Exclusive Interview: Sean Astin Talks Hero Mode & His Love of Video Games

Hero Mode, an update of the 80s kid heroes genre for a modern era, is now available to own and rent digitally. Chris Carpenter plays the son of a video game developer owner that winds up heading a game in troubled development. However, the existing employees, including one played by Sean Astin, aren’t pleased about this change in leadership at first. The film is directed by A.J. Tesler and also stars Mira Sorvino, Indiana Massara, and Mary Lynn Rajskub.

ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief Tyler Treese spoke to star Sean Astin about his role in Hero Mode, his love of video games, the potential for an Encino Man sequel, his thoughts on the upcoming Lord of the Rings series at Amazon, and much more.

Tyler Treese: Hero Mode is kind of in that classic kid’s movie mold where a talented kid is trying to overcome these adults that doubt them. But what I really liked about the film, it has a twist and a real lesson about collaboration. Your character almost starts off almost kind of like in an antagonist role at first because he’s kind of feeling disrespected and not valued, but they kinda teach each other a lesson. I thought it was cool that you started playing these roles early on in your career where you were the upstart kid, and now you’re playing the veteran employee and kind of a mentor role. Was that a cool full-circle moment for you?

Sean Astin: I think you hit it right on the head when you talked about the collaboration and to me, video games are a test of people’s imagination and their work ethic. So, yes, I was very aware of the 80s kid heroes genre updated 35 years and put squarely in the middle of the video game space. So I love that. People get discouraged when they’re working and sometimes they’re discouraged because they don’t have the autonomy they want, or sometimes a personality quirk, but when leaders come in and that’s what Chris [Carpenter] represents. He represents vision and leadership. It’s amazing. You can pull people out of themselves and create something of value, create a product. Mira [Sorvino], she’s got this maternal quality that understands that. My wife is like that with our daughters, where she won’t necessarily say something to get them into action, but just like the way she is, her maternal nature inspires them. So, I mean, to me, this Hero Mode is about kind of a series of inspirational relationships.

Both in Hero Mode and Stranger Things, you’ve gotten to work with so many great young actors. As somebody that started young and has had a career of continued success, how cool is it getting to see that next generation succeeding? What advice do you them on set?

It is. I’ve now come to expect that if I find myself on a film or television set, and there are young performers that they’re going to be high-quality people and hardworking and talented. There’s just such a thread throughout the entire generation, this like 13 to 17-18-year-olds that I’ve interacted with where they’re just so good. Chris and Indiana [Massara], they’re right in that mold. There’s just a level of discipline when I was a kid and I was acting, we were kind of like, we were having fun. It was an adventure, it was work as well, but I didn’t have a lot of sophistication about the industry or context really for what we were doing in Goonies, for example. But the Stranger Things young performers and Chris and Indiana, and the other young performers in this Hero Mode movie, they’re just so committed to what they’re doing. I was really impressed with Chris’ poise. He’s basically carrying a movie and he hadn’t done a lot of that before. Yet he was in his element and feeling confident and was delivering. At the end of the long days, he was right where he was supposed to be. He knew his stuff. And that I found that pretty cool.

On top of Hero Mode, you’ve also done some great gaming documentaries lately. Playing with Power, you narrate Video Game: The Movie. I know you’ve got a producing partnership with Jeremy Snead. What do you find so interesting about game development and particularly about how the classics were really made?

Because I love video games as much as I do, it was really a quick yes for me to participate in Hero Mode because the story was building on what I’ve been learning about in terms of game design, game production, and video game culture. It was a natural fit for me to do it. You know, video games are consciousness without sounding too, uh, you know, new age about it, but they, they are, there is whatever you can imagine. You can manifest in video games and everything from the music to the storytelling, the performance, the code, just the environments, and everything that video games can create can transport you to the kinds of places movies and television portray.

I think we finally are now past the time of creating too big a distinction between movies, television, music, and video games. Video games have arrived, and they are extraordinary. I mean, there are bad video games too, which is sort of a fun concept here. Can a ragtag group of young designers actually finish a game that can be brought to market, and I think that this movie will speak to this generation of people in a huge way. Because a lot of people who play video games live on their video games, and parents who look at them and are like, “You’re wasting your life playing video games.” They’re like, well, yes, but it’s sort of a trillion-dollar a year business. So maybe the better I get at it, the more I could find a [career]. They can compete in video game competitions. I just think video games are a pure reflection of imagination and technology and where we’ve come in the 21st century. I can’t imagine where it’s going to go throughout my lifetime and be fun.

Yeah, it’s crazy just to think when you started playing video games and how far it’s gone. I would love to hear about a little bit about your past with gaming. What was your first system?

It’s funny when you were talking about my first, it made me think of Dragon’s Lair. I was thinking Dragon’s Lair at the Regular John’s Pizza. Whenever we finished a little league game, we go over and they have like a 1930s-era firetruck parked in front, all kind of demolished and stuff. Little kids’ lollipop sticks everywhere, and you go into Regular John’s, sawdust on the floor and in the corner was Dragon’s Lair. I must’ve pumped a million dollars of quarters into Dragon’s Lair. Just to try and learn those patterns with Dirk, you know, left, left, right, right, down.

Did you ever beat it? That’s a tough game.

Never beat it, no. I got far, but no, I didn’t have the concentration. It blows me away. These kids who can play in video game competitions for 20 hours, and they’re just as sharp at the end as they are at the beginning. I didn’t have that.

You asked about the first system. We would’ve had Pong on what, I can’t remember what Pong was on. It would have been its own system. [I had an] Atari. Intellivision was my favorite. I loved Intellivision, right? Intellivision Baseball and Sea Battle. Just got all those games and we had Pitfall on Atari. Listen, I mean Donkey Kong is what I always tell people is my favorite because it was incredible.

Like I’ve interacted with video games through their entire growth to where they are now. They’ve outgrown me. I can’t keep up with some of [it]. I mean, like Zelda and like a lot of these other things that I just, the worlds are too sophisticated for my brain. I ended up going back to TowerMadness on my tablet and play. We’ll be on a flight and somehow the five-hour flight goes away because I’m just trying to get past this one level on TowerMadness. All of those games from the shooters and I mean, one of my favorite, favorite, favorite all-time games is Age of Empires. We would LAN our three computers together, my wife, her brother, and me, and we would play. We would remember to feed the baby that’s important, always, you know, don’t [forget], you have to feed the baby, you have to take the dogs out, but somehow the stuff would come up and we’re in skirmish mode or whatever it’s called the multiplayer mode, just loving those worlds and Red Alert. And I can go on, dude. I used to like list every game there ever was. I’m a gamer.

That’s really cool. I love that it was like a family affair there. Gaming brings so many people together. Is that something you’ve been able to like share with your kids as well?

Well, we’ve spent countless hours playing Mario Kart on the Wii and all the different [games]. That platform held our family in good stead for a while. It’s funny, I did a show called No Good Nick and there were young performers on that show. I don’t say kids, the word young performer is sort of a phrase of choice. We would get on Red Dead 2, and I finally got the earphones hooked up and basically just relating with each other over the headset while in the old west.

We did play Call of Duty too and we’re parachuting into the airport and getting into places. Then you’re talking about life and stuff like that. In the middle of the talk, you’re like, “Let’s go left, go left, go left.” Yes, video games always have that ability to bring people together, and what’s cool about it. You can bring it back to Hero Mode, where there is another side of the video game. If you go into the screen and look around, and then you go out the other side of the screen, there are people who’ve been working on it. There are actual human beings whose time, energy, careers, creativity is spent trying to make them good. I’ve gone to some video game companies and seen that they’re huge. I don’t know if they call them bullpens, but the huge areas where people are. They get 500 people working at their stations, building the worlds. But this idea that the technology exists where smaller groups of people could actually come up with pretty cool games, I think.

I think that the market for it is, you know, endless. So, I liked that. I liked that normally when I think of video game companies, I think of Nintendo. I did a documentary around Nintendo, and it’s amazing, but to go back to the late 1800s and they were making games and then to watch their march through technology, and their lawsuit with universal in there. All that stuff. But I think of video games as these massive corporations that are vying for market share, not like Nolan [Bushnell] and those guys, but you just get this image. So to sort of bring it down and put it so that you make a normal teenage kid the hero of creating a video game. I think it opens up a world of imagination for kids to think about what they might do.

You’ve done some voice acting for games yourself. One of your first roles was actually voicing Hercules in the first Kingdom Hearts. How did that come together and how cool was it to play and put your own spin on such an iconic animated character.

Well, Tate Donovan did it originally. He and I worked together on Memphis Belle and I got this call saying, “Hey, Tate Donovan’s unavailable. Can you do it?” So when I showed up, I was trying to do an impression of Tate. I was trying to sound as much like Tate as I could, and that was great. I mean, people love that version, and I hear about it all the time. So, it was one of the first ones I ever did. I was so glad to finally get a job in that space. When Lord of the Rings came out, I did a whole bunch of video games, so that further opened up the world [of voice acting] to me. But Herc was pretty, you know, what can I say? You’re lucky when you get something like that.

You’ve had so many iconic roles over the years. Mikey in Goonies, Rudy, Sam in Lord of the Rings, Bob in Stranger Things. What’s kind of cool is they’re spaced out and different generations latch on to different points of your career. How weird is that people in their 40s are reminded of one thing and you have a whole new group of fans because of Stranger Things. How wild is that?

At this point in my life, I just turned 50. It’s become a part of my daily experience. So I get a kick out of it when I’ll meet someone and they’ll bring up something that I haven’t thought about in 30 years or 25 years. They’ll talk about it in a way that they’re excited about it, they’re passionate about it and it reminds me. Listen, it’s hard to have a long career in movies and television because people get used to you, and they kind of get used to seeing you in a certain way.

I have other things that I do in my life. Education and triathlons and my family and stuff like that. In a weird way, because I go and do other things with my life, and then I come back and make a movie, I’m different enough when I do it that it sort of works on its own. Mikey, he doesn’t look like Bob Newby from Stranger Things. They’re totally, totally different. So, I’m just, again, grateful that I’ve been fortunate enough to have different epochs in my life. Be able to keep working and it feels good whenever anybody likes anything you do.

Encino Man

You talked about your storied career and we’re seeing so many franchises get revived on streaming services. Pauly Shore recently expressed interest in doing an Encino Man sequel. He told fans to hit up Disney+ and tell them that Pauly, Brendan, and Sean are ready. Is that something you’d be interested in if the right script came in?

I have always wanted to see a television series about Betty Nugs, who was the female cave person that was resurrected from the swimming pool at the end of the movie. So I think it absolutely should happen. If they make a sequel, I’d be more than happy to play a part.

Amazon is doing that Lord of the Rings series. I was doing some research on you and I thought it was cool that when you first got that gig, you weren’t really a Lord of the Rings fan, but you read all the books and you really appreciate the source material now. Is that something you’re really excited to watch? And do you have any advice for those actors taking such a big role since that type of series can change your life?

My advice to them would be to enjoy the ride because the fan base for the movies and the people who love the books is so massive that it’ll be … It was overwhelming to me when those movies came out. How much energy there was. How many people loved it and all of it. So I’m very excited to see how it turns out. If they’re digging a lot into The Silmarillion, it might be new information to me. I have not quite made it through The Silmarillion.

I think Amazon was great to do it. I fully predicted in 2002, that it would be in 2020, 2021, that they would reboot it. I was specific about it and people asked how it could be so sure, and I said, “Because I have that foresight.” No, because I know in a generation, people want to experience what they love again. I’ve always been a big one to support sequels and remakes and particularly of classics. A lot of people think, why would you want to remake a classic? The good news is the classic will always remain. So maybe somebody will do something interesting, and if it stinks, don’t watch it. But I have every expectation that this Lord of the Rings adaptation is going to be amazing. It’s been a long time in the making, really talented people working on it, and it only helps people remember 20 years ago when we brought out our version of Lord of the Rings. So it’s good for everyone when stuff like that happens. I think that’s my personal opinion.

Thank you. You’ve been so kind with your time. If you have anything to promote, I’d love to hear it.

Anything to promote? Well, Hero Mode, baby. Hero Mode. Mary Lynn Rajskub, who I’ve always been a big fan of hers, it was fun to work with her on it. I hope people discover this movie. I know my daughter, who’s 15, like it’s just downloadable. I don’t know, as of a week or two ago, and she’s doing summer school, but I think she’s going to really enjoy it. So I appreciate you writing about it.