Actor Joe Keery is currently best known for his fan-favorite performance as Steve Harrington on Netflix’s “Stranger Things”—and for good reason. In the hit series, he went from the obnoxious, if not amusing, jock to the much more heroic character that we have come to know and love. In “Spree,” directed by Eugene Kotlyarenko (“Wobble Palace”), Keery gets to flex completely different acting muscles with the role of Kurt, a self-obsessed would-be influencer and rideshare driver who goes to deadly measures to build a following. The film, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival will release In Theaters, On Digital and On Demand on August 14.
We spoke to Keery regarding choosing roles that set him apart from his “Stranger Things” role, his collaboration process with Kotlyarenko, and the technical difficulties that come with shooting a film like a livestream.
What initially drew you to Spree?
I read the script and remember being really shocked about 20 pages in and was laughing to myself wondering, “Where could this crazy movie be going!” I had an understanding of the character, not in terms of plot or where he was going to take the story, but more of his specific voice and what [the director] Eugene Kotlyarenko was going for. After sitting down and meeting with him and learning what his aspirations and visions for his work were, it just clicked. I mean you meet so many people in the industry that when someone comes with such a strong and specific idea it stands out in a way that creates a level of excitement. We deal with some heavy topics in the film, so it felt better to sign on knowing that the person in charge was someone who I could trust to handle things the right way.
Did having that comedic and satirical tone help sell you on the movie as well?
Yeah, I think we found that to be a huge help throughout shooting, and it’s part of what makes the movie work. The idea is that throughout the first half the audience sees a bit of themselves in Kurt, and then hopefully by the end of the journey we take them on come away doing a little bit of reflection on their own relationships with social media. It’s something that I took away from the film and I personally hadn’t seen a movie that dealt with this kind of criticism so I found it really important and interesting.
Was there an appeal to play such a sinister character?
To be honest with you, I was kind of scared to do this movie, but I knew the overall message of the satire was to take these people down a peg and for us to have a moment to just laugh at the whole concept. All along the way, I had stress or anxiety about certain scenes or got hung up on the things that stuck with me, but at the end of the day, me and Eugene worked with it to shape the narrative of the film. Then as the last ten minutes contextualized the whole thing it fell strongest into place for me. You see headlines like this all the time in the news or scroll right by and never give it a second glance, and the idea that the story you are barely glancing could be something like our story is a scary thought.
As I imagine you don’t have a lot of time off in between seasons of “Stranger Things” to find or take on a lot of new projects, are there projects or things you look for that might shake up the image that that show has drawn for you or is it more along the lines of simply taking the parts that you think suit you best?
I think shaking things up is exactly what I’ve been trying to do. I just really want to work on something that is different and with complex characters, preferably as someone with an arc who learns or grows from something. Maybe even more important than the script for me is the director, who is at the end of the day the person I’m going to be working with closest and needs to be someone I can talk to, and so far that is something I’ve been really lucky to have had happen in everything I’ve worked in.
Was that anxiety over the work because of being the leading face of a feature film for the first time or mostly over the heavy subject matter you had to work through?
Oh, absolutely, a bit of everything, but a big part was making sure we told our story in the right light. I went in just hoping to have the kind of relationship with the director where you can work together like an open book, and having that relationship with Eugene really set me at ease and made the experience incredibly rewarding.
We are definitely at a point where influencer culture is seemingly everywhere to the point of oversaturation. Was there a jumping-off point or any specific people or groups that you looked into or was it just an overall deep dive?
It was really all over the map in that regard, but the ones that I think helped me the most were the ones with single-digit follower counts, people who were looking for their audience and trying to gain traction. That was where Kurt spawns from and is one of the most easily relatable points of entry to see yourself in rather than someone with hundreds of thousands of fans or things like that. It also makes the horror that much more terrifying, being able to see someone you know go off like this.
With movies like this, I’m always impressed by the technical aspects of it and the “how did they do that” of it all, and I was wondering about that with this movie and whether it was a relatively straightforward process or if there were any technical tricks you guys had to pull off behind the scenes?
Yeah, it was actually a really difficult movie to film. It was about a 20-day shoot and I’m driving for the majority of the film, which was something I had to focus on pretty much the whole time I was acting. We filmed things on various iPhones and with body cams, and we ended up using things like our phones or GoPro’s to do things in ways that they really aren’t designed to do, so you’ve got at the very least between most scenes at least eight to ten cameras going simultaneously. But to every downside or challenge, there’s a good side. So in this case, it was great that the car was essentially a stage where once it was set up we could let it run and keep shooting while we were driving around. It really ends up informing the movie too, as tons of stuff we got were just happy accidents of things we just improvised along the way.
Does that change the dynamic that you have with the other actors you are working off of with these random elements that you don’t normally think about going into each scene?
It definitely took me out of my own head a little bit, having to drive in essentially every scene, in a way where on top of having to remember things like my next line I’m also having to drive and react realistically. In a lot of ways it taught me a ton about how much your prep work really pays off if you actually put the work into it, but then at the same time on the day you shoot you have so much stimuli that it becomes a battle to keep all your attention in the right place.
Earlier you mentioned that when you were shooting the film you reevaluated social media and influencer culture, can you go into that a little more?
I think the younger guy in me had a much different relationship with engaging in social media that being in the public eye can’t help but slowly change your mindset around it. I think this movie did also make a huge impact on it by having to engage in a deep and critical level with it on a daily basis, and it makes you really weigh the positives and negatives and think about how much you are actually gaining from all your engagement in it.
How much of “Stranger Things” were you able to shoot before things were shut down? Is there a date to return that you know of?
Complete and total halt. We got in basically a month of production but we are pretty much stopped completely until this all lets up.
Is there anything you’d want people to take away from “Spree?”
I hope that people talk about the movie and reevaluate their relationships with their phones and social media, and maybe the way that it influences their relationships with other people. If the film can create any discussion on things remotely centered around that then I think we have done out jobs.
“Spree” is in select theaters and VOD now.