Stranger Things' Joe Keery Is The Ego-Free Talent That Pop Culture Needs Right Now

30 June 2019
Shirt, $98, jeans, $98, Calvin Klein Jeans. Watch, price on request, Gucci. Belt, price on request, Saint Laurent. Boots, $1095, Celine by Hedi Slimane

Shirt, $98, jeans, $98, Calvin Klein Jeans. Watch, price on request, Gucci. Belt, price on request, Saint Laurent. Boots, $1095, Celine by Hedi Slimane

Yes, he plays a loveable jock on Stranger Things. Sure, he’s got swoony, Pinterest-worthy hair. But Joe Keery might just change your opinion of celebrity

The silver tables and chairs lining the pavement outside of Joey’s Café on Santa Monica Boulevard are getting hot to the touch. It’s only been a few hours since heavy rain threatened to derail what was shaping up to be a perfectly good Friday, but a stretch of sunlight has flipped the script, making for a gentle sizzle on the skin to anybody who dares take a seat.

Inside, at the back table, sits Joe Keery – one of the breakout stars of the Netflix juggernaut, Stranger Things, and keeper of the most talked about hair in Hollywood.

He’s eating a smoothie with a fork.

“You gotta go tell people about this, man,” he says slicing through the huge mound of reddish sludge with equal parts trepidation and excitement. “You go tell them what you saw here today… ‘That Joe Keery! He does not care for the rules!’”

It’s a throwaway line, the type of which he peppers his conversation with, but this one proves more prophetic than most. Keery might only be 27, but he’s undeniably an old soul, one devoid of the ruthless self-promotion gene inherent in many of his Gen Y peers. So, yeah, he’ll leave the easy social media brags and ill-advised tweets to the other guys, thank you very much. Even if that means a slightly more subtle profile.

Joe Keery Stranger Things

Jacket, $7270, Gucci

It’s probably that reluctance to amplify the noise currently filling your social feed that makes him so darn likeable. He’s at the stage of his career where you know that he knows playing the game is how this thing works. He knows that he has to bring it to every interview and appearance – and a very cursory glance on YouTube tells you that he does – but there’s an element of authenticity there, too. He might well be in one of the most hyped TV shows of recent times, but he’s not about to be a d*ck about it.

Quick example: only minutes earlier, Keery bound in to Joey’s having almost sat at the wrong table outside on more than one occasion. But watching him, you got the impression that he would have happily sat and chatted with a bunch of complete strangers anyway. The conversation would have gone like this: Keery would have talked Game of Thrones – it’s mid-May, the show is on its penultimate episode, and he’s pushing an ‘Anakin Skywalker theory’ pretty hard. His lucky new friend, however, would have only had eyes for season three of Stranger Things… and maybe his hair.

Oh yeah, the hair, let’s talk about that magnificent beast for a sec. It’s perched up there all swept-back, flicky and effortless-looking. It’s the hair you wish you had, but have long since made your peace with never having. In two seasons of television it’s developed a fame all of its own, and Keery finds it kind of baffling. It’s getting to the point that there’s a PTSD that you see in his eyes when an interviewer men tions it (which is all of them every time).

A small but excitable part of you expects to wake up one day to a TMZ video of him shaving it off, before smashing up a 7-Eleven out of pure frustration at one quiff question too many. “I mean, it’s just my hair,” he says, confused. “People ask me about it all the time, but I don’t really know what to say anymore. Maybe I should start making things up?”

For what it’s worth: yes, it’s all his own; no, he doesn’t do much with it (“I wake up and this is what it looks like”); no he’s not contractually obliged to keep it like this and yes, it’s beautiful (last opinion purely our own). One recent fan theory wondered on whether the Upside Down – the parallel universe threatening the residents of Hawkins, Indiana in Stranger Things – could actually be in Keery’s hair. It’s a theory he muses over for a while, but hey, the guy won’t be drawn into spoilers.

Joe Keery Stranger Things

Jacket, $7270, Gucci

Even Keery didn’t think he would be in Stranger Things for the long haul. Matt and Ross Duffer’s homage to ET, The Goonies, IT, Close Encounters and any other ’80s trope you care to mention was shaping up as just another role to follow Keery’s fleeting appearances in Empire and Chicago Fire. Something a little more tangible to get his teeth into, perhaps, but mainly another step towards something bigger. As it turned out, this was the Something Bigger.

Eventually cast as the quintessential high school jock, Steve Harrington – he originally auditioned for the role of Jonathon Byers – it was a role pulled wholesale from the John Hughes’ canon, with Harrington as the letterman jacket-wearing, tough-talking guy the girls hate themselves for liking. The guy voted most likely to slam a nerd into a locker in his yearbook.

But somewhere in the middle of season one, Keery’s character arc pushed-off into a different direction altogether. Somewhere between holding the party that led to Barb’s disappearance (every day, Barb, every day) and fighting off a Demogorgon at the Byers’ place he became likable. Loveable, even.

The Duffer brothers had Keery pegged with a charismatic likability from the getgo, but even then it took them a little by surprise. While Keery was “hoping for more but expecting nothing”, the Duffers saw opportunity. “Steve was supposed to be this jockey douchebag,” explained Ross, “but Joe was so much more than that. We knew, moving into season two, that we really wanted to utilise him but we didn’t actually know how to do it – especially once Nancy moves on.”

Rather than have him pursue his love interest Nancy further, they put him in equally complicated, albeit platonic, waters. From occasional character in season one to permanent cast member in season two, he went from bully to protector-in-chief – or Momma Steve as the internet dubbed him – thanks to a newfound bromance with Dustin [Gaten Matarazzo]. The last we saw of it was Steve guiding him and the rest of the gang, nail-studded baseball bat firmly in hand, safely through the Upside Down.

“You know, people talk about that all the time,” he says, “but if anything, Gaten seems like the older one in this relationship. That kid is smart. He’s totally got his head screwed on. It’s like he’s 45 or something.”

Joe Keery Stranger Things

Hat, $285, Gucci. Pullover, trousers, sneakers, prices on request, Louis Vuitton

But there’s more to it than pure survival in the face of demonic terror. Whether it’s relationship advice (“just pretend you don’t care”) or hair care tips (“when it’s damp, you just do four puffs of the Farrah Fawcett spray”), it’s something that really made the character of Steve resonate – and gained him a sizeable real-life following in the process.

But while Keery may well have five million followers on Instagram, you won’t find him pushing his career on there any time soon. Typical posts on his @uncle_jezzy profile range from family shots, to pictures of friends to an image of some Italian ice cream that, at time of writing, has picked up over 800k likes. It’s a bit rubbish, and that’s why we like it. Real life, wholly untouched by celebrity.

“Using it for work just feels wrong,” he says in-between forkfuls of what’s now slushy strawberry and banana. “‘Hey, here’s a picture of me in a magazine, oh, hi, check me out here looking cool.’ No, no, no, I just can’t do it.

“Maybe I’m overthinking this, but it feels like the older I get, the more aware I am that what I put online will be there forever. Sometimes I look at the pictures I’ve posted already and just think, ‘Why did I even do that?’ I’m at the point where I feel that I don’t really need to share everything with the world. I guess my agent might want me to use it a little more, but I think they respect how I do things.”

Regardless, the fame burns brightly – although it naturally comes in waves. Whenever there’s a series drop, Keery will be hot property for a while, doing the talk show circuits and magazine videos and all the other stuff that comes with it. It’ll get tougher and a little more intense, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s still bizarre to have people recognise you and it can be tough if they come over when you’re in the middle of a serious conversation, but it’s all good.

Joe Keery Stranger Things

Blazer, $2970, trousers, $845, Gucci. Sneakers, $610, Valentino

“It’s funny, though, I’ve noticed that people will want a picture but not really stick around to chat. It’s like they just need proof that they’ve met you or something. I would much rather talk. But, hey, everybody is always really nice and I love meeting them. I mean, if these guys didn’t care about the work then I wouldn’t have a job, right? I want to be respectful of that – that’s just the way I was raised.”

Keery was brought up in Newburyport, Massachusetts – pipped to the title of most famous resident by sixth US president John Quincy Adams (worse hair, better at helping abolish slavery) – and is the second oldest of five siblings. His four sisters make regular appearances on his social media feed, offering a glimpse of what seems like something approaching the picture-perfect family unit. “We all quote the movie School of Rock,” he says, as if to unwittingly prove the theory. “There’s this line where the guitarist’s dad is talking to the keyboard player’s dad and he’s like, ‘Your son is very talented’ and he replies, ‘Thank you, and so is yours,’” and suddenly there’s a moment when it looks like Keery kind of wonders why he told this story, and he feels a little awkward that this unremarkable line is one his family repeat to each other. Like he’s shown you something a little more intimate. But it’s nice. You imagine them saying it as they pass each other in the hall or around the table at family gatherings.

So, with four sisters to protect, it makes it easier to see why Keery has embraced the mom role amongst the Stranger Things cast – both on and off-screen. Last month he was in LA to watch co-star Finn Wolfhard walk the runway as the new face of Saint Laurent. And while she might not be in the show, Keery’s girlfriend – the actress Maika Monroe – broke her collarbone a day or so earlier, and so after our interview he’s off to look after her too. “Do you know how they fix that?” he asks in disbelief. “You basically get sliced open for the surgery, they screw the bone together, let it heal, cut you back open, take the screws out then stitch you back up again. This is not a good bone to break.”

There’s a face that actors of certain TV programmes pull when you ask them about a new series. They’re with you to promote the show, they get it, but they also can’t really tell you anything. Instead, what they do is offer a thousand-yard stare combined with an apologetic smile paired with just the slightest touch of fear. The stakes are high for giving away spoilers on a show with an audience so invested (have you read Stranger Things fan theories? Now there’s a rabbit hole to find yourself down). But they want to play along. They want to tell you something… anything.

Joe Keery Stranger Things

Hat, $315, sweater, $845, sweatpants, $1225, socks, $135, loafers, $860, Gucci

“What can I say… what can I say…” he wonders aloud. “I can tell you that the new series, in my opinion, has really been elevated,” he says, before realising it’s a weak opening gambit. “It feels bigger and bolder to me than one and two. Steve will continue on his character arc (including a cool-not-cool special handshake reserved for Dustin), but maybe he’ll be a little more introspective this time.”

A pause. The internal struggle is real.

“I actually managed to see a few episodes only this morning,” he says. “But I need to be careful here. I think I threw out a spoiler in an interview recently, but the guy didn’t pick up on it. I daren’t even think what they do to you if you blow it! “OK,” he resolves. “Just take it from me. In season three, people might be surprised, they might be shocked, but they will not be disappointed. It’s going to be exciting, it’s going to be huge.”

What we do know is this. The season picks things up in 1985, with the gate to the Upside Down seemingly closed by Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). But things are set to escalate, with the gang struggling to cope with growing up, newfound relationships and, of course, otherworldly evil. But there’s definitely a different feel to things in Hawkins this time around. Keery’s right, there’s more heft in season three. The Duffer Brothers have seemingly borrowed more than just an aesthetic from Steven Spielberg, they’ve taken merch lessons from him, too. Whether it’s the H&M collab or Nike Lost Shipment collection, the Nintendo game or Lego sets, Stranger Things is set to burrow deeper into the ’80s nostalgia part of your brain than ever before. There’s even a project with Fortnite – people recently noticed an egg with the Scoops Ahoy logo of the ice cream parlour that Steve works at in season three – with more elements set to appear.

Joe Keery Stranger Things

Blazer, shirt, trousers, prices on request, Alexander McQueen

But the Duffers know enough about this game. They know that it’s the series of trailers that have the most impact and, courtesy of a soundtrack packed with the likes of New Order and Echo and The Bunnymen – not to mention Keery in full sailor outfit (“No, they didn’t let me keep it”) – they simultaneously make you love and realise how rubbish the ’80s really were. They also provide the type of fully-rounded, immersive world that J.J. Abrams brought to Lost in the early 2000s, evolving the television-as-a-cultural-modifier genre in the process. With the smoothie finally defeated, the conversation turns to tomorrow’s photoshoot with GQ.

“Shoots are great, but nobody teaches you how to do this stuff,” he says. “So you walk this fine line of wanting to be candid but not look like a total idiot.” While waiting for the bill, we feel confident that we’ve solved the problem, hastily inventing a series of numbered looks he can simply perform on request – a take-anywhere playbook of how to pose just right. “Ah, my third look,” he announces. “I call it Classic Joe. But we also have number four, Edgy Joe, number two, Innocent Joe and, of course, number one, Frightened Joe.”

For Keery, the next hustle is always the most important – particularly when it involves untangling yourself from a show like Stranger Things. That’s why he’s got a few caveats on what he does and where he goes. One: get as far away as possible from the role of Steve Harrington, and two: only work with people you admire. Clear and simple. Show producer Shawn Levy recently confirmed that season four would happen – although Netflix is yet to comment – but if conversations with the Duffer Brothers are anything to go by, that could be that. And Keery’s okay with it.

“It’s something that’s been on my mind for sure,” he says. “But it’s out of my control, really. It’s tough for anybody who leaves a show like this one. Whether it’s Game of Thrones, or Stranger Things or Breaking Bad, you do worry about people accepting you in other roles. Maybe I’ll just shave my head and get a facial tattoo.”

Joe Keery Stranger Things

Polo-shirt, $950, Salvatore Ferragamo. Belt, price on request, Saint Laurent. Trousers, $805, Stella McCartney

Only this week, Keery wrapped on his next project, an indie flick called Spree about a social media-thirsty rideshare driver, hell-bent on going viral at any cost. “The director is a genius. He basically had this movie in his head and just knew every detail of it.” But truthfully, Keery’s in no rush to simply bank roles and just keep working for the sake of it.

“It’s just one project at a time,” he explains. “The idea is to work with people you respect. Actors, directors… just work with the best people and learn as much as possible. That’s the work that I really gravitate towards.” And while Spree might be a passion project that offers the range, he’s also currently filming a movie called Free Guy alongside Ryan Reynolds, Taika Waititi and breakout British star Jodie Comer. It’s a sci-fi comedy that charts a guy who realises he’s actually in a live action video game.

“I get to do some scenes with Taika and, to me, that’s really humbling and amazing. To be able to watch these people work and then talk the whole thing through with them afterwards – that’s the reason to do it.”

And hey, if it doesn’t really work out, then there’s always the band to fall back on – Keery recently walked away from guitarist duty with indie-funk band Post Animal, allowing them both to concentrate on their own paths. Or maybe he’ll just retreat away from it and live in a cabin in the woods. “I’ve always been into cooking, so maybe I could do that,” he says. “Or baking or carpentry… I don’t know, I’m open to ideas.”

It’s Saturday morning at Dust Studios in West Hollywood and Keery is having his hair done – yep, that hair. He’s elaborating on the Anakin Skywalker theory from the previous day (Daenerys Targaryen being Anakin, in case you were wondering), before inspecting the racks of clothes filled with Gucci, Prada and Saint Laurent. It’s all for his approval, but the guy’s so chilled it almost doesn’t matter. There was a fedora he manfully struggled with for a while, but he’s pretty much game for anything and the shoot turns out to be a real breeze – playbook or no playbook.

Joe Keery Stranger Things

Sweater, trousers, prices on request, Louis Vuitton. Sneakers, $300, Kenzo

It’s an interesting scene to watch play out in front of you. The young actor on the cusp of something special and handling business with zero ego. You know that this might not be forever. That there could come a time when he becomes embittered by everything… sick of the paparazzi intrusion and gossip columns, the judgement and feral nature of the industry. Perhaps one day he’ll snap, relenting to an Upside Down where spoiled divas rule and the Demogorgon and Demodogs feed into a Mind Flayer that looks suspiciously like Mariah Carey. But then again, maybe not. If anybody can make it out intact, it’s this guy.

And with that, as the shoot wraps, Keery hangs around for a few minutes longer than he needs to. He shakes hands and throws out high-fives before posing for photos with the crew and heading off, out into the bright afternoon sunshine.

Season Three of Stranger Things streams on Netflix from July 4

Photography Peggy Sirota

Styling Keanoush Zargham 

Hair stylist Matthew Collins at The Wall Group

Makeup artist Nina Reminder

Executive producer Enrique Salcedo

Fashion assistant Simona Wiliams

Photography assistants Wade Brands and John Farrell

Digital tech assistants Sean Kiel and Jenette Maloney

Location Dust Studios, LA