Joe Keery’s ‘Fargo’ Transformation & ‘Stranger Things’ Goodbye

Joe Keery
Joe Keery

Since 2016, Joe Keery has mostly been known as Steve Harrington, the bully-turned-beloved sentimental anchor on “Stranger Things,” who, no matter how many Demogorgons he’s fought, still looks great. But you wouldn’t know it if you watched the most recent season of FX’s “Fargo.” Keery, dressed in a buzz cut and shades, exudes a dangerous and edgy demeanor while remaining charming as Gator Tillman, a sheriff with major daddy issues.

Keery, a fan of the 1996 film “Fargo” and Noah Hawley’s series, jumped right into character development when he arrived on set in Calgary, Canada. He had just finished filming “Finally Dawn,” which took place in Rome. In fact, he has filmed five projects in a row without taking a break. Today, he flew from Atlanta, where he is working on the final season of “Stranger Things,” to Los Angeles for 24 hours.

“Being an actor is a weird job. You fly to a random location, relocate your entire life, and that is essentially your new life for the next six months,” he explains. This one was particularly unique: “I had also experienced a major breakup just as I was leaving Rome, so I was very isolated and focused on my work. My social life revolved almost entirely around the show, as did my professional life. We weren’t actually leaving because of COVID-19.

He immediately began working with dialect coach Liz Himelstein on Gator’s accent, and then began to physically transform after Hawley showed him images of “tactical” men.

I started working out a lot and changed my diet slightly. I’ve never done that as a job. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I believe it informed me physically… “I had a very simple lifestyle and cooked for myself,” he explains.

Despite not being a “major change,” it helped Keery become the character. He also mentions that adapting to change—a move across the world, a breakup, a diet change—is an important part of the job: “Being able to roll with the punches and buckle in.”

Then he buckled into Gator, a man he describes as someone who values himself based on the items he owns, such as his holster, sunglasses, and vest. “He wants to exude masculinity so that people finally respect him because he doesn’t respect himself,” Keery states. “That realization didn’t come right away, but once it did, it kind of unraveled the rest of the yarn. There’s something fun about the unraveling.”

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The character goes through a dark journey before deciding to turn on his own father. Although Keery is able to leave work at work, he admits that the storyline became a bit heavy.

“Sitting in that for six months, at the end of it, you’re kind of happy to leave it behind,” he continues. “I thought of him as a guy who didn’t understand how he presented himself — how it came across versus how he imagined it would. He’s not self-aware and lacks a sense of humor.”

Though Gator is unlike any role Keery has previously played, one scene featured a nod to “Stranger Things.” In Episode 4, Gator grabs a nail bat to threaten Dot Lyon (Juno Temple). Steve’s choice of weapon was also unique. (He didn’t make it into the Netflix hit, but let’s be honest: he made the best use of it.)

Hawley states it was an unintentional coincidence, but Keery recognized it immediately.

“I didn’t say anything, because I was just like, he either knows or doesn’t know and [it] doesn’t really matter,” he continues. “I thought it was funny and weird how the universe works. It’s odd that I’m doing this job and in this situation. That was a really fun sequence. It took a long time to finish!”

After that, Keery flew to Atlanta to begin the final season of “Stranger Things,” which he admits is difficult to put into perspective because it has been such an important part of his life for so long.

“It’s been an integral part of everyone’s lives, and it had such a profound impact on my life and what essentially defined my career. I owe so much to everyone there. “I love the character, the story that we’re telling, and the references to movies that I grew up watching,” he says. “It will be strange to say goodbye. But every story must come to an end, and it appears that we are nearing that point.”

Although he’s ready to move on—”I think everybody probably feels that way,” he says—he also knows he’ll miss it when it’s over.

“I’m trying to live in the moment and appreciate every day that I’m on set and get to spend with these people I adore. That’s a good way to try to live your life in general: just focus on the present,” he says, noting that it doesn’t feel like the end on set. “It simply feels like getting back to work. There is a real process behind making that show. Doing ‘Fargo’ was exciting because it was so different.

On ‘Stranger Things,’ there’s an unspoken zippiness in the way the dialogue flows together, and we all know it’ll be edited. There is this shared understanding of the product that we are creating. ‘Fargo,’ despite being an established show, has a new cast, a new story, and an open new frontier. We create it as you make it, rather than establishing it. So I look forward to doing it again on new projects.

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