There and Back Again: An Actor’s Tale by Sean Astin with Joe Layden

I’m going to give myself over to this process and trust that these are good, decent people and that their artistry is so worthy of sacrifice that I’ll come out of it on the other end saying, “Look what I’ve accomplished!”
— Sean Astin

Sean Astin is never satisfied. Even winning a pivotal role in The Lord of the Rings, one of the most successful film franchises of all time, isn’t enough to gratify the ambitious actor. In his new memoir, There and Back Again: An Actor’s Tale, Astin grumbles incessantly about everything from the long hours on set to his lack of screen time to his feeling neglected when unable to influence Rings director Peter Jackson with filmmaking suggestions to the defection of his prized make-up artist. Astin’s list of gripes is a Mordor-mile long, and his new book gives him the ideal opportunity to repeatedly voice each and every one of them.

Astin, it seems, has never really been happy with his career, even before the Big Time came calling with Rings. As the actor relates select moments of his 25 years in the industry and exactly how he came to be a part of the “greatest production in cinema history,” a pattern emerges, revealing Astin’s inability to ever feel truly comfortable with anything he does. And it’s not due to concerns over quality or product substance, but the levels of success that projects will or will not attain for him. He discusses how easy it was for him agree to appear in the football film Rudy, because he “would be the star, the lead, the hero,” then remarks how he agonized to the point of a veritable breakdown over how he would be received and what that reception would mean for his career.

Panic and crisis are the name of the game for Sean. The critical acclaim he begged for with Rudy pleased him momentarily, but the film’s lack of commercial success left him unfulfilled. He wanted more, and, as it happened, that more came in the form of The Lord of the Rings, which he refers to as “the greatest personal and professional experience of [his] life,” yet still he can’t find his happy place. It’s true Rings‘s success made major stars out of every actor involved, and, for Astin, represented the pinnacle of his life’s blood and sweat as a second-stringer with just a spattering of leading roles to his credit, but to hear him tell it, if he retired tomorrow, he’d forever be held in the highest regard simply for having been a part of it. One wonders, though, what caused Sean ever to feel his part in it was any more than to arrive on set on time with his lines memorized? In recounting his discontented life on location, he bizarrely seems to think he was owed far more.

“What got me to New Zealand,” Astin writes, “was the possibility, not the certainty, that The Lord of the Rings would absolutely be done right.” This coming after he’d only read 160 pages of the first book and had (he admits) yet to fully comprehend the story and Sam’s part in it. Astin mentions several times his undying faith in Peter Jackson, yet spends much of the Rings section of his book second-guessing the director’s every decision — every decision regarding Astin, that is, as there is barely any mention of anything to do with the film that doesn’t concern him. First off, he’s pissed he’ll be working with a double (“But I don’t want a double. I want it to be all me!”), then he’s unhappy with the script, unhappy with Jackson’s treatment of his actors during dangerous stunts, unhappy with his inability to inspire Jackson to take on some of his own story suggestions and on and on and on.

Astin is so unhappy on set that he spends much of his 18 months in New Zealand feeling sorry for himself and in fear that the franchise will fail. It’s as if New Line’s $270 million investment in the trilogy was his sole responsibility. If the final movie failed, he says, “I would perceive it as my failure.” It’s hard to feel for Astin as he shrugs about the book questioning the merits of everything and everyone around him, whether his talent is worthy of the many sacrifices necessary to take part on the films.

These sacrifices, too, are noted frequently — Astin took a substantial pay cut and went against his principles to work on what he discovered was a non-union production. Astin is proudly pro-union (his mother, actress Patty Duke, is an ex-president of the Screen Actor’s Guild) and considered signing on to Rings not as a direct affront to his beliefs, but a step in the right direction towards his inevitable success.

Success and the power that comes with it are obviously what drive Astin. He measures people’s worth by the amount of success they’ve attained and considers above anything else, advice given to him by those he deems important – Eric Stoltz, for example, endorsed Astin’s casting as Samwise, so the actor was able to as well. He notes no less than three times how much he admires Rings co-star Elijah Wood because “he always seemed to work … alongside major stars”, and talks about his other Rings costars, Ian McKellen, Ian Holm and Christopher Lee in terms of their perceived “greatness” within the industry.

Astin’s fawning and admitted envy of everyone from Kevin Costner to Brendan Fraser to pretty much every one of his Rings costars sees him come off as utterly desperate for the kind of admiration garnered by these people. He craves attention (even if it’s negative) and is convinced his part in the trilogy elevates him above so many of his colleagues in Hollywood. “My wife continues to caution me,” he writes, “about commenting publicly about the people I admire or want to work with . . . but, hey, after The Lord of the Rings, I figure I’m in the big game now.”

It’s sad that Astin is so wrapped up in this game and his place within in it, because while manages now and again to acknowledge his egocentrism and his fondness for melodrama, he’s never quite so self-aware as to tone down the histrionics. To this end, too, he overlooks numerous contradictions in his tale. Astin, for example, frequently informs the reader of his “faith” in the Jackson’s “vision” with Rings, yet frequently discusses everything he thought was wrong with the production. He says of Christopher Lee’s excising from the final film that “sometimes brutal decisions have to made” yet wails about the chopping of his scenes in the same film, going so far as to announce to both his wife and Wood: “They’ve ruined it!” And, in one of the book’s more piteous moments, Astin reveals “an unspoken hope that I’d get singled out and perhaps a SAG nomination would start the trend towards an Academy Award nomination” only to miss out and subsequently chastise the Academy for its inability to appropriately “measure great acting.” “There’s no objective standard [for measuring acting prowess],” Astin writes, “Never has been and never will be.”

The book is rife with these kinds of inconsistencies, not to mention numerous spelling errors (that’s Marc Rocco) and unchecked facts (was Sean 18 in 1987 or 1989?). It’s in such a mess, in fact, jumping forward and backward in time so often as to occasionally lose the reader entirely, and it skips over what some might say were the more interesting moments in Astin’s career, like his participation in The Goonies [1985] and his work with Dudley Moore on the underrated Like Father, Like Son [1987]. Astin’s tendency towards unnecessary and oddly-times digression is distracting, too, as he leaps into stories from the set of Courage Under Fire (seemingly only there to reveal that once, years ago, Tim Robbins didn’t return a phone call) 40 pages before the end of the book and almost 200 pages into the Rings section. He also shifts without pause from discussions about ear and feet make-up to paragraphs about his dad, and from the enormity of the Rings script to a whole slab about how much of an ingrate Warren Beatty is (Sean didn’t mind a Beatty-dissing too much, however, as the man, after all, is a “true Hollywood icon”).

The book has briefly shines when Astin writes of his parents (Duke and his adopted father, John Astin), his patient wife and kids, his education, and his uplifting film experiences, including a powerful retelling of a pivotal moment in Rudy. Astin is obviously a dedicated and passionate performer who knows how to best utilize his talents, but he’s too busy moaning about perceived problems in his life to recognize his accomplishments. At one point in the book, he mentions the firing of Stuart Townsend at the start of production on The Fellowship of the Ring due to the actor’s inability to convincingly inhabit the role of Aragorn, and ponders, without a hint of irony: “I was wondering why he couldn’t just relax and enjoy the process.” After reading this 300-page bellyache, one feels the exact same way about Astin.