chat room

Brett Gelman Punched and Kicked His Way to Becoming Stranger Things’ Action Hero

Photo: Arturo Holmes/Getty Images

My fingers are like arrows!
My arms, like iron!
My feet, like spears!

With no disrespect to Vecna and his 001 tattoo, the biggest surprise in Stranger Things 4 was the reveal that Murray, the show’s resident conspiracy theorist with a fondness for kimonos, wasn’t bullshitting about his karate prowess: He whoops the ass of a Russian smuggler 10,000 feet in the air in the fifth episode, kicking off his metamorphosis into an unflinching action hero. (All the more remarkable for a character who has “never fought in a real-world scenario” and mostly trains at the dojo with kids “younger than 13.”) This newfound heroism couldn’t have come at a better time. Murray (Brett Gelman) and Joyce (Winona Ryder) descend upon the snowy Soviet Union on a prison rescue mission to find Hopper (David Harbour), encountering some of the most unpleasant Upside Down creatures — or “assholes!,” as Murray would prefer to call them while slaughtering a pack of Demogorgons with a flamethrower — along the way.

Gelman has portrayed his character since Stranger Things’ second season and is still in a state of shock over his transformation into “action Murray.” We recently chatted about his extensive karate training, what he learned from Ryder, and Murray’s smackin’ risotto.

If Murray’s fingers are like arrows and his arms are like iron and his feet are like spears, then what are his toes?
During the Vietnam War, the Vietcong would dip their bayonets in urine to extra-toxify their victims. So his toes are like urine.

Okay, that tracks.
It’s the poison dart. So I guess we could say his toes are like poisoned darts.

How satisfying was it see Murray actually skilled in the art of karate?
Unbelievably satisfying in so many ways. I was uncoordinated as a kid and I’ve gotten more of a sense of my body as I’ve grown older, so it’s amazing to have learned this thing. I trained. I mean, I trained, for three months and four days a week, with Simon Rhee and Phillip Rhee, who are masters in Tae Kwon Do. I wanted to make sure that I reflected and represented being a black belt as much as possible, but it was also amazing for me as a lover of action movies.

Tell me more about your karate training.
I wasn’t pursuing belts, because that’s a different type of structured training, but at times I was told I was learning black belt moves. The training was really extensive, a lot of combinations of punching, kicking, and blocking; the different types you can do in martial arts is very extensive. You could train for three months and only scratch the surface of the vocabulary you acquire. What they were seeking to do in training me was give me a vocabulary so when I got with Hiro Koda, who was the choreographer, I could use what I learned and know what Hiro was talking about when he wanted me to do something. Or if I didn’t know what he was talking about, I would be able to quickly learn it because my body was used to learning martial-art moves.

I was drenched in sweat at the end of every single workout. It’s just amazing to do a flying front kick, do a Superman punch, fly through the air, and punch the pad. At one point, they brought out these mock breakaway boards. At one point, they held up this certain level of board — I would say it was beginner-intermediate. They were like, “See if you can break this practice board with a side kick.” I did. And then they were like, “You just broke somebody’s rib.”

That definitely puts things into perspective.
It sure does. For a lot of the training, they made sure the way I was performing the moves would look good on-camera. For example, the hooks might be wider on-camera than they would be in actual self-defense. But regardless, if you’re on-camera or if you’re just doing it in order to keep learning and increase your belts, how it looks is very important. It needs to look pretty.

What move are you most proud of mastering?
Oh my God. I mean, I wouldn’t be so arrogant to say that I mastered anything because it feels like you’re working toward that end still. Despite all my training, I’m still so new at it. But I think I was the most proud of getting a perfect side kick and a perfect roundhouse kick — it was really the legs, using those kicks, and being able to do that. Whenever I punched and either of them reacted like, “Whoa,” I was like, “Really?” [Laughs.] When you get an inclination of “Oh wow, I could actually hurt someone,” it was very satisfying, knowing I had that power in me.

Murray’s driving vans through prisons, orchestrating a fake prisoner turnover, and killing Demogorgons with a flamethrower. How did it feel to embrace that new facet of yourself as an actor?
I felt like Harrison Ford or Bruce Willis or Eddie Murphy. Being able to put my own stamp on that archetype was absolutely thrilling. It was a childhood fantasy coming true before my very eyes at every second. Then getting to act through that, whether it’s being funny or upset — there are a lot of moments Murray’s in a really emotional state and there’s no irony at all.

I was so overjoyed and grateful to the Duffers that they wrote me that story line. I was asking for a lot of training, so I was also satisfied to be like, “See, guys? It was worth every penny.” But they never gave me any pushback. They’re very supportive of whatever I want my process to be, whether it was learning martial arts or Russian. They’re perfectionists.

Now I’m curious what your karate-training budget was.
I wasn’t told, and I don’t want to know.

What stamp on this action archetype, as you said, did you unleash?
I think it’s the surprise of it all. Part of the arc and part of the satisfaction of watching Murray this season is that you don’t expect him to do that. But I also think there’s a major chaotic, emotional life to Murray. He’s not calm and collected. He’s an amped-up guy; very passionate, very neurotic. To see him filter all that energy into action is incredible. To direct his anger and his misanthropy toward the villains in that way, rather than toward everybody, is what makes him stand out. I proved that getting to show passion can really fuel strength. He cares about his friends. There’s a kindness that’s embedded in him and a deep sense of morality, but he’ll still gruffly tell it like it is. And what they wrote for me was just so funny.

The big thing for me, though, was that even though Murray is funny, the Duffers and I didn’t want the fighting to be funny. They wanted it to be like, “Whoa, that’s a shot.” It’s like out of The Bourne Ultimatum. It becomes this full crazy action sequence. I thought a lot about Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark because a lot of people don’t recognize how funny Harrison Ford is. Well, in Star Wars he’s very funny and has great jokes. But there’s a lot of humor he performs in the Indiana Jones series that’s through him and the action — the scene with the sword display and then him shooting the guy. I felt we were channeling that with the airplane sequence. He goes from karate class to actually using it in life, and he’s surprised after he kicked Yuri’s ass.

I like that you were paired off with Winona. You two have terrific comedic chemistry. Why are Murray and Joyce such a natural pairing this far into the show?
They’ve both gone through loss. They only have each other to talk about the specific things that happened in season three. The first time we’re talking on the phone, in episode one, you get the sense this isn’t the first phone conversation they’ve had since the last season. There’s a sense of loss over Jim’s death and Alexei’s death and also going into the lab together. There’s this bond these characters have, even though they’re both very different people and don’t always see eye to eye in the way they see the world or communicate. It beautifully hearkens to Leia and Lando going to get Han in Return of the Jedi. It’s like, “We experienced this loss and now we know he might not be dead, and we have to go get him for our own sense of wholeness.” There’s a love of adventure in both of them.

What did you learn from her?
She’s somebody who knows how to live inside that camera. It’s an energy thing. She has a wonderful simplicity to what she does. There’s a deep relaxation to her work. Whenever I work with somebody who’s been doing it longer than me, I take note of these things and it increases my knowledge of them. A lot of what we do — I’m sure you feel this way as a journalist — is just relearning what you know and strengthening that. It’s a muscle. So watching somebody like Winona, who’s a complete genius at what she does, makes me better at what I do. It’s also amazing when you’re working with actors where you show up and they’re giving you something different than you preconceived. It makes what you’re doing that much richer and fuller.

Was filming in that prison as cold and miserable as it looked? Or the entirety of the Russia scenes, for that matter?
Fortunately I didn’t ever have to be in the actual prison. David did. But when Winona and I are in there, it’s a set, because they don’t have a Demogorgon ring and those control rooms in any prisons I’m aware of. [Laughs.] I did go into the prison once to visit, and that is a dark, dark place. Was filming in Lithuania miserable? I won’t say miserable because I never felt unsafe. But it was completely freezing. I mean, the scenes with me and Tom Wlaschiha yelling at Niko Duricko about him trying to sabotage the helicopter, that’s outside at four in the morning at 20 below zero. I don’t have a hat. I don’t have hair. It was freezing. But they made sure everybody was okay. There were no mishaps of the cold getting the better of everybody. I’m a Chicago boy, so it’s not like I’m unused to that.

In the period of time between the first and second set of episodes, viewers were convinced Murray was going to die — so much so that you waited to post an earnest thank-you video to fans until after the finale for fear of coming off as “too mean.” Why do you think he became the top death contender?
Your guess is as good as mine. I did this appreciation post of Matt and Ross a few weeks ago because I hadn’t posted about them yet. Truly, they changed my career and changed my life — plus gave me amazing things to act and helped me grow as an artist. For some reason, fans thought it was a good-bye post. I know viewers were thinking Steve was going to die, too. They probably get really paranoid that characters they like might die again. It was very sweet that people were nervous on my behalf. I just didn’t want to interfere with the natural experience of the show. People want to build up these theories and stuff like that, and that’s great. But I shouldn’t add to that too much. That’s not my job. I’m glad Murray didn’t die.

How do you think Murray’s newfound courage and vulnerability will propel him in the final season?
I want lots of “action Murray” in season five and a real role in saving the day in the way he did this season. You know, it feels so good and it’s so fun, but when you’re filming a scene, you’re imagining a lot of things. You’re not seeing it fully realized. There’s no Demogorgon actually there. I’m not really lighting the flamethrower for safety reasons. I almost cried when I saw myself yelling, “Hey, assholes,” and lighting the Demogorgons on fire. To see it all play out like that was very moving. I remember me, Matt, and Ross sitting down to brainstorm some Murray lines for that moment. Okay, what does he say before he shoots off the flamethrower? We came up with all these options, and we finally decided, “No, the best thing is just for him to say, ‘Hey, assholes.’” It’s very Murray. I truly, when I tell you this, know nothing about what is going to happen next season. But I hope I get to have my moments with Vecna or get into karate fights with Demogorgons and whatnot.

Be honest, how tasty was Murray’s smackin’ risotto?
I was so hungry while we were filming that scene. When I film, I get ravenous. It was delicious. I’m a sucker for carbs and dairy, even when it’s mediocre. That was a really fun scene and one of the few scenes where there was a lot of improv. It’s fun to get the chance to mess around a little bit. Eduardo Franco is a brilliant improviser. We were laughing a lot that day. If they didn’t edit it, that scene could’ve been 20 minutes with everything we were going off on. Maybe we need a director’s cut.

Brett Gelman on Becoming Stranger Things’ Action Hero