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DRIVEN: Mackenzie Astin On His Life, Evolution and “Welcome To The Men’s Group”

They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and Mackenzie Astin is certainly no exception to the rule. One of the insanely talented sons of legendary actors Patty Duke and John Astin, he found himself taking on the family trade very early on in life. Armed with his acting chops and a dazzling smile, it wouldn’t take long for Hollywood decision makers (along with legions of teenage girls) to notice! Mackenzie exploded onto the radar of American audiences in the mid-80s with his role as Andy Moffett on the wildly popular sitcom “The Facts of Life,” where he appeared for over four seasons. He would continue honing his craft for years to come, appearing in memorable motion pictures including “Iron Will”, “Wyatt Earp” with Kevin Costner, “The Evening Star” with Shirley MacLaine, and Whit Stillman’s “The Last Days of Disco.” While he stepped away from acting for several years, he ultimately couldn’t shake the bug, which led to other notable roles including Noah Baker on TV’s “Scandal” and Bill Dunn, Carrie Mathison’s brother-in-law, on “Homeland.” His passion for creation has continued to grow over the decades, leading him to seek out some of his most challenging and rewarding roles to date. Such is the case with his latest role in director Joseph Culp’s new film, “Welcome To The Men’s Group.”

Largely inspired by the phenomenon of the “Men’s Movement” of the past 30 years, “Welcome to the Men’s Group” hails from director Joseph Culp and co-writer Scott Ben-Yashar. The film centers around an eclectic group of eight men who, one Sunday a month, refrain from beer and football to sit in a circle where they share their personal issues in the noble hope of becoming a bit more evolved than their fathers. On this day, things do not go as planned when one member appears headed for a breakdown, and long-standing conflict and secrets threaten to destroy the trust between the men. In addition to Astin, the film boasts an ensemble cast which includes Stephen Tobolowsky (“The Goldbergs”), Golden Globe Nominee Timothy Bottoms (“The Last Picture Show”), Phil Abrams (“Parenthood”), David Clennon (“Gone Girl”), Joseph Culp (“Apollo 13”) and Ali Saam (“Argo”).

Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Mackenzie Astin to discuss his life in show business, the lessons learned along the way, his evolution as an actor, and the making of Joseph Culp’s “Welcome to the Men’s Group.”

We know you come from a successful show biz family. What gave you the bug to begin exploring the arts?

Wow! There’s a very simple answer and then there is a more involved answer. The simple answer is sibling rivalry! [laughs] Sean, my big brother, started working before I did. My mom did an ABC After-School Special called “Please Don’t Hit Me, Mom!” They reached out to her to see if her son, Sean, would be interested in playing her son in the project. They were both into the idea, so he went to work with her on this TV movie. I went to the set to visit at some point. At the time, I think Sean was 10 years old, so I would have been 8. When I went to the set, he was getting a whole lot of attention, so I was like, “Wait a minute! I want to do this!” [laughs] I nagged my parents enough that they relented and, a couple years later, I was lucky enough to start in with the family trade!

What went into finding your creative voice as a young actor?

As a young actor, I think your creative voice is somewhat limited by the parts that you are able to get. I would say that early on that my creative voice was probably inspired by Cousin Oliver on “The Brady Bunch.” [laughs] By that I mean, I played the annoying white kid on a number of different shows and then was the regular annoying white kid on “The Facts of Life.” In terms of finding the voice, coming from a family of actors… Come to think of it, Icon Vs. Icon made me think of my parents’ divorce! [laughs] I think there is a natural proclivity to want to be in a creative field. It was never really a question, when I was a kid, that this was sort of what I wanted to do and what I could do. I remember helping my mom memorizing her lines for jobs and having a good time reading scripts with her. I remember her saying, “Hey, you’re not bad at this!” That’s nice to hear when you are a little kid! To the original question, I’m not sure that necessarily comes out so much with kids or at least not in my case. For me, I think it came out when I was a little bit older. There was certainly no creative voice involved on “The Garbage Pail Kids!” [laughs] Dissidence is what you heard! [laughs]

A young Mackenzie Astin and the cast of “The Facts of Life.”

What are some lessons you learned early on that helped shape the accomplished actor we see today?

I got lucky in that I was able to take a little break after “The Facts of Life” and go back to high school as a regular civilian, if you will. That was probably the best learning experience because coming from working as a regular on a fairly popular television show, I kinda thought that my shit didn’t stink, and I had somewhat of a swelled head going into high school. If there is anything that will level your head, it is American public school! [laughs] Later, I was grateful when I was able to recognize that when I went to high school that my shit did indeed stink just like everybody else’s. The playing field was leveled in a lot of ways, which was really, really valuable for when I started working again because I think I had more respect for the good fortune to be able to be in the entertainment industry, to be able to find work within the industry and to be able to understand the value of being on a team. I played baseball in high school and that’s where the idea of teamwork was deeply instilled. We had a great head coach for the baseball program who helped teach us about the value of teamwork. I think I was able to bring that into my career in my early 20s. I think it made me a lot easier to work with, if you know what I mean! [laughs] I was all in for the ball club instead of just being interested in making sure I came off okay.

When did you come into your own as an actor?

I’ll let you know! [laughs] Ya know, it’s tough to say. I was kidding with my wife the other day that my face is getting old enough for the right parts for me. [laughs] It goes both ways. I don’t know if actors are ever really satisfied or ever really feel like they’ve hit their stride, which can probably be a positive thing because you’re constantly looking for an opportunity to sink your teeth into something. So, I’ll let you know when I get there!

Please do! [laughs] Let’s talk about your latest project, “Welcome To The Men’s Group.” How did this land on your radar and made it a project you wanted to pursue?

I think they couldn’t get my brother, so they reached out to me! [laughs] That’s a joke! Seriously, it was just a regular old audition that came down the pike with large print across the appointment slip that said, “Must be OK with nudity.” I read the script and I felt that it made sense and I was OK with that because the human form has been around pretty much as a long as humans! [laughs] I think that maybe here in American we are maybe held back a little bit by the puritanical dynamics that existed at the outset. Over in Europe, I think people are a little more evolved and it’s not such a big deal to see the naked form, be it man or woman, so that wasn’t really an issue in my thinking. What appealed to me is that it’s a bunch of people sitting around talking about their problems, which is actually what life is! I thought it was representative of some valuable conversations that are necessary, I think, for the advancement of the human people — men in particular. Joseph Culp, the fellow who wrote, directed and stars in the film, has mentioned that the timing is pretty good for the movie in that there has been a lot of awareness in the past few years in American society about the role that men are playing and that we have a lot of work to do. I think that’s true. I’m cautious to say that this is a film that can attach itself wholly to #TimesUp and #MeToo because that runs the risk of, as I’ve come to say, Manspreading and Mansplaining in the same motion. However, I do think there is some value that the film can offer in respect to those movements in that there is a lot of talking in this movie which means, by definition, that there is a lot of listening in this movie. I think the real value that men might be able to contribute to society right now, in particular upper-middle class white men who are represented pretty well in this movie, is to sit back and listen. We have a lot to learn. We have a lot to learn from women. We have a lot to learn from people who are not as advantaged as upper-middle class white men are as we come into the world. I think there is a lot of value that people can take from the film in terms of being willing to listen.

What went into preparing to take on this role and did you find it had a big impact on you?

This movie was fortunate in that we had a week of rehearsal before we began filming, which you aren’t necessarily always afforded in independent film. We had the opportunity to work through the script a few times together as a team, which I think really helped people to get a grasp on their characters and what their character’s role was. That’s a funny way to put it but it allowed us to explore what our jobs were in terms of moving the story along and telling a full story. Thankfully, everyone in this film has a lot of experience. You have guys Timothy Bottoms, Stephen Tobolowsky and David Clennon coming to the table with pretty impressive resumes! It was the perfect opportunity for a youngster like myself to learn from their example. You also have some guys who maybe haven’t yet had the larger successes as Tim and Stephen have had like myself, Phil Abrams, Ali Saam and Terence Rotolo, who also had tremendous opportunities to show what we can do! I know that once we finished filming everyone was very excited to get stuff from the movie to put on our respective reels. This is the kind of screenplay you don’t come across too often where there is really an opportunity for sensitive and unabridged work. In television, a lot of times the scenes are short, and you don’t have a lot of time to move the story along, so you aren’t allowed the opportunity to show tremendous nuance. In a film like this, there is a shitload of nuance! [laughs] If I can put it so coarsely! I think for all of us as actors, an opportunity to play scenes that breathe was really, really, really appealing. Thankfully we were shooting on film, so it wasn’t too crazy expensive! [laughs]

What did you bring to the character that wasn’t on the original written page?

Growing up in a family with five older brothers from two working actors, my intrinsic ability to listen was valuable for the character of Tom! [laughs] He is sort of the audience’s avenue into the group. He’s the new guy, so it’s through his eyes that the audience experiences these guys for the first time. I sort of consider myself an observer of people, just generally. I think that was something that was already in my bag of tricks that was available for Tom to use, which is lucky. Also, in my own personal life, I can be pretty darn judgmental, which is something that is worth working on. I think that sometimes I have difficulty disguising my judgement, so that might have been of some value for the character of Tom as well because you can read a lot of what’s going on from his face! [laughs]

“Welcome To The Men’s Group” is a terrific ensemble. What are your favorite memories of working alongside these seasoned professionals?

It’s hard to pick a favorite! Stephen Tobolowsky is such an incredible storyteller, so there were a couple of experiences at lunch where he would tell stories that had all of our forks paused in the air on the way to our mouths! [laughs] We just stopped and listened with our mouths open because he is so gifted at storytelling. That’s what we do for a living — we tell stories! So, when you have a collection of actors with the amount of experience that all of those guys have there are tremendous stories that come along with it, so it’s hard to pick a favorite. Listening to Timmy Bottoms tell stories, not only about his career as an actor but the experiences he’s had living on a ranch outside of town and taking care of and breaking horses, you realize that he’s actually a cowboy! [laughs] His stories about life outside the business are truly amazing! His perspective is pretty interesting too because of the tremendous success he had early on and his experience in and out of show business over the years. He gave us so much from which we can learn. Hearing the perspective from Ali Saam about being an actor of color in this country and being Iranian in this country was an experience different from mine as an upper-middle class white guy. Hearing stories from Dave Clennon about all of the incredible pictures he has worked on was another highlight. It’s tough to pick a favorite! I can say this — one day we got to the location and everything was locked. I guess the fella who had the keys to the house where we were shooting was late or something like that. The entire crew was there, and we were ready to get to work but we couldn’t get into the damn location! Before anybody could think of what to do next, Timmy Bottoms is climbing up the side of the house to the balcony where the sliding glass door was unlocked! He got in through the bedroom, came down and opened the door, so we all went inside and went to work! [laughs] Watching a guy in his late 50s or early 60s shimmy up a drain pipe like it was nothing was something that truly sticks out in my mind! Tim’s an amazing dude! He will get stuff done!

The stellar cast of “Welcome to the Men’s Group.”

Well, as a self-professed observer of people, you definitely picked the right project, didn’t you? [laughs]

Oh, man! What a great one! [laughs]

You mentioned writer/director/actor Joseph Culp. What did he bring to the project and what was it like working with him?

It was great! Ya know, Joseph and I fundamentally have a lot in common in that we’re both the children of successful actors. Joseph has really taken it to the next level in that he is an acting teacher, a writer and director. The kind of experience and mindset you end up with growing up as a child of successful actors is something that is really valuable when it comes to storytelling. It’s just this stuff that is in him naturally. That’s something that some people go to school for years to learn. That was terrific to watch him work! It’s a very difficult thing to do — write something, star in and direct a project. It takes a deft hand to be able to do all of those jobs separately and with respect to one another. I know if I was directing myself, I would be pretty critical. That’s human nature! He was able to maintain a critical eye of his work but also knew when it was time to move on. That’s something that is really, really hard to do. It’s also a brave story for him to tell with respect to the character that he plays because, ya know, we all want to be the hero and it takes a lot of guts to tell the story of someone who appears to be the hero but has layers underneath.

It is exciting to see the work you are doing these days. What are you looking for in the projects you take on at this point in your career?

To be honest, I don’t necessarily have the opportunity to be too choosy at this point. It’s an exciting life in that I’m not exactly sure where the next job is coming from, but I really can’t be too choosy. I audition for a lot of stuff and I’m grateful when I get stuff but, with that in mind, there are certain things I try to avoid. I worry a little about the stuff we are putting out there for the kids to watch. There is a line from “Slap Shot,” which is a pretty interesting movie that I think might be misunderstood in a lot of ways. It was written by a woman and it’s about a lot more than guys playing hockey. There is a line that the owner of the team says late in the film. She says, “I have a theory that children repeat what they see on television.” It’s an amazing moment to look back on from 1973 or 1974 because she’s right! I think that exercising a little bit of caution in terms of what we are putting out is a good idea for the future. With that said, when it comes time to pay the rent, in American television sometimes there’s a body count! I was laying this out for my dad a couple of years ago, worrying about what kind of content we are creating and worrying about my place in it. He said to me, “You have to ask yourself if you’re willing to dance with the devil in order to pay the rent.” Within a year of that conversation, I had done the watusi, the two-step and the tango! I had done quite a bit of dancing with the devil and that’s the sacrifice that one has to make in order to put food on the table. To answer your initial question, I look for something that I can believe in, but I will take what pays the rent!

Is there a role or genre you haven’t been able to tackle yet that still intrigues you?

Wow! Hadn’t even considered that. Jeepers, I don’t know. I mean, I played a mime! [laughs] I’ve played a clown, a god, several murderers, a few priests and a cowboy! Gosh, I don’t know, I might have checked all the boxes! [laughs] Honestly, there is nothing that jumps into my head right away. I’m happy to work in whatever medium will have me! I live in Baltimore not far from my dad, who runs the theatre program at Johns Hopkins University, so the opportunity to work on stage with him and his students is something that comes up here and there. That is of tremendous value, to be on stage and work within the theatre because that’s where it all comes from! Television and film are a lot of fun, for sure, but it all starts on stage!

How have you evolved as an actor over the course of your journey?

Ya know, I think I’m a little more forgiving of myself, which is something I think comes with age. We can often be our own biggest enemies. I’ve found, at 45, I’m a little more forgiving of me than I was at 25. I’m also taking better care of myself, which is probably the thing that helps me work more than anything! In terms of growth, I think I’m still learning and growing. That’s at least what I hope. Otherwise, it gets boring! [laughs]

Mackenzie Astin

What other projects do you have on the horizon? Is there something that has you excited at the moment?

I’m working on something right now that has me really excited, but I can’t talk about it, which is interesting and fun to be a part of something of which you can say, “I can’t talk about it!” [laughs] I think it’s safe to say that it’s a project that I hope helps teach Americans about who we are, how we got here and how to get ahead from the point where we are now.

What’s the best lesson we can take from this film and from your journey as an actor?

I hope people see this film as an opportunity to be reflective in their own lives and to be willing to discuss, perhaps in a group setting with the men in their lives, the stuff that we don’t necessarily talk about too much. It’s my opinion that only through discussion and the dialogue of those things that we will give ourselves the opportunity to move past them and grow as people and evolve. From my journey? Let me tell ya, I was in a big ol’ car wreck back in 1996. I ended up with what I think was terrific live advice out of it. A friend and I were taking turns sleeping and driving while going from LA to Durango, Colorado. He forgot whose turn it was to do what because I was sleeping and then he was sleeping! [laughs] He fell asleep at the wheel and we rolled over at about 75 miles per hour. I don’t remember much of it, but I was told, because my friend was nearly conscious for the whole thing, said that when we were skidding into the median that I started screaming, “Slow down, slow down.” As we rolled, I screamed “Hang on, hang on!” So, if there is life advice that I could give, it’s – “Slow down and hang on!”

That’s amazing! With that said, I want to sincerely thank you for your time today!

Thanks, Jason! It was a pleasure to speak with you! Thanks for letting me talk in such long sentences! [laughs] Be good, maybe I’ll see you on The Shore!

I hope so! Take care, Mackenzie!

You too!

“Welcome to the Men’s Group” is available on VOD from November 9 from Leomark Studios. Visit the official website of the film at www.themensgroupmovie.com.