We all know that Sean Astin was an invaluable part of The Lord of the Rings franchise that dominated the box office in the early 2000s. But you might not be aware that the man best-known as hobbit Samwise Gamgee also arranged for his young daughter to make a sneaky cameo. So what’s happened to Ali Astin since her brief foray into the Tolkien universe?
Ali played Elanor in The Return of the King, the final instalment of Peter Jackson’s epic fantasy adaptation. Now even diehard fans of the Best Picture Oscar winner may not realize that the film includes a character with that name. And to be fair, you’d have to study the end credits to learn of her existence.
Yes, Elanor doesn’t get any lines, and her name isn’t actually uttered on screen. But if you learn that her surname is Gamgee, then you might be able to work out exactly what part Ali had. That’s right: in a case of art imitating life, Ali was cast in the role of hobbit Samwise’s young daughter.
If you’re wondering when Ali actually pops up in The Return of the King, wonder no more. She’s the young girl that Samwise can be seen holding up toward the trilogy climax. It’s a blink and you’ll miss it, for sure. But it’s one that Ali later revealed she was immensely proud of.
And it’s a feeling that Ali shares with her famous father. In 2013 Sean posted two photos side-by-side of himself and his daughter taken a decade apart. He captioned the images, “So, this is my daughter Ali, who played Elanor in The Return Of the King. Christine [Sean’s wife] and I loved taking her to The Hobbit premiere to visit with old friends. I don’t feel old, just proud… and old.”
Sean’s throwback post reminded his followers that he wasn’t the only member of the Astin family to grace Middle-earth. And it also showed fans that his daughter Ali certainly wasn’t a little moppet anymore, either. For the 2013 snap taken at The Hobbit premiere revealed that Ali was approaching adulthood.
Both Sean and Ali were destined to grace the big screen. Because the pair are part of a family that has showbiz in its blood. Sean’s mother was Patty Duke, a one-time child star who won an Academy Award for her performance as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. Patty also pulled double duty in her own eponymous sitcom playing identical cousins.
Plus Patty’s other son, and Sean’s younger brother, has enjoyed a career in the film and TV world. The Magicians, Homeland and Scandal are just a few of the hit shows that Mackenzie Astin has landed recurring roles in over the years. Like his older sibling, he also appeared on the big screen as a child, in his case The Garbage Pail Kids Movie.
Sean has had three father figures who have all pursued careers in the entertainment industry, too. He was raised by the man initially believed to be his pop, actor John Astin. But at the age of 14 Sean was told by his mother that Desi Arnaz Jr. was actually his biological father. And there was another twist when a DNA test Sean took revealed that Michael Tell, a music promoter, was his real dad. Wow – a lot to take in!
In 2001 Sean told People magazine that he’s since forged strong connections with all three men. He said, “I have a good relationship with Mike. That’s who I am. I don’t fault anybody, I don’t fault myself or with Desi, who is like my godfather, I have such a powerful love bond with this man, he’s a gorgeous human being.” But Sean was keen to state that he still considers John to be his real father.
Sean’s late mother, on the other hand, wasn’t prepared to have her family history changed. In 2001 she told People, “I don’t buy that test. I can support his truth as long as my truth, if not supported, is respected. I have told him I know what I know to be true. When God looks me in the eye and says, ‘Anna Marie, you have been mistaken all these years,’ then I will consider [Tell’s paternity].”
Sean’s own family life appears to be a lot less complicated. In 1992 he walked down the aisle with Christine Harrell, a one-time Miss Teen Indiana winner and UCLA graduate. Just a few years later, the new Mrs. Astin picked up an Oscar nomination for her production work on the short Kangaroo Court.
In 1996 Sean and Christine became parents for the first time with the birth of daughter Alexandra. Then six years later they welcomed Elizabeth into the world, and in 2005 they completed their family unit with the arrival of Isabella. Just like their mother, Alexandra, Elizabeth and Isabella all have the middle name of Louise.
Sean revealed to faith-based magazine Risen in 2014 about how he and Christina have approached parenting. He said, “We raised them [our kids] to be free-thinkers, and we raised them to be strong spirits, and they are innately powerful human beings. And we love each other in a way that there is no filter between what we think and what we say to each other.”
This means that Sean often has to accept some home truths. He added, “So when I’m not spending enough time at home, there is no gray area, because I hear about it directly and frequently; which is good. The hard part for me is when I know that is happening and I can’t figure out how to adjust for it.”
While Sean may not always be at home, he still believes he’s doing a good job as a father. In a 2010 chat with website Chicago Parent, the Stranger Things star jokingly boasted, “I’m an awesome dad! I’ll tell anyone. I might not let them talk to my kids to get a second opinion though.” But he also acknowledged his wife Christine’s significant contribution.
Sean added, “The kids always go to school prepared and feeling confident about what’s in front of them. They come home, their homework is always an experience that’s rewarding for them. She [Christine] knows just the level to help them so it’s not too hard, and to let them do it themselves so they get good at it…being a good mom makes being a good dad easy.”
And it appears as though all three daughters are thriving. Elizabeth studied at Los Angeles’ Oaks Christian High School where she was appointed the Students for Equal Rights Foundation’s VP. And Isabella is still in the midst of her high school years. Like her siblings, she bears a striking resemblance to her late grandmother Patty, too.
Yet it’s Sean’s oldest daughter Alexandra, known as Ali, that looks most likely to follow in the family’s acting tradition. Now in her mid-20s, Ali looks very different to the youngster that briefly showed up at the end of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The actress has still kept the blonde locks that she had then. But her Instagram account shows that her fashion sense has rocketed.
Yes, whether she’s posing in her swimsuit at the beach, sporting a woolly hat and shades combo or a glamorous gown, Ali looks every inch the style icon. But she’s more than just a pretty face. Ali attended Harvard University where she studied Theater, Dance and Media. In 2019 she told university publication The Harvard Crimson that she possesses one particular skill that sets her apart from the rest of her acting family.
Ali said, “My dad called me the other day because he had his first stage production. And he couldn’t figure out how to memorize that many lines. I realized in that moment that, even though everyone in my immediate family has won or been nominated for an Oscar, I’m the only one who knows how to memorize lines for a full play.”
As you might expect, the actress was pretty proud of this achievement. She added, “In relation to my dad, it was cool to be able to be the authority [on acting] for a minute. I think I get to find my own way in a way that my father never got to: I can create the theater I want to be doing.”
Ali seems confident about how versatile her talents are, too. She continued to The Harvard Crimson, “There used to be an idea that you can be either a theater actor or a film actor. Now, I think the world has made it so that anything is possible, which means that you have to be ready for anything.”
And she proved that she was a double threat in 2017, when she acted in and appeared on the soundtrack of Bad Kids of Crestview Academy. The star played hard-partying mascot Ethel in the comedy horror adapted from the same-named graphic novel series. She also contributed the self-penned song, “Maybe, Maybe Not.”
Ali told website Shock Ya she couldn’t be more delighted about getting to showcase her multiple talents. She said, “I think having my music in the film is personally the best thing that could have happened for me. Being able to write a song, and having a full character to develop that song with, is great.”
A familiar face also joined Ali in Bad Kids of Crestview Academy, her father Sean. Yes, the man who shot to fame in The Goonies plays Headmaster Nash in the film directed by family friend Ben Browder. Ali added, “My dad had known Ben since I think they were about 19, and they had worked on another film together. So I just…joined this family of craziness.”
When asked by website Nightmarish Conjurings about how she felt working with her pop, Ali replied, “After being at college for so long and doing so much without him around, it was so nice to be able to have footage of me and my dad hanging out together and doing our jobs. I know that when I’m 90 I’m going to look back and super enjoy the fact that there’s footage of us.”
She added, “I respect him so much. And when you are lucky enough to have a parent that is as successful as him, you kind of try to stay away from it. With me, I kind of have to look at him and think about how he’s succeeding at the job that I’m looking forward to doing for the rest of my life.”
Chatting with The Huffington Post to promote the same film, Ali again discussed working with her father. She said, “To do this with him and to stand on the same ground and own it is the coolest thing in the world, especially because I’ve watched him do it with his mom [Patty Duke]. They did a couple movies together early on. It feels like I’m finally getting a shot to do my own thing.”
Ali will always be associated with another film she appeared alongside her dad in, of course, even if it was only for a matter of seconds. And the actress doesn’t seem to mind discussing her first screen appearance in The Return of the King. But as Ali told The Huffington Post, she doesn’t actually remember that much about it.
The actress recalled, “I think I was about four. I remember there was a puddle, and we shot all day one scene where I had to run because I kept jumping over the puddle. The craziest thing I remember about that was I begged for weeks to be able to do something in the movie.”
Despite now being a 20-something, Ali revealed that she’s still recognized as the tot who briefly ventured into Middle-earth. The actress told The Huffington Post that fans are more likely to put two and two together when she’s with her father. Yet she’s now starting to get approached for the work she can actually recall, too.
Ali explained, “The weird thing for me is I was onstage for 10 years touring with a company, so I’m the first one in my family in at least 30 or 40 years to be doing stuff onstage again. I would get recognized for being onstage next to my dad, and they would go, ‘Oh, my God. I loved you in that play. Wait. Whaaaaat?’”
The subject of The Lord of the Rings inevitably came up during Ali’s chat with The Harvard Crimson. And she had nothing but positive things to say about the experience. The actress recalled, “It was such a blast because I literally grew up in a fantasy world – all of my friends had magical powers.”
Plus Ali’s time on the New Zealand film set inspired how she approaches her acting career, in general. She added, “That gave me this kind of whimsy when doing stuff that I think, whenever I’m doing even [the] most serious role, I am having a blast. I also found that the highest profile things have the closest-knit, most down-to-earth people.”
You might not know that there’s a third film that Sean and Ali have in common. In 2014 the former voiced the titular character in Ribbit, a CGI animation about a frog in the midst of an identity crisis. And daughter Ali went into the vocal booth, too, to lend her voice to the role of Princess. Their big screen connections don’t end there, either.
In 2016 Ali contributed a self-penned number titled “Parachute” to Unleashed, a fantasy comedy in which a dog and cat are transformed into two dreamy men. Sean, who played the very human neighbor Carl, showed off the track on his Facebook page with the caption, “Ali is in college now and has developed into an incredible artist. #ProudestDadEver.”
So where else can you see the Astins on screen? Well, since her horror comedy exploits, Ali has played Marie in Apocalypse Society. And she’s also appeared in a couple of shorts, Two Rings and Before There Were Rings, which despite their names have nothing to do with J.R.R. Tolkien.
Sean has been rather prolific of late, racking up nearly a dozen credits in 2020 alone. He provided voices for animations such as Scooby-Doo and Guess Who, The Epic Tales of Captain Underpants in Space and New Looney Tunes. The former child star also guested on Supergirl and appeared in the films Adverse and Charming the Hearts of Men.
After playing Lesly Stone in YouTube comedy horror series Wayward Guide, Sean starred alongside Mira Sorvino in Mayfield’s Game. He then took top billing in Man and Witch. The family-friendly adventure, which also features Christopher Lloyd and Rhea Perlman, is described as an “heartwarming homage to the lo-fi fantasy films of the 1980s.”