It feels strangely pertinent to be speaking to Joe Keery over Zoom. The 28-year-old actor’s latest film, Spree, is pieced together from footage shot on iPhones and dash cams – everyday recording equipment that any aspiring vlogger could get their hands on. Basically, in filming Spree before lockdown, he’d unknowingly prepared himself for several months of interacting exclusively via video chat.
“I wasn’t super excited about the ‘found footage’ thing [when I first read the script],” says Keery, speaking to NME from his home in LA, where he’s spent most of lockdown (apart from a brief trip to Boston to see family). “But after talking to [director] Eugene Kotlyarenko [I understood how] he was planning on shooting the film, that rather than just being a niche thing it actually really informed the movie and elevated it.”
Before the pandemic slammed the breaks on Hollywood, Keery had shot to fame playing bouffant-haired, bad-boy-turned-role-model Steve Harrington in Stranger Things. As a side hustle, he played guitar for psychedelic rock band Post Animal (he’s since left the group on good terms) and released his debut solo album ‘Twenty Twenty’ as Djo. Small parts in Aaron Sorkin drama Molly’s Game and Hannah Marks romcom After Everything filled out his resume; but it’s with the social media satirising Spree that Keery steps fully into the spotlight.
Keery plays Kurt Kunkle, a loner who works for a ride-share company called Spree. Kurt is obsessed with going viral – and willing to do anything to make it happen. His plan? Brutally murder unsuspecting passengers and stream it all live on social media. It’s a wild 90-minute ride that’s stuffed with dark comedy, cultural critique and larger than life characters – of which Keery’s Kurt is the most memorable.
The role marks a first for Joe: “I haven’t really been in this much of a movie ever before. With Stranger Things I kinda pop up here and there, say a few lines and then, ‘See you later! I’m out!’ but this was a bigger responsibility. So yeah, I was pretty nervous.”
Brought up in Newburyport, Massachusetts, Keery always had artistic interests. He made music with pals from a young age, before heading to The Theatre School of DePaul University in Chicago to study acting. While there, he joined psych-rock band Post Animal after he met guitarist Matt Williams at the restaurant they both worked at, filling his time with music, college classes and acting auditions. After graduating from DePaul in 2014 he’d racked up more than 100 auditions, landing roles in KFC and Domino’s adverts as well as small gigs on TV dramas like Empire and Chicago Fire; but it was landing the role of Steve Harrington in Stranger Things that finally gave Keery his big break.
The overnight success of Stranger Things meant Keery had to leave Post Animal, as his newfound stardom caused a spike in attendance at shows. “It can help initially with exposure, but those guys don’t have any connection to the show and they don’t want to be labelled as, like, ‘Stranger Things band’. I think we realised that right out the gate,” he told NME last year. Instead, he’s focused on his solo music under the Djo moniker – and has been working on the follow-up to his debut album during lockdown. “I’ve been doing all the Djo stuff with the same guy who I collaborated with last time, Adam Thein,” he says. “We’ve been cranking away, working on another group of songs to hopefully put out another record in the next year or two.” The first album was filled with dreamy, Tame Impala-influenced psychedelia, so what’s influenced the next one?
“You know, a bunch of things… I don’t know if I want to say,” Keery says, suddenly coy. We take a different tact, what he’s been listening to in lockdown? “I’ve been watching a bunch of the Hayao Miyazaki movies, and all the music that’s in those movies is so incredible. And honestly… Jack Johnson a fair amount, which is kind of funny.”
Aside from making music these last few months, Keery’s been kept busy promoting Spree. The film was shot over 20 days in early 2019, with different actors coming in each day. One moment he’d be shooting scenes with on-screen dad David Arquette in a strip club, the next driving around with co-stars like Mischa Barton, former star of The O.C.
“I had so much coconut oil in my hair, so I was meeting Mischa Barton looking all slimy and gross,” Keery laughs. While some of the guest stars only appeared for a day or two, legend of the Scream horror series and former-wrestler David Arquette joined Keery and director Eugene Kotlyarenko for their pre-movie prep.
“We did a night where me and David and Eugene rode around and filmed this whole thing on a phone, going to get Thai food and walking around,” says Keery. “It was something that I had never done before, and it really informed our relationship. So when we got on set half of [our on-screen relationship] was already there. It takes a certain type of person to be into something like that.”
Over the past few years, Keery has grown used to mixing with screen icons. Out later this year is Free Guy – a similarly millennial sci-fi comedy about a non-player character in a Fortnite-style video game, who becomes sentient and desperate to break out into the real world. Keery plays a programmer, and stars alongside Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer and Taiki Waititi. The film’s release has been pushed back six months due to the pandemic but is expected in December.
“It’s kind of bizarre when you meet people that you look up to,” he says of working on the star-studded production. “At first when I met Ryan, I was like, ‘Oh, hello, Ryan Reynolds’. You can’t help but notice that you’ve seen them in so many things, but you know, the guy is a machine!
“What I took away is that he is really invested in the project and he really understands the process,” adds Keery. “He’s such a team player and realises that he’s the number one dude on the callsheet, so he sets the tone for everybody on set.”
As for Stranger Things, Keery was midway through shooting the next season when coronavirus hit – but beyond that, no one’s been in touch. “I have no idea what’s going on with Stranger Things, to be honest with you. I think everybody wants to get back to work, everybody wants to keep shooting. I know that the creators are obviously really eager to get back to work, but at the forefront of everybody’s mind is you’ve got to keep everyone safe,” he says. “I have had a chance to read everything though and it’s really great. I think that the Duffer Brothers have done a really excellent job, as per usual. I get to do some fun stuff, which is great.”
It’s a typically tight-lipped response. So, naturally, we probe a bit further. “What if I just leaked the whole show to you, like now” he jokes, before giving some vague scraps of information about the next season. “What is different? Um, I just think that the end is in sight for these guys… and there’s some great threads that get tied together in this season. I think that’s ambiguous enough!”
For now, though, Keery is focused on staying productive despite the global situation. Whether that’s working on music, reading scripts for future projects or promoting Spree via Zoom, it doesn’t matter to him. The world may be changing, but with his multi-talented approach and the innovative roles he picks, Keery will definitely be ready.
‘Spree’ is now in UK cinemas