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Sean Astin’s ‘The Surface’ makes waves on Lake Michigan

When Sean Astin called the other day to talk about his new film, “The Surface,” he admitted that shooting on Lake Michigan made it one the more physically challenging movies he’s ever made.

When asked if it was because he clearly was wet a great deal of the time, the actor said, “The biggest thing was going up and down in that boat for 10 hours at a stretch. It was a little boat. A ski boat. It’s amazing we didn’t get seasick, because we were out there for so long.

“The other thing was the glare on the water. At the end of the day, we felt our faces were just charred, because of the sun being reflected on us off the surface of the water for so long.”

By “us,” Astin was referring to himself and fellow actor Chris Mulkey, who portrays the pilot of a small plane who crashed in the middle of the lake. In the film, Astin plays a young man who is deeply depressed due to caring for his mother who is in a Milwaukee nursing home, suffering from Alzheimer’s. His plan is to take his boat out into the middle of Lake Michigan and kill himself by blowing up the boat.

Before that can happen, he runs over the plane wreckage, disabling his boat — but also is able to save the pilot who is clinging to the wing of the downed aircraft.

The gist of the storyline revolves around what happens after that point and the relationship that develops between the two men — both troubled and facing huge challenges, but for very different reasons.

For Astin, who has made such a range of films — from his career-making star turn in the football movie “Rudy” to the “Lord of the Rings” world-wide blockbusters — it was great to get back to making a small budget, independent film like “The Surface.”

Yet the actor said that “epic movies — spectacles, like ‘Lord of the Rings’ — and little low-budget independent films do have one thing in common: That is they are both about ideas. … Ideas are what have an impact on your consciousness — your soul. That can happen with both big and small films, if they are done right.

“So for us actors to have the luxury of playing with ideas on film is really a great privilege.”

In “The Surface,” the film mostly centers on Astin and Mulkey being in that small boat talking to each other — and carefully listening to what the other man is saying.

“When you study drama, you develop an appreciation for what that means, ” said Astin.

“One way that big and small films do differ is that on the set of a big movie there are lots of things to get in the way of your concentration. There are cars and cranes and jibs and all this stuff involved in making movies that occupies up a lot of your thinking and your behavior.

“This time all that was stripped out and it was like how do use the ropes on a boat to anchor yourself. For me it was all about understanding what was going on with my character who wants to commit suicide. There was nothing else to get in the way. I was grateful for that experience. It was all about living in the moment. That was not only possible, but it was totally required to make this film work.”

Getting back to his weeks of working on the surface of Lake Michigan, Astin said the experience had given him a totally new perspective on that particular body of water.

“It’s amazing. I’ve spent time in Chicago, and have run along the shoreline. You look out and think, ‘This is a nice big lake.’ You see people’s boats out there running around, and you see the passenger ships that are taking off from Navy Pier. But you don’t realize — until you’re out there in the middle of it — it’s a HUGE body of water. I think it’s under-appreciated by most people — just how big Lake Michigan is. There are moments when you can’t see land in any direction.

Every actor should go through the experience of working on the water, and I was lucky this particular experience.

“The Surface” opened this weekend in limited release in the Chicago area, and in theaters in the Lake Michigan region.