'Rudy' at 25: Sean Astin on identifying with the underdog, getting beaten up on set, and the scene that didn't make the cut

Sean Astin in Rudy. (Photo: TriStar Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection)

In the pantheon of inspirational sports movies, few are more beloved than Rudy. Director David Anspaugh and screenwriter Angelo Pizzo’s based-on-real-events tale followed the odyssey of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, whose big heart and never-say-die attitude helped him realized his dream of attending — and playing football as a walk-on for — Notre Dame in the mid-1970s, despite his small stature and a legion of naysayers telling him he’d never make it.

Though it was only a modest success at the box office upon its initial 1993 theatrical release, the film has gone on to become one of modern cinema’s most irresistible underdog sagas. Starring a phenomenal Sean Astin in the title role, it’s a universal story of overcoming long odds and achieving one’s goals through perseverance and hard work. Not to mention, it’s a rousing feel-good drama whose tearjerker magic — especially courtesy of Jerry Goldsmith’s unforgettable score — works on both male and female moviegoers alike.

A quarter-century after it first made its subject an icon, Rudy — a fitting companion piece to Anspaugh and Pizzo’s previous great underdog drama, Hoosiers — remains one of sports cinema’s enduring classics. Now, for the film’s 25th anniversary, Fathom Events is bringing the film back to the big screen for select screenings on Aug. 28 and Sept. 2, where fans can experience its gridiron clashes and against-all-odds drama the way they were meant to be seen. In honor of the occasion, we spoke with none other than Rudy himself, Sean Astin, to talk about what may be the celebrated Goonies and Lord of the Rings star’s most memorable performance. In our wide-ranging chat, he discusses the secret to the film’s heartstring-tugging power, his own athletic prowess, collaborating with the real Rudy Ruettiger, and Goldsmith’s legendary music — as well as the bruised-and-battered beating he took while taking the Fighting Irish field.

Yahoo Entertainment: Twenty-five years later, are you surprised by Rudy’s longevity?
Sean Astin:
The surprise came when the film started to find its audience in the year or two or three after it came out. When it originally came out, it was not a box-office success; it was discovered by video fans, and then on cable. Then at a certain point, it reached this critical mass where it seemed like a lot of people knew the film in the mid-’90s. Once it locked in like that, I felt like I knew it was always going to have a place in people’s hearts. As long as there’s a college football season where the film gets played over and over again at the beginning of the season. So at this point, I’m not surprised — I’m just really gratified that it continues to live in people’s minds and hearts.

And it’s really cool that they’re releasing it on the big screen. I think the film deserves it. I think the audience deserves it. I’m so glad they had the idea to do it.

Like everyone else, do you cry at the end?
It always gets me too. It’s Jerry Goldsmith’s music that I think ushers that emotion through people as they’re experiencing that story. One of my favorite experiences was having really big guys — football players, or working people — come up and tap me on the shoulder, because they need a personal aside, a personal moment. “Dude, can you talk to me for a minute?” “Yeah, what’s up?” And then they whisper under their breath, “I cried in that movie.” And I’m like, “You know man, that’s awesome. That’s really good that you were able to feel that.”

A lot of times, women will come up to me and say, “I don’t like football, I don’t like football movies, and I didn’t want to watch it. But my husband made me watch it, and it made me cry. I thought it was beautiful. And even better, it made my husband cry.” It helps grease the emotional wheels in relationships, which is awesome.

With Jerry Goldsmith, director David Anspaugh, and screenwriter Angelo Pizzo, the film is a reunion of the Hoosiers creative team. Was that part of what attracted you to the project?
The thing that really grabbed me was the story, because it felt like my story. I was always the last kid on the bench in Little League, and on the cross-country team I ran on. I always felt like the thing I could contribute to teams I was on was to try harder than everybody else. Because I wasn’t that naturally gifted when it came to sports. And also with my career — really wanting to prove to myself that I could carve out a career. That’s what really struck me. Plus, Notre Dame — growing up, I was friends with Johnny O’Keefe and the O’Keefe family, and Saturday mornings were all about Notre Dame football.

I didn’t really know or understand the power of David Anspaugh and Angelo Pizzo’s storytelling until I got there and could see and feel what they were doing. That was a gift. I think it’s a shame that they haven’t done more since. They’re such a great team.

It is surprising, given that they have two sports classics to their names.
It’s hard. It’s hard to figure out what to do. And when you do figure out what to do, it’s hard to convince other people. Movies get made and you go, “How does that movie get made, and these other brilliant movies don’t get made?” But they’re still alive and still working, so I’m hopeful they’ll find themselves in another situation where they can create something for the rest of us to enjoy.

How would you characterize your own football skills? Did you have to prep for the part, athletically speaking?
I had to get in the gym, because I was really skinny. I think I’m pretty thin in the movie too, but in order for it to be at all credible, they said I had to put on a little weight, build some muscle. So I was in the gym for a little bit. Then when we got to Notre Dame, they have their strength and conditioning facility, and they put me through the paces there.

I love playing sports — I love it. I think I have a pretty good arm, I think I’m pretty agile. But when you get into a place where you’re with people who are actually good at it, you realize maybe it’s more appropriate to be in a film where the script has me sacking the quarterback and not depending on me actually sacking the quarterback [laughs].

It looks like you’re in there getting beat up during the football scenes. How much of that did you handle yourself?
I did most of it. The most extreme hits — there’s one sequence where there’s just a series of like 15 hits where I’m getting absolutely pummeled, and the double did that. They wouldn’t let me do some of it, because you have to be able to speak the next day. When you get hit really hard, sometimes it takes a little bit to get your head together.

Still, I think we all understood that I had to do enough of it so that it was credible. There are no car crashes in the movie, there are no gunfights. It’s the physical stuff that’s the most exciting stuff in the movie, and if you don’t believe that the main guy is doing it, I think you couldn’t enjoy the movie. You wouldn’t believe it.

I wanted to do it. I remember in one of the first sequences, they had the double doing it, and he was fantastic — in fact, I think he needed surgery on his knee after what they call the “Mud Bowl” sequence. I was watching him at the beginning, and stunt guys have very specific training on how to fall, how to protect themselves, so they can keep doing it over and over again. It looked to my eye like a stunt guy who was doing expert stunt work. It didn’t look like he was really playing. I really wanted to do it, and they finally let me do it. There’s just pure physics involved when a guy is 6 foot 1 and weighs 300 pounds — it hurts, and you can get really hurt without too much trying.

I got lots of bruises, and I would take Polaroid pictures of those bruises. I remember my wife and I were staying in this little house — we had just gotten married, actually, when we made the movie — and I had those Polaroids up so that when people would visit, I’d be like, “If you’d like to see, here’s the Renaissance portrait I paid $20 million for, and here’s the Polaroid of me getting bruised up” [laughs].

Sean Astin and Rudy Ruettiger at Rudy‘s Los Angeles premiere, at Mann National Theatre. (Photo: Ron Galella/WireImage)

The real Rudy Ruettiger was on set for most of the shoot. What was that like — and is it tougher playing a real person who’s not only still alive, but there watching you perform?
He was there all the time; he was a constant presence. He sensed when it would be good to not be around, because there’s maybe an emotional scene, or the film needed to breathe a little bit. He was sensitive to that. But no, the film wouldn’t have gotten made if he wasn’t there. He was really the one who brokered authorization from the university to use the campus, which, without it the movie wouldn’t have gotten made. It wouldn’t have been worth making. And it was the first time anything had been filmed with Notre Dame’s permission since Knute Rockne All-American — the Ronald Reagan movie where he played the Gipper.

Rudy’s story is my story — that’s how it feels. He’s everybody’s story, really — Rudy’s story is a metaphor. The name means, to have a dream. The guy’s real name is Daniel! This name, Rudy, has become almost mythologized. So it wasn’t in any way uncomfortable to have him there. It wasn’t like playing a war hero or a political figure in history or something like that. It was like being with someone who had had the same experience that I had had, only on a scale, and in a realm, that was really spectacular.

There were times when I would go to him and ask, “What were you thinking here?” But, you know, it’s a film — it’s not a biopic, specifically. There’s a lot of artistic license that’s taken in the movie. There are human beings who were friends of his, or colleagues, who are amalgamated in the movie. So it was really helpful, performance-wise, to have him share his stories and experience. To be specifically responsive to what we were doing. It made it fun, and it made it real.

Do you have a favorite scene — and are there any scenes you shot that you were disappointed didn’t make it into the final cut?
The screenplay depicted the “Bengal Bouts” — that was an intramural boxing league they had at Notre Dame, and that’s really where Rudy made his name among the student body. I loved that in the script. But it was very clear that that would be its own movie. So that wasn’t filmed.

My absolute favorite thing in the movie is the score. It’s legendary, brilliant — I think it’s among the best scores in all of cinema, and I’ve studied cinema. I think what Jerry Goldsmith accomplished with that score is breathtaking. And it’s been used in Super Bowl and Olympics profile pieces, and to promote other movies. People don’t know where that music comes from when they hear it, but they know that music. I think the film is so lucky that he did that, that he had such a great relationship with David Anspaugh. He did Hoosiers too, and I’ll never forget seeing the film for the first time and hearing that music, and having tears streaming down my face, and just feeling so grateful that I get to be associated with that music.

The score’s reach is so great, it was even used by John McCain during his 2008 presidential campaign.
The movie is the music and the music is the movie. If the movie didn’t have the heart that it has — if there wasn’t the passion in the storytelling, if there wasn’t the passion in the subject matter, he would have never come up with the score. It’s a totally symbiotic thing. I presented Jerry with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce, and he was so proud of it, and so grateful to the filmmakers. I remember he kept saying to David Anspaugh, “Thank you so much for giving me this movie.” And the filmmakers were so grateful to him for doing it.

It’s just one of those creative partnerships that reinforced each other. It’s really magic. The political world, and in so many other places — the movie has taken off. The end of the movie, when Rudy finally gets in, and Jon Favreau yells, “Who’s the wild man now?,” that’s what always grabs me.

Have you been back to Notre Dame and seen any games in recent years — and are you a celebrity when you step onto the campus?
I went to a game in 2016, and they had spent millions of dollars upgrading the stadium — that was interesting, to be back in there. You know, sometimes I am; other times I think I kind of blend in.

I remember Rick Neuheisel, the coach for the University of Washington [1999-2002], was brought down to coach my alma mater, UCLA, and we met at the ESPYs. He said, “Sean, you know I was recruited by Notre Dame” — and they’re not allowed to give you stuff; there are rules about how much money they can spend recruiting you — “and they gave me a gift bag after I met them. It had nine copies of Rudy in it. So you should know that that university, they’re so proud of that movie.”

Alumni associations, I have a great time interacting with them. I think they’re going to screen the movie on the Notre Dame field the day before the Michigan game this weekend [Sept. 1], so I’m going to record a greeting for them. I love that I’m associated with Notre Dame, and that there’s affinity there. There’s 25 years of football fans and audiences who enjoy the movie — even those who love it begrudgingly, because they can’t stand Notre Dame. Like my business manager, who’s a USC grad. He said he brought a bag of tomatoes to throw at the screen, and he was like, “But I liked it. It was good.” It’s great for the film to have this place in the constellation of inspirational movies.

But you ask about being on the campus of Notre Dame, and it’s really important to remember that Rudy is a movie, and the university does a lot of really important, powerful work. The people who play, game in and game out for their entire college careers, and what the football program is — the movie’s not more important than the program, or the people who are doing the work of the program. I think it’s always important for the filmmakers, and for me and for Rudy, to be respectful of what they actually do all the time. And how many people benefit from what they’re doing.

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