What a difference one season makes: Steve Harrington started off in Stranger Things as the popular kid in high school, the jerkface boyfriend to one Nancy Wheeler, but he has emerged on the other side of the second season humbled, mature, and an awesome babysitter with hair still Farrah Fawcett perfect. Joe Keery, the actor who plays Steve, got bumped up to series regular for Stranger Things 2, and instead of just battling monsters from another dimension, he also took on more mundane high-school conflicts like a bully in the form of an always-shirtless Dacre Montgomery as Billy, and a breakup with Nancy. We spoke to Keery on the phone about Steve’s season-two arc, his hair-care regimen, and his character’s very tight jeans.
I feel like we should just start with talking about your hair-care regimen.
Yeah, everybody needs to know. I just don’t have one. I don’t wash my hair really too much, and I just roll out of bed and try to push it out of my eyes. That’s mostly it. It’s just my genetics. I don’t do anything different than any other person. I would say, truly, it’s just my parents’ heads.
Have you ever had a bad haircut?
Thousands. I’d say that every haircut I’ve had has been a bad haircut. I had one when I was a little kid in Florida. Some guy was greasing down my hair. I just remember being a little kid and crying because I felt like I looked like an old man.
Andrew Stanton said that you and Gaten Matarazzo [Dustin] had a really great dynamic on set. They’re an unexpected pairing. How was it shooting the scene where they’re walking down the train tracks?
That’s probably one of my favorite scenes because, for the first time in doing that, Steve lets his guard down. You can tell that these two characters, although they’ve been shoved together because they’ve been ditched by their friends, end up caring about each other and looking out for each other. It turns into this big-brother relationship, even though they’re both a little stubborn and think they’re the boss and they’ve got it all figured out. Underneath, there’s this genuine care for each other. And that’s what makes this relationship cool, that these two characters you wouldn’t necessarily think would ever even interact, the fact that they bond over not having anyone else is what makes it special.
It’s great to bond with people when you’re feeling left out.
I think so. And they both feel left out in different ways. Obviously Steve with Nancy and getting bullied by Baker and his whole world, going from top dog to bottom-feeder. And then Gaten feeling like he’s having these troubles with girls. I mean, really, they just bond over girl problems. That’s a pretty potent thing for two boys to bond over.
Was that actually raw meat that you all were dropping on the tracks?
Yeah. I think for some of it, there was this watermelon stuff, but for the majority of it, yeah. It was chopped-up beef. It was pretty nasty to carry a bucket of raw meat. And also the props had to keep resetting, so they had to pick up the meat and put it back. I don’t know if Gaten’s a vegetarian. I don’t think he is. But I know Sadie [Sink, who plays Max] is the one who had to dump the meat, and she’s a vegetarian. She might be vegan, so she was like, “This is just disgusting.”
Hopefully it didn’t show up on the craft services table afterward.
Gross, no. That was lunch. Lunch is served.
On set, what was your relationship with Gaten like? Did you all sing a lot or jam together?
Well, those kids are actual talented musicians. They’re on Broadway and stuff, so no, I didn’t sing with them. They would sing sometimes. And also Sadie was Annie on Broadway, so sometimes they would do that stuff. But we wouldn’t really sing together. Maybe we should. Maybe we really should.
About the shower scene that your character had with Billy: Do you feel like he was hitting on you?
It’s kind of like this homoerotic sort of vibe. Especially with the basketball scene, it totally reminds me of a Top Gun volleyball competition sort of thing. I don’t know if that’s what the Duffers intended, but it’s interesting that people are gleaning that from it. There may be a grain of truth in that, although we didn’t talk about it. But I think that all of those ’80s things have that sort of influence potentially, so, yeah, I don’t know. We’ll see. I think maybe we’ll touch upon that next year.
I know that you shot a commercial with Ben Schwartz where you’re each other’s doppelgänger. Do you ever actually get confused as Ben Schwartz in the world?
No, no, not ever. It’s so funny. People make a big hullabaloo about that stuff, but I don’t know. We kind of do [look alike], but mostly just having bigger hair or whatever is probably more the confusing-ness. But we hang out a fair amount, and Ben’s a great dude. I love that guy. He’s the man.
What was your audition like for Stranger Things?
Pretty basic. It’s kind of funny. I sent a tape in, didn’t really hear anything for a while, and then two months later they were like, “They want you to tape for this other role.” I taped for Jonathan originally and then taped for Steve and then Skyped the brothers and then waited two weeks and then found out that I got it. I was waiting tables at the time and then found out that I got it and had to go back inside and wait more tables. So it was pretty bizarre, pretty cool. Definitely a life-changing moment. Obviously you don’t really know what the show is or what it’ll be, but just to have any sort of steady job.
It’s funny to think that you could have been Jonathan.
Yeah, I know, totally. Obviously I love the character. But right away, I was like, I don’t necessarily think I have the right look for that character. And then when I did audition for Steve, I felt I had a pretty good understanding of what they wanted the character to be. I also had a pretty good idea of what I personally wanted to bring to him. So that’s how the character Steve is now. It’s this amalgamation of how the Duffer brothers initially thought, and then the work I did on the side as well.
How did that conversation evolve?
It was mostly a conversation just through the work, like showing up. The first scene we did was that scene with Nancy when we’re studying. Although he is making these advances on this girl — it could totally be taken as a jerky, insensitive thing — making it feel like it’s coming from a real place and making the character relatable even though he does bad things. And that’s why people weren’t sure about it the first season. People thought he was a total dickhead, which he kind of was. Some people thought he was a good guy, which he kind of was. It feels pretty human to me, or at least that’s what I hoped to get across to everybody.
In the second season, he’s a little chastened and a little mature and he’s finding a different place for himself.
Yeah, he’s growing up and becoming a little less absorbed. He’s learning that in order to do what’s best for the ones you really love, you have to put yourself in the backseat. And that’s an important lesson for any age.
Were you bummed when Nancy chose Jonathan over Steve?
Not necessarily. I think it’s important for both of the characters. In order for them to continue moving forward instead of regressing, they both had to have some confrontation. Steve realizes that later in the season, especially when they’re outside the Byers’ house and they’re going through the junkyard file. He’s like, “It’s okay, this had to happen, I understand.” And that’s a pretty grown-up thing to do. Although maybe it hurts initially, sometimes in life I’ve found in order to do what’s best, it might hurt right away, but eventually you’ll see it’s for the better. And if you don’t make that decision and you drag it out, sometimes that can ruin a relationship that could have been salvaged. So that’s maybe what both characters, both Nancy and Steve, are trying to do, is potentially salvage the relationship. Because they love each other and they do care for each other.
What was that like shooting the scene where she was drunk and saying that she didn’t love you?
It was great to work with her, but it kind of sucked on my part. I had never really done a scene where I had to be as emotionally available. It’s just a hard thing to stay in — to stay in this limbo of doing the scene and then talking to crew members while they’re eating turkey sandwiches and then go back and get your heart broken again. It’s a really tough part about the job that I think even I didn’t fully understand. Now that I have a better understanding, it’s like trying to get my process in a good place so that you can stay there. And sometimes it means not talking to anyone or sitting in a corner or whatever you gotta do. Just knowing what you need is a very important part of the job.
So staying in the moment as opposed to getting pulled out of it?
Yes, there’s staying in the headspace. Obviously not trying to force anything. Music helps and just staying in the mood. I think that’s something Winona had to do all last season throughout the entire show. It gave me a newfound appreciation for her performance last year, where she had to be for six months. Really tough. Learned a lot.
Was it hard to run around in the jeans that you wore? Because they seemed very tight.
Yes. I will say, yes. It felt like Bruce Springsteen jeans or something like that. I don’t know if you could tell, but the entire railroad track scene, I’m bunching at the crotch extremely. They’re like Dennis Quaid in Breaking Away sort of jeans. But you know, I think it’s the style for the time period. It was pretty funny. They weren’t super uncomfortable. It definitely could have been worse. I could have been wearing something horrible. For the most part, the costume that I wore this year I was super into, especially for all of the action stuff. It actually wasn’t as tight as they looked. And I wear pretty tight jeans in real life. But the fact that they’re Wranglers, like actually really tight Wranglers, it’s not that elastic sort of jean you have nowadays. It’s like denim. It’s like you’re in a glove.
Get all your Stranger Things 2 questions answered at the show’s Vulture Festival LA panel on November 18. Tickets available here.