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Brett Gelman is no stranger to characters. As in, "he's a real character."
After starring in a 2008 campaign for New York's lottery, his one-man musical stage extravaganza, "One Thousand Cats," HBO's "Funny or Die" series and as an insufferable brother-in-law in Prime Video's "Fleabag," Gelman is now enjoying his most prominent role yet: as "Stranger Things'" Murray Bauman, a disgraced investigative journalist turned paranoid shut-in who lives alone in a bunker, drinks vodka like water and wears tube socks under his kimono — if he’s wearing anything at all.
And though he's been part of the ensemble since Season 2, the fourth season of Netflix's sci-fi/fantasy blockbuster — which premieres its final, feature-length episodes Friday — moves Murray, and Gelman, from colorful side character to main player. The oddball private investigator is instrumental in transporting the 1980s-themed monster tale from the fictional town of Hawkins, Ind., to the U.S.S.R. while forming an alliance with put-upon mom Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), delivering unexpected laughs in the process. “Joyce and Murray complain about each other and doubt what the other is saying,” said Gelman. “They essentially became a comedic action duo.”
Gelman's unconventional comic gifts bring much-needed levity to the series as the perils facing its teen characters become increasingly terrifying. The actor spoke with The Times at his Los Angeles home recently about the “madness” inside all great character actors, why Murray is like “Golden Girl” Bea Arthur and how “Stranger Things” liberated his inner quirky kid.
Murray emerged as a central character this season. How would you describe his trajectory up to this point?
Brett Gelman: He's this curmudgeon, a disgraced journalist who has lost faith in humanity and lives in a bunker, but through the adventures of this show and the people in Hawkins, he comes into the world again. He’s always the person who is going to lay out how dangerous the mission is and how likely it is that they're all going to die. Sort of like C-3PO, he’s constantly citing the low percentages of survival. However, unlike C-3PO, he does love the adventure. He's somebody who is used to sticking his neck out, and that's part of his attraction [to] this new Hawkins family that is slowly adopting him, or that he is slowly adopting.
They're pure people who are really good-hearted, which I don't think is how Murray saw humanity when he put himself in the bunker. He had to separate himself because he saw humanity as being broken. Then these people brought him back out. In my mind, he was like at the '68 Democratic convention in Chicago. He was in Vietnam. He was a very immersive journalist, then something happened that made him have to get out of there and just go into hiding.
Were you a fan of “Stranger Things” before you joined the series in Season 2?
Gelman: Yes! I watched it in like a day. I just got hooked … I remember thinking that these guys in their own, new way are giving us '80s Spielberg, '80s John Carpenter, Stephen King. And they created these characters that were so deliciously drawn and so juicy that you immediately cared about everybody in the town. And the monster was so scary [shivers].
Murray and Joyce Byers form an unlikely bond when they join forces to free Hopper (David Harbour) from a Soviet prison.
Gelman: He's kept in contact with Joyce, so he now has one other friend beyond just his mother. They bond because they're the survivors of the same traumatic events. They both lost Hopper and Alexei.
Alexei’s death at the fair in Season 3 was terribly sad.
Gelman: People got very mad at me for going to get corn dogs. Damn it! They're unhealthy in so many ways. Not only do they slowly kill you, they get your friends killed!
But Murray and Joyce are hilarious together.
Gelman: Getting to work with Winona is just really wild. Even though we're not that dissimilar in age, I grew up [watching her]. She was young when she started. I remember seeing her in "Beetlejuice," and I was like, "Who is this?!" ... We really got to bond this season which was like a pinch-yourself dream come true.
As a kid were you a fan of science fiction?
Gelman: I was a massive fan of the original "Star Wars" series and all of Spielberg's science fiction and fantasy in the '80s. That's like part of my DNA. That was movies. That was childhood. Whenever I [had to go to the doctor’s], there were two concessions. One, I get Kraft Macaroni & Cheese when I get home and two, I go to Toys R Us and I get a "Star Wars" action figure. Things like "Raiders [of the Lost Ark"] and "E.T." also had a profound effect on my imagination, and I think really helped harness the imagination. The Duffer Brothers fall in line with that in a great way.
What about comedy?
Gelman: Yes. A lot. Mel Brooks. The Marx Brothers. Chaplin. Peter Sellers and then the whole pantheon of '80s comedy stars: Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, John Candy, Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd. Gene Wilder was a gigantic influence on me. As for TV, I loved “The Golden Girls.” … You can't find better comedic acting than the four of them. It's just like a murderer's row of genius. Especially Bea Arthur. I think that there's a lot of Bea Arthur in Murray.
Do the nerdy teens at the core of “Stranger Things” trigger any memories of your own childhood?
Gelman: Yeah, I was a quirky kid too, who loved movies and comedy and didn't like sports. I was socially so strange and I was so sensitive. I wanted friends so bad. But the way I would come on, just so strong, and with these interests that they didn't understand. And I was not good at the things that you were supposed to be good at growing up. It just was a real drag of a combination. I was completely uncoordinated, so I had to go to an occupational therapist. I mean, any time I was forced to do Little League or basketball or go play football with friends, it was just so anxiety-inducing. It was like a wrecking ball to my self-esteem.
But as a performer who takes on a lot of nonconformist characters, that quirkiness is an asset now.
Gelman: Definitely. It's a big well to pull from in the preparation of these characters, a lot of whom are also quite socially outside the box. Even somebody who's not, the pain of that is always there and that's a gift and something I can carry to connect with people and empathize with people's pain. I think it's one of the reasons Matt, Ross and I connect so much. We are the quirky kids. And we understand being sensitive and believing in ourselves while also coming up against the odds.
Did you always know you wanted to be an actor?
Gelman: Oh, yeah. I rented a "Night at the Opera" video from the library (to age myself), and I just heard Groucho Marx's voice and I was like, "Oh, this is what I want to do." And there were key TV performances too, like watching Danny DeVito on "Taxi." I loved "Night Court" so much, particularly John Larroquette. One of the greatest comedic performances of all time was him on that show. Great comedic performances should be [revered] the same way great dramatic performances are. Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau. Leslie Nielsen in “The Naked Gun” series. You know, they're so full and perfect, the same way [Robert] DeNiro was in “Raging Bull” or Meryl [Streep] in “Sophie's Choice.”
DeNiro and Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson, they became my holy trinity of dramatic actors. Those guys are not traditional. Those guys are character actors that are so brilliant, they took on these iconic roles and that lifted them to leading-man status. But they are left-of-center actors. And there's a madness to all of them, which I can very much identify with. It’s as influential to me as the madness of Gene Wilder or Madeline Kahn.
You studied theater in college with the idea that you’d go on to Broadway and then become a huge film actor. Then you veered into sketch comedy with the Upright Citizens Brigade. What was it like trying to break into television?
Gelman: In terms of agents and casting directors, there was no interest whatsoever. I’d see all of my classmates getting agents and getting gigs. I had just one meeting and that was an advice meeting ... She was like, "You're a character actor, kid. You'll work when you're 50." She was wrong. I mean, not about being a character actor. But I started working well before 50.
Can you talk about shooting those frosty-cold scenes set in Russia? It looked physically and mentally strenuous.
Gelman: A lot of it was in Vilnius, Lithuania, and so much of what David goes through is in an actual prison. It was a very dark place and it was an operational prison until like three years ago. [The Duffers] felt "Chernobyl" was able to capture the Soviet Union in the '80s, so for us it was in Vilnius. The prison was in fact a death camp during World War II for the Jews and you felt that energy there. I was very glad that I didn't really have to spend much time in there. But it was completely freezing, especially the night shoots. And once I switched costumes with Nico [Đuričko, who plays Russian smuggler Yuri Ismaylov], I didn't have a hat, so the skin on my head was totally revealed. I was freezing!
And then there's the fight scene on the plummeting plane, where Murray has to actually employ what he's learned as a black belt. Did you have to learn karate?
Gelman: I did. I trained for like three months with Simon Rhee and Phillip Rhee, who train a lot of people. They’re masters. Phillip was one of the leads in [1989 martial arts film] "Best of the Best” and Simon was pretty much the main fighting villain in that film too. They're part of Hollywood martial arts history. I trained intensely with them for three months, like four days a week. I was like, "Well, if I'm a black belt I’ve got to look like I [know what I’m doing]."
Without giving us any spoilers, what can you tell us about Murray’s arc now, after the Season 4 finale?
Gelman: I can say that Murray will not let you down. Regardless of what happens to him in the last two episodes, through all of that, he keeps his core and is able to stay true to himself no matter who he's dealing with, whether it's somebody who he likes, like Joyce, or somebody he is at odds with, like Yuri. This season really brought out Murray’s courage, fear and his vulnerability. And I think he's a great lesson in courage through fear.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.