TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW WITH SEAN ASTIN (SAMWISE GAMGEE)
Transcription by Rebekah Zhuraw, December 14, 2002
RH = ROBERT HIERONIMUS SA = SEAN ASTIN
[BEGIN SEAN ASTIN, DECEMBER 5, 2002, TAPE 1 OF 1, SIDE A]
SA: Is this Bob Hieronimus?
RH: This is what's left of me!
SA: I love your last name!
RH: Well, thank you. I'll sell it to you for just a buck and a half!
SA: Is it Greek?
RH: Yes, actually, it is Greek! The family--the Hieronimi family spell it thirteen different ways. It can be used as a surname or your first name. It is also goes into thirteen different...
SA: Is there someone called Hieronymous Bosch or something?
RH: Yes, heıs an artist. He's an artist within the family that was not accepted in the family until the last 20-some years because he smoked hashish.
SA: Oh my goodness.
RH: And the family, of course, couldn't tolerate such a thing because their job was of course to raise horses, and thatıs what--
SA: Are we talking about a blue blood American family--
SA: --or are we talking about a thousand year old Greek heritage here?
RH: Well, we're actually no blue blooded American family. They brought horses to America, but other than that they were kind of peculiar folks, and so am I.
RH: I'm generally peculiar.
SA: Well I cotton to the whole peculiarity thing, so we're well-suited to be on the phone together.
RH: Well, we are so happy you could join us, and especially in regards our seeing The Two Towers yesterday. I almost called you Sam. [laughs]
SA: That's okay with me.
RH: Sam--[laughs] Sean.
SA: Well, you could call me Samwise or Sam Gamgees or whatever you want to call me.
RH: All right. Well, I gotta tell you that the--you have brought another dimension to Sam that I--I've read the--I'm sure you've read these books many times--
RH: --but you brought another dimension of understanding him and his relationship to Frodo that I thought was--it's--it's powerful stuff.
RH: Congratulations. I mean, you know, if you--if you're not nominated for something big, you deserve it because there are two people especially that impress me in this work, and that was the individual Andy Serkis--
SA: Andy Serkis who played Gollum, yeah.
RH: Oh! I mean, you know, I have always had a problem in trying to listen to Gollum and not understanding him, but now I think I have a better insight.
SA: So you thought that the clarity of Gollum was good enough.
SA: That's great!
RH: I thought so.
SA: That's great. Well, his--he is--Andy Serkis is one of the most intense actors that Iıve ever worked with, and he's--he-s a lovely fellow. I mean he's a family man and everything. But the level of devotion that he brought to his interpretation of Gollum was enough to really take your breath away day in and day out, and he is deserving of recognition. And it's interesting because Gollum is -- to the uniformed viewer -- a CG character [computer generated].
RH: That's right.
SA: But the difference is that he drove--an actor drives the performance of Gollum. It's not just a sort of CG character that an actor adds the voice onto after the fact. And that was by design by Peter Jackson and all the 200 animators and Andy Serkis. They all worked in concert together to realize the performance that youıre talking about having enjoyed.
RH: Well, when did you first read the books, and how great a study did you make of them in preparation during or during the filming?
SA: Well, I had recently graduated from UCLA with a degree in history and American literature and culture.
SA: But--and that's my little [laughs]--that's my--I'm prefacing my statement with that little bit of a boost for myself. I had never even heard of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I had heard of The Hobbit, but I had never read The Hobbit. There was sort of a gaping hole in my childhood literary experience. I'd never, never experienced The Hobbit. So, the entire world of Middle-earth was a new experience for me that I discovered in the function of making these movies. But I jumped in with both feet, and I was--it was really fun. I mean I basically spent a few years in college training my mind, you know, on how to, kind of how to study literature, and I got my chance to sort of do it as an interpretive experience. So I was ready for the task.
And I read the books three times while we were making--or you know, sort of before and during making the films. I bought several editions of the book. I studied the illustrations--several, you know--half a dozen different illustrators' interpretations of the characters and of the story. I listened to the complete CD sets of the BBC version of it. I watched the Ralph Bakshi version of the story. I basically--I bought the book of Tolkien's letters. I became a kind of immediate devotee of the sort of culture of J.R.R. Tolkien and Lord of the Rings in order to feel worthy of trying to bring the work to the screen.
RH: Way to go! Way to go, Sean. Really. I mean that really shows some hell of a dedication because in--I'm an artist myself, and many times it's that preparation and going through it that makes you feel so confident that you can really get in there and do what you want to do.
RH: It gives you a great deal more freedom to do what you want to do.
SA: That's right.
RH: Now, what were your underlying motivations in bringing Samwise Gamgee to life?
SA: Well, my default setting any time anything was ever in question or in doubt was just sheer loyalty and devotion to Frodo. And it's kind of an easy thing to play, actually, if you give yourself over to it. So as kind of the bedrock foundation for it, I--I was drawn to--when I watched the Bakshi version of the cartoon, the animated version that was done in the 70's, I was--I thought it was fascinating what he did with the Ringwraiths and that sort of thing, but I was appalled with the interpretation of the Hobbits.
SA: And not because it was an invalid interpretation, because I think that there is a lot of kind of--there's a lot of material in the books that lend itself to a kind of hokey, kind of bumbling reading of the characters. I mean Sam is forever bursting into tears and these kind of things. But I--that's not who I am, and that's not what I wanted to bring to it. I wanted to focus on the more heroic, the more stoic, the more staid kind of tried and true emotional layers of the character. And so when Peter Jackson kind of wanted to go in the direction of comic relief, I--I knew that there was a reason for that and that it was valid and such and it was my job to give the director what he wanted, but I didn't want to compromise the kind of integrity and the kind of purity that some of--that the character is really designed to evoke. So that was my commitment. That was what I was drawn to.
RH: Well, there was one quote by you that I read that I was really impressed. It was: Sam is a gardener. That's the first thing to remember about him.
SA: Um Hm.
RH: That reminds me of George Harrison! [laughs] You know cause it's one of the ways that he used to describe himself after The Beatles and being alone for 15 or 20 years was he was a gardener!
RH: And also you, of course, the friendship, that loyalty, and the goodness, and you had some wonderful speeches in the Two Towers that bring this part of his character alive--
RH: --particularly near the end.
RH: I understand that amongst the crew you took on the role of Elijah Wood's--or Frodo's care taker. Did you--
SA: Well I--I took on the role even though he didn't really need it. I mean, I basically--I--and it continued until last night when he didn't have his key to his room with him. I jumped on the phone outside the elevator to get the front desk--
SA: --and he's like, Sean, you're ever Seanwise, ever the Sam. And, you know, he would have gotten the key himself, but I always like the idea--you know, keys factor prominently in Elijah's and my relationship. If he--he's always sort of locking himself out of places, and I'm always getting locksmiths and things to sort of help him out. But he's--I just--I just felt that way. I mean, I'm ten years older than him, I've been a huge fan of his work since--you know, as a former child actor, I was in genuine admiration of his constancy as a performer throughout a good ten year stretch. Not to mention the potato chip commercials with Dan Quayle.
SA: But anyway, he--I wanted to work--when I heard that he was a playing Frodo, I got really excited. And I just sort of took it upon myself to be his protector. And he was very patient with me doing that. [laughs]
RH: It seemed like it then it just felt natural for you to take care of Elijah, or was it a deliberate decision on your part?
SA: It was a little bit of both. I mean to say deliberate kind of makes it feel a little forced, but I wasn't sort of--I was cognizant of it, too. You know what I mean? It was kind of a little bit of both. I basically felt comfortable looking after him, and it gave me a sense of purpose and mission over fifteen months of just sort of slogging through the process of making the movie during the boring moments. And he--we got sick of the catering food--not that it wasnıt good food. It was delicious food, but the same thing over and over and over again. So I sort of became the ambassador of getting new kinds of food brought in for my master, which is exactly what Sam does for Frodo is preparing the meals and carrying the things. And, you know, we played video games together and we did--we did it all.
I absolutely love this young man, and he's--he--and yet, just the way Sam is able to learn from Frodo, I learned a lot from Elijah. I mean he is, to me he's sort of a throw back to the old sort of movie stars. Even though heıs only 21 years old, he carries himself with the kind of grace and kind of dignity and a sense of his stature on screen, and when you're acting opposite him you can't help but feel his strength in that way. It's sort of hard to talk about, but I studied him closely and learned from him.
RH: Can you see any contemporary, oh, I donıt wanna call it a message, but there's some kind of correspondence here between the Lord of the Rings in light of the current US administrationıs environmental policies or the so called Homeland Security measures.
SA: Well, um, the short answer is: yes. I mean--Bob, youıve hit on the single most resonant theme in the trilogy for me personally. As I read the books I was absolutely drawn to this environmental treatise that is Lord of the Rings. And I can just picture the kind of belching smoke stacks in Manchester or in England and how appalled he must have been as he was sort of this Oxford don strolling around and thinking about writing something that could sort of appeal to the better nature of menıs souls or readersı souls, you know, as they try to figure out--you know, wade through living in a postindustrial age. So I--you know, I grew up in Los Angeles where the smog in the 70's and 80's was choking, and it was important to me.
Certainly the filmmakers, as they wrote the scenes sort of late in the game, and we went down and filmed it this summer, this scene at the end where I utter--where Sam utters the phrase, "There's some good in this world, and it's worth fighting for."
And you just canıt help but understand that the film makers are wrestling with the issues of our day.
SA: Two things to say. One, [December] 16th in Seattle there's a benefit premiere to help raise money to purchase a little tract of land. I don't know whether it's a couple square miles or how big it is, but it's land that's being turned over from the Bureau of Land Management, and it's going to be sold. And if the loggers get a hold of it, and I love--I know loggers. My mom lives in north Idaho, so I'm all about being able to make a living for yourself. But if the loggers get a hold of this particular piece of land it'll bifurcate where the wildlife habitat get to transverse from into Canada down into the lower part of the state. So they really want to keep that corridor open for the migratory patterns of, you know, bear and other things.
SA: So the film is speaking to those issues. I mean, when Treebeard and the Ents come alive to sort of--when the trees decide to fight for themselves, literally--or in a literary way, I guess you could say--in Lord of the Rings, it's great to see the environment sticking up for itself.
In terms of the present administration's sort of--and this kind of daily war vigil that's happening and whether or not America is going to continue to project its power around the world, the themes in Lord of the Rings trilogy are absolutely resonant. You cannot deny that.
And Tolkien in his letters was very specific about the fact that it was not an allegory for the second world war. That Sauron, whoıs sort of the embodiment of evil in the story, was not Hitler. He said he was creating, to paraphrase, a mythology for the British people that he wanted to be able to stand the test of time. And so here we are in another time, a half century later, where evil forces, however you want to constitute them--whether it's terrorists or whether it's the darker part of men's souls that are drawn to fight with one another--and I use menıs not just to think of males but just human race. I'm proud to be part of a work of fiction that is being embraced by sort of global world culture that looks seriously at these issues.
And I honestly donıt know what the movie is saying, specifically, to the administration, or whether or not it's right to sort of try and have a regime change or to--I don't know. But I do know that when you experience the movie for two hours and 45 minutes, you feel something.
SA: I felt something last week. And you--it's--it looks--I felt during the battle scene of Helm's Deep the way I felt when I was watching Patton or Laurence of Arabia or Ghandi or something--
SA: --like itıs a serious war movie that takes stock of the stakes that are at play. And so itıs a valid, valuable, worthwhile thing to put out in the ether. And I just pray daily that everyone on the planet can find the better part of their natures and we donıt have to go to war and we don't have to fight, because I--I just--you know. At some point we have to find the hundred year strategy where we can live at peace with one another around the world.
RH: You said that so well. That's really in my--my Ph.D.ıs in the area of humanistic and transpersonal psychology, and when you look at the motivations of things and you look at vested interests and all this other kind of thing thatıs been going on that, unfortunately, our nation has not been allowed to focus on for all kinds of reasons, you know, thatıs really important. I just completed--it took me about 30 years to write a book called Inside the Yellow Submarine: The Making of the Beatles Animated Classic.
SA: Oh cool!
RH: And--cause The Yellow Submarine to me--
SA: You know what Peter Jackson said to us while we were rehearsing?
SA: He goes: "If The Hobbits were the Beatles, youıd be Ringo." And he handed me Hard Days Night and Yellow Submarine and another Beatles movie, and he said, "Go watch these."
RH: That's great! [laughs]
SA: So that's cool! I can't wait to read the book!
RH: Well, we're gonna send you--obviously I'd love to send you a copy of the book. And as a matter of fact, I know that we're very limited in time here, but we have some time here to--can I go over a few things that we'd love to send you--if you're interested in them?
SA: Well, I'm all ears. I mean I love talking to you. You and I could probably do an hour conversation and just barely scratch the surface of what we want to talk about.
RH: Yeah, I know that you probably have got another thing to do within another three or four minutes. But anyway, Iıll send you a--
SA: Wait a minute--[aside: Dave, how long do we have?] Yup, you're right. [laughs] Bob, what city are you in right now?
RH: I'm in Maryland.
SA: You're in Maryland?
RH: Baltimore, Maryland. Yes.
SA: My dad is teaching at Johns Hopkins.
RH: That's unbelievable!
SA: He's teaching drama at Johns Hopkins, and he's starting an acting company in conjunction with the Baltimore Museum. And I would be--you oughta get together. John Astin. You oughta get together with someway.
RH: John Astin.
SA: He's got his one man show, Once Upon a Midnight: An Evening With Edgar Allen Poe. You guys oughta seek each other out, and when I'm there visiting I'll try and tune you in, too, and maybe we'll get to spend some more time together.
RH: Great idea. Okay, here comes my boss, and we'll be talkin' hopefully again in the near future.
SA: Bob Hieronimus, you rock!
RH: Okay! [laughs] Thank you--thank you, Sean.