“When we are at a loss amidst the hypocrisy and casual violence of certain individuals and institutions, we will, as per Chief Jim Hopper, punch some people in the face when they seek to destroy the meek and the disenfranchised and the marginalized,” exclaimed David Harbour while bringing down the house at the 2017 Screen Actors Guild Awards. After his show, “Stranger Things,” where he plays the aforementioned police chief, deservedly took home the Best Ensemble in a Drama Series prize for its phenomenally successful first season, Harbour embraced the opportunity to publicly take a stand against intolerance in his crowd-pleasing acceptance speech. His line that got the biggest applause referenced white nationalist Richard Spencer, who had been socked in the face by a masked individual during an interview just days prior. Though the series co-created by brothers Matt and Ross Duffer hasn’t been overtly political, its nostalgic glimpse into the recent past does frighteningly mirror the obstacles facing our present and impending future.
Among the most punchable faces served up on season three are those belonging to Billy Hargrove (Dacre Montgomery), the flirtatious bully whose monstrous nature is taken to a supernatural level, and the opportunistic Mayor Larry Kline (Cary Elwes), whose voice graces the ad for Starcourt Mall (embedded below), a key location in the eight new episodes premiering this Fourth of July on Netflix. Along with their casting director, Carmen Cuba, the Duffers are masterful at selecting veteran actors whose very presence evokes memories of the indelible ’80s-era movies to which they are paying homage, from Winona Ryder’s encounters with the Upside Down-esque dimension of the deceased in “Beetlejuice” to the camaraderie between Sean Astin and his buddies in “The Goonies.” In the case of Elwes, the connection that his most beloved classic from that decade, Rob Reiner’s 1987 comic fantasy, “The Princess Bride,” has with “Stranger Things” is less direct. If anything, the experience of viewing both is akin to reading a chapter book that you had revisited over and over again in your youth, simply for the pleasure of spending time with the characters.
While visiting Chicago during their press tour for “Stranger Things 3,” Elwes and Montgomery spoke with RogerEbert.com about their efforts to illuminate the humanity in their villainous characters. And no, you won’t find any spoilers here. Why spoil the fun?
Having starred in one of the most iconic films of the 1980s, what aspects of this show do you think captures that era the best?
Cary Elwes (CE): I think the Duffers capture that era perhaps better than anyone, even though they were very, very young during that time. They seem to have amassed knowledge of it better than anyone I’ve ever met. When I first watched this show—my wife and I binge-watched it—the attention to detail was so phenomenal that I could really believe that it was shot in the ’80s. There’s not one aspect of it that you can point to and go, “Wait a minute, that’s out of place.” They are very specific as show-runners, as creators, as writers, as directors. They are very, very specific about what they are after, and for an actor, that makes your job a lot easier. They have created this world that is so complete that when you walk onto the set, a lot of the work is done for you, from costumes and hair to props to set decoration, everything. It’s very exciting.
Dacre, in your audition tape for “Season Two,” you performed a scene from another ’80s gem, “Stand By Me.” Was Kiefer Sutherland’s Ace an inspiration for Billy?
Dacre Montgomery (DM): Not really. That was the scene that they had taken from that movie for the audition tape, but Jack Nicholson was actually more of an inspiration—his career as a whole and the sort of choices he makes in his acting are what the Duffers wanted me to have a look at, initially. So I watched his films, and then the role just became a metamorphosis of people who have played antagonistic roles in my life.
Were you drawn to Nicholson’s unpredictability?
DM: Yes, exactly. He’s always keeping the audience on edge, even when he’s playing a good guy.
What’s striking about each of your star-making roles, Westley in “The Princess Bride” and Billy in “Stranger Things,” is the power of their stillness. Many of their most effective moments occur without any blinking.
DM: You don’t necessarily need to command a space by being physical.
CE: It’s true. Less is more, always.
DM: You don’t always have to be doing a lot of stuff for it to be interesting. It’s important to realize how far across the screen a little bit of your body is going to move, and how much that effects the viewer. “Stranger Things” isn’t going to be played in a cinema, that’s the difference, but still knowing that those little movements will be seen, potentially in a much bigger format, even on a large television screen, helps guide your work. I’m mindful to not overcrowd the screen with too much stuff.
Whereas Westley was literally a character in a book, Billy appears to have sprung from Mrs. Wheeler’s cherished Harlequin novel. How do you go about inhabiting that idealized alpha-male persona in a way that is both human and self-aware?
DM: Mel Gibson is so cheeky, and I love the sort of young, leading man quality that he possessed. In the previous season, it was so important to me that the scene with Billy’s dad and the scenes with Mrs. Wheeler would contrast with everything else that was going on. With her, I could be really cheeky while inhabiting the romanticized version of my character. As for the scene with his father, it helped humanize Billy and show the audience the sensitivity that he otherwise conceals. We, as human beings, have many masks that we put on during our day-to-day lives. No matter what face Billy presents to the world, it’s important to strip back that mask so you can see the human being underneath. And I do love that romantic cheek. [laughs]
CE: My character, Mayor Kline, is based on a number of politicians that the Duffers allowed me to composite. He’s an egotistical guy who’s completely self-involved, but I obviously didn’t want to make him just one-note. Anybody who has an enormous ego is carrying around a lot of insecurity, so the Duffers and I discussed his past, his dabbling with drugs and his attempt to overcome that insecurity by attaining more power in his life. Billy and the mayor are both attracted to having power over other people. In contrast, Hopper is more than just the local police chief. He is somebody who deeply cares about the community and what’s happening to these kids. It was great for me to play a foil to that, as somebody who could care less about his constituents, aside from getting their vote.
I had met Joe Keery when he was making a Chicagoland indie, “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party,” prior to “Stranger Things,” and it was so exciting to see how he transformed the character of Steve Harrington from what it initially was on the page. What degree of creative freedom do the Duffers provide their actors?
DM: A huge amount. That is the best thing about them.
CE: They are very collaborative.
DM: They really open it up and I think that gives you the confidence to suggest things that you might not otherwise bring up. Your suggestions could potentially lead down other avenues that are fantastically rewarding to watch. A good image to liken this experience to would be taking off handcuffs, not that you are restrained the majority of the time, working on TV. But I think having that boundary-less moment on set and just being allowed to give that idea life, whether or not that’s what they ultimately decide to use and it makes the cut, is, I think in part, what makes this show as successful as it is.
As dire as the stakes get, there is an overarching comfort to the show that is derived from the warmth of the human relationships.
CE: I think that’s what makes the show more interesting than any run-of-the-mill thriller where a community is being tortured by monsters. The Duffers have a great talent for making the audience truly invested in these characters, so it is almost a secondary aspect that they happen to all be on edge because they’re aware of some malevolent force in their midst. What we really care about is their interpersonal relationships, and how their characters grow. The Duffers have such a great knack for that, clearly. We’ve watched these kids grow before our eyes, so as viewers, we are deeply invested in them. I think that is what makes it more dynamic for me, personally.
DM: I agree, that is exactly on point.
Sean Astin’s role as Bob on season two carried echoes of your hilarious character in “Liar Liar,” the smarmy boyfriend who turns out to be a good guy in the end. How do you mine the charm in a role that would normally seem off-putting?
CE: There has to be some element of charm. You don’t get elected just by being smarmy. Politicians are good at being able to make you believe that they are genuinely what you are looking for in a leader. Sometimes they fulfill that once they get into office, and sometimes they just use that to get into office. With Mayor Kline, we have a character who is clearly capable of enormous charm, but like I said, that is only used for his own political and personal benefit.
Do you find it cathartic to play characters to whom you personally are ideologically opposed?
CE: You know, it’s funny. Olivier was once asked by a director to just “play himself,” and he said, “I don’t know how to do that. I really don’t, because I don’t even know who I am. I put on a face for everybody that I think they want to see.” As actors, I think we really—I speak for myself—are much more comfortable in exploring roles that are very different from what other people perceive us as. I don’t necessarily know how I would respond if someone said, “Hey, Cary, get up there and just be you.” I wouldn’t really know how to do that. It would be a version of me, I suppose.
Has playing Billy and Mayor Kline helped you reach a better understanding of personality types that are often easy to dismiss?
DM: It helps you to empathize. You want to break the stereotype, to some degree. That is really important.
CE: You have to find the humanity in every character—
DM: —regardless of whatever the audience thinks their drive is.
CE: Flawed people are interesting. It’s the gray areas that are always interesting. Nothing is black and white.
DM: It’s the in-between space.
What has it been like being paired on this press tour together?
CE: Before I met Dacre, I was a fan, and I told him that, because I watched the show and was like, “Wow, this guy’s great.” He clearly understood this character really well, and that’s obviously one of the reasons why he was cast. They made me feel so welcome on the set. I was very nervous, to be honest, joining this cast because they are all so terrific, all of them. There is not a single actor on the set that isn’t wonderful, and so I was a little intimidated. But they all made me feel very, very welcome, and it is very much a familial atmosphere on the set, so that’s nice.
DM: I feel exactly the same way. I’ve been learning a huge amount from all of his stories, because I am still so early on in my career. I mean, I’ll be learning till the day I die, but I am earlier in the learning process than most people, so I am sort of trying to soak up as much as I can. It’s been great.
CE: We learn a lot from just being on this show. Every day I’ve spent working with the Duffers has been an education, and it should be. If you’re not in that headspace, then you are in the wrong place. I look forward to going to work every day because I get to learn so much from them about the process, about my character, about the show in general, and about them and their whole take on it, so it’s incredibly rewarding in that sense.
Are there certain aspects of the ’80s that this show has made you nostalgic for?
CE: Yeah, I did get a little bit nostalgic for the video games. I hate to be like, “I told you so,” but I said to the Duffers, “My god, you guys could start up a whole video game franchise with all these stories.” Obviously Netflix is well aware of that. Apparently, according to Dacre, they have a clever plan for the whole space that serves as Starcourt Mall in season three.
DM: It’s a mall that has been falling into disrepair anyway, and so they are going to restore it and turn it into a theme park.