Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Mr. Nice Guy. That’s how people who know him describe actor Sean Astin and after having had the opportunity to speak him in person, I have to agree. The son of Patty Duke and stepson of John Astin (The Addams Family) grew up with stars as parents and via memorable turns in films like Goonies, Memphis Belle, Rudy and the Lord of the Rings trilogy became one himself. A caught up with Sean on the Birmingham set of Moms’ Night Out, a faith-based family comedy directed by the Jon and Andy Erwin (October Baby).

JWK: You’ve played a lot of very colorful characters in your career. What attracted you to the normal family guy in Moms’ Night Out?

SEAN ASTIN: Well, he’s me — and I’m terribly attracted to me. Kevin Downes — our wonderful producer and co-star — directed me in another Christian film called Amazing Love. He told me during that film about “the (Erwin) brothers.”…And then he just called and said “I have a movie. You gotta do it.”  I basically said I’d do it before I even knew what it was because it was Kevin asking. I think, in my life and my family, we very directly relate to circumstances in this movie. This movie is like my family. The situations in the film are very much like the situations we face.

JWK: I understand you’re a pet family. What kinds of pets do you have?

SA: Well, at this point I think we have three dogs. The oldest two are golden retrievers but the one is a strange little vampire retriever. So lovable. Everything’s a girl. We have three cats…Byron was my first dog with my wife. So, I always look at every one of me three dogs and say “Hey, Byron, come here!” The dogs don’t mind, as long as they get their food. Secret is a big fat cat and then Malay is kind of a cute little spindly white-haired cat. The baby is Slinky and Slinky looks like a black panther. She and I get along really well. So, the oldest (dog) is the brown golden retriever Flip — because her ear was broken when we got her. It was flipped up. We named her Flip, so we just kept that. And then the white one is named Indy. When I’m involved we have the hardest time naming the animals…So, the middle one is Indy, short for Indiana and I like Indiana Jones so I was okay with that. The littlest one is a boy. He’s the only thing in the house, besides me, that’s a boy. I wanted to name him Ace. He’s a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, I think is what they’re called.  He’s the cutest thing you’ve ever seen.  I wanted to take him here to the set) with me but they were sure that I wouldn’t know how to clean up after him. So, anyway, they didn’t want to name him Ace so we settled on Dodger because I’m a Dodger fan.

JWK: You’re an animal rights advocate.

SA: Yeah. I think in the decades past I’ve been more acutely active but we love animals. My family is just very passionate about making sure that animals are protected and not mistreated.

JWK: Does that concern stem from your Christian belief system?

SA: I had a couple of experiences as a kid with animals where I hurt them, kind of unintentionally, and when I saw that a human being can hurt an animal it really affected me. And my kids…they became animal rights activists. My oldest one…she made the connection between the barnyard animal and the (chicken) that was on her plate.

JWK: I understand that you’re a Presbyterian now.

SA: Lutheran, technically now, I think…My Christianity takes a long time to unpack but, basically, if you wanted to cut right to the judgment of it all, we were all baptized in my wife’s Lutheran church in Indiana.

JWK: You have a very eclectic religious background. I understand that you studied Buddhism at one point.

SA: My dad was a Buddhist when I was young. So, at a point when I begging become Catholic he was saying “no” and imparting Buddhist precepts.

JWK: Are you talking about John Astin?

SA: Yeah. He’s my father. He’s not my genetic father but he’s my father.

JWK: Your birth father is Jewish, I understand.

SA: He is, yeah. He said something interesting at one point when we were leading a somewhat agnostic existence. He just said “Pick something.” We said “What do you mean?” There are a lot of Jewish people in our community. My daughter, when she was 13, she went through the Bat Mitzvah circuit (of her friends) which is an extraordinary thing to behold and I assumed that he meant pick Judaism. He said “Judaism, Christianity, Hindu, Muslim,” he goes “you need community. Pick something and stick with it.”  So, I think we arrived at a Christian posture.

JWK: Your mother Patty Duke is Catholic?

SA: Well, it depends on when you ask her and who you ask. I think today she would probably consider herself a Catholic. She’s had a really kind of tortured relationship (with the Church). I (remember) when her sister died.* There’s this group of nuns that lived in a convent nearby. She insisted that they be there. So, you know, when you talk about self identifying versus how people practice versus the culture versus all these kinds of things I think my mom  feels very comfortable with her Catholicism.

Moms’ Night Out, co-starring Sarah Drew (Grey’s Anatomy), Patricia Heaton, Trace Adkins, Alex Kendrick, Kevin Downes and Robert Amaya is due to hit theaters in 2014. In the meantime, here’s a flashback to Sean Astin as Rudy Ruetigger.

*Note: An earlier version of this post erroneously read “when my sister died.” I apologize for the error.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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