HEAT VISION

Joe Keery on 'Spree' and 'Stranger Things 4' Being Worth the Wait

Joe Keery attends the New York Screening of "Stranger Things" Season 3 2019- Getty-h 2020
Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images
The actor shares his own ride-sharing horror story and reflects on working with Ryan Reynolds on 'Free Guy:' "It’s 'Truman Show' meets maybe a little 'Back to the Future' in there, maybe a little 'Ready Player One' in there."

On the set of his latest film, Spree, Joe Keery was truly a jack of all trades. The film combines the worlds of rideshare drivers and social media influencers within the subgenre of horror-satire, so Keery would often find himself acting, filming and driving within the same scene. Keery plays Kurt Kunkle, a troubled rideshare driver who’s devoted a decade of his life to his futile social media presence. But suddenly, everything changes for Kurt when he goes viral for the most sadistic of reasons.

Even though Spree filmmaker Eugene Kotlyarenko compiled a reel of social media stars for him to reference, Keery actually found that the lowliest social media personalities were the most helpful to his preparation process.

“What was really most important to me and most helpful was watching the people who really don’t have any sort of viewership at all. People who are in the single digits,” Keery tells The Hollywood Reporter. “A lot of those people share many qualities with Kurt because they’re trying to gain some traction. They’re trying to harvest, if you will, followers. So, it was all part of the job, watching all of these videos. It’s pretty interesting.”

Like the majority of Hollywood, Keery is eager to get back to work as season four of Netflix’s global phenomenon, Stranger Things, had just started shooting when the coronavirus pandemic upended Hollywood as a whole. Like his co-star Natalia Dyer, Keery is optimistic that the hiatus will only help co-creators Matt and Ross Duffer.

“The [Duffer] brothers have always been extremely, extremely controlling over… the quality control of the show,” Keery shares. “So, if this just gives them more time to realize what their vision is, then yeah, I think it could be a good thing. [Stranger Things 4] will be worth the wait, hopefully.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Keery also discusses Steve Harrington’s face turn on season one of Stranger Things, his time with Aaron Sorkin and Jessica Chastain on the Molly’s Game set and his upcoming film, Free Guy, with Ryan Reynolds and Stranger Things producer-director Shawn Levy.

Thanks to your movie, Spree, I’m never touching the water in a Lyft ever again. Not that I ever would but…

You and me both, man. Honestly, your life is more important than hydration, and you can wait the five minutes. Literally, that is maybe one of my biggest takeaways from this movie.

So when did you shoot this in relation to your other work?

This was February of 2019, so just a little over a year ago, yeah.

That’s interesting because I thought you looked much younger in it. Plus, indies often have a long road to release.

Yeah, this would’ve been maybe a couple of months after wrapping season three of Stranger Things. Coconut oil, man. Just put a bunch in your hair and you’ll look a lot younger. (Laughs.)

Did you spend a lot of time in Lyfts for research and just to get a lay of the land?

Yeah, for sure. I use rideshare services a fair amount, or at least I did until COVID. But yeah, I would pretty much take one of those to work every day, as well, just to get into the headspace heading into work. It’s really funny because you start to notice these small little intricate details about the different ways that people have their car. Like, little habits that they might have, how they introduce themselves and what they say. And honestly, just getting as deep as I could into that was something that was helpful and made it seem a little bit more authentic. And just spending as much time as I could in that Prius as possible. I mean, any given shooting day, we were probably inside that car for 12-plus hours, so we got pretty used to being in there.

I believe you also went down the YouTube rabbit hole during prep. Was that a rather dark time in your life?

(Laughs.) I first met [director and co-writer] Eugene (Kotlyarenko) and after we sort of decided that I was going to be doing this part, he sent me about a 35-45 minute compilation video of all of these people that inspired him to write the role. So, starting with that as a jumping-off point, we kind of just, yeah, went down the rabbit hole. What was really most important to me and most helpful was watching the people who really don’t have any sort of viewership at all. People who are in the single digits. A lot of those people share many qualities with Kurt because they’re trying to gain some traction. They’re trying to harvest, if you will, followers. So, it was all part of the job, watching all of these videos. It’s pretty interesting. Something we kind of tapped into is this “sharing is inherently good” culture that’s going on right now. Although he is helping himself, maybe Kurt really believes that he’s helping other people. And for me as an actor, that was a really helpful jumping-off point. Even though he’s doing these terrible things, it’s just more of a playable action for an actor to play in scenes. So, when we would get lost or feel like a scene didn’t really have direction or we weren’t really sure about something, we would go back to the basics and then go from there.

I know it’s been said a lot already, but this movie very much imagines Patrick Bateman in the influencer realm. Instead of business card quality, Kurt is consumed by follower numbers and clout. Since you probably recognized the American Psycho comparisons when you first learned about the project, did you avoid revisiting the film during prep?

I didn’t watch a lot of movies, actually, during prep. I primarily stuck to just watching YouTube stuff, pretty much. A character that I thought also really spoke to Kurt is Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy. I think that somebody who longs to be connected, really, is kind of the way that I look at that, and I think Kurt shares a lot of those traits. I’m sure you could really do it either way. You could watch the movie, and I’m sure it would be fine. But to me, although the characters share some qualities, what was most helpful was trying to just immerse myself in that influencer culture. That was most helpful because influencer culture also has such a specific, almost, like, dialect to it, you know? There are these unspoken rules about how you talk and present yourself that I really wanted to emulate, that either Kurt is really good at, or for the most time, he’s just really bad at.

When it comes to serial killers, the question of nature versus nurture often comes up. In your estimation, do you think Kurt was already born with a screw loose? Or did his upbringing involving a broken family and a deadbeat father shape him most?

It’s hard to say exactly, but I would say that his family definitely didn’t help, honestly. We kind of go through some of that in the “draw my life” that’s at the beginning of the film. Eugene and I also made just countless prep videos of what Kurt’s videos would be like. A lot of that has kind of been laid into the social media campaign that Eugene has been in charge of and spearheading, and I think it is really a genius way to present the film because it gives people this discovery, which I think is invaluable. It’s just such an interesting thing to make a discovery like that, and I always love when a project does that, so hats off to him for those ideas. But yeah, I think something that I’m so appreciative of in my life is my family and my upbringing. So yeah, I’d say if maybe you haven’t had the easiest upbringing, it doesn’t mean you’re going to do bad things, but I think having [a good upbringing] just helps create a little bit of stability in your life, maybe. And that’s something that Kurt was lacking.

Kurt’s drawings were your own handiwork, right?

Yeah, there were many. I think that was actually the first video that me and Eugene made together. And it was really fun to do all of those videos. I feel really thankful that we got the period to rehearse the film. That two-week period of rehearsal before the film, to me, is irreplaceable. It would’ve been much more difficult to just jump in on day one and to be immersed with Eugene. It was really like a 50-50 relationship, as well, with Eugene. I had ideas about the character, he had ideas about the character, and it was a true collaboration trying to land on it together. And I think that that really helped create the character. I think it was a true collaboration, and collaborating with people is something that really excites me about working on movies. And the fact that Eugene was so down and so open to work with me made it a really rewarding experience.

In my second Uber ride ever, a woman insisted that I sit in the front seat even though I learned later that you’re always allowed to sit in the backseat. And then she proceeded to put her hand on my leg throughout the ride.

Are you serious? Whoa.

Since that’s my rideshare horror story, do you happen to have your own experience that helped inform this movie?

Yeah, I do. It was actually just somebody who was driving extremely recklessly. We were heading from Echo Park back to the Westside and, yeah, the guy was just driving like an absolute maniac. And during the ride, I think there may have been something… I don’t know if he was doing drugs. I don’t know what was happening, but we actually had to end the ride. We told him to pull over, and then we got out and called a different ride home. It is kind of bizarre, though. I mean, you’re putting yourself in someone else’s personal space. They’re operating the vehicle, so it is kind of a vulnerable position to put yourself in.

In the scenes where it looks like you’re the camera operator, was that indeed the case?

Yeah, there are a lot of scenes in the movie where I’m pretty much operating a lot of the phone stuff. I’m pretty much operating all of that. There’s also some body cam stuff that I’m doing throughout the film. And obviously, that takes a lot of massaging on the day and making sure that we hit all of the beats. It can be kind of stressful because it’s another thing to think about. It’s something that can bring you out of the character if you allow it to because you’re worried about it. I had my frustrating moments on set where I got kind of fed up, but at the end of the day, I think it really did inform the character and just made it even more immersive — especially the stuff in the car. We had all eight cameras running simultaneously — many times with two or three phones — so that’s like eleven cameras going all at once. And I’m driving the car the majority of the film, as well, so once the cameras are rolling and there’s no one from production, it’s just me and the other actors on set. And in that way, it can be truly immersive, which is really fun. It kind of turned into a little bit of a play sometimes because we could just run the scene as many times as we wanted, which is really fun.

You just mentioned that you drove most of the time. In what instances were you towed?

I was being towed in certain scenes like the scene on Hollywood Boulevard and the stuff on the highway. But any of the conversational driving stuff, yeah, that was me driving.

Kurt told the sunroof characters to hash-tag “The Lesson,” but Richard (Frankie Grande) thought he said to hash-tag “blessings.” Do you recall if that was a genuine mistake that you guys turned into improv?

I actually don’t remember, but that’s funny that you pointed that out. We would shoot what was scripted, but we had a fair amount of leeway with improv. I mean, Sasheer (Zamata) is such a proficient improvisational actor. She’s really game with anything. So, one of the great joys for me while working on this movie was really working with Sasheer, and seeing how far we could push these scenes in any direction.

The taco truck moment was insane. I don’t want to give it away, but wow.

It is insane! I remember reading that moment, being like… I mean, that was kind of my impression reading the script as a whole, but I was just really thinking, “What is going on? This is crazy.”

There’s a brilliant moment where the camera keeps falling off its stand in the car, and it builds suspense in such an organic way. Obviously, Kurt’s priority was to always live-stream what he was doing, so he wouldn’t perform a certain task unless it was on camera. Thus, you and Eugene wisely used character to build suspense.

Thank you. Yeah, that area of the film was kind of a stressful part to film, but also some of the most rewarding. What Eugene and the editor, Ben (Moses Smith), did in putting the film together at the end kind of transforms from being this “you’re laughing because everything is so awkward” to really sort of seeing the monster that Kurt is, especially when that final montage lands. 

For any of your fans who are still holding out hope for a “Joe’s World” YouTube channel, would you like to break the bad news to them now?

Sorry, folks. Never going to happen. (Laughs.)

Among all his movies, Ryan Reynolds recently said that Free Guy is his favorite at the moment. While the trailer reminded me a lot of The Truman Show, would you also compare it to that since a character is waking up to the programmed world around him?

Yeah, that was one of the things that when friends would ask me what the movie was about, I would say, “Yeah, it’s Truman Show meets maybe a little Back to the Future in there, maybe a little Ready Player One in there.” Yeah, it was a real blessing working with Ryan, though. He’s, like, the nicest dude I’ve ever met in my entire life. (Laughs.)

Stranger Things producer-director Shawn Levy is notorious for spilling Stranger Things secrets well ahead of each season’s release. Since he directed Free Guy, has he kept a lid on his own movie at least?

(Laughs.) So far, it seems like he has. Yeah, so far, it seems like he has.

I spoke to Natalia Dyer a couple weeks ago, and she believes that Stranger Things 4’s interruption might be a blessing in disguise since the writers have had more time to think about things. They’ve even had the time to add a ninth episode to the season. Do you also think that the delay will ultimately be a good thing?

Hard to say, really. I mean, it definitely gives them more time to write, and I think that that’s always good. I guess there’s the issue of the kids growing, but apart from that, I just think that we want to get the show out as soon as possible for people. That’s definitely true. But something that the [Duffer] brothers have always been extremely, extremely controlling over is just the quality control of the show. So, if this just gives them more time to realize what their vision is, then yeah, I think it could be a good thing.

Since an entire season’s scripts usually aren’t ready when you start shooting, did you know that Steve would have a face turn in season one?

No, not really. That was kind of developed along the way during shooting. I had gotten maybe six episodes, and even those six changed as we were shooting. So, I was a day player and just living down in Atlanta. Luckily enough, they wrote some more stuff for me to do.

It was certainly great for job security, but it must’ve been relieving to no longer have to play that side of the character, right?

Yeah, and also, it’s really fun to watch some emotional growth from a character. It’s fun to go somewhere, and the brothers really allowed me to do that. The thing to really look for in any character is an arc. I mean, that’s why I really liked Spree. There’s a real arc to the character. And so, yeah, it just really exceeded my expectations in every way.

Were you also glad that Steve’s relationship with Robin (Maya Hawke) in season three subverted most people’s expectations?

Oh yeah, of course. I thought that was a great idea from the brothers. I had heard what they were thinking of doing, but I wasn’t positive. But yeah, that was definitely one of my favorite days to shoot on the whole show. It was just really rewarding to do, especially on a show that’s so information-heavy and action-heavy. To get a real character-driven scene where some great discoveries and pertinent information is revealed, I just thought, “How lucky am I to be able to do this?” Especially with such a great scene-partner, too. Maya is amazing.

Before we move on, would you like to offer any hyperbolic statements regarding Strangers Things 4 a la “It’s the biggest season since the last season”?

(Laughs.) “It’s crazy! It’s crazy!” Hmm, what to say… It’ll be worth the wait, hopefully.

What was your impression of Aaron Sorkin and Jessica Chastain while on the Molly’s Game set?

Whoa, right. Man, I had forgotten about that until you said that. That was crazy. I mean, that was really, really early; I hadn’t really done too much. Jessica was amazing. Sorkin was amazing. And it just felt like, “How the hell did I get here? How did I get so lucky to be in this movie?” What I really love about doing these little side parts in these movies is just being able to watch how everybody works. Everybody has a different style. Nobody does the same thing the same way: directors, actors, DPs, gaffers. Everybody’s doing their job in a slightly different way, and for me, it’s just really fun to be a fly on the wall. That’s how you get better. You watch people, and kind of steal their tricks. You see what works for you and what doesn’t. And hopefully, the longer you do that, the better you get so you can really make it in the industry.

Did Sorkin carry himself like a seasoned director even though it was his first time?

For sure. I hadn’t really been in many other films, as well, so I was kind of a rookie myself. But no, it felt so comfortable. On the day we were shooting, I’ll never forget that he wore this full gray sweatsuit with this New York Yankees hat, and he just looked like such a director. He looked so cool. (Laughs.)

If you could cast yourself in any type of role right now, what would you choose?

I’m just looking for something that’s different, something that hopefully has some sort of an arc and something that really gets me excited or scared. Those are the ones that usually end up feeling the best. And really, what’s most important is that you’re working with a filmmaker who has a real vision for what they want to make. I think that that might be the most important part because at the end of the day, after all the scenes are shot, that’s the person who’s seeing the thing through. So, if you can have faith in the person who’s putting it together, then hopefully the project will be something to be proud of. 

You come from a big family that includes four sisters (three younger, one older). Did you start performing as a way of getting the attention of everyone in your household?

I have three younger sisters, so the four of us would make movies together, and I would be kind of in charge. I’d be the director, actually. I’d sort of tell them, “Okay, you’re the lead actor. You’re going to do this. You guys are these two characters. And we’re going to shoot this movie.” And we would shoot the movie, then I would cut the movie together and then we would play the movie for my family. That was maybe the beginnings of all this.

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Spree is now available in select theaters, on digital HD and VOD.

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