Astin provides the voice for Secret Agent Oso – an adorably bumbling stuffed panda bear who stars in the new, eponymously-titled Playhouse Disney show, premiering on April 4th. The show delightfully swipes from the James Bond genre (with titles like “Never Say No Brushing Again,” and “The Girl With the Golden Book.”) Oso goes on secret missions, not to battle the Soviets, but to help Danny brush his teeth or Samantha fix a ripped page in a bedtime story.
Oso works for U.N.I.Q.U.E (United Network for Investigating Quite Usual Events) and may be out on an adventure, say, climbing a mountain, when all of a sudden he’ll find out a little girl lost her letter to her grandma and needs help mailing it (“To Grandma With Love.”) His Paw Pilot (ba-DUM-pah!) lets him know he’s got to do “Three Special Steps,” to complete his mission. (There’s an earwig of a theme song that goes along with those “Three Special Steps” that makes Dora’s “Backpack” song sound like Vivaldi, but anyway . . .)
Astin gamely talked to Babble about his bear-like attributes, what he would have needed a secret agent panda to teach him when he was a kid, and what Oso has in common with the big-screen 007. Or not. – Jennifer Hughes
I think it’s kind of cool that some of your more well-known roles center around kids – kids of all different ages -from Goonies to LOTR to Oso. What is it about entertaining young people that you find so interesting?
For the last twelve years it’s been that I have kids of my own. As a person and a performer, you have to do what seems fun and challenging or meaningful. And the work you can get. [Laughs.] I think when I was a little kid and I went to the Director’s Guild with my dad (actor and director John Astin) and we watched ET, something changed in my life. It was one of the most powerful life experiences. I felt like I was totally overwhelmed by the story but because it was at the Director’s Guild I also was aware of the work that went into it. That little combination continues to live with me until now.
So how exactly do you get into character as a stuffed panda bear? Is this method acting?
[Laughs, then seriously:] I have a secret life away from being an actor – I’ve been a spy and the master of the black arts. [Laughs.] No, there is this one line that Oso has over and over, “It’s all part of the plan!” When we’re recording and my voice starts to get too low I just say that line and it puts me back into finding Oso. I guess I’m an adventurer at heart and so is Oso. I also have this picture of him on the stand when I’m recording, so I look at him and try to meld our spirits together.
I kind of see a resemblance between you and Oso – did they try to make the panda look like you?
Well, uh, no. I think they designed him and tried to cast someone who looks like him. When the Disney Channel sent a poster to my house, my three-year-old said “Daddy! It’s you!” Does she think it’s me because I’m playing the character she sees or is she saying there is no delineation between me and Oso?
I probably should not tell this story, but there is this photo I did when I was seventeen. I was tan, my hair was slicked back, I was showing my abs and the whole thing. I showed it to one of my kids and I think it was my six-year-old who said, “Who’s that?” And I said, “That’s Daddy.” And she said, “No, my Daddy’s tummy is round and furry.” So maybe my wife told that to the people at Disney.
What’s your favorite part of the show? What do you like best about the storyline or the character?
Watching with my kids, one of the first things I saw is that it’s so bright and colorful. Color is really meaningful to kids. I also think that the idea of looking at everyday tasks and making them fun, and all that gives kids a sense of control.
I also kind of like the idea of “Three Special Steps” – it’s kind of like a world view. It’s like saying that no matter what you have to do, if it’s something small or big, if you can break it up into small parts you can really accomplish a lot.
You know, that’s totally true – it’s very cute the way Oso helps kids solve those things that are major problems in their lives. I mean, grown-ups are coping with a staggering national debt – kids gotta figure out how to brush their teeth.
Or tie their shoes . . . Actually, if some of our national leaders knew how to tie their shoes we wouldn’t be in our national debt.
Everything. I honestly don’t know how I walk and talk and behave as an adult. I’m sure my wife would say I don’t! [Laughs.] As a kid I felt overwhelmed by everything – school, friendships, and life. I really think that for kids to feel that way, they’ve got to deal with a lot of things that are so much bigger than themselves. And then when they can learn about doing something and help Oso figure it out along the way too, I think that gives them a sense of confidence.
Special Agent Oso obviously plays major homage to James Bond. What’s your favorite Bond flick?
You know . . . Ian Fleming has an early set of diaries he released to the Disney Channel. That’s what this is based on.
[Long pause] Wait …. is that a joke? Are you kidding?
In the business, that’s what we call nonsense. [Laughs] My favorite Bond flick? I’d have to say the first one is The Spy Who Loved Me. When he’s up there with a girl and he has to ski off a cliff and his parachute deploys – that was the best.
I think Daniel Craig is arguably the best James Bond. I say that with all due respect to Sean Connery . . . But Daniel Craig is absolutely perfect. There is so much strength and intensity in him. I mean, that’s what I base Oso on. That brooding masculinity, that guy who will just as soon kill you as look at you.
See, now you’re just messing with me.
Oh no! Irony!
So, wait, you have two girls now?
I have three girls [aged twelve, six, and three]. I was more nervous about what they would think about this than anything I’ve ever done in my entire life. What does that mean about me?
It means you’re a good Daddy.
Maybe it just means I’m just an insecure actor. [Laughs.] Seriously, though, I was really worried. But they like it. My kids now will say things like, “What do you think Oso would do?”