Finding Balance in Work, Family Life and Faith
As a teen, he took us on a treasure hunt as Mikey in the movie Goonies; a few years later he captured our hearts with the underdog football story of Rudy. In the fantastical trilogy Lord of the Rings, he invited us into the visual world of Tolkien and perhaps solidified his own faith. As an actor and family man, Sean Astin continues to shine on the silver screen while also sharing his passion for helping people learn how to communicate together, especially when somebody holds a completely divergent viewpoint. Astin gave a candid interview with Risen about his famous family heritage, his road to faith, and reveals what he believes is a God-delivered mission.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: You are married and have three daughters so I imagine every once in a while your household could mirror that of your new movie Moms’ Night Out. What could you relate to most about the storyline?
Sean Astin: I suppose I look at things predominantly through the eyes of the character I’m playing. I play a character, like myself, who is married with children. I notice that my wife rarely, if ever, takes time for herself. The mission of the movie and sense that my character has is that it is a good thing for his wife to take time for herself. A lot of times people don’t [think that is a good thing,] they either feel threatened by it, it makes them uncomfortable, or for whatever reason, it’s just not prioritized for moms to recognize that they are individual human beings, and that their strength as individuals is good for the family. It sounds silly to say, but I have three daughters and my wife doesn’t stop all day long from the second she puts her feet on the floor until the second she goes to bed – her life is about serving other people. We know that it’s not fair, but we don’t do anything about it. So I think what I resonated with this movie was the idea that at the very least, you should know that it is the right thing to do to once in a while as a mom; take time for yourself.
RM: One humorous aspect in the film is that your character works quite a bit, and in the family picture his daughter draws a picture of Dad on an airplane. As a working dad yourself, how do you carve out enough family time?
SA: I definitely identified with that. This is a rough month to ask that question! I have a couple things coming out and different projects. But what I notice is my kids say to me all the time, “Dad we love you so much. We know how hard you are working and that is great but…” We raised them [our kids] to be free-thinkers, and we raised them to be strong spirits, and they are innately powerful human beings, and we love each other in a way that there is no filter between what we think and what we say to each other. So when I’m not spending enough time at home, there is no gray area, because I hear about it directly and frequently; which is good. The hard part for me is when I know that is happening and I can’t figure out how to adjust for it. I know how precious each moment is which makes it that much more painful when those precious moments are going by because you are working hard.
It’s also difficult when you are working really hard and then you step out of work and back into the family mode. Last year when I was filming this movie, I was in Alabama, I was in Salt Lake City, I was in Georgia, I was in Vancouver, New York – I was all over the place. So I’d parachute in from all these work trips I was doing and there was a routine going on. A rhythm of wake-sleep cycles, homework – homework is the great thing that cannot be ignored in our modern lives. If I can step into the flow of what’s going on in the family and contribute by even something as simple as getting up extra early to take our oldest one to school [it makes a difference]. Because when I’m not home, the younger kids have to get up extra early because mom needs time to drop the oldest one off and then take the other two back to their respective schools. Three different schools by the way – which is great – I should get my wife a taxi for her birthday. [Laughter] If I can jump in, it’s great time in the car with the oldest one, that’s really special time. And the other kids get a little bit more sleep and then when they see me in the afternoon, I’m a hero. It’s about finding ways to live and work together, even if that work is play. And I would give myself a “B.”
RM: Faith, along with parenting, relationships and of course comedy are all weaved into Moms’ Night Out. Within your own family heritage you have Catholicism, Buddhist and Judaism influences, so when it comes to your personal faith, what was it about Christianity that solidified it as the way you wanted to live and raise your family? Was it through research, relationship or perhaps a defining moment?
SA: All three of those categories and probably a couple more. When I was a little kid we observed Easter and Christmas in the modern commercial spirit. But my mom [Actress Patty Duke] also made sure we would go to a midnight mass and during Hanukkah she would light a menorah even though we weren’t Jewish. She really wanted us to appreciate multi-faith expression in the world.
By the time I got to the fifth grade I wasn’t keeping up with the other students – I had skipped a grade, then I had to be held back a grade to be with the kids I was supposed to be with – so I was not in good shape academically. My mom shifted me from public school to Catholic school. In 6th, 7th and 8th grade, which are really, really formative years in anyone’s life, I was the only kid there that wasn’t Catholic. There may have been a couple, but to my knowledge I was one of a tiny minority who wasn’t Catholic and I wanted to fit in. So I think I was more earnest about trying to understand Catholicism, or push myself towards some feeling of faith than a lot of the kids around me who had grown up with it.
I feel forgiveness is one of the most important feelings and ideas of sensations, and it has never had a better ambassador than Christ.
Skip forward – hmmm, this is a long story. There was a moment in 2002 or 2003 where people talk about a “come to Jesus moment” and I had resisted that idea for a long time. I remember telling my wife’s grandfather who really wanted me to be baptized – He was much older, and wasn’t belligerent about it or anything, but he would always ask at gatherings, “So are you going to get baptized? Have you thought about getting baptized?” He was very persistent about the whole thing and I just said, “Now that I am an adult, I am not going to fake it. I’m not going to pretend to believe something that I don’t believe.” Then somehow a conversation about miracles came up and I said, “I promise you this, if a miracle ever happens where that moment of faith, or belief, presents itself, I promise that I won’t ignore it and I’ll keep myself open to the idea.” So that was like in the late 90s probably and then in the early 2000s there was an experience that I had that is too long to explain in an interview, but basically where it struck me at one moment that choosing to allow the life and teachings of Jesus to come into your soul or spirit – there was no reason that couldn’t happen. It sort of struck me like that. Like, “Wait a minute, I am working to construct this barrier where one doesn’t need to exist.”
My problem after that was just a question of vocabulary with others about what my faith is. I feel pretty strong in my faith, and I feel it is unimpeachably solid, but I find in the context of certain discussions that I’ve run out of ammo. I run out of ammo when it comes to taking about Christ, and Lord, and Savior. A lot of the way the churches communicate with each of us and each other, I find myself patiently waiting and when it comes time to pray, I know exactly where I’m praying. I feel forgiveness is one of the most important feelings and ideas of sensations, and it has never had a better ambassador than Christ.
RM: You mentioned your mother earlier, but from immediate to extended family you have a pretty famous and extensive acting pedigree. I’m sure there were a lot of things you loved about your childhood, and naturally things you wished that could’ve been different. When it comes to parenting today, what did you learn from your upbringing that you definitely wanted to incorporate into your family, and what is something that you knew you absolutely wanted to do differently?
SA: My mother is a famous sufferer of bi-polar disorder. The radical range of emotions that we experienced as kids, my brother and I, filled us with empathy for my mom and her experiences of not being able to control her behavior; at least up until the time she got into a good medical program. I definitely wanted to try and avoid that with my kids, the radical, emotional highs and lows.
I’m a shoot-from-the-hip type of guy. I go with my instincts, which is sometimes fantastic, and sometimes terrible. The way I inoculated myself from being a father that I wouldn’t want to be, is by marrying a woman who is just rock solid. My wife is just – I wouldn’t say she is perfect because then it seems schmaltzy – but anyone who has ever met, or ever known her, ever, would tell you that she is as good and decent and solid a human being that you could possibly have out there. When she has a moment – like an “off-the-reservation” moment – it’s thrilling for everyone to see that she is mortal.
The biggest challenge I have is reminding myself to follow her lead. Her lead is so good and her foundation of love and sensibility is really important and really healthy. When I come in with all the craziness I bring from my life and my world, I think she enjoys it and she feels she has to protect the kids from it too. So my job is to be aware – that’s the headline – my job is to be aware. [Laughter] If I can be aware, understanding what I’m doing when I’m doing it, understand what is happening when it’s happening, at the very least I know that is what is supposed to be happening and if it’s not happening, then I can have some capacity for adjusting my behavior.
RM: And if you didn’t have enough on your plate already, you still find time for what you are passionate about, which might surprise some people, that politics is one of those passions. Talk to me about Vox Populi, your radio show.
SA: I was raised to believe that life was a no-holds-bar, anything goes, free-for-all in terms of emotions and ideas and communication. But as I developed and matured in my life, it became clear to me that politics and religion are the two taboo subjects that people often avoid sharing about at all costs, except for with people they are absolutely sure agree with them. Because what normally happens is people don’t have the tools. They don’t have the discursive tools, the critical thinking skills. They aren’t developed enough in their own faith or political ideologies to be able to navigate what very quickly and very often becomes contentious in conversations. One of my missions on this earth – I believe it is a God-delivered mission to me – is the ability to help people learn how to work together and how to communicate together, especially when somebody holds a completely divergent viewpoint.
The need to be able to communicate with respect is paramount. I think in our culture, universities and some schools understand how to develop that skill. I believe it is a skill to communicate with respect and courtesy. It is born into a lot of people with a good upbringing in mutual respect and courtesy for each other, but something happens where our society has kind of stripped away the idea that is important to have. That somehow your belief in something is more important than treating someone else respectfully. When we do that, the ability for our beliefs to be absorbed by others is instantly shut down. So people are continuing to communicate in ways that frustrate their own desires.
What I understand, and the reason I wanted to do a political radio program, was that I wanted to host conversations where a couple of things happen. One is that we pick topics and we talk about them. A lot of times people don’t want to talk about politics because even though they are very sure of themselves, they don’t know a lot about a particular subject, so they don’t want to talk about it for fear of appearing stupid. What I do is I pick topics, many of which I know very little about, and we go forward and talk about them in a simple and straight forward manner and in doing so, we end up very quickly at a place where we can have a sophisticated conversation with intelligent people who find themselves enjoying a forum where, if they say they are pro-choice or pro-life, for this or for that, they are not going to get attacked by anybody. Somebody is going to come on [air] and say, “Well let me tell you why I believe in life….” And I’ll ask questions. And we get experts on the topics and then listen – for a long time. On most TV or radio shows, you get three minutes. I’ll spend 15-20 minutes if that’s how long a person needs to express themselves and share about it. At the end of that, I’ll talk to somebody that has a divergent viewpoint, “So you believe in a woman’s right to choose, let’s understand. Where are you coming from?” And we’ll get an expert in communicating that point of view. [Ultimately] what you realize is, we are not likely going to change anyone’s point of view; that is not the purpose of the show. We are not going to convince you to believe something that you are not going to believe. What I am going to do is say, “This is why I believe what I believe…” and you can see where the strengths in my position are and where the weaknesses are, and vice-versa. You come away from it feeling like you took a shower, instead of a roll in the mud. And maybe, the more we have conversations like that, the faster we’ll get to a place where we can find affinity with each other. When you take out negative rhetoric, when you take out the word “you” in the conversation – you this, you that, you don’t, you should, you couldn’t, you wouldn’t – when you take the word “you” out of it, and you talk about the why “I” feel this, this is why I believe that, this is where I learned this, all of a sudden, real understanding can happen. And that’s my purpose.