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Stranger Things EPs Ross and Matt Duffer and Shawn Levy Talk Casting and Character

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I had the pleasure to be on a press call late last week with Creator/EPs Ross and Matt Duffer and EP Shawn Levy. We talked about a lot of great things, so I’m going to publish the call in sections.

If, like me, you loved the kids — and the adults — and thought the show did a great job with not only casting all these roles, but also giving everyone an interesting and complex backstory, you aren’t alone. This portion of the Q&A focuses on all the great characters, including fan favorite Barb, finding the right actors for these parts and how the Duffers rewrote or modified the characters to better suit the actors.

Photo Credit: Curtis Baker/Netflix

Photo Credit: Netflix

One of the best things about the show is the cast of child actors. I think it’s the best in recent TV memory. I was curious if you could talk about if you were involved directly in the casting of the kids or if that casting ended up influencing the script or characters as they were written and talk about how that cast pulled off what they did.

Ross Duffer: “We knew that bad child performances, even one out of our key group — and we had 5 kids — would really, really hurt the show. Shawn [Levy] knew that, we knew that, Netflix knew that so the minute they greenlit the show and we only had one script written at the time, we started a very intensive worldwide search for these kids.

We saw about a thousand kids in total. When you boil it down, there’s just so few that can operate at this level that it was instantly clear to everyone which were our kids and which kids could actually do this show.

Photo Credit: Curtis Baker/Netflix

Photo Credit: Netflix

At the end of the day, honestly, they made the characters more interesting. They did influence the scripts moving forward and they caused us to go back and rewrite our pilot script. I think a lot of these characters, and this goes for our adult actors as well, but especially the kids, is that their characters were a little bit more stereotypical.

Photo Credit: Curtis Baker/Netflix

Photo Credit: Curtis Baker/Netflix

Dustin was your typical nerd in the original pilot we wrote. And then Gaten [Matarazzo] came in and blew us all away. Dustin sort of become Gaten and we began writing in his voice. Mike was originally a little bit of Mikey from The Goonies, like a Sean Astin soft-spoken dreamer type, but Finn [Wolfhard] has this weird energy. He fidgets, he talks really fast.

Photo Credit: Netflix

Photo Credit: Netflix

At the end of the day, this isn’t how we originally envisioned it, but it’s much more interesting than we ever could have imagined. So we went back and we adjusted the voice of Mike and went from there so the kids really did inform these characters. For us there’s something exciting about television that we can adapt as we’re going and I think that was exciting.”

Photo Credit: Curtis Baker/Netflix

Photo Credit: Curtis Baker/Netflix

Shawn Levy: “I need to commend the Duffers in a way they would never do themselves. There’s two things that are really rare in new filmmakers. First is the Duffers were vehemently stubborn about what they were looking for in casting and even when we saw dozens of talented kids, the Duffers insisted on continuing the search until they found the authenticity that they were looking for.

That dogged persistence was incredible. It requires tremendous confidence in new filmmakers as does the second thing that they do really well, which is they are not beholden to their own writing above all else. They will modify the writing to suit the actors and that is a special skill and why the performances and the characters are so organic in the show.”

I wanted to ask about the adult actors. I loved how complicated their backstories were as well. Can you talk about fleshing them out during your writing process and your casting choices, because I thought they were great.

Matt: “It’s not unlike the kids in that when we cast these actors it very much informed the characters. That’s what was so interesting about having only had one script written at the time. So we had an amazing casting director, Carmen Cuba, and literally her first idea for the show was Winona Ryder. We all, us and Shawn, immediately fell in love with that idea.

Photo Credit: Netflix

Photo Credit: Netflix

There’s all this talk about meta-casting, but really it was just us missing seeing her on the big screen. I think we are all really big fans of her and you’re looking for someone who you haven’t seen lately. We just wanted to give her this opportunity and luckily, she jumped at the chance.

Photo Credit: Netflix

Photo Credit: Netflix

And then David Harbour is someone who we’ve all admired. He’s an actor’s actor. He’s been given these side-character roles for his entire career and it was like, ‘Why the hell is no one giving this guy a leading role?,’ because he’s so f*cking unbelievably good. And so we got excited by that idea of just getting him this. We had a feeling, and Carmen and Shawn, that if we gave this guy that opportunity he would knock it out of the park. And he very much did.

I think they brought a lot of complexity to the characters that, again, maybe wasn’t there initially. They’re all very, very smart actors. Winona has this very, very specific energy about her. Joyce always started out as more of a tough, cursing, smoking, Long Island mom. So when we cast Winona, she has this very distinct, anxious energy about her.

Photo Credit: Netflix

Photo Credit: Netflix

David described her as a live wire and I think that’s good. We knew she had a very specific energy and we thought we would lean into that. That led us into talking about Richard Dreyfuss, his role in Close Encounters. The idea of that would be really cool if Winona would experience all this supernatural, paranormal activity but all on her own. To the world around her, she seems crazy, but in fact, what she’s experiencing and very, very real in the key to finding her son. The idea of Winona versus the world, we loved that idea.”

Shawn: “David Harbour is a character actor who’s waited a long time for this moment. As the Duffers say, we had a feeling that this was his time and he took this character and he made a choice about simplicity and about strength and depth of pain he would very rarely show.

Photo Credit: Curtis Baker/Netflix

Photo Credit: Curtis Baker/Netflix

You’ll notice the performance is so incredibly controlled and there is a stillness to Hopper that is so strong and so compelling on-screen and that was very much the character that David brought to bear on day one with very specific choices that he made, the super-smart actor that he is.”

The internet has really taken to Barb as a character. There’s a lot of fan art and all this attention paid to her. Given that she’s a more minor character in the narrative, I’m curious if that surprises you or if you were really invested in that character as you created the show.

Shawn: “I will start by saying that it thrilled us beyond words that Barb is our breakout fan favorite. It makes us happy every single day when we see a new piece of fan art that is Barb-centric generated out there in the world and sent to us.

Photo Credit: Curtis Baker/Netflix

Photo Credit: Curtis Baker/Netflix

It was definitely not anticipated, but I think there’s something resonant about this character who is neither the hero nor the picture-perfect character we’re used to seeing on TV, but who feels incredibly real and incredibly relatable. Her popularity has been so much fun for us all to experience and for no one moreso than Shannon [Purser], who got her first acting role on Stranger Things and is now experiencing life as the suddenly famous Barb.”

What I’m curious to know is which of the boys would you say is most like you as a kid?

Photo Credit: Curtis Baker/Netflix

Photo Credit: Curtis Baker/Netflix

Matt: “I took the Buzzfeed quiz and it says I’m Mike. So, I guess that’s who I am. I mean, we weren’t leading our D&D campaign but we were making these really bad home movies and we were directing all summer, so we were the leaders of our own nerdy group of kids.”

Ross: “It’s funny because of all the kids we probably are the most like Mike. [Finn]’s a giant movie nerd. He wants to be a film director. We see a lot of similarities between us and him. When we first met [Finn], he said he was into early Sam Raimi. I’m like, ‘Who are you? You’re this 11 year-old kid.’ So, I think at the end of the day certainly Mike. I don’t know about you Shawn.”

Shawn: “I think the reason this works so well is I was a bit of Steve Harrington and look how that worked out. [Everyone laughs].

Photo Credit: Netflix

Photo Credit: Netflix

That’s actually probably truer than I care to admit. But much in the same way that Jonathan and Steve being able to coexist in a pretty effective, collaborative way by the end of our season, I think that maybe partially explains the magic that we found between me and the Duffers.”

Ross: “I love that.”

Edited for space and content.

All 8 episodes of Stranger Things are available now on Netflix.

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