Sean Astin has been a professional television and motion picture actor for 13 years, with prominent roles in such big-budget Hollywood fare as "The Goonies," "The War of the Roses" and "Memphis Belle."

That makes Astin a real show biz veteran.Not bad, considering he's just 20 years old.

His latest film, "Toy Soldiers," marks a significant move in Astin's career - his first lead role. Still, he doesn't have to "carry" the entire picture, as they say in Hollywood jargon, since the cast is a large one with a semi-ensemble feel.

"I really had to approach the role as though it was the lead," Astin said, "whereas something like `Memphis Belle' is a true ensemble piece where everyone has a 10th of the movie. [`Toy Soldiers'T definitely is the first time I had to take full responsibility for the lead in a movie, and at the same time complement the ensemble element."

Astin was in Salt Lake City a couple of weeks ago on the first leg of a promotional tour for "Toy Soldiers," which opens in theaters across the country Friday.

Dressed casually, seated at a table in a room at the Salt Lake Hilton Hotel, Astin was personable and relaxed, an obviously intelligent young man who knows where he's going and just how to get there.

A second-generation child actor at the age of 7, Astin got his first break by being the son of the star - Patty Duke, who also began acting at that age (when she reached 15, Duke won an Oscar for "The Miracle Worker" and had a well-documented rocky transition to her adult acting career).

"She got offered an `Afterschool Special' " for ABC-TV, Astin explained. "And she said, `Well, I'll do it but you have to put Sean in it.

"So it was really her idea, and she came to me and said, `Do you want to do this?' But she could hold my hand through the whole experience and she thought that I had natural abilities as an actor. She always made me totally aware of the pitfalls - the exploitation, the drug abuse, the lack of education and literacy you sometimes see in kids who haven't gone to school. As long as I was constantly focusing on that and trying to combat that they supported me."

Astin said his own background is completely unlike that of the character he plays in "Toy Soldiers." "He is trying to express himself and doesn't know how, he doesn't have an avenue to do that. He's always going up against authority figures. I never had that problem. I always had direction."

Asked how he's managed to avoid doing silly, sex-crazed teen comedies such as those many of his contemporaries have found themselves in, Astin says it was by design. "I was always in the very fortunate position of not having to make movies, not having to support myself. I had parents who were putting me through school, so I could just do a movie when I really liked it. I think my body of work is pretty representational of the kind of choices I want to make in my life, and hopefully I will be able to continue to make those kinds of calculated choices."

And though he is now 20 and still playing a teenager in "Toy Soldiers," Astin says he's confident he'll be able to avoid being strapped with playing youth roles until he's 30. "As I get older I start looking toward more adult roles, like `Memphis Belle.' I don't think I'll be pigeonholed. I'll just take it at a natural pace and I think the roles will complement that."

Astin said doing "Toy Soldiers" gave him a chance to work with an old friend, co-star Keith Coogan ("Adventures in Babysitting"). "Keith Coogan and I grew up together. His grandfather [Jackie CooganT and my father [John AstinT worked together" on the TV series "The Addams Family." "So, we've always known each other. We always had the same friends and did films together in school."

He also was happy to get to know Wil Wheaton better, an actor whose work he had admired in "Stand By Me" and the TV series, "Star Trek: The Next Generation." "I really wanted to do `Stand By Me' and River Phoenix was cast in the role. I really loved that movie. And I met Wil at the premiere of `Like Father, Like Son,' " in which Astin co-starred with Dudley Moore and Kirk Cameron.

And Astin had nothing but praise for co-star Louis Gossett Jr. "You have all your preconceived ideas with watching his profound acting career. I loved `An Officer and a Gentleman' and `Roots,' of course - there are so many things. I'm not the kind of person who gets intimidated, but I'm sure there was a little bit of the idea of intimidation before I met him, a little bit of anxiety. But he's totally disarming, a very caring, giving human being."

Astin is attending a Southern California university, but he's also ambitious about expanding his film horizons. He directed a short film last year about Vietnam, "On My Honor," which made the film festival rounds. And while he doesn't want to give up acting, he definitely wants to direct feature films.

A step in that direction was forming his own production company, Lava Entertainment. "I don't make any pretensions about it - it's not Amblin Entertainment" (Steven Spielberg's production company).

"I just want to take myself out of the position of waiting for other people to run my life. I want to take control of my destiny and develop material that comes out of ideas that I have or books that I like or novels or plays or whatever."