Sean Astin lends the perfect voice and personality to the lovable, bumbling bear in training — Oso — in Disney Channel‘s newest series Special Agent Oso, airing weekdays beginning April 4. While dishing about Oso, Astin talked about his latest “knowing your age” comedy, Stay Cool, and more.
I imagine Disney Channel must have sought you out for Special Agent Oso. How did that come about?
Sean Astin: I was over in England working on the Color of Magic. I got this FedEx with Oso’s picture in it and a few different poses and characters and I just took one look at Oso and said “Hey man, that’s me.” They had offered me the part and I took one look and said “yes.” I said “yes” before they even offered it to me. When Disney does something, you just want to be a part of it because they are just sterling.
You’ve voiced several characters in the past. Anything challenging about Oso or the process?
You rely totally on the director and the other creative minds on the other side of the glass, as well as the fellow performers. You can’t help but draw on 38 years of children’s animation, animation movies, shows and voices you’ve heard. You can tell when you are doing something original for the character.
Do you see Oso as more of a Pink Panther for preschoolers?
[laughing] If you say so.
Well, he’s kind of bumbling with his missions.
He doesn’t have the sophistication of the Pink Panther, unfortunately. He compensates for that with exuberance. Where Pink Panther is suave, Oso is exuberant. But I love the idea. When I think of Pink Panther I don’t think of Clouseau, I think of the actual Pink Panther, the kind of sly Pink Panther, not the bumbling [one]. When you think of Clouseau, he’s just dumb as a box of rocks. Oso — yeah, it’s for kids — but the learning aspect is so important. Oso shows you by examples that it’s OK to make mistakes. With Clouseau, we laugh at him and it’s funny because he’s so conceited. Oso never stops wanting to learn. When he makes a mistake he doesn’t take it too seriously. With my kids, particularly my little ones, they just don’t want to be embarrassed. They don’t want to make a mistake and it stops their learning. I love that Oso captures that [it’s OK to learn from mistakes].
Every episode teaches through a three-step process. Can you talk about that?
Every episode he’s teaching — they have to learn how to bake a cake, put a puzzle together, mail a letter — there’s just all these things that kids experience on a day-to-day level. What we’ve learned — and by we I mean a community of parents and educators — is that children learn well with repetition. Repetition gives them a sense of confidence. I sat working with my 3-year-old on puzzles a lot, and you try and explain the concept. “First you want to find the flat ones … then you look for the corners.” She watched Oso, and the concept of the three steps she got. It just crystallized it for her. She was speaking the language of the show and it was speaking right to her.
So now everything you teach is going to be in a three-step solution?
Well no, because the writers of Oso are really smart and can pare things down to three steps. With me it’s usually about 4,942, of which three, somewhere in there, may be right.
I thought it would be fun to relate some of your more memorable film characters to how special agent Oso could have helped them. How would Special Agent Oso assist some of your most memorable characters?
Mikey Walsh in The Goonies (1985)
In Goonies there’s one particular thing they do where they really make a mistake, and it almost costs their lives. It’s when they come into the cave. … According to the map, in order to move beyond the chamber, you have to play the notes that are on the map. One of the girls, Andy, she plays it wrong. When she plays it wrong a huge chunk of the floor opens up and it falls into infinity. Definitely Oso could have been trained to look at that music and play it correctly.
Rudy Ruettiger in Rudy (1993)
Rudy and Oso are very, very, very similar; they both have grit and determination. I think what Oso could do is maybe give Rudy a little bit of perspective, just tell him to chill out a little bit. Also, Oso is surrounded by a pretty great team. He’s got Paw Pilot, he’s got Dos — he’s got all these people around him. I don’t think Oso ever feels as alone as Rudy probably felt, so he might just provide him with some companionship.
Sam Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002, 2003)
Sam and Frodo could have used a little technology on their trip. Oso has a submarine, train, spaceship, airplanes, cars and jet skis. I would think if he was to roll up in Whirly Bird’s helicopter and help them cruise over just a little bit of terrain, they would be grateful.
Do you have a character or role you could say is one of your favorites?
When I think about how to start answering that question, you get stuck between not wanting to seem ungrateful for the two or three roles which you are most identified with, but at the same time you think, “Well everyone knows those.” The ones I have such a great time with are pretty much the ones that have incredibly limited audiences. I did a movie, actually, with my mom [Patty Duke] called Bigger Than the Sky. I play a character called Ken Zorbell — it’s kind of a love letter, satirical look at community theater in Portland. On TV around Valentine’s Day there was a film I was in called Boy Meets Girl (1998); we shot in Toronto. I just love it. It’s just so sweet. It’s just this wonderful mixture of love and poetry and Italian culture. I just had a ball doing that and I love that character. Usually the ones I love the most are the ones that are not really known by the public.
I see you have a new movie coming out, Stay Cool, where you play Big Girl. What’s that all about?
Oh gosh, I’m scared. If there’s a stereotype for the overly flamboyant homosexual hairdresser, I push it to a limit that it was never intended to go to. You know what I mean? It’s almost, I don’t know. I’m uncomfortable. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to watch it. The Polish Brothers [Mark and Michael Polish] who did The Astronaut Farmer, this is their movie. It’s kind of their fun psychoanalysis of their high-school years. Mark Polish — one of the cowriters, directors, producers and stars of it — he’s coming back to his high school and is only there five minutes when he gets sucked back into that world. They’ve cast this huge list of people who have a firm foothold in 1980s culture and contemporary pop culture [including Winona Ryder, Chevy Chase, Jon Cryer and Hilary Duff]. I was really hesitant to do it. They were really encouraging of me to do it. And then once I started, the director said, “I can’t believe we had to encourage you to do this. You need to like stop. It’s too much.” The clothes, the lisp and all that stuff, hopefully underneath all the insanity of it there’s a little bit of heart. It’s a very risky thing to push the boundaries of insanity. They seemed pretty happy with it.
You’ve also got the movie Demoted due out later this year, correct?
Demoted is really the last thing [I did]. Michael Vartan and I play a couple of tire salesmen who are alpha males — drinking and strip club type of guys. Our boss dies comically and one of the guys that we’ve been picking on mercilessly gets promoted so he demotes us to secretaries. We end up being totally useless. I really, really had fun doing that. We did that in Michigan.
How’s your mom [Patty Duke] doing?
[asking a publicist] Am I allowed to say that fun news that my mom just sent?
Sure you can.
You little devil. My mom’s been in good health for a couple of years now and she’s really wanted to work. She’s done a lot of mental health PR. She just texted — that’s how we like to communicate — that she’s going to San Francisco to do a long run of Wicked. We’ve seen it several times in several cities — London, New York and Los Angeles — and we just love, love, love that show — and now the fact that nana gets to be in Wicked!
Anything else you are working on?
My wife [Christine Astin] and I are collaborating on an adaptation of Number the Stars by Lois Lowry. Our intentions are to make that a movie.