Why Sean Astin’s ‘Stranger Things 2’ Role Is More Than Stunt Casting (Exclusive)

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Sean Astin Getty
Photo: Getty Images

Longtime actor and former child star Sean Astin is not a fan of watching horror movies.

“That sensation of jumping because somebody's hand comes through the window to grab your throat -- I don't like that,” he tells ET, which is a bit ironic considering he’s starring in two back-to-back horror projects released in October.

First is Dead Ant, a campy film about killer ants, which Astin says is an homage to those ‘70s B-list horror movies like Empire of the Ants, that premiered at the 2017 ScreamFest in Hollywood, California. The film sees the actor playing an aging rocker with an insane mullet and bad tattoos, who doesn’t quite make it to the end. “I wish I had more time to play with the rest of the group,” Astin says of the cast, which includes Tom Arnold and Jake Busey, but he had fun playing up the Los Angeles music scene. “I felt strangely comfortable in that,” he adds, clarifying that he doesn’t shy away from any genre, particularly horror, of which he’s done a couple of projects like FX's The Strain and Cabin Fever: Patient Zero. “I respect genre filmmaking.” 

The other, perhaps more high-profile horror gig, is Stranger Things 2, which starts streaming Friday, Oct. 27 on Netflix. On the second season of the hit series created by the Duffer Brothers, Astin plays Bob Newby, a former schoolmate of Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) and Jim Hopper (David Harbour), who now runs the Hawkins Radio Shack and dates Joyce, much to the chagrin of the chief of police. Oh, and he also happens to hate watching horror movies. That’s pretty much all that’s been revealed of Astin’s role, aside from the fact that Stranger Things producer and director Shawn Levy has dubbed him the “Barb of season two.”

That title, however, may have more to do with being a potential fan-favorite than a premature death. (Of course, we don’t know for sure and Astin himself wouldn’t answer any direct questions about the plot. “I can’t wait until Oct. 28, when I can answer any questions,” he says.) But what he can tell ET is that his presence is more than stunt casting.

While Astin’s 1985 childhood classic, The Goonies, is heavily referenced on the show, his role is more than just a tip of the hat to the nostalgic world Stranger Things lives in. “Of course you’re aware of it, but it has to work on its own terms, too,” he says of Bob, who also plays a part in Joyce’s home life with her kids, Will (Noah Schnapp) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton). “That wouldn’t be fair to the fans of the show, if you felt like you were taken out of the show with something distracting.”

Stranger Things 2
Sean Astin and Winona Ryder in episode three of 'Stranger Things 2.'
Photo: Netflix

Astin admits that first arriving on set was a bit of a “pregnant moment,” with a lot of anticipation surrounding his addition to an existing on-set family. “The goal is not to mess anything up and just do the thing as well as you can,” he says, adding that the entire experience was “exactly what it should be,” which meant putting himself in the hands of the Duffer Brothers. “For me, having been part of some of the biggest projects in the world, I know how special it is when a filmmaker or a show connects, when they have something original, they're working really hard and the audience gets it and there's that really special magic that happens.”

Part of that magic may also have been in reconnecting with Ryder, whom he’s previously worked with and is a longtime friend (“She and I have a really strong affection for each other. She reminds me of my mom a little bit,” he says), as well as reliving childhood memories on set with his young co-stars. “The kids were definitely excited to talk about The Goonies and Lord of the Rings. I was excited to share with them because it was clear to me they were experiencing in their childhood what I had experienced,” recalls the Rudy star, who felt like something of a football coach on set. “It was like, ‘You know what? I’ve been out of the [game] for a while, but nobody will tell these young kids what it was like.’”

While the show itself is built in a world of nostalgia, referencing not only the actor’s early films, but such classics as Alien, E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial and Poltergeist, for Astin, that sentiment came in reliving those stories with his co-stars and also sharing in the moment with his three kids, who came to visit the Atlanta set, where season two was filmed.

“It's amazing how my childhood and even further back comes from my kids as they discover stuff. I feel like that with Stranger Things. The Duffers, I don't know how much of their life they can actually remember of the 1980s, but they clearly love it enough they want to study it and wrap themselves in that [era],” Astin says, adding that his children have a mature understanding of his career and what it means to be on the Netflix series. “The show is doing for the kids today what The Goonies did for me in the mid-‘80s.”