NEWBURYPORT — As the person who became well-known this summer for playing Steve Harrington in the first season of the Netflix original series “Stranger Things,” set in the 1980s, Newburyport native Joe Keery has a take on his character that only the actor portraying him can have.
“Nobody is trying to be the villain or trying to be evil, he is just doing what he thinks is right,” Keery said. “He may not make the best choices the entire time, but I think that makes him more relatable. Nobody is perfect and Steve is far from it.”
Playing the role of Steve, the sometimes conniving, sometimes sadistic and sometimes genuine high school-aged bad boy with a staggering head of ’80s hair, Keery, who turned 24 in the spring, spends a good deal of his time trying to get Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) into his bedroom, all while a monster outside terrorizes their small Indiana town.
“I kind of see him as a step behind everybody,” Keery said. “He is kind of in the dark about the whole supernatural aspect of what is going on. He is always kind of taking a step forward and then back that the audience might consider the right thing to do, then the wrong thing to do. You are never totally satisfied with him, but you can never 100 percent hate him because you can sympathize with what he does.”
Steve may have seemed like a one-trick pony at the start of the show’s eight-episode run, but the character quietly ended up undergoing a startling character arc, going from callous to caring to heroic.
“When I read the first script, I said, ‘This guy is monster bait,’” Keery said. “He was the jerk boyfriend who didn’t really fit in with the leads. But I was glad that they wanted to keep me around for a little while longer. It’s also just luck. I feel lucky that (the producers) enjoyed me.”
Steve continued to confound the audience by ending up with the girl in the season finale, and Keery admits he was just as surprised as the people watching back home.
“I totally did not see that coming,” Keery said. “I remember reading that last script and me and (Charlie Heaton, who plays Jonathan Byers) and Natalia, we were all like, ‘What? Are you joking me?’ We were pretty surprised. But if there is a second season, there is a whole lot more ground to be covered. You get to start it with a little bit of conflict.”
Not only was his performance and hair (which took an hour to create in the hair and makeup trailer each morning) good enough to keep Keery from getting eaten by the monster, they also made the Boston-born actor the subject of an internet fan theory alleging that Steve is the father of “Parks and Recreation” character Jean-Ralphio.
“He is one of my favorite characters from that show,” Keery said. “My girlfriend recently showed me a video where Jean-Ralphio confirms the rumors that I am his father. I have not even talked to him, but if he has confirmed it, maybe he knows something that I don’t.”
While entertainment industry trade magazine Variety recently reported “Stranger Things” was the third-most-watched season of a Netflix original series to debut in the past year, the question of a second season has been on fans’ minds. Unfortunately for them, Keery has no solid answers.
“I have zero confirmation about it,” Keery said. “Everyone has been asking me. But I have no idea. I assume season two is going to be. But your guess is as good as mine on when it would start or when it would air.”
A Newburyport High School alumnus and the second of five kids, Keery grew up surrounded by sisters. It was his oldest sister Caroline who ended up getting her brother to join the NHS drama club’s “techie crew” when he was a freshman.
“Caroline kind of dragged me over,” Keery said. “She said, ‘No, you’re going to do this.’ She kind of got me involved in this whole thing and I kept doing it for pretty much the whole time in high school.”
Having already spent some time on stage at Theater in the Open, Keery quickly moved from the lights and sound crew at NHS to on-stage talent, landing the role of Prez in “The Pajama Game,” a “very young” Mr. Knightley in “Emma” and the Vicomte de Valmont in “Dangerous Liaisons.”
“The drama teachers, Stephanie Williams and Lisa Zaleski, were super-supportive,” Keery said. “If someone was willing to put in the work, they are kind of down to help you figure it out and realize what type of work you want to get yourself into and were kind enough to offer me some great opportunities early on.”
Graduating NHS in 2010, Keery went to college at Chicago’s DePaul University and found roles, appearing in a pair of independent films — “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party” and “The Charnel House” — before landing “Stranger Things.”
While most of his family is still in Newburyport, Keery lives in Chicago, where he is looking and auditioning for the next acting job and waiting to hear about that potential next “Stranger” season.
“Newburyport will always be a part of my life,” Keery said. “I think traveling away and living in Chicago has only made me appreciate it more. It’s a great place to grow up and have a really awesome childhood where I could work toward something that I didn’t know I was necessarily going to get to do professionally. I’ve been able to get work, and that was kind of the goal.
“So I feel super-lucky and blessed to have the opportunity to get paid to do something that I am really into. I am very lucky.”