A Word with the Dearly Departed: Sean Astin on The Strain

Sean Astin as Jim Kent in The Strain.

Sean Astin has never been into vampires.

“When I was sixteen 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,” Astin says with a laugh. While the world was swept up in the vampire craze—with True Blood and The Vampire Diaries taking over TV and Twilight blowing up in book stores and theatres—the actor was more focused on dramatic work and fantasy series like The Lord of the Rings.

But when Guillermo del Toro approaches you with a job offer, you don’t just say no.

“[It’s an exciting thing] spending time with Guillermo,” says Astin. “He’s just so full of life and creativity… You always feel like he’s both incredibly well prepared and in the moment, able to be spontaneous. I’m grateful that Guillermo reached out and swept me up.”

And it was definitely an interesting role to see the actor in—most of us know Astin from his Everyman, underdog roles like Mikey in The Goonies and the titular hero of Rudy. But The Strain’s Jim Kent is a far cry from most of Astin’s previous characters.

How could you, Jim?

Cowardly and desperate, Jim turned his back on his moral codes and betrayed his friends’ trust in exchange for money. Money that he needed to fund his beloved wife’s cancer treatments, yes, but money nonetheless. “Jim is basically a morally compromised guy, and I think he has the occasional comedic quips that reveal a personality that might have been fun to interact with—but his wife is suffering,” says Astin.

The only reason the Master managed to initially escape the airport and successfully set off the chain-reaction of the vampiric plague was because Jim looked the other way—so while he may not have been as actively villainous as Eichorst or the Master, he still played his part in the unfolding apocalypse.

By casting Astin, del Toro pulled off a very clever bit of bait-and-switch. The moment audiences first saw Sean Astin on screen, we immediately expected him to be a dependable, solid guy, someone who was going to help in the good fight against the looming evil. So when we later saw Jim wave the van carrying the Master’s coffin through the checkpoint, it came as a complete surprise.

“I think what he liked is that as Samwise Gamgee (in The Lord of the Rings) I’m known for being a friend and a loyal… nice guy,” Astin says. “And I think he liked the juxtaposition of [this character] doing something so morally questionable.”

As we saw in 1.08: “Creatures of the Night”, Jim has since shuffled off this mortal coil. But at least he had a chance to semi-redeem himself before Vasiliy put a few rounds into him. “He’s the first one to plug in the UV ray lights and burn one of the vamps, which is a kind of petty redemption,” Astin laughs. “It was cool.”

And at least Jim was able to reconnect with coworkers Eph and Nora. In “Creatures of the Night”, we saw just how much the three cared about one another. The moment they realized Jim had been infected, Eph and Nora went into a panic and rushed him into a messy field surgery in an attempt to save his life.

When the procedure seemed to be a success, their relief was palpable; Jim couldn’t express enough gratitude and we could see Eph beginning to warm up to him again with the first signs of forgiveness.

Then, of course, when it became apparent that there would be no easy fix for the vampire problem, when they realized there was no saving Jim, Eph was almost frantic—perhaps because he wasn’t ready to let Jim go yet, since they had only just begun to repair the damage inflicted on their relationship.

Most of Jim’s efforts to make amends for his actions in the scenes preceding his death felt intrinsically tied to Eph: he was the one who had taken everything to heart and was the angriest with Jim, after all. “He would never have been that mad at Jim if he didn’t like him, because that’s what betrayal is,” Astin says. “Otherwise it’s just villainy.”

So while Jim’s death felt like a karmic comeuppance—the reaping of the rotten seeds he had helped to sow—there was also a degree of bittersweetness to it. Perhaps, given more time, Jim could have become a stronger character; it would have been interesting to see how his friendship with Eph could have played out, had he survived the night.

(And from a personal viewpoint, Astin would have loved to stay on longer: “I was just getting to know everybody and enjoy everything,” he laments. He especially enjoys being a part of sprawling projects with franchise potential, a category The Strain certainly falls into.)

“But when I saw how cool the episode was, with this kind of Butch and Sundance battle royale out of the convenience store… and how the relationship is resolved, I absolutely felt like you couldn’t have asked for a better send-off. I was pretty happy with that,” he admits.

While he loved working with Guillermo and his fellow cast-mates and being a part of such an exciting new series, there were challenges when it came to filming.

“Toronto suffered the coldest winter in most of the crews’ memory—it was bitter cold. So you look outside at these vampires who were in their post-mortem makeup and you just figured that it wasn’t too far off from where they were going to be if they had to stand outside any longer,” he recalls.

The autopsy was even creepy for the actors.

Working on a horror project tends to provide nightmare fodder, too. During the vampire autopsy in 1.04: “It’s Not For Everyone”, the cast had to fight off some uncanny valley shivers.

“We’d been working with this actor and now we were dealing with his absolutely lifelike corpse,” says Astin. “It was so intricate. It was really disturbing. Another day we’re at the airport hanger set—I come in and walk around and there’s nobody there but a sea of 300 body bags. The lights reflecting off of [them]… It was really, really creepy and haunting.”

While vampires aren’t really Astin’s bag, what about other monsters and creatures of the night? Is there anything else in our collective imagination he’s interested in, anything that he thinks might be a real possibility?

“I’m open to extraterrestrial potentiality,” he confesses.

So if anyone’s got a cool alien project in the works that needs a likable Everyman, perhaps you should give Sean Astin a ring.

Don't forget to come back Monday where Angie Barry will be breaking down The Strain's 10th episode.

Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. You can find her at Livejournal.com under the handle “zombres.”

Read all posts by Angie Barry at Criminal Element.

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