Welcome to Awards Contenders. This month, SYFY WIRE is talking to the actors, directors, designers, and craftspeople whose work was featured in the best movies and TV offerings of 2019, and who are now the leading awards nominees. Today, we're speaking with the SAG-nominated ensemble cast of Stranger Things.
On April 20, 2018, when the cast of Stranger Things gathered to read the scripts for Season 3, the newcomers — or strangers, as the production called them — clustered together at one end of the table. "It kind of felt like the first day of school," Jake Busey recalls, "and I was the new kid."
Fellow new kid Maya Hawke, set to play Scoops Ahoy employee Robin Buckley, immediately buried her nose in her copy of the script, hoping to hide how intimidated she felt.
"I'm dyslexic, so there's nothing more horrifying to me than a read-through," Hawke tells SYFY WIRE. "I hadn't gotten a printout of the script beforehand, so I was going over it with my highlighter and pencil, just marking things so that I didn't fumble. I was in a very private bubble of terror."
Next to her, in a private bubble of joy, was Cary Elwes, who'd been cast to play Hawkins' corrupt mayor Larry Kline. Not only was he a huge fan of the show, but this was the largest table read he'd ever been to. And he quickly made himself comfortable, reconnecting with Winona Ryder (whom he'd worked with in 1992's Bram Stoker's Dracula) and Busey (whom he'd worked with in 1996's Twister).
"It was nice to be reunited with my friends," Elwes says. "We picked up right back where we left off." Busey, on hand to play jerk journalist Bruce Lowe, shared Elwes' delight. "We kept elbowing each other," Busey says, "giving each other a look like, 'Can you believe we're here?'"
There were new friends to be made as well, of course. When Ryder saw Busey, she popped her eyes wide, smiled, and gave him a hug. "Oh my God!" she said. "It's so great to see you again!" Busey was a little puzzled. "I don't think we've met," he replied. (And he definitely would have remembered if they had — he's been a big fan of hers since Beetlejuice.) "No, I swear, we have met somewhere through the years," she insisted. "I know we have." Even though she was mistaken, the encounter put him at ease. ("The fact that she was so sweet, it made me feel very welcome," Busey says.)
So did David Harbour, who took on the role of a big brother. When Busey became too hard on himself, Harbour would be there to boost his confidence. "I'd be like, 'I really screwed that up,' and he was always like, 'No, man. You're fantastic. Don't even stress about that.'"
Some of the new cast members had already met their scene partners before the read-through. Hawke clicked right away with Joe Keery during her chemistry test (to make sure her Robin would be a good fit with his Steve Harrington), and she already knew they were a great pair.
"Joe didn't have to be so generous with me," she says, "but he did his best so that I could do my best. He let me be funny, because he sees the possibilities for humor everywhere: 'Maybe there's something I can do with the ice cream scooper.' 'Maybe there's something I can do with the window.' So our collaboration really began in the audition room for me."
Other new cast members had to wait to be introduced to their scene partners. Andrey Ivchenko, who plays the Terminator-like Russian thug Grigori, met Elwes just before he was supposed to beat up his character on the Fun Fair carnival set. "Cary made it easy," Ivchenko says. "He said to me, 'Let's just read it through. Let's have some fun with it before we go into the Gravitron,'" where his character would be choking Elwes' Larry Kline. "We played with different approaches, different intonations."
Says Elwes, "Andrey, he did a great job. We had a tough time figuring out the fight inside the ride, because it was a very old ride, and it had bolts sticking out of the ground. It wasn't really conducive to staging a fight scene, you know? But we had a lot of fun doing that."
Meanwhile, Busey would keep checking with co-star Natalia Dyer to make sure he didn't throw her Nancy Wheeler across a room too hard. "She'd be like, 'That's what we're here to do!'" he says. "Everyone was laughing and joking the whole time."
Stranger Things' ensemble style is shaped in part by the show's constant influx of new blood – and reassembling past groupings. That's what made the Scoops Troop come alive. Keery (as Steve) and Gaten Matarazzo (as Dustin) already had good comedic chemistry as a duo in previous seasons, but bringing in Hawke's outsider character Robin and Priah Ferguson's precocious Erica kept it fresh. "Those relationships are all highly specific," Hawke says. "Dustin and Robin realized that they have shared nerd knowledge, that they are both similarly dorky and have read a lot of comic books. Erica and Robin have an allyship of being outsiders. And Steve and Robin … how rare is it to have a relationship between and a boy and girl where they are allowed to be just friends? It's a super special thing."
"Life is chaotic and terrifying, but you get these little moments through connection," Hawke adds. "That's what makes it worth doing, and why we get up every morning."