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article imageSean Astin succumbs to the infectivity of 'The Strain' Special

By Earl Dittman     Sep 6, 2014 in Entertainment
Portraying one of the CDC scientists battling the contagious vampire virus in Guillermo del Toro's menacing cable series, 'The Strain,' Astin has endured his fair share of thrills and chills. The former Hobbit says he's loved every bloody moment of it.
SPOILER ALERT: If you have yet to join the ranks of the contaminated and addicted loyal legion of followers of The Strain – who have, thus far, ravenously consumed every episode that has aired on the FX Network – then proceed with caution. To be more specific, if you missed Episode 8: “Creatures Of The Night” – which aired Sunday, August 31 – you must now stop (and ruminate on perusing my chat with Guillermo del Toro). Consider yourself warned.
Firstly, shall we go ahead and dispense with the pink vampire in the room? Sean Astin, who played Jim Kent – a member of Dr. Ephraim “Eph” Goodweather’s (Corey Stoll) Center for Disease Control’s Canary Team – is the first major cast member casualty of The Strain. After holing up with Eph, Nora (Mia Maestro), Setrakian (David Bradley) and Vasilly Fet (Kevin Durand) in a Brooklyn convenience store and battling the blood-yearning creatures with ultraviolet light, Jim is nicked by a strigoi and becomes infected. With the viral worms crawling throughout his body, Jim realizes he is about to turn into a vampire and would be better off dead. Vasilly couldn’t agree more. Against Eph and Nora’s wishes, Vasilly fires several rounds of bullets into the CDC scientist’s head.
However, does dead really mean dead in a horror/science fiction series like The Strain? In how many monster flicks have we witnessed one of lead characters experience resurrection after being summarily exterminated? More than we’d like mention, right? Aha, but we are talking about The Strain here, which is not your garden-variety vampire tale. According to Astin, Jim Kent is unequivocally a goner – finito.
Jim Kent (Sean Astin) with Dr. Ephraim “Eph” Goodweather (Corey Stoll) and Nora Martinez (Mia Ma...
Jim Kent (Sean Astin) with Dr. Ephraim “Eph” Goodweather (Corey Stoll) and Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro) in a scene from 'The Strain'
"I'm almost 100 percent sure that Fet killed Jim – properly,” the 43-year-old former child star (The Goonies) says with a laugh. “I mean, in that episode, Setrakian reestablished that severing the head or injuring it will kill them. He goes into some description about how hitting certain bones can hurt them this way and that way, because they've gone outside the store and shot a lot of them. Eph and Nora are each shooting guns and killing them, but when one won’t die, Nora says, 'He's still coming,' well, it's like you got to shoot them in the head. I don't know how many times Fet pulled the trigger, but it felt like at least four or five at point blank range. So, I'm sorry to have to relate this to you, but Jim is gone for good. DEAD! I appreciate all the mourning from all the fans, though, because I feel close to Jim. My favorite thing was when people starting going on Twitter using the hashtag #RIPJIM. I kind of wanted to get the tweets blown up and put them on the office wall.”
Jim Kent’s demise in “Creatures Of The Night” came as no big surprise to the actor. Astin – a pop culture icon, due in great part to his role as Samwise Gamgee in The Lord Of The Rings film trilogy and as the voice of Raphael in the animated series Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – was made well aware that his time on the Toronto-based set of The Strain came with an irrevocable cut-off date.
“I was told in my very first meeting with Guillermo and Carlton (Cuse) that this character from the books – who didn't last that long in the books – wasn't going to last very long in the series," he says. "So, they invited me to be a part of this show, knowing full well that in Episode 8 that my character is going to get killed off. So, there was a little bit of the gallows anticipation that came with knowing. While we were doing Episode 5, I knew it was only a few episodes away before I had to say good-bye to all my new friends.
Sean Astin in a scene from Season 5 of  24
Sean Astin in a scene from Season 5 of '24'
"There was this dual feeling that the show – since the characters move on and the show moves on – definitely had a different dynamic than anything I’d done before,” he continues. “With The Strain, I knew when I was going to go. Unlike 24, where I never knew from one week to the next what was going to happen. With 24, I'd open the script or was sitting in the makeup bus for something like Episode 13 and I’d read that my character has this spectacular Sentox nerve gas death. You're like, ‘That’s sort of shocking,’ but you know anything can happen on that show and that is a very heroic death.”
Astin insists that Jim Kent’s passing was very integral to the overall storyline of The Strain, and it was equally important to the emotional response viewers felt towards his character, who had betrayed his CDC pals to save his wife.
Sean Astin as Jim Kent in  The Strain
Sean Astin as Jim Kent in 'The Strain'
"At the end, all Jim really wants is redemption – he really wanted to be forgiven by Eph and by Nora," Astin explains. "What I came to like about Jim was the way that he really wanted – even though he did the wrong thing – to be of service as a CDC guy, as an aide to Eph. It’s kind of a study on human nature because Eph is reluctantly and Nora is sympathetic to him. Her compassion meter has a little more sensitively, but Eph finally kind of relaxes his anger towards Jim for a little bit as Jim has acquitted himself in battle. After he is infected, it's Jim's mortality that really provokes Eph's empathy, because he doesn't want a patient to die and he doesn't want his friend to die. You can see it. Eph says at one point, ‘He's my friend,‘ and that means a lot to an audience member watching it. It’s emotional scene. It certainly was one while I was doing it."
Jim Kent (Sean Astin) and Thomas Eichhorst (Richard Samuel) in  The Strain
Jim Kent (Sean Astin) and Thomas Eichhorst (Richard Samuel) in 'The Strain'
Although he admits he had gotten a little choked at the commencement of filming his final scenes, any bereavement Astin harbored for Jim had dissipated by the time shocked fans lived through Kent’s unfortunate, brutal death in Episode 8.
"I was at Disneyland with my wife and kids when the episode aired," Sean recalls with a chuckle. "I had run a marathon, it was this Disney half marathon weekend, so we did a 10K on Tuesday and then a half marathon. So, I'm walking around and my legs are sore and the kids are having a ball and I realized, 'The episode is airing right now.' I hadn't really been paying any attention to my phone for three days, but we're sitting on the train going through Fantasy Land and I'm looking at my phone. Suddenly, I’m seeing all these messages saying, 'Alright Jim, we're going to miss you buddy. It was a sad way for you to have to go, Jim, but we tried to have fun with it. What are you going to do?' I loved it."
What separates The Strain from all the vampire and epidemic of the week stories?
"There are all these apocalyptic franchises now and the question becomes how accessible and how authentic they really are. If you can really feel like, ‘What would it be like if I was in that situation, if the power went out or if the grid went out or if there's some terrorist event or some plague – the bubonic plague or Ebola?’ If you're going to use a vampire story as a metaphor for that, you want to find ways into it that feel natural. If you can make that feel real, you have something special.”
Do you feel that your portrayal of Jim Kent is very similar to the Jim Kent in the novels or did you change him in any way?
"I don't think that Jim Kent is exactly like the book. When I met with Guillermo and Carlton, they knew exactly what they wanted Jim Kent to be. When I experienced the book, I didn't know what to make of how I might play Jim Kent, so I really was relying on the fact that they knew what they wanted and then it was my job to figure that out and give it to them. Jim's character, I don't think is that fully rendered in the books. I hope I'm not telling tales out of school, but no, I think Jim is one of the characters in it that isn't slavishly close to what's in the book."
What was it about Jim for you as an actor that really made you want to invest in that role?
"Guillermo wanted me to do it, so I wanted to do it. Then, the idea for me was figure out what it was that he saw in me that he wanted me to do it. I think you could take a wide range of actors and put them in that part and it would be a Rorschach test of who that actor is. I think what he liked is that as Samwise Gamgee I'm known for being a friend and loyal and likable, a nice guy. I think he liked the juxtaposition of somebody doing something morally questionable or wrong, who is likeable at the same time that it would make-like you said it'll be interesting for people to have to wrestle themselves with it.”
Sean Astin as Samwise Gamgee in  The Lord Of The Rings
Sean Astin as Samwise Gamgee in 'The Lord Of The Rings'
New Line
Jim Kent is a really complex, conflicted character. A lot of actors lean on personal experiences and engrained emotions to bring their characters to life in a believable fashion. Was there any part of Jim Kent that made you say, "I can totally relate to that. Let me use my own familiarity to generate a real sense of authenticity?"
"I'm probably more like Jim Kent than I am Samwise Gamgee, in as much as I have to make choices in my life that I'm not an ideal literary character. People always want to know if I was like Sam and I try and embody some of those traits that Samwise has, but for Jim, I guess my technique relies on trying to feel the emotions or the moments as the character would feel it in real time. That's how I get the closest to manifesting something that's authentic. Having said that I don't think I can help but bring a large part of myself to it. I just try not to draw one to one correlation between something in my life that I've experienced and something that it would evoke of an emotion that's the same or similar to something that Jim would be feeling at that moment. I think that my empathy quotient is high enough that when I see he's lied on behalf of his wife, who's got cancer, or he's trying to save people by plugging in a UV ray to maybe stave off some vampires. I find it very easy to be empathic for those feelings.”
Eph (Corey Stall) and Vasilly (Kevin Durand) battle the strigoi in a scene from Episode 8   Creature...
Eph (Corey Stall) and Vasilly (Kevin Durand) battle the strigoi in a scene from Episode 8, "Creatures Of The Night," of 'The Strain'
You're no stranger to television. Like you said, you've done series like 24. Of course, when it comes to doing motion pictures, you were a major part of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. With all that in mind, how was doing The Strain been different for you as a actor?
"First of all ,working with Guillermo is a unique experience for most people who are working on these shows. I would say one of the most exciting things about it is spending time with Guillermo. He's just so full of life and creativity and his imagination and you always feel like he's both incredibly well prepared and in the moment and able to be spontaneous, so that's pretty great. Also, I have not really been a vampire guy, except when I was 16 and 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. I sort of missed the rest of the wave of The Vampire Diaries and all the way through to the recent Twilight and everything else. So, learning vampire lore was pretty cool for me, particularly the cosmology of vampires in Guillermo's mind is really cool."
A page from the comic series  The Strain
A page from the comic series 'The Strain'
Dark Horse
Have you ever taken a look at The Strain comics?
"Yes, I have seen the comic books. I haven't read them all, but I think I understood a little of the story a little bit better when I glanced at the comic book the first time. I think I thought I get it now and that's what that's supposed to be, but somehow that seemed different. I listened to Ron Perlman read the audio books. That's how I experienced The Strain the first time. I was riding my fancy bike in the middle of the night. I was in training and I would ride my bike all over the San Fernando Valley, which made me think of Tom Petty's song about the vampire standing in the shadows freefalling. (laughs) So the imagery, the ideas, the vocabulary for it was very richly drawn, beautifully performed by Ron Perlman. But, when I saw the comic books, it seemed to me like somebody's interpretation of it not like it was coming from the thing. I don't know if that's right or wrong; that's just the way I came at it."
Did a massive project like The Strain ever stress you out?
"I tried not to let it. I would just try and be myself. I tried to bring my sense of comfort and confidence to the process and maybe that's helpful to people. Att the same time, I'm not immune from the anxieties of being in a new space and wanting to make sure that new space not just with a show that you're doing, but knowing that the stakes were high, it was kind of exciting. The stakes for a Guillermo del Toro project are high, because the expectations are high. People really expect it to be great and that just means you have to try and do something new and interesting and it has to be believable."
Writer/director Guillermo del Toro joins one of his creatures on the set of the hit FX series  The S...
Writer/director Guillermo del Toro joins one of his creatures on the set of the hit FX series 'The Strain'
What was it like working closely with Guillermo del Toro? You must have come away with some deep insight that you gathered while you took that little stroll in his mind's eye?
"Everybody expects something huge from Guillermo every time he opens the door. So, I guess what really impressed me about him is that he continues to deliver in the face of overwhelming expectations, and he does it in a way that is calm and fun. I'm not sure if it's because he lived with this book for the years that he's lived with it and wanting to make the show the way he's wanted to make it and then getting to make it the way he wanted to make it, or if this is just the way he is everywhere he goes. But, he was just happy, just a happy guy and when it came to giving direction, he was very specific, very detailed. If you had a question, he would relish in being able to elaborate on an answer as though this was the most fun part of the process. Sometimes you'd see him off to the side having a conversation with a digital effects supervisor about what the movement of the worm was supposed to look like, and he would be in this enthralled state of bliss envisioning, making the fantasy of these worms in his mind 'real' in the digital space. I guess he loves both the fantastic and the real and those things serve each other. Those interests serve each other, so it was fun. It was really a privilege to interact with him."
After doing The Strain, what type of film or television genre would you like to tackle next?
"I'll tell you, I'd like to do comedies right now. I've just been shot in the head by Kevin Durand and one of the great TV franchises of this new decade is leaving me, so I'd love to flip a switch and start working with a laugh track." (laughs)
The Strain airs Sunday nights at 10p.m.EST/9:00p.m.CST only on FX.
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