Stranger Things—Netflix’s ultimate ode to the 1980s and nerd culture—came screaming back July 4, 2019 after an 18-month hiatus. Bloodier. Funnier. And sadder. With the characteristic humor, horror, and heart that has made it a cultural phenomenon, something cast members Cary Elwes, Shannon Purser, and Mark Steger were happy to dish about Friday at 5:30PM in the Sheraton Grand Ballroom. All three say the kids you see on the show are the same kids in real life. Goofy yet professional. And all generally find filming a pleasant experience. Even when they have to die. Or kill. Or be the bad guy.
Elwes, best known as Westley from The Princess Bride, joined Season 3, filling the coveted nostalgic post occupied in previous seasons by other ‘80s icons. In this case, Elwes plays the smarmy Mayor Larry Kline, who sells out Sheriff Hopper to the Russians (grrrr). Shannon Purser—a hometown girl familiar with Dragon Con from years being on the other side—played the ill-fated Barb in Season 1. It’s a role that launched her acting career and became an unanticipated cultural cornerstone. Purser called it “overwhelming in the best way” and just feels lucky that she got to be there in the beginning, coloring the show in some small way. As a fan, she is excited to see where Stranger Things goes from here. Mark Steger is probably less recognizable, but make no mistake: you know him. He’s the faceless, flesh eating, terrifying Demogorgon. Steger himself is tall, but other than that you’d be hard-pressed to find a monster. He speaks gently and has kind eyes.
The audience first wanted to know from Elwes what it was like playing the bad guy. Elwes was quick to point out that Brits often get that honor, thanks to the late Alan Rickman, who paved the way with his brilliance in Die Hard, and that fortunately bad guys always get the best lines. Mayor Kline was no exception. “They’re fun to play,” Elwes said. “I enjoyed doing it.” Elwes didn’t have to audition for Mayor Kline because the Duffer Brothers, Stranger Things creators, are fans of The Princess Bride—whose mere mention garnered wild applause—so they asked Elwes to consider a part.
“I eventually told them that I didn’t have to consider it at all. That I was very happy to join this, this incredible show,” Elwes said. “And I think I can speak for my colleagues here when I say it’s the right decision because it’s one of the greatest shows ever produced on television.” Elwes did admit that he was nervous joining an established show where a high bar had already been set, including by his fellow panelists.
“I was the new guy in town,” he said, “but what was so great is that everyone made me feel so welcomed on the first day and completely disarmed me with all their charm, and that goes for the cast and the crew.”
For Steger and Purser, though, they embarked on the journey before anyone could imagine what a behemoth Stranger Things would become. “Yeah, it was incredible,” Purser said. “I remember getting the audition, and the show was originally called Montauk before it was called Stranger Things. And so, I read it, and I was just like ‘whoa, this is so cool. It’s sci-fi, and it’s 80s,’ and I just loved it so much.” Purser had never been on a set before and told herself to just take instruction and not be weird. And then Winona Ryder walked in. “And, I’m like ‘ohmigod’ and I’m freaking out.”
For Elwes, though, seeing Ryder was like seeing an old friend, as they appeared together in Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1992. He called her a wonderful actor who is very dedicated and sweet, saying he enjoyed getting to reconnect with her.
“I did not go to a table read,” Steger said to laughter, as the Demogorgon is just a physical presence. Steger is a movement director and choreographer, which made him perfect for the role. Still, he said, he walked into his “audition”—which he secured through word-of-mouth connections—only to see that his competition was younger guys he’d cast in their first parts. But, he thought to himself, “this one’s mine.” He described the Duffers as delightful, and together they looked through drawings of the Demogorgon while talking about inspirations and influences for the monster. The Alien films. John Carpenter’s The Thing. David Cronenberg films (i.e., The Fly). All the classics. Interestingly enough, the Demogorgon was originally called “The Monster” and didn’t take on its now infamous moniker until filming, when the kids started calling it the Demogorgon because of the association with Dungeons & Dragons.
When asked about working on period pieces and immersing themselves in the 1980s, Purser joked that the ‘90s were great before saying she would want to do something in the 1920s or even medieval times. Purser also said she thinks the ‘80s were super cool. She may have been born in 1997, but she grew up on John Hughes movies. “It’s strange,” she said. “It did feel oddly familiar.” She pointed out that teens, no matter the year, decade, or fashion trend, are always insecure and trying to figure themselves out.
For Elwes, who lived the 1980s, history was his favorite subject in school but he doesn’t necessarily choose roles based on that, instead preferring to pick projects that he would want to watch himself, which does include period pieces. He then joked about the “fascinating fashion” of the ‘80s, most notably shoulder pads, before detailing the lengths the Duffers went through to create the Starcourt Mall for Season 3.
“We had Gap, JCPenney, Orange Julius, arcades, a working cinema, and stuff you’ve never seen in the show—that’s how detailed it was!” he said. “And Netflix, apparently, were thinking about turning it into Starcourt Mall for real.” The audience applauded wildly and Elwes continued, “I know. Wouldn’t that be great? You should all email Netflix.”
Speaking of Starcourt Mall, Orange Julius is Elwes’ favorite place that was recreated. Steger asked if there was a Tower Records, and Purser said she’d be spending time at any makeup counters that had been recreated.
Steger talked about bringing the Demogorgon to life, which involved a combination of CGI and practical effects, which he thinks is what sets the show apart. The Duffers are careful to use a smart mix of the two mediums. For example, Steger said that in Season 1 when the Demogorgon eats the deer or Barb sees the creature—it was all him. Even when the Demogorgon catches on fire—also him, but with a CGI overlay. But, the Demodogs in Season 2 were all CGI. When asked whether the brief appearance of the Demogorgon in Season 3 was him, Steger went silent and stammered a bit, saying he was unable to talk about it. No spoilers here!
All the panelists gave Purser several nods for the influence Barb has had well beyond Season 1, going so far as to say that—besides Eleven and Eight—she may be the most powerful character considering that her spirit continues to live on. Surely, she did inspire a major story line in Season 2, one that gave us Murray Bauman, who became a key player in Season 3.
When discussing favorite scenes, for Purser, it was all about Barb’s death. “It was incredible. It happened to be my last day of filming. And it was exhausting and he was there, too,” Purser said, gesturing to Steger, who’s Demogorgon gets Barb as she sits at a pool while nursing a wounded hand.
“Yes, your passing as Barb has left a hole in all of us,” Elwes somewhat joked later in the panel.
Purser said they built an upside-down, artistic pool set, just for Barb’s death scene, which made her realize the magnitude of what she doing. She spent the day covered in slime and spitting-up baby food while performing all her own stunts, a fact Steger emphasized and applauded.
When asked about his favorite scene to film, Elwes said he enjoyed every day, but specified that his first day filming—which was with David Harbour and was directed by the Duffers—was the most memorable. Elwes was asked about his favorite fight scene from all of his work and he chose his sword fight with Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride for its sheer intensity, both in filming and in the training leading up to filming, which included working with the coaches who had worked on Star Wars. “I had never fenced before,” he said. “Mandy [Patinkin] said he hadn’t either, but I found out that he’d been training for a month, which is sooo Montoya of him.” Still, they trained—even between takes—and the scene, as he put it, turned out pretty good.
For Steger, the thing he recalled from behind the scenes was just the kids. Between takes, he had to sit in a special chair that accommodated his costume, which had super long arms. He would often be sans costume head, so he’d look ridiculous sitting there, and as the kids would pass, they’d yell, “you’re going down.” So, he’d shout back, “no, you’re going down.” Then, they’d they get on set and they’d be terrified, a true testament to their acting ability, which was a sentiment shared by Elwes. For Elwes, his fun behind-the-scenes moment came when the hair and makeup crew talked him into riding one of the Season 3 fun fair rides, which he described as something akin to a washing machine. And the whole thing was filmed by the Duffers.
Elwes, Steger, and Purser all have exciting upcoming projects. Steger just filmed scenes for the upcoming Army of the Dead directed by Zack Snyder and starring Dave Bautista. Elwes can next be seen in Season 3 of The Marvelous Ms. Maisel. And Purser couldn’t talk about what she’s got planned but did say it might involve being behind the camera.
But I wouldn’t count any of them out for a return in Season 4 of Stranger Things. Even Barb. Because, you know. Stranger and even stranger things have happened in Hawkins, Indiana.