Based on a trilogy of novels by Guillermo del Toro and author Chuck Hogan, The Strain has reimagined the vampire horror genre, resonating with critics and viewers alike and providing FX with another hit series to add to their impressive repertoire. The series follows CDC doctor Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll) as he and his colleagues attempt to contain a rapidly spreading virus whose symptoms bear a striking resemblance to legends of vampirism.
One of those colleagues, Jim Kent (Sean Astin), makes a choice early in the series that directly contributes to the spread of the deadly contagion. While his motives, when they finally become apparent, cast him in an empathetic light, his confession of guilt leaves him at odds with his longtime friend Eph, and Jim struggles to find a way to redeem himself, culminating in last Sunday’s incredibly tense episode, Creatures of the Night.
Last week on a conference call with journalists, Sean Astin took some time to answer questions about his experiences working with Guillermo del Toro on The Strain, and being an integral part of this exciting new franchise.
What has been different about working on The Strain, as opposed to other work that you’ve done?
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 imagination. You always feel like he’s both incredibly well prepared and in the moment, and able to be spontaneous, so that’s pretty great. I have not, in my life, been a vampire guy really, 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, from Vampire Diaries all the way through to the recent Twilight films and everything else, . So learning vampire lore was pretty cool for me, particularly the cosmology of vampires in Guillermo’s mind.
What does it mean to you to be involved in this project?
Since being in The Lord of the Rings, this pop cultural wave of franchise inclusion has swept the globe. These comic book franchises, best-selling book franchises, television reboot franchises just come in big waves. It’s almost like being in one particular movie or one particular show isn’t enough anymore. So, the fact that Guillermo and Carlton Cuse came along with this new incarnation of a vampire world meant a new franchise, and I feel grateful that Guillermo reached out and swept me up in it.
What was about the character of Jim that really made you want to invest in the role?
Guillermo wanted me to do it, so I wanted 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 likeable, a nice guy; and I think he liked the juxtaposition of somebody doing something morally questionable or wrong, who is likeable at the same time.
There are all these apocalyptic franchises now, and the question becomes how accessible, how relatable, how authentic [can you make it feel]? 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? So if you’re going to use a vampire story as a metaphor for that, you want to find ways into it that feel natural.
So, what I came to like about Jim was the way that even though he did the wrong thing, he really wanted to be of service as a CDC guy, as an aide to Eph. He wanted to help, and so I liked leaning into that. Then during the autopsy scene and during this scene in the eighth episode and a few other times, something will happen and he just sort of says what everyone else is thinking, in a basic way. I think that made him even more entertaining for folks.
You spoke about making it feel authentic. I think one of the most authentic things was Jim’s desire for redemption. He wanted so badly to be forgiven, and it’s sad that just as he kind of got to that point, we had to say goodbye to him.
Yes, it’s a study on human nature. Nora is sympathetic to him the whole time, it seems like to me. Her compassion meter has a little more sensitivity, but Eph finally relaxes his anger toward Jim for a little bit as Jim has acquitted himself in battle. But then it’s Jim’s mortality that really provokes Eph’s empathy and he doesn’t want a patient to die, but he doesn’t want his friend to die. You can see it. He says at one point “he’s my friend,” and as an audience member watching it, I really like that. I really like that he showed something of himself and how he really felt. He would never have been that mad at Jim if he didn’t like him, because that’s what betrayal is. Otherwise it’s just villainy.
What were some of the challenges of filming the convenience store episode?
Ironically, the biggest challenge was how cold it was. Toronto suffered the coldest winter in most of the crew members’ memory. It’s one thing to sit here on a 75-degree day in Los Angeles and talk about cold weather, but 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’re going to be if they had to stand outside any longer. I was told in my very first meeting with Guillermo and Carlton 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, so they invited me to be a part of this show knowing full well that in Episode 8 my character is going to get killed off. So there is a little bit of the gallows anticipation that comes knowing we’re in Episode 5 and it’s only a few episodes away before I get to say good-bye to all my new friends.
And then, when you find yourself actually in the convenience store doing the work, there is an emotional responsibility that you have to the relationship between the characters. Blocking the scene where Eph and Nora discover that he’s been fully infected, it was really kind of cool during the first bit where they use the UV ray to see the worm in my face, and they go and lay me down and do this sort of butcher surgery, or field dressing surgery, that was all relatively straightforward, relatively easy.
But then when we got into blocking, Jim discovers that it’s all through my back, and then I realize that the only thing to do is for them to kill me. I’m saying “I don’t want to turn out like the rest of them, I don’t want go after my parents.” It was pretty powerful, emotionally, and everybody had this feeling that it was exciting to be doing maybe one of the first big deaths of the show. I guess there had been others, but for me it was the big death because it was me.
I was at Disneyland with my wife and kids. It was the Disney half marathon weekend, so we did a 10K on Tuesday and 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 Fantasyland and I’m seeing all these messages saying “all right, 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?
When you’re working on something like The Strain or Cabin Fever, do you have the capacity to be scared by your own projects?
I’m sure I do, it just depends on when you see it. If you see it at the premiere, maybe it’s fun to get really into it, but then you’re aware of the cameras outside. I think there are definitely moments beyond the first run of a show when you discover something late at night, or if you find some reason to watch your things. Mostly with the horror things, I find myself thinking, “man, that’s cool.”
As a kid, I never liked the idea of watching horror movies. I always thought it was fine for people to do them, but the idea that filmmakers would say they really like to terrorize people and see people scared and make them jump, I never really liked that idea. But now that I’ve done it a little bit, I definitely am more connected to the idea that if you do something well, if you really commit, like in Cabin Fever, to the idea of this horrible disease and of your role in it and the malevolence of it, and if somebody responds to it? I get the attraction now, so I think that’s a cousin of retaining the ability to be scared by something I’ve been in. But I’m more scared in the moment that we do it, because I try to be invested in what we’re doing while we’re doing it.
Now that you’re finished with The Strain, what’s next?
I have an independent film that’s coming up, called The Surface, with me and Chris Mulkey. It’s a two-hander meditation on hopelessness and suicide. I also have a little animated film that is being released independently, called Ribbit, about a poisonous tree frog that believes he’s destined for something more than the life of a poisonous tree frog. I play Ribbit, and I think that comes out in September. I don’t know if it’s in wide release or not, but it’s on my radar.
And then, I don’t know. I’ve been getting offered lots of fun things in the sci-fi and horror realm, which I haven’t grown too tired of yet. So, as long as there’s something to play, I’m willing to keep thinking about that. And I’m just looking for the next thing to get excited about.
The Strain airs Sunday nights at 10pm, exclusively on FX.