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Interview: Actor Sean Astin talks ‘Boys of Abu Ghraib’

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Actor Sean Astin is known for his roles in Richard Donner’s cult classic, “The Goonies”; David Anspaugh’s football drama, “Rudy”; and Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning epic trilogy, “The Lord of the Rings.” For his new film, “Boys of Abu Ghraib,” which opens in limited theaters on March 28, Astin takes on a role that requires him to be a lot more aggressive and unforgiving.

Boys of Abu Ghraib” is inspired by the true events that took place at Abu Ghraib in the early stages of the Iraq War. Prisoners at Abu Ghraib were tortured, raped, sodomized, and even killed by military police personnel in the United States Army and Central Intelligence Agency.

Written and directed by Luke Moran, the story follows Jack Farmer (Moran), who leaves behind his family and his girlfriend in small town America to go fight in the Iraq War. When he arrives, Jack is given the task of supervising some of the most ruthless detainees, and is pressured by his superior, Staff Sergeant Tanner (Astin), into using harsh techniques. One of the detainees is the innocent-looking Ghazi Hammoud (Omid Abtahi), whom Jack befriends, even though it is against the rules.

The Chico Movie Examiner recently conducted an over-the-phone interview with Astin about his role in the film; how it was to play someone as aggressive as Tanner; and how an audience can only be shown so much in a film before it becomes too much.

Check out the full interview below.

David Wangberg: I know this is a pretty intense and powerful film, and I wanted to ask you this.

A lot of people know you from “The Goonies,” “Rudy,” and “The Lord of the Rings.” Here, you’re a lot more aggressive, and this is also inspired by a true story. Was it more of a challenge for you to prepare for this role, or was it more of a challenge for you to get over the fact that you just played this character?

Sean Astin: Well, to the first part, movies like this, a lot of times, don’t get to be as well known. It’s harder subject matter, and certain people are drawn to it. It doesn’t necessarily go global. Sometimes they do.

Throughout my career, I’ve been blessed to play lots of different kinds of parts, and a few of them just really popped so hard that that’s what most people know. But in terms of preparation, it’s weird to use the word “pleasure,” but this was a real cathartic experience for me – not having known how to process, emotionally, that dark moment for us in world history and American history and Iraqi history [and] literally, physically putting yourself in the place. We talk about trying to identify with people and sense other people’s humanity, when you’re deciding what to think about things and what to feel about things.

Acting is a really powerful way to do that beyond what the audience feels or thinks – just the experience inside myself. It’s knowing that there is such a wealth of information. We live in a time now, where something that intense and that dramatic and that important and that impactful on international relations and American identity – when something like that happens, lots of people dig in and go interview people and talk about things. This is a few years later, and Luke [Moran] was wrestling with his feelings about it and wanted to use it to develop himself as a filmmaker. Getting to dig into all that research and writing felt good to be able to do that – to have an excuse to kind of stop with what I was doing for the rest of my life for a few weeks, and prioritize reading about that above other things I might be doing, if I wasn’t acting in movies.

I must say, though, the actual research itself was so horrifying. I have never really had night terror before, but I was reading and also listening to audiobooks [about] these stories, and not just Abu Ghraib, but rendition stories and then throughout history. I’ve got a couple of books to sort of take you through [the] history of internment or interrogation and those things. When you really stop, when you really take a minute to think about it, it’s pretty claustrophobic, and it invades your entire being. And I must say it took me a while. And once I go through the research, then you kind of want to hold it. It wasn’t a very long trip for me, a week or something like that. But you go through that week, and then you come out of that other side of the week, and it takes two to three weeks before that’s not what you’re thinking about every second. When you’re thinking about that every second, it’s not pretty.

DW: On the intensity of the film, we don’t really see what happens when Ghazi gets taken away and interrogated until after he comes back, and we don’t see some of the things that were reported to have taken place at Abu Ghraib – like the raping of some of the detainees. If Luke had pushed the envelope just a little bit more, and showed all of what had actually happened, would you still want to do this film, or would you not want to do it because of the amount of realism and intensity involved in the real story?

SA: When I hear that a filmmaker’s going to treat a very dramatic subject matter, I look very closely at how they want to do it with the script, but also try to anticipate what the filmmaker’s likely to do with it – where they’re likely to go with it. And his ambivalence was very clear, and I didn’t like it at first. But the more I got to know him, and the more I got to see what he was doing, how he cast the actors, and what would happen when we were in the prison, and the emotions we were allowed to feel, I felt like he was trying to reconcile things for himself.

The power of imagination… well, our sense of history and our knowledge of history meets dramatic interpretation somewhere in the middle. I don’t know exactly what his reasons were for choosing not to go in there. I have my own feelings about the merits of going in there or not. But the ultimate point is this is this guy’s movie; it’s how he wanted to tell the story. If he wanted to tell the story by going into the room, I would have been more than happy to go there with him. The fact that he didn’t, I respect equally. Because it’s his process, and he’s trying to find the balance between respecting soldiers, particularly ones who aren’t colored by some negative association with that thing, specifically, but then also wanting to indict the wrongness that did happen – that kind of anti-humanitarian thing that happened.

It’s a tough road to hoe. He knows lots of soldiers; he doesn’t want them to feel like he blames everyone. And I don’t know what he ultimately feels, but, listen, we have a dichotomy in our national soul and our national conscience, which is one we know that torturing is wrong. But we also feel that if by torturing someone you can save lives, we’re willing to put up with it, because we can’t imagine doing anything that would be sacrificing the life of soldiers. The problem is that when you send people to war, you’re putting them in harm’s way, and you’re risking their lives. So, at this moment in history, with our nation controlling the most powerful military known to man in all throughout history, I think we have to decide, does our desire to protect every man, woman, and child in America, and every soldier on the battlefield appreciably improve when we do this? Or, if we protect our relationship with nations, and inspire them and work with them and compel them not to do this kind of thing and to work with us so there aren’t more wars, maybe in the net result, many, many, many, many more lives will be saved. It’s a no-win proposition, and it’s very easy to stand back on the sidelines and throw hand grenades at the issue.

But to see one guy say, “I’m going to try to do this. I’m going to try to work this myself, and I love movies, and I’m going to tell the story,” I feel like it’s my role in life, in my craft and my profession, to service that. My acting teacher said, “It’s the actor’s job to tell the truth onstage.” And so, my mandate is to try to be as honest as I can in those moments, and to allow myself to be a tool for a worthy filmmaker to tell his or her story.

It’s a long answer to a short question. If he would have gone deeper into it, would I have still done the movie? Based on what I studied of him, and the way he laid out the script, absolutely yes. I would have been willing to do that. But the fact that he didn’t do that brought up moral questions that I think are worth analyzing as part of the value of the film. For you as an interviewer, or as a journalist, or as an audience member to question that, that’s good. You start to question things. If you want to blame him for not showing the rawness more, that’s good. Now we’re talking about it again. You weren’t talking about it before you turned on the movie.

DW: And I can understand him not showing it, because there’s only so much that an audience can take before they get too squeamish, or before they just have to walk away from the movie before it’s over.

SA: Yeah, some audiences can take every last thing; whatever you can possibly give them. Whether it’s real or invented, they can take it. But if the goal is to try to engage as wide an audience as possible, or whatever level of audience he wants to engage, you know, it’s from the filmmaker out is the way I look at it. I’m sure they had awareness of what the rating was going to be, and what the marketplace could stand and everything else. But from a pure, storytelling point, the quality of the way it looks; the way he uses editing to where it’s stuff that people are comfortable with – his style, a meter, a tempo, and a pace, or whatever you want to call it – and certain techniques, he’s done his time.

My sense is that people who are sympathetic around the circle of those associated will see merit in it, and they may all find fault in it. But for my money, my kids draw pictures and paints paintings. And if a guy grows up, and he’s in his 20s, and he wants to tell a story, and he chooses this subject matter, as opposed to any other moment and time in history, particularly because it’s not that long after, and it’s still a hot-button issue that if you said the wrong thing, [it] can really cause a stir… the fact that he wants to do that – bully. Good on him.

DW: I was kind of curious about this. For actors, if a script is well written, but they don’t believe in the message it evokes, or it doesn’t line up with their views on the world and on life, do you just set your beliefs aside and move forward with getting involved in the film, because of how much you like the script, and who is directing it and who is acting in it?

SA: Well, to answer the part of the question that I think you’re getting at, sometimes you take a leap of faith that maybe you’ll learn something when you go through it. But I think that was the case here. I really appreciated what he was trying to do. And, morally, my feelings are very strong in terms of setting policy and adhering to it. I served as a civilian agent for the Secretary of the Army for 10 years, which was a presidential appointment. The Secretary of the Army makes the appointment, but it’s through the executive branch. It was a volunteer position, and I spent years and years interacting with soldiers and their families and traveling around installations. Yet, I have no problem being really, really, critical of things within the system that I think are wrong, because I believe that civilian oversight of the armed forces is one of the hallmarks of our whole system of power in this country.

As a citizen, I want to hold my leaders accountable. And that’s why I was not happy that the blame – the big, public, visible blame – didn’t percolate high enough. Blame, in and of itself, isn’t useful, but to expect that you can help change people’s behaviors so that they can come into alignment with right behavior … listen, when we started that war, I totally disagreed with it. But the moment we launched it, I said, “OK. The time for disagreement is set aside. It’s time to pray for peace and victory.” As a citizen, I support my country, and I’m going to work within the system to make sure that my feelings are heard to the best extent possible.

But when it comes to the movies, as an actor, I was raised with the discipline of being a vessel, if you will, through which the ideas of the screenwriter are passed. And then you come out on the other side of it, and as a human, as a voter, as a citizen, as a thinker, and with your own moral, value system, you can look at what you did, and say, “Boy, I really agree with what we were saying there, or I don’t.” If you read something, and it doesn’t line up at all with your value system, then you don’t do it. If there isn’t an internal morality that doesn’t make sense, then you don’t do it. Where it gets complicated and hard is when you’re not sure.

DW: OK. And I’ll end this on a little bit of an easier question. I know you were only in a few episodes of “24,” before they killed off your character. But I wanted to get your thoughts on them bringing it back as a mini-series.

SA: Well, that’s funny, because that [show] is directly related to this thing. So, is torture necessary? “24” had its cake and ate it, too. Jack Bauer comes in and is able to, kind of, thread the needle for everyone, so you get both.

But that’s cool, man. It’s a great character; it’s a great franchise; and it’s a great story. But I saw a poster or something, and I thought, “Oh, that’s cool.” But that thought never occurred to me because I’m dead. [laughs]

DW: [laughs] Well, they have brought back other characters that have died in previous shows – like in “E.R.,” they brought back characters for the series finale.

SA: I don’t think my character is one whose life would be brought back. He was a useful color during that season in the arc of five seasons, by the time I had done it, and whatever it had went on to. It was a good shade, it was a good hue to come in there, and I really enjoyed the opportunity to do it, and I had a great time, but I don’t think in the core, spot end of the story, Lynn McGill is [necessary]. I mean, I appreciate that people… people hated him, and then they felt bad that he died, you know? [laughs]

This concludes the interview, but the Chico Movie Examiner would like to thank Sean Astin for taking the time to talk about “Boys of Abu Ghraib.”

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