Joe Keery Got an "Education" Working with Ryan Reynolds and Taika Waititi on 'Free Guy'

The 'Stranger Things' actor talks N64, returning to theatres and his next music project
Joe Keery Got an 'Education' Working with Ryan Reynolds and Taika Waititi on 'Free Guy'
Actor and musician Joe Keery became a familiar face after he starred as Steve Harrington on Stranger Things, which was executive produced and partly directed by Shawn Levy. The actor is once again collaborating with Levy by starring in the summer blockbuster Free Guy alongside Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer and Taika Waititi.

In the action comedy, Kerry sheds off his Stranger Things image and plays a down-on-his-luck video game developer. The actor has always been vocal about the kinds of roles he chooses — ones that dive deeper with a complex character arc. Most importantly, he looks at the director of the project over the script. Collaboration has been of utmost importance to him, and his work in Free Guy is proof that, in the right hands, he can flourish on-screen.

Exclaim! spoke with Keery about shaking up his image with Free Guy, how Reynolds served as a role model for him, and what it feels like getting back to the theatres. We even picked his brain on when we can expect some new music from him.

You've been taking up a lot of new projects to shake up your Stranger Things image. Compared to Steve Harrington, how did it feel to play Keys and stretch your range as an actor?

I was really pleasantly surprised with this character that I was so lucky to play. I also really enjoy that, at the beginning of the film, we find Keys is really depressed and kind of in a bad place in his life. Because he has spent all this time and effort the past few years developing this game with Millie, sells it, and kind of does the thing that he wants to do. And then the game is shelved. And he ends up just working at a company as sort of this pencil-pushing desk jockey, pretty much. He's not really doing anything that he wants to do. And his relationship Millie kind of falls apart. It's this great, built-in backstory already there for you. And it's a springboard for the rest of the movie. There's a lot of ground to cover, really, with the relationship between me and Millie, and then also between Guy along the way, and I think that's a really complex and interesting writing device that the writers used to flesh out real-world relationships.

If every character is a bit of the actor who plays them, how much of Joe is in Keys?

I'd say it's a fair amount. As a little kid, I really loved playing N64 and video games. So I think there's definitely a part of the gaming culture of the movie within me. But I think that's kind of maybe just my way of doing this job is, in order to make a character kind of believable, you have to be able to see a little bit of yourself in them.

You've mentioned that, for you, more important than the script is the director. You've worked with Shawn Levy on Stranger Things and now this. How has your collaboration as actor and director evolved over the course of this film?

I felt so lucky, because I've worked with him for five years on the show, and the trust is already there. And that's the main thing that is in question, really, when you're deciding to do something, or if you get cast in something is: does this person really have the movie in them? What's their vision? And will they be able to sort of do everything that they're talking about? For me, it was just so easy, because I know Shawn, and I know how talented he is and how driven he is, and his enthusiasm for the project. And, obviously, working with Ryan and this amazing cast, it's just very easy to get on set and give different shades of this character and trust that they're going to find a cool way to put together the performance in the edit.

You've said that Ryan has been a role model for you. How so?

Just the way he carries himself, and how kind he is to other people on-set. He takes the time to know everybody's name and to make people feel comfortable. Then I think it also just benefits the movie, because everybody feels more comfortable on set and they're able to do their best work because it's kind of a relaxed vibe. So it's just also really cool being able to watch someone who's such an experienced person in this industry. It's so amazing to be able to watch them work. And he's doing so much and it looks so easy. And that's something that's really difficult.

Taika is hilarious in this. How do you manage to keep a straight face while working with him as a scene partner?

I'll tell you that it is really tough. Yeah, he's amazing. He's also another person that I was pretty nervous to work with, just because I'm such a massive fan of his. I think he's a genius. But it was an education. The guy has no fear. He is not afraid to try crazy, different things on every single take. Obviously, we're going to get what's on the page. But there are no rules for Taika. And it's amazing. That's why he has such a distinct style, because he's so willing to just go for it. I feel like I learned a lot every day just about letting your guard down and just going for it.

The themes of the movie feel more relevant than ever. Even your character Keys becomes more empowered and takes steps to regain control of his life. Do you remember a particular moment when you felt empowered to make a change and take stock of your life?

You know, I can't think of something specifically in my own life, but I do think it's become sort of more timely also with everything that's going on, and the level of isolation that's been the last year for everybody. I hope that this movie is a chance for people to sort of have a moment of levity, and to come together and laugh at something, and hopefully be in the theatre together and get the beautiful feeling of being in a theatre with everybody. I think there is a real palpable thing when you're sitting in a room with a bunch of people. The reason that I say that is because we just actually watched it last night in the theatre, and it was so it was so cool to hear everybody's reaction live.

If you created an online avatar for a video game, what would it look like?

It would be Ryan Reynolds probably. I just want to look like him. Or I'd be Sly Stallone. Yeah, I'd be Sly Stallone in the first Rocky probably, that's a pretty good one too.

When can we expect some more new music from you?

Yes, soon, I think. I've been finishing up my stuff on Stranger Things. And now, yeah, [I'm] just shifting my focus there. And, you know, [I've] got a lot of ideas and hoping that something will come together soon. Definitely putting effort and work towards that. So, yeah, so thanks for asking. Appreciate it.

If you were stuck in a video game, who would you rely on to save you? Sort of Free Joe?

My sisters would be…I can rely on them. They'd help me get out. They would figure out a way to get me out.