An Interview With Stranger Things’ Most Oblivious Dad

“I think I need to take a driver or fairway wood into the Upside Down. Do some damage.” Photo: Netflix

Over the past four seasons, you kind of get the sense that Ted Wheeler, Mike and Nancy’s dad, is starring in an entirely different show from whatever nonsense is transpiring in the Stranger Things narrative universe. While Vecna is cracking limbs from his web in the Upside Down, Ted is pissed his son’s friends are eating all his breakfast food. While the Mind Flayer is killing teens at that very hip Starcourt Mall, Ted is mowing his lawn in the rain and falling asleep on his La-Z-Boy. (“We’re patriots in this house!”) While … well, you get the gist, don’t you? Ted has a cushy nine-to-five, returns every night to a hot wife and an even hotter home-cooked meal, and is content to be a humble, dozy observer as chaos reigns around him.

Ted (played by tenured actor Joe Chrest) really hams it up for all his appearances in season four, personifying the type of father who doesn’t have a damn clue what his kids and their friends are up to — despite a lot of the action taking place in his own basement, much to his annoyance. (“You could try sticking together at a different house for a change,” he mumbles in the premiere.) It’s this dad-chotomy that allows Ted to come off as both endearing and useless, but at the end of the day, Chrest told Vulture in a recent interview, he’s a man who will always fight for his family.

It’s funny, when I discuss Stranger Things with friends, it seems the conversation always turns to Ted. He’s been described as everything from useless, apathetic, an inspiration, to a quintessential ’80s dad. How do you view him?
It’s interesting because when we first started out — and I still contend this — I feel like … if you remember Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the vixen, Jessica Rabbit, is like, “I’m not bad; I’m just drawn that way.” Ted is like that. Even though there wasn’t a lot there for Ted, he’s a loving dad. Like a lot of dads I saw while my kids were growing up, they focus on being providers. They think that’s more important than their time. When we see Ted, he’s wiped out from work. I never approach it like he doesn’t care.

As the stories veered away from Hawkins and the kids growing up, it’s difficult to also incorporate the adults. Karen, who was a lot more involved in the first few seasons, has tapered off. With season four, there are so many stories to tell. If you start veering toward the parent lanes, you get taken off the story. But in season one in particular, I got so many letters. I started doing Cameo for fun, and so many people have responded to Ted. Dads in particular. They gravitate toward that “What did I doooo?” line. I’m told, “That’s how I always feel: What the hell did I do?

How else is Ted like Jessica Rabbit?
That quote, “I’m not bad; I’m just drawn that way,” really sums it up. It’s what’s there on the page for Ted. If you’re napping while Hawkins burns, that’s what you’re doing. We’re defined by our actions.

Okay, I didn’t know if Ted also had a secret femme-fatale side to him.
Well, he does, but it hasn’t come out yet. [Laughs.] I feel like that’s in all of my characters.

Was he described in the script in a distinct way? I’m curious if, say, he was modeled after the Duffers’ own father.
From what I understand, they had a really good father. You mentioned ’80s dads — when you look at the Spielberg movies, like E.T., or Disney movies through the years, something always happens to the mother. Ted was more an homage to the ’80s movies where the dad isn’t there much for one reason or another. The Goonies, for instance — I think that was the Duffers’ inspiration more than anything else. They’re Ted fans. They love writing his lines. I’ll be asked for input a lot of times: “What do you think Ted would say here?” That’s always fun.

Ted is defined by what he doesn’t do as much as by what he does: His La-Z-Boy snoozes, his grunts, his sighs, the strange way he runs …
You caught that. [Laughs.] My daughter was all over the running thing. We watched that scene together, and she was like, “No, Dad.” I like to think there was the littlest of knolls on that lawn, just the slightest gradient you can have, and that would’ve been too much for Ted. I was a lot more out of breath than I’d care to admit. I was bent over.

How did you want to embody him physically?
Back in the original description, when I was auditioning for the role, it said, “This guy would rather be on the golf course than at his house.” I thought, How cool, I’m going to play a lot of golf! But we haven’t even seen a golf club from Ted. I taped part of my audition from the driving range, but it never materialized.

Maybe that can be a season-five thing.
Well, I think I need to take a driver or fairway wood into the Upside Down. Do some damage.

Vecna wouldn’t stand a chance.
A lot of the cast, pretty much from season two, have been encouraging the Duffers to get Ted more active in the show. The speculation is that he’s with the CIA — is he part of it? Will it merge with the story? I’m very curious about that. With season five, I’d like to see, as would a lot of us, more of Ted. But as the show has progressed, I’m starting to feel like we’re not going to see that. There’s so many stories to tell right now that need to be tied up. It doesn’t seem like there’s room for a Karen-and-Ted story.

Does thinking of a backstory for a guy like Ted interest you? What his profession is, how he wooed Karen to be his wife — any of that?
Oh, yes. Regardless of how small the role is, I answer all of those questions for myself. It’s not like they’re even “playable” things, but knowing they’re there for me is helpful. I don’t know if it’s something I’d feel at liberty to talk about, because even though I’ve filled them in for myself, the Duffers or writers could envision something different. It makes Ted more of a human for me. I think that’s why people have gravitated toward Ted: because I’m playing it like I’m one of the central characters.

Were you bummed that Karen came close to cheating on him last season?
I was. It’s funny, because me and the other actors always speculated that Ted was the one having an affair. So it was pretty shocking to see Karen consider that. I think fans were relieved that it didn’t happen. Did you want to see it?

No, I didn’t, but I felt that diversion was representative of Ted: When Karen is about to leave for the tryst, she sees him and their daughter cradled next to each other. It reminds her how good of a dad Ted is, even if he’s a bit of a dope.
I appreciate you catching all of the nuances. With that plotline, I was thinking … Well, some people didn’t have the best dad, but they were much better at being a grandfather when they got a second chance. Ted was being a really good father to Holly, the youngest child. He was making pains to try to enjoy the fair in season three, even though all of the rides seemed to not agree with him. And always taking care of her while her mom was out “having coffee” with “the girls.”

What’s the story behind Ted’s snazzy glasses?
They are my personal glasses! I’ve kept a lot of my frames through the years, unless they’ve been smashed playing sports. Strangely, those were my personal eyeglasses in ninth grade. I’ve got these sports pictures where I have the Mike Wheeler hairdo: huge bushy hair on a tiny face. The glasses don’t look huge on me now, but back then, they made me look like Elton John. So the show put my current prescription in them to wear. What’s remarkable is that in high school, I wore them under a football helmet and on the basketball court, with the old-school band around them, and they’re in better condition than half my glasses now. They don’t make ’em like they used to. That’s a good Ted line.

Besides that potential golf prowess, how do you think Ted would react if he found himself trapped in the Upside Down?
I would love a chance to get out there and defend the kids. Ted really loves his family and would do really well in that Upside Down scenario. It’s the ’80s, too. It’s a chance for Ted to fight for his country. I’m sure he served in the military. The dude’s a patriot, for God’s sake. [Laughs.]

An Interview With Stranger Things’ Most Oblivious Dad