'Bike scenes remind me of The Goonies'
Sean Astin talks to Catherine Gee about his four dads, BMX bicycles and being a mentor to the young actors on season two of Stranger Things
The image of a group of plucky young boys riding through the woods on their old-school BMX bikes was seared into the cultural landscape by ET and The Goonies. It's so evocative that it was borrowed by the Duffer Brothers for their own young protagonists in last year's Netflix smash Stranger Things. Now, for season two, they've gone one step further and cast The Goonies' very own asthmatic hero, Sean Astin.
The new series is set a year on from the last, in 1984 - which, fortunately, is a year before The Goonies was released (goodness knows how they'll address that in seasons four and five). But, the potential calamity of colliding worlds aside, for a show that packs in as many 80s references as it can muster, Astin is a natural choice.
Now aged 46 and a father of three, the actor joins the small band of supernatural-fighting grown-ups in the series, alongside fellow 80s teen star Winona Ryder and David Harbour, who plays the grizzled local police chief. So what can he tell us about his character?
"You'll appreciate that I have a brief that I have to stay within, but what I can say is that Bob Newby, my character, works at RadioShack and he comes in as Winona's love interest," says Astin over the phone from his home in Los Angeles.
Indeed, Bob's arrival proves welcome for Ryder's Joyce Byers, who was put through an emotional wringer while trying to make contact with the son that she was convinced was somehow stuck in the walls of her house (which he sort of was).
But when he first heard that the Duffer Brothers might be interested in casting him, Astin still hadn't seen the series.
"I'd been hearing about this show for a couple of months and how much it was like The Goonies and how I had to see it and I would love it," he recalls. "As soon as they sent me an email saying that Stranger Things is having an audition and they'd like you to come in, I just thought, 'Oh boy this might be fated'. I hadn't really watched the show but I binged it and fell in love with it."
That audition led to an offer and to Astin joining a set that looked not entirely unlike the one that had made him famous 33 years ago. But the experience of a child actor has moved on enormously in that time.
"They're a little more sophisticated than I was," he says. "They have more information available to them about the nature of the industry and how the industry works."
In addition to being a child star, Astin had an unusual, often difficult upbringing. His mother is the late actress Patty Duke, who starred in her own show in the 60s and won an Oscar when she was only 16. She maintained a long, fruitful career, but suffered from bipolar disorder and would often fly into rages, something that Astin (left) says was hard but "there was never a question in my childhood that she loved me".
He was raised believing that The Addams Family actor John Astin, whom his mother had married when Sean was 18 months old but had been in a relationship with for two years, was his father. But when Sean was 14, Duke told him that he was, instead, the product of a short-lived romance with the then-17-year-old entertainer Desi Arnaz Jr - the son of Lucille Ball.
Over the coming years, Astin and Arnaz formed a relationship. But then, 11 years later, Sean met a relative of Michael Tell, a music promoter who had been married to Duke for 13 days immediately after her relationship with Arnaz. The relative suggested that Sean might actually be related to Tell. A DNA test later proved it: Michael Tell was Sean Astin's biological father.
Nowadays, Astin maintains a relationship with all three men, and with his stepfather Mike Pearce, who his mother married in 1986.
"My interactions with my family members are all one to one," he explains. "We don't all get together for Thanksgiving dinner. But I can sit and tell any one of them about a conversation that I just had with the other one and they're all curious and interested and respectful… they are not threatened by each other. My Mom was irritated with me for a period 25 years ago [Duke refused to accept the DNA results and maintained that Arnaz was Astin's father] but we kind of got past that."
It's a miracle, really, that Astin seems so normal - his life has been free of the substance abuse and mental health issues that so frequently plague child stars. He's also avoided the sexual abuse that was reportedly inflicted on his Goonies co-star Corey Feldman (right). Feldman spent years speaking out about powerful members of the film industry who had molested both him and his childhood friend Corey Haim when they were teenagers. But his claims were often dismissed and it is only in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal that the topic of wide-scale sexual abuse is being discussed.
"I was blessed to have parents who were incredibly protective of me so I'd say my experience was fantastic, but I also did see Corey my friend going through a really hard time," Astin said in an interview last year.
"I didn't know about sexual abuse with him, but you could see that he was suffering and it is a helpless feeling not knowing what one can do to help. It has to be a lonely painful experience going through that."
Despite this showbiz upbringing, Astin still feels that the Stranger Things stars are much more savvy than he was back in the 80s.
"Even though my parents were famous actors, I honestly felt most of the time that I didn't understand what was going on," he says. "They're just stone cold professionals these kids… of course, when they're riding their bicycles around, it just brings me right back to when I was their age and was riding bicycles in a Steven Spielberg movie."
In an interview earlier this year, Finn Wolfhard, who plays Mike Wheeler, described Astin as "not just a great actor but also a great mentor", though mentoring wasn't really at the forefront of Astin's mind when he was on set, largely because they didn't seem to need it.
"A lot of the time you go into a situation like that and you want to impart wisdom and you want to share legacy stuff," he says. "I guess there was some of that but we were just kind of equals."
His co-star Ryder is one he does, at least, feel he has something in common with. Both grew up in the spotlight - though Ryder arguably much more so as the press later fervently covered her love life, while Astin went to college and got married to a fellow student. They also appeared on screen together once before, in the 2009 romcom Stay Cool.
"We've had a lot of the same life experience," he says. "And she really admired my Mom, the two of them have a lot of similarities."
Astin also means more to the Duffer Brothers than just his Goonies character Mikey. The twins said the geekiest thing they ever did was watch all three extended editions of Lord Of The Rings in one sitting - something that even Astin hasn't done. When it comes to geekery, Astin recalls his time in university. "My wife and I got two computers - I think they were Gateway computers, kind of IBM knock-offs - and we connected them together via a LAN, and we got out this game called Age Of Empires II," he says. "If there was any dip in our grades, that is the reason. We actually brought them to the home we live in now. They're big, hulking, ugly computers. And it's not just the act of playing the game, it's the thousands of hours that we burned in our lifetime playing that game."
Stranger Things 2 arrives on Netflix today.
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