In His Mother’s Footsteps
Actor Sean Astin shines as a mental health advocate

Sean Astin wants you to know that it’s OK to talk about mental illness.

The 44-year-old actor – who’s best known for his roles as Mikey in “The Goonies,” the title character in the football epic “Rudy” and the Hobbit Samwise Gamgee in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy – travels the country to help local communities destigmatize mental illness and start dialogues about mental health issues. In May, he visited Cherry Hill to speak at Temple Emanuel’s Mental Health Expo.

“Mental illness: It’s not just about the person suffering,” Astin says. “It’s about everyone in the orbit who wants to help, who are being abused, who feel like there’s nothing they can do. So it’s complicated.”

Astin speaks from experience. His mother, the Academy Award-winning actress Patty Duke, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the early 1980s, when Astin was still a child. Astin told the audience at Temple Emanuel how his mother’s mental illness affected him during his formative years.

“I had a great childhood,” Astin says. “I don’t know that if I could push a button and change my childhood, if I would. My mother did extraordinary things with us. But there were little canaries in the coal mine.”

Between periods of normalcy, Astin recalls, his mother would be affected by episodes of depression and manic behavior – the hallmarks of bipolar disorder – and his entire family would feel the impact. Astin says he remembered his mother attempting suicide during her depressive periods and spending excessive amounts of money during her manic periods (which is a common behavior among sufferers).

“It would come time to get new clothes to wear,” Astin says. “She wouldn’t buy a couple nice sweaters; she would buy like 50, and the tags never came off. Something that just seemed like a quirk, or something that wasn’t right, was actually a thread in a bigger problem.”

Early on, Astin learned to recognize when one of his mother’s periods of mental imbalance – which he called “freak-outs” – was coming and how to brace himself.

“You get pretty sophisticated pretty quickly when you’re living in an abusive situation,” Astin says. “After she would do that, she would be so consumed with guilt, just embarrassed. She’s like a werewolf. She wasn’t herself in those moments. She would try to do all these things to make up for it.”

Things slowly began to improve for the family after Astin’s mother was diagnosed and began to receive treatment. Duke became a national spokesperson for mental illness in the 1980s, giving validity – and a trusted face – to a topic that had been considered taboo. In more recent years, Astin has begun to spread the word about mental illness and the need for families and communities to address the topic rather than ignore it and wish it away.

“One of the reasons I feel so good about being able to pick up her mantle and talk about bipolar disorder and mental health awareness and destigmatizing the conversation is that it’s empowering for me,” Astin says.

Getting Astin to speak at the synagogue’s first mental health expo was instrumental for getting the local community involved in the conversation, says Rabbi Larry Sernovitz of Temple Emanuel.

“We knew full well when we did this event, if you shout from the skies and the mountaintops: ‘Expo on mental health,’ nobody’s coming,” Sernovitz says. “But when you bring in a guy like Sean Astin with a story to tell – he appeals to every generation. He was the impetus for people to say: ‘It’s OK to talk about this.’”

Astin, the son of Duke (who won an Oscar at age 14 for her role as Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker”) and John Astin (best known for his role as Gomez Addams in “The Addams Family”), has had an impressive film career that spans three decades. His very first role was in a 1982 TV movie, playing the son of his real-life mother.

“Acting,” Astin says, “was sort of handed to me on a silver platter.”

When The Goonies was released in 1985, Astin gained fame in his own right as Mikey, the idealistic adventurer who found One-Eyed Willy’s hidden treasure with the help of his friends and his trusty asthma inhaler. This year, the film celebrates its 30th anniversary.

“It’s genuinely surprising to me that, after 30 years, this movie is the thing I would say I’m most recognized for,” Astin says. “When I walk through the airport, most people go, ‘That’s the guy from Goonies!’ And I’m like, I’m 44 years old. I was 12 then. How did they even recognize me?”

Fans have been hoping for a Goonies sequel for years, and Astin says a follow-up film isn’t out of the question.

“Steven Spielberg talked about it in the weeks after the first one coming out, and they’ve paid for screenplays to be written,” Astin says. “They are aggressively interested in making a sequel. I just think they can’t figure out how to do it yet.”

Astin believes that his young character’s sincerity is what resonated with fans. “You can’t lie to the audience,” he says. “People see very quickly the truth of the actual human being who’s playing the part.”

Since his Goonies days, Astin’s boyish charm, genuine smile and everyman approachability have made him a fan favorite. The unique challenges he faced during his childhood helped to shape the person, and actor, he has become.

“I think my life experience with my mother has absolutely informed my character, and my character has informed my work, for sure,” Astin says. “For me, I am Rudy. Nobody can be as good as Samwise Gamgee, but there are qualities he has that are absolutely core to who I am. And really, it’s about determination. Mikey in Goonies determined to get the treasure and save his family. Rudy determined to play football. Samwise determined to support Frodo and get to Mount Doom.”

Astin has been just as determined off-screen. Married for 22 years, Astin has three daughters, and he and his wife worked hard to create the family they always wanted.

“A lot of people came up to me after my talk at Temple Emanuel and asked if I was hesitant to have kids, knowing my mother’s condition is hereditary,” Astin says. “We were undaunted in the face of having kids. The best you can do, as a parent, is to try and equip them with an emotional foundation and some logical way of interpreting the world around them.”

Astin’s calm, reasonable way of approaching situations spills over from his personal life into his work. If it’s possible to be typecast in Hollywood as a guy who can always make the audience root for him, this good-natured actor has managed to do it.

“I think filmmakers have figured out I’m good at that,” he says. “I sit in the bullpen waiting to get called in. Like, when do they need earnest, when do they need heart? I’m ready to come in and do it.”

The most challenging role Astin has taken on is Samwise the Hobbit in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He had to gain 35 pounds to appear more Hobbit-like, spend months away from his family shooting grueling battle scenes in New Zealand and bring to life one of the most endearing, eagerly anticipated characters from Tolkien’s epic tale for legions of scrutinizing fans.

It was a role that Astin desperately wanted to make his own.

“When I got that part, I fell to my knees sobbing, so grateful to God and the universe that I got to be able to do this thing,” he says. “I don’t know how many people in their life get the chance to get the thing they think they’re supposed to get, but I had that.”

Astin’s performance resonated with critics, fans and even the Academy. In 2004, the final Lord of the Rings film won an Oscar for Best Picture.

“I felt like, it’s not immortality,” Astin says, “but you know it will stand the test of time. And I’ve contributed something of value to my fellow human beings.”

The actor isn’t sure if he will, or should, be remembered for the ages for his role as Samwise Gamgee. He’s more inclined to seek recognition for one special role that he plays off-screen, which he holds dear to his heart.

“It’s an interesting idea, the idea of being remembered,” Astin says. “I guess ultimately, I’d like to be remembered as the father of three healthy, stable kids. That would be the best thing to be remembered as. In terms of the movies, I don’t know.”

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