In recent months, Joe Keery, one of the stars of the Netflix smash hit “Stranger Things,” has been living out his boyhood dreams in the place where he first imagined them.
Last week, the Newburyport native and “Stranger Things” producer Shawn Levy got to take the field for a pre-game ceremony at Fenway Park, where Joe used to watch his favorite player growing up: Nomar Garciaparra. And since late May, Keery has been filming a big-budget movie in Boston, the upcoming “Free Guy,” which is directed by Levy.
“Surreal is a good way to describe it,” Keery said. “To be back in the place where you grew up wanting to do a job like this? It’s amazing.”
In an interview with Boston.com held at A4cade, the Cambridge arcade whose retro-inspired design would fit right in on the 1980s-set “Stranger Things,” Keery and Levy discussed how Keery got his start on the show, how the duo has enjoyed filming in Boston this summer, and how season three of “Stranger Things,” which debuts July 4, is the creepiest one yet.
Keery began his acting career at Theater in the Open, an annual summer performing arts program held at Maudslay State Park in Newburyport. He also harbored an interest in improv.
“I was pretty obsessed with ‘Saturday Night Live,’” Keery said. “I rewatched the Will Ferrell ‘Saturday Night Live’ best of DVD over and over and over.”
By the time he got to high school, Keery partially shifted his focus to the tech side of production, thanks to inspiration from Stephanie Williams, one of his teachers at Newburyport High School. She taught him how to problem-solve sets and effects for the school’s theater productions, and to find inspiration in the art of backstage craft.
After graduating from theater school at DePaul University in Chicago, Keery went on countless auditions, landing occasional parts in commercials, but seeking more. Eventually, his agent pointed him toward “Stranger Things.”
Keery initially auditioned for the role of Jonathan Byers, a social outcast whose younger brother Will is abducted by a monster from the “Upside Down” during season one. But, he was convinced to audition for the role of Steve Harrington, who begins the show as a prototypical high school bully.
“I didn’t hear anything for three months,” Keery said. “And then I heard they wanted me to tape for this other character, Steve Harrington. I remember being like, ‘Oh this guy? This guy’s a total jerk.’”
Keery’s take on the character proved to be a hit, and Levy said that he and co-creators the Duffer Brothers knew they needed to keep Keery involved.
“Once we realized midway through season one that we had a total ace in Joe Keery, the Duffer Brothers just kept writing to that,” Levy said. “And we did it a lot more in season two, and we continued to do it for season three. Steve Harrington is very much at the center of the narrative for ‘Stranger Things 3.’”
When Levy was tasked with directing “Free Guy,” the upcoming video game adventure-comedy starring Ryan Reynolds, he knew Keery had the chops to land a role. After Keery sent in an audition tape, Levy brought it over to Reynolds’s apartment to watch.
“I’m sitting there with Ryan and his wife, Blake Lively,” Levy recalled. “And they’re fans of ‘Stranger Things,’ but they had no idea the guy who played Steve Harrington could do what Joe did with this character in ‘Free Guy.’ Three or four lines in, we made the decision right there in the apartment.”
“Free Guy” is set to be a major project, a rare big-budget Disney film that isn’t based on prior intellectual property, which excites Levy. Crews have taken over large swaths of the Financial District and parts of the Seaport for filming almost every weekend since late May. Filming will continue through July.
In the meantime, Keery has had a chance to catch up with friends and family and visit favorite spots like The Grog, a Newburyport pub where he used to work
“Oh yeah, I’ve been through all the old haunts, seen all the family,” Keery said. “I went to a baby shower, my sister had a baby. I’m doing my hometown stay right.”
Keery and Levy were cagey about revealing details about the third season of “Stranger Things,” other than Levy saying that it was both the best and creepiest season yet.
“If you love ‘Stranger Things,’ we think you’ll find season three to be the best of the bunch,” Levy said. “It’s bigger and it’s deeper and more emotional than we’ve ever been. That said, it’s also creepier. So if you have kids who are right on that bubble of it being a little too scary, be warned.”