I'm sure the fact I read There and Back Again: An Actor's Tale comes as no surprise to anyone who knows me. I am a huge Lord of the Rings fan and a voracious reader, so a book written by one of the principal actors is a shoo-in! Sean Astin played the hobbit Samwise Gamgee, loyal friend to Frodo Baggins.
Two issues come to mind when I think of Sean Astin's book. First, I am enthralled by all the Lord of the Rings movie trivia that he includes. Second, I am taken aback by the extremely candid manner in which Sean tells his tales.
The son of Patty Duke and adopted son of John Astin, Sean grew up in Hollywood, acting in his first TV movie at age 8 (co-starring with his mother). The book details much of Sean's journey as an actor, culminating with his experience making Lord of the Rings.
The insider look at Hollywood intrigued me. Sean describes everything from how he interacts with his agents to how much salary an actor might actually keep from the gross.
Learning new trivia about Lord of the Rings was a plus to this rabid fan. I learned that John Astin auditioned for Gandalf, that Elijah Wood rarely had a negative day, that Dominic Monaghan could shake Sean out of his self-pity, that Richard Taylor and his wife Tania have high concentrations of dangerous chemicals in their bodies from their work, how Viggo continually advocated for more realism in the script, how Sean disliked the Bakshi version of Sam intensely (who doesn't!), and more. Much more.
Sean delves even more deeply and I suspect he treads on some feet at times. He speaks candidly about the casting and departure of Stuart Townsend, the actor who was originally cast as Aragorn. He also tells of his insecurity being around some of the actors, such as Ian McKellan, and how he felt unliked by these people. He discusses the difficulty he had submitting to Peter Jackson's leadership on the project, mostly due to a keen desire to be involved in the directing and producing process.
Sean chooses to write in a very conversational tone and this is both helpful and unnerving. At times it feels as though we are peering inside his head. He is very honest about his feelings, even describing times that he cried or struggled to keep from weeping. He is candid about many things that most people wouldn't talk about, and while this does make for interesting reading, I can't help but think there are people angry with Sean for writing these details out for public consumption.
Patty Duke, Sean's mother, has both spoken and written about her struggles with mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder. Sean acknowledges this but dances around the issue of his own mental health, denying that he also may have the disease. I'm not a doctor and I don't even play one on TV, but just a quick reading of the text will show that Sean experiences periods of depression and manic activity, which are indicative of bipolar disorder. I hope he has an evaluation for his family's sake, if not his own.
I feel both enriched and saddened by reading this actor's tale. The trivia and the candid look into the making of the LOTR movies made it worth my while. If you are a LOTR fan or interested in the making of a blockbuster movie trilogy, or just a fan of Mr. Astin's, you will also enjoy this book. But, as my friend Ellen said, Sean isn't Sam. And it would be unfair to expect him to be.
Link to amazon.com