Sean Astin likes to mix it up, and his latest project is like nothing the star of Goonies, Rudy, 50 First Dates, The Lord of the Rings, and Stranger Things has ever done before. Fire in the Garden is a one-man stage drama in which a new father talks to his infant child, with the father deeply affected by the actions of Norman Morrison, a real-life figure who, in 1965, lit himself on fire near the Pentagon – with his one-year-old daughter looking on — as he protested America’s policy toward Vietnam. The play, written by Ken Weitzman and directed by James Glossman, runs 50 minutes and will be available for free until the end of the month via the New Jersey Repertory Company. Fatherly caught up with the always thoughtful and talkative Astin, who discussed Fire in the Garden, how being a dad impacts his performances as dads, what his daughters Ali, Elizabeth and Bella, think of his acting, and more.
You filmed Fire in the Garden over Zoom. When did you shoot it?
We recorded it about a month ago. The director turned it around from recording and adding the music and that stuff, and he got it put up on the New Jersey Repertory Company site right after that. They extended it through June.
This couldn’t have been a fun piece to make. It’s you, alone, and pretty dark material. What elements of the story, your character, connected with you most?
It was so hard. We rehearsed a lot. I dreaded the rehearsal times because it was so, I want to say emotionally exhausting, but it was so emotionally exhausting that it was physically exhausting. We’d rehearse for three hours and, afterward, I just wasn’t myself for a period of time after each rehearsal. I’m a father of three daughters, and we all exist in an age where there are things going on in the world that are bad. There’s violence, injustice, things it feels like no one person can fix because no one person can fix it. There’s this Jean-Paul Sartre quote that goes to the idea that essentially every person is at the center of their own story and it feels like the epicenter of your own story, that everyone is watching, but the whole world hinges on if you stub your toe.
That idea of, “What can I do to make a difference? What impact can I have?”… It feels a little hopeless sometimes. I connected with a bit of the impediment idealism that is reality. Somehow, this particular self-sacrifice, the self-immolation of Norman Morrison went into the mind of the playwright and into this character, as maybe a hook to address yourself to that idea that you’re not going to be leaving the world better for your children than you found it. It’s going to be worse. Basically, the idea of fatherhood, of wanting to make a difference, has never been an abstraction for me. As the child of actors (Patty Duke and John Astin), it was always presented that you could be the host of The Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon, or could do a Coast Guard water safety commercial. You can do something to raise money to help people in need or help create safety for people. That was from my youngest memories. When I do political activism and get involved in causes, people ask, “Why are you doing this?” And I’m like, “Well, why wouldn’t I?”
You – the general you — can make a difference…
Of course, you can make a difference. Everybody can make a difference. I just turned 50, and my kids… one’s in grad school, one’s in college, and the other one is halfway through high school. You look at the political culture, at this tug of war between democracy and fascism, and you go, “Uh-oh, I may be out of ammo here.” That hurts. It physically hurts to not know what to do to provide value. It’s narcissistic to think you’re connected to the rest of the world, except we are all interconnected. This message of environmentalism that is ultimately the core driving principle of the piece, connects everyone. Can’t escape it. This species, we’re all in it together. It touched a lot of things for me that felt like I had to do it.
How has being a father influenced how you play one?
No acting required, man. I did a sitcom (No Good Nick) and got to be a fun dad. It’s a tone, and I have that tone in me as a father. My kids know I’m goofy and do dumb dad jokes. Otherwise, it just depends on what’s going on. My kids are 24, 18, and soon to be 16, and in this piece, his son is an infant almost turning one. So, there was an amazing journey back to remembering what that was like to have a little one. It all blends together. It’s great when we look at pictures and I’m like, “Oh yes, that’s what you looked like.”
How do you play Dad? A lot of the characters I’ve played have that paternal quality. Samwise Gamgee becomes a father of 13 kids after The Lord of the Rings. He cares for Frodo. He literally carries Frodo up the hill. That’s the ideal of what a father would want to think or believe is possible in himself, that nurturing and heroism. You want to be a hero as a father, I think, on some level. Bob Newby in Stranger Things, was about to become a stepdad, but it was the same quality.
The best fathers may not be the best fathers to play. I’m sure there are much more interesting tragic father figures who are ripe for drama. But the easiest and most fun fathers to play for me are the ones who have an internal compass and internal heroism about them. In Fire in the Garden, it’s perverted in the most horrifying way that he somehow conflates that heroic, “I’d do anything for my child” instinct with self-destruction. It shouldn’t have to be like that.
What roles or projects do your girls like you in most?
Very interesting question. It took a long time for the younger ones to watch Lord of the Rings. It looked scary to them. They didn’t want to watch it. I’ve wrestled with why they wouldn’t want to watch me in certain things because I’m proud of it. I want them to see it. I want to see their reaction, and sometimes they just don’t want to do it. Maybe the pressure of that reaction is too much. But we were in Georgia when I was working on Stranger Things, and they came to visit. We were in the hotel, turned on the TV, and Return of the King was on, the beginning of it. Two of the kids were like, “No, no, no, turn it off, turn it off.” I had my hand on the remote and let it linger for a minute. My wife, who likes to read the room and see how she can make things go right, allowed the space for them to watch it.
So, we watched it. It was on TNT and had commercials; the worst way to see it is on a TV as opposed to a screen, and with commercials as opposed to straight through. But something would happen during the commercials. They’d look over and be like, “Wait, so what is an…? I don’t understand… Why is this…?” What dads love to do, dad-splaining things. I could explain what was going on and then it’d come back on, and it was like, “Okay, let’s watch.” I remember at the end, my middle kid, Elizabeth, was like, “Dad, you’re really good.” I was like, “Oh, my God, thank you so much.” “No, you’re really, really good.” She kept repeating it over and over. Was she surprised? Shocked? Stunned? I don’t understand. But it was nice. Then, the next day, I’d lean in and say, “Hey, you said you liked it, right?” I’d try and provoke her to keep complimenting me.
Take it where you can get it?
Exactly! But, they like Goonies, and I know Rudy they think is good. They like the animated stuff. And they don’t saturate in it. They just look at it for a minute and say, “Oh yeah, that’s good, Dad.” If something isn’t good, which I’m not going to even try and take my mind into figuring out things they don’t like, but there’s a lot of it, they’re happy to tell me. They try not to be mean. They try to be constructive, always.
You mentioned Stranger Things. Bob was such a good guy. Were you amazed by how people ugly cried when he died?
People’s emotional reaction to it was amazing. The Duffers, the writers, wanted to kill him in the first three episodes. But I had the line where I go, “Kenny Rogers. I love Kenny Rogers.” They were like, “Oh my God, we’re in love with this guy.” Guileless and passionate about his Kenny Rogers. So, they kept him around for, eight, nine, 10 episodes. When it came time to write (Bob out), what I kept saying from the very beginning was, “Please let me do something heroic. Whatever it is, I guarantee people who know me from Goonies, they’ll love it. Just let Bob do something, even though he doesn’t seem like the heroic type.” They said, “Ah, we got it.” That episode came out and it was like Die Hard, and Bob got to be this total beast of a hero. The Duffers were emotional. They were like, “It was really, really hard to write the killing of Bob because we like Sean. We like Sean being around. We like the character.”
My baby girl, she’s 15 now. She binged the whole thing with headphones on. I’m like, “What do you think?” She stuck her lip out and made the finger down her face, tear gesture, like, “Awe.” She goes, “Well, it’s Stranger Things, so someone had to die.” I said, “Was it a good death?” She goes, “Oh, Dad, that was a good death.”
What else did you either squeeze in before Covid-19 or during it?
There’s a movie called Hero Mode that’s about to come out that’s about a kid who takes over his parents’ video game company. I’ve done (the dramatic readings for) audiobooks. I did The Great Gatsby, and then Max Brooks’ Minecraft book. It was so emotional and moving. Max, who I went to high school with… it was amazing just to see his voice expressed the way he does. There’s also a film, iMordecai, which is a beautiful little slice of heaven. Judd Hirsch and Carol Kane play this old Jewish couple. It’s their love story. She’s got a bit of dementia. The filmmaker, Marvin Samuel, it’s his biographical story, a love letter to his parents. I’m the son, and it’s sort of told from my perspective. We shot that in Miami and it was the last thing I did before we went into quarantine. I’m not sure when that’s coming out.
Fire in the Garden is available for free at NJrep.org.