wanted me to do it, so I wanted to do it. And then the idea for me was figure out what it was that he saw in me that he wanted me to do it. I think you could take a wide range of actors and put them in that part and it would be a Rorschach test of who that actor is. I think what he liked is that as Samwise Gamgee I’m known for being a friend and loyal and likable, a nice guy; and I think he liked the juxtaposition of somebody doing something morally questionable or wrong who is likable at the same time. That would make [it] interesting for people to have to wrestle themselves with it.

There are all these apocalyptic franchises now and the question becomes how accessible [and] how authentic if you can really feel like what would it be like if I was in that situation, if the power went out or if the grid went out or if there’s some terrorist event or some plague, the bubonic plague is around now, Ebola or whatever. So if you’re going to use a vampire story as a metaphor for that, you want to find ways into it that feel natural. So, what I came to like about Jim was the way that he wanted even, though he did the wrong thing, he really wanted to be of service as a CDC guy, as an aide to Eph. He wanted to help and so I liked leaning into that. Then during the autopsy scene and during this scene in the eighth episode and a few other times, something will happen and he just sort of says what everyone else is thinking in a basic way. I think that made him even more entertaining in moments for folks.”

One of the most authentic things was his desire for not only redemption, but he wanted so bad to be forgiven by Eph and by Nora and it’s sad that just as he kind of got almost to that point, we had to say good-bye to him.

Sean Astin: “Yes, it’s a study on human nature because Nora is sympathetic to him the whole time it seems like to me. Her compassion meter has a little more sensitivity, but Eph finally kind of relaxes his anger towards Jim for a little bit as Jim has acquitted himself in battle, really in the moment right before that. But then it’s Jim’s mortality that really provokes Eph’s empathy and he doesn’t want a patient to die, but he doesn’t want his friend to die. You can see it. He says at one point, ‘He’s my friend,’ and that as an audience member watching it, I really like that. I really like that he showed something of himself and how he really felt. He would never have been that mad at Jim if he didn’t like him, because that’s what betrayal is. Otherwise, it’s just villainy.”

Was there any part of Jim that made you say, “I can totally relate to that. Let me use my own familiarity to generate a real sense of authenticity?”

Sean Astin: “I’m probably more like Jim Kent than I am Samwise Gamgee in as much as I have to make choices in my life that I’m not an ideal literary character. People always want to know if I was like Sam and I try and embody some of those traits that Samwise has, but for Jim, I guess my technique relies on trying to feel the emotions or the moments as the character would feel it in real time. That’s how I get the closest to manifesting something that’s authentic.

Having said that, I don’t think I can help but bring a large part of myself to it. I just try not to draw one-to-one correlation between something in my life that I’ve experienced and something that it would evoke an emotion that’s the same or similar to something that Jim would be feeling at that moment. I think that my empathy quotient is high enough that when I see he’s lied on behalf of his wife who’s got cancer or he’s trying to save people by plugging in a UV ray to maybe stave off some vampires or any of those feelings, I find it very easy to be empathic for those feelings. It’s easier for me because on take three and four and five and whatever as you reinvest in it, it might be harder for me to try and transplant emotions that I’ve had in my life a second time and a third time and a fourth time.”

Do you feel that your portrayal of Jim Kent is very similar to the Jim Kent in the novels or did you change him in any way?

Sean Astin: “I don’t think that Jim Kent is exactly like the book. When I met [Guillermo and Carlton], they knew exactly what they wanted Jim Kent to be. And when I experienced the book, I didn’t know what to make of how I might play Jim Kent, so I really was relying on the fact that they knew what they wanted and then it was my job to figure that out and give it to them. Jim’s character, I don’t think, is that fully rendered in the books, so I hope I’m not telling tales out of school, but no, I think Jim is one of the characters in it that isn’t slavishly close to what’s in the book.”

-By Rebecca Murray

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