SAN DIEGO — When the name Sean Astin comes up, most people associate the actor with his roles in "Lord of the Rings" and "The Goonies" where he plays both leader and loyal friend. What may come as a surprise is Astin’s current project in Disney’s "Special Agent Oso."
Not well-known for his voice-over work, the veteran actor leads the children’s series as Special Agent Oso. The series celebrates the classic spy genre, centering on an adorable stuffed panda bear that works for U.N.I.Q.U.E (United Network for Investigating Quite Usual Events). Special Agent Oso helps children problem solve matters from raising awareness about the environment to personal safety.
This series has since become a success and ranked No. 1 in its timeslot after its debut in April 2009, beating its competition by 12 percent among kids 2-5.
Blast Magazine talked with Astin about "Special Agent Oso," and its upcoming second season, which premieres Saturday July 10 at 8 a.m.
BLAST MAGAZINE: Special Agent Oso is a wonderful children’s show, how did you come across this project?
SEAN ASTIN: They offered it to me. I was doing a show in London and I got this package. Before I even read the cover letter there was this big fat color illustration of Oso (laughs). I was like "Oh yeah, that is me." In fact, the first show I did was over the phone from this studio in London and I was patched through. So I did the pilot episode before ever meeting the creator. It was pretty cool. I think they just knew from my other movies that I was Oso.
BLAST: Most people are not familiar with your voice-over work as much as your live action films. What’s the process been like for you? And how is it different than working on a live set?
SA: We’re into the second season and we’ve all developed the sort of friendships you would on a live-action show. We pretty much all work it out together, and the guys Ford (Riley), and Jamie (Mitchell), who I like to affectionately refer to as "the other side of the glass," are there so it’s like a radio play you put together.
BLAST: What does your family, especially your kids, think of the show? And hearing your voice as such an adorable character?
SA: They were incredibly excited when the first season premiered. They saw that Dad, the guy who hangs around the house all the time, does something. They got comfortable with it, you know? Their friends all knew that their dad was the voice, and that was cool for them. I would come in once and a while and read for them. Everybody wanted me to do the Oso voice and that kind of stuff, so that was really cool. Recently they just got to meet the Oso walk around — which is this life size cuddly Oso that walks around (and meets people). Something happened I don’t know, but they came home and were glued to the television. They were like, "we met this guy, and he’s awesome. We’re on the inside track now. We love Oso." I think my four year old who will be five in the coming weeks is the perfect target and demographic for us. She latched on to it the most. Recently the title song was nominated for an Emmy in Best Original Song, which we’re very proud of, and my oldest (daughter) knows all the lyrics.
BLAST: The visuals and design for the show is done wonderfully. It easily gains a child’s attention. There are a lot of fun elements to "Special Agent Oso."
SA: ("Special Agent Oso") is bright and colorful. The voices are up-toned, it’s very pleasing. The gadgets are all fun and the kids seem to know the spy universe pretty well. The way they do the discoveries and (set up) the organizational skills themselves are fun. (For example) Oso will come down from his helicopter to help solve a problem, but then he’ll make a mistake. So you’ll have these little kids teaching him, and showing him how to do it correctly.
BLAST: This doesn’t just make it engaging for the kids but for the adults as well.
SA: I think that’s because when you’re teaching a kid how to do something, like a puzzle, repetition is important. I think most parents are like me, you want to be deliberate and explain everything to them. You can tell when you’re losing them. They’re not really focused anymore; they’re bored with what you’re saying. Oso breaks things down with his "paw pilot" this little PDA he’s got (on the show) into these basic steps. You’re going to do this, then that, and (so forth). Then you’re going to know how to do it. As a parent watching my kid connect with that is pretty cool.
BLAST: And that’s the thing that’s great with this show, it also takes on subjects which generally are harder to perhaps conceptualize for a younger crowd.
SA: They really do this year. They push the envelope with that as far as I’m concerned. I saw the scripts come through and thought, "Wow we’re going to tackle this?" And one is about the importance of telling the truth. A little girl breaks a vase, her grandma’s vase, and their dog is around. She has to decide what to do: Is it important to tell grandma the truth? Or blame it on the dog? And when she learns it is important to tell the truth, she has to learn how to apologize about it. Modeling the importance of apologizing is so critical. And another one that’s big this season is about what to do if you get lost; cutting right to the core of issues for little kids. In terms of themes, there’s this big push within the administration and around the country about physical fitness. So (the show) made a concerted effort this year to put an element of physical fitness in there: playing catch, miniature golf, how to ride your scooter, and how to play football. I like that element in being part of this animated show, you’re contributing to people’s health and not just entertaining.
BLAST: You’re going to have some special guest appearances this season like Mel Brooks. How does it feel having them involved?
SA: It’s validation. You do an animated show for the Disney Channel, and you look at your peers like Jenna Elfman or Rita Morena and you sort of go, "So they probably have kids or nieces and nephews who watch the show. " These are people who like the Disney Channel and are cool enough to go out of their way to be in an episode or two. So it’s a validation to what we’ve been doing these past years.
BLAST: Your films, especially earlier the works, has been a big part of some people’s childhoods. How does it feel knowing the work you’re doing now is a part of your own children’s childhood?
SA: I’ll tell you how, they’re making toys! I brought home from work the other day the new Oso car set, and you would have thought I brought the Hope Diamond. Everyone in the house just gravitated to it!
I know there is "The Goonies" toy, and "The Lord of the Rings" toys. So you talk about going into the popular culture and finding a place in people’s hearts. But when it comes right down to it, I’m another toy (laughs).
Toy or not, Sean Astin certainly has an aptitude for embodying memorable characters for generations of kids, and "Special Agent Oso" is no exception.
"Special Agent Oso" premieres Saturday July 10th (8:00-8:30 A.M. ET/PT), and continues with new episodes at the same time every Saturday from July to August.