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Sean 'Rudy' Astin returns to football field in 'Woodlawn' as Hank Erwin

Actor Sean Astin stars in the movie

Actor Sean Astin stars in the movie "Woodlawn." Credit: Pure Flix / Alan Markfield

Sean Astin knows that fans of sports movies forever will associate him with one role, and he is fine with that. More than fine, actually.

"I think 'Rudy' is the single identifying part of my life," the actor said Thursday in advance of the Friday opening of his new football-themed movie, "Woodlawn."

" 'Lord of the Rings' is maybe the most important work. The ideas that it deals with are so epic, and it made $4 billion -- billion with a 'b.' 'Rudy' made $25 million, with an 'm,' when it first came out [in 1993]. But somehow the nature of determination, of strength and never quitting, that whole thing is a part of my life and my personality.

"So it was a really good marriage of a story and an actor and person. I'm very proud to be linked with that. I think it's my signature part."

That was a long time ago, though. Astin is 44 now, well beyond his days playing a college football player. Or a high school one.

In "Woodlawn," he plays Hank Erwin, who used a faith-oriented message to ease racial tensions on the football team at Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, Alabama. The team's star was Tony Nathan, who went on to become a running back for Alabama and the Miami Dolphins.

Erwin's sons, Jon and Andrew, directed the film. Jon Voight plays Bear Bryant.

Astin said playing the directors' father had "its own unique, strange quality, for sure," but added that it helped having Hank himself around to discuss the role with him.

Much has changed in depicting football on screen since the "Rudy" era. Mark Ellis, a longtime specialist in coordinating sports footage in films, oversaw the action scenes. The Erwin brothers themselves used to shoot games for ESPN.

"In the industry we call them 'shooters.' They just know how to make really pretty pictures," Astin said of the Erwins. "Their approach to the football was to hire a great football coordinator, like a choreographer, who had done a lot of the big football movies.

"And they built these teams through tryouts and auditions and then they spent a good amount of time working with them, so when you are finally on the set on this high school football field at night watching them play, it was pretty great. It was like you were watching a really high-quality game in every take. When you looked in a monitor and saw how beautifully photographed it was, it just felt like a privilege to be around it."

Astin called the 21st-century approach to filming football scenes "better than realistic; it improves on reality. When we did 'Rudy,' it was the NFL Films guys who filmed it, and they did such a great job. And there was this idea that we wouldn't go onto the field with the camera because it would break the space.

"The audience doesn't see the game from the field, they see it from their television and the cameras aren't allowed on the field. So it really had a realistic quality. And a lot of the times you'd take a camera onto the field to do a closeup of the quarterback. It just didn't work a lot of times.

"Well, the technology now, the cameras themselves are small enough, the dollies and the little aerial things they use are good enough, that it just enhances it, actually. It makes it more visually interesting."

Astin said his interest in pro football is limited because he grew up and lives in Southern California, which has not had an NFL team for two decades. But he certainly has a rooting interest in Thursday night's NLDS game.

"The Dodgers are my childhood team; I love the Dodgers," he said. "Hopefully we'll make it to the World Series. That would be cool, but you have to love the Cubs making a run at it."

Astin said he flew over Dodger Stadium when the team was in New York for Games 3 and 4 of the NLDS.

"It was empty because they were in New York, but the stadium never looked better," he said. "The sun was setting and I was just like, 'Oh, man, a prayer for the Dodgers.' "

Beyond that, he said, "I worship all forms of athletic achievement: race car driving, horse racing, any kind of pugilism that's out there, even chess. When the Olympics come around, I'm a very quick, intense fan. I just finished the Ironman Triathlon in Kona on Saturday." (He crossed the finish line to chants of "Rudy! Rudy! Rudy!")

Astin added, "I love soccer, rugby, cricket. Whenever there is something people are doing, I like to investigate it, try to understand the rules, appreciate the unique poetry of whatever that application of physical and mental exertion is."

What might the target audience be for "Woodlawn," given its strong religious themes?

"This movie is a faith-based movie," Astin said. "For the filmmakers, it depicts a moment in American life that most people aren't really aware of, a time in the early '70s called the 'Jesus freak movement.' There was a wave of evangelism, and it was sort of 'Jesus is really cool.'

"So the guy who I play, the [filmmakers'] dad, was influenced by that and took it upon himself uninvited to show up at this public high school and evangelize these kids who were white kids and black kids and hated each other, and in the span of one meeting, he got these kids, who'd just had a knife fight, to all stand up to walk with him in Christ and hold hands -- literally, physically, walk out onto the bleachers, hold hands and pray together. It was extraordinary.

"So the audience for this is first and foremost a faith audience. But if you really want to understand how the athletes and a lot of the fans see themselves, they have a relationship to God. So they will look at this movie and they will see their values reflected back at them.

"Tony Nathan is a legendary player, and it's his story, his emergence in high school as a soon-to-be titan in the sport, as 'Touchdown' Tony Nathan and how he was tapped by Bear Bryant early. Bear Bryant was saying in 1973, hey, it's time to let black kids play, more because he wanted to win and they were good players but also because he liked their integrity. He liked their courage and the fight that they had.

"You want to understand: What is the civil rights movement beyond Martin Luther King, beyond Selma? What was the actual application of it? It takes checking out stories from the early '70s when this stuff was going on, and it's compelling to see what happened.

"From a Jim Rome/Dan Patrick/ESPN point of view, they can look at this film and say Tony Nathan was being treated badly by racists in his environment. He didn't want to be a civil rights leader. He didn't want to be a Christian missionary or anything. But he was loved by his family.

"It's a story about a black guy whose family supported him, and then through his athletic gifts, he became a leader in his community. If you listen to Tony Nathan talk today about himself and his life, he's this quiet giant. Sports have the ability to let people escape from the drama of the world and into a place where athleticism and rules and good judgment and coaching can kind of dwell, but it also can be a place where examples are set."


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