SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you haven’t watched the entire second season of “Stranger Things.”
He may have often been the punchline, but dear, sweet, nerdy Bob Newby was also the heart of Season 2 of “Stranger Things.” As embodied by Sean Astin, Bob brought dorky charm to the show, whether he was making his moves on Joyce (Winona Ryder) in a storage closet, recommending decidedly unhip movies and music — or offering colossally bad advice to Will (Noah Schnapp).
And, yes, becoming the ultimate hero: saving the day for our beloved gang, but losing his own life in the process.
Here, Astin talks to Variety about dealing with Bob’s death, those “Goonies” references, and what he’d like to see in Season 3.
The Duffer brothers said they originally weren’t imagining you for the role. How did you get cast?
[I first auditioned] for the part of the reporter [Murray Bauman, eventually played by Brett Gelman], the conspiracy guy hired by Barb’s family to investigate her disappearance. [After the audition] I got a call right away saying they thought it was fantastic, but they actually think you’re more right for another character, Bob. I went back the next day and auditioned again for 10 minutes, and then I got a call saying they loved me for it. I found out later that they did take a beat before offering it to me. They just wanted make sure among themselves that it wasn’t too gimmicky to hire one of the “Goonies” cast to be in their ’80s retro show.
How did you feel about it? Did you think it was too gimmicky?
I liked it. I thought it was appropriate. I don’t want to use the word instinct, but when something good happens — something big or good in my life — I have this sensation that it was inevitable. Anything careerwise, “Lord of the Rings,” “Rudy,” or getting married. Which is weird, because you don’t ever want to be ungrateful for what you have. You never know when those kind of good things are going to happen to you. But somehow as soon as they do, I instantly have the sensation that this is just meant to be. “Goonies” has only grown in popularity every year for 30-something years now. For some reason it just locked into people’s hearts as being emblematic or representative of their childhoods. So when a show comes along that is looking back at that really special time in the early ’80s — in terms of movie culture, what a time! — it makes total sense that some young filmmakers would want to play with that. I first heard about “Stranger Things” from people dressed as the characters coming up to me at conventions saying, “Hey, you have to see this show. It’s ‘Goonies.'”
What did you think about “Stranger Things” when you first watched it?
When I looked at previews of it, I thought it looked more like “Poltergeist” or some kind of a thriller, and I don’t like those kinds of movies. I’m just a softie at heart, a scaredy cat. Maybe it’s because I have three daughters and I’ve appropriated their fear mechanism over the last 20 years of rearing daughters. So when I got the email saying there was a “Stranger Things” audition, I went into my bedroom, I crawled under the covers, I turned off all of the lights, and I binged. It may have been my first-ever binge. I was experimenting with that feeling — Freddy Krueger, Jason, jump out and scare you. When the demogorgon was there I was terrified! I fell in love with all of the characters and with Eleven [Millie Bobby Brown]. Matthew Modine is an old friend and I love everything he does, and watching him as Papa I just thought was a tour de force. So there wasn’t even a second’s hesitation [about signing on]. Of course it’s a high-quality thing they’re going after with integrity and real passion and artistry, and it would be ungrateful to the universe not to just leap for joy at being invited on to another big successful franchise.
And you even got to make a “Goonies” joke!
That was funny! I was so excited because Bob was really starting to come alive in that episode. Showing up on set and looking at all of Will’s drawings of the house and just the production design of it, I don’t think I got the “X marks the spot” joke in the script. I was focused on other stuff. So when the kids and Winona ushered me over to show me the “X marks the spot” on the map, I think my reaction in the show is the same reaction I had — which is you could almost hear the “womp womp.” It was at a moment in the show where it hopefully didn’t take people out of it too much. But I like it. It was funny.
That’s one of the joys of the show — those winks and nods to the ’80s.
Yeah, I guess I’m one of the winks or nods. I put on my Twitter profile where you write a description about yourself: “I guess I’m meta.” Because I kept reading, “It’s the most meta moment: Sean Astin just did ‘Stranger Things’!”
You’ve definitely arrived.
Or gone back! (Laughs)
Fans have clearly embraced Bob. Did you expect that level of response?
The fact is they really gave Bob something spectacular to do in episode 8, where he saves the lives of all the heroes. First of all, when you come to the end of a season like that, if people like the show, that’s make it or break it for the emotional journey they’ve been on for seven hours. So the fact that I got to do that quite dramatic sequence … It was really fun to film, just building the tension the way the Duffer brothers know how to — and having Paul Reiser, I almost wanted to call myself Ripley. Being in those hallways and doing those running sequences, you could just feel that it was a special thing.
The Duffers and [director] Shawn Levy were so insistent that you have no idea how much people are going to like Bob. I’ve been around a long time, and I’ve done a lot of things, and sometimes things hit when you don’t realize it and sometimes things you think are going to hit don’t. The positive response to Bob has been heartwarming for me, but it also kind of forced me to think about what it was that they liked so much. And what I’ve kind of appreciated way more after watching the response is how much people want and need for there to be nice, decent people in the world. And that a stepfather or a wannabe stepdad who can come into your life and may be a little bit awkward but just wants to make it work — there’s no hesitation from Bob. Bob isn’t questioning where the relationship is going. Bob is all in.
His relationship with Joyce was incredibly sweet. Where does Joyce go from here?
I’m not sure what’s going to happen with the show going forward. I certainly was rooting for Hopper [David Harbour] and Joyce to get together in the first season. And when I realized I was coming on as Winona’s love interest, I was like, I’m not sure I would want to be with Winona. I would want Hopper to be with Winona! As a fan of the show, is the audience going to be like just get rid of that idiot because I really want to finish the romantic story between Hopper and Joyce?
But by episode 4, I’m starting to root for me. So when Bob goes, I was like, oh, man. I was not sure that people would respond to Bob, but there are a whole lot of really interesting relationships going on. Eleven and Hopper. Eleven and her journey with her mother, and Eleven and her journey with her sister. And Steve and the four boys and Max. There’s a lot going on. So for people to take a moment to say, “Bob’s really special,” that really feels good. It feels good to have earned a place on the bench with the rest of the team.
How did they break the news to you that Bob wasn’t going to make it?
It was pretty clear when I got the part that Bob wasn’t going to make it. I would say, “What’s Bob’s future?,” and they would kind of look at each other and then look down. I was like, “I got it. Just please let him do something heroic before he goes.” You know, it’s funny: A lot of people online were thinking that Bob was going to be a spy for the government. But for me, there was never any doubt that Bob was just 100% pure, through and through. I can’t remember what my contract was, but I think it was very possible that I could have died in episode 4 or 5. So I said, “Let me do one thing that’s heroic. I don’t care what it is, even if it’s a really small, some contribution.”
The Duffer brothers were really focused and intense on what they were doing, but they also had a spirit of play about them. So when Bob comes in and starts saying, “I love Kenny Rogers, let’s watch ‘Mr. Mom'” — that’s awesome. Those goofy things that they wrote! They were like, “You really brought Kenny Rogers to life.” I really do like Kenny Rogers! I can sing it right now. [Sings] “Islands in the stream, that is what we are. No one in between. How can we be wrong. Sail away with me. To another… “ I can do Dolly Parton’s part, too! So I think every time the moment came where they had to kill Bob, they were like, “Yeah, let’s just wait to the next episode.”
Yes, I definitely heard from them that they delayed your death because they were having so much fun with the character and what you brought to him.
There are things about what Bob does that they wrote that I didn’t necessarily get — like the Bobmobile: “Hey, you want to go for a ride in the Bobmobile?” I was ready to do it, but it didn’t seem as charming to me. And then you walk over to the monitor and they are just giggling at this idea of this guy saying “Bobmobile.” And then you deliver it, and it’s funny. And then you read these comments after it comes out, and people love the Bobmobile! So what are you going to do?
But there are two moments that I love about Bob that I don’t really hear people talk about online. I like the scene with Will where he gives him what turns out to be just awful advice to stand and face the monsters of your dreams and look them head-on. That might be good for some people with their monsters, but Will’s monsters are slightly more aggressive. [Laughs]
And then there’s a moment with Winona outside her shop where we’re sitting and I talk about bullies and the fact that bullies pick on people who don’t push back. That relationship to Will is really special in my mind, and it says a lot about a lot of things. We are living in a world right now where bullies seem to be winning at everything. I remember David Harbour’s speech at the SAG Awards when he talked about people who feel left out, people who feel othered and lonely in life and need a champion, and how he thinks that he thought that the reason people like “Stranger Things” so much was the show was a champion for them. And I feel like Bob gives voice to an aspect of that that is familiar to everyone. If you’re not the guy who is going to puff your chest out like a rooster and go fight somebody, our society discards you. You’re relegated to “We don’t salute you.” So I think it’s really, really good to give that person, the kind of normal guy, a chance to look at a broken woman and try to bond with her.
That’s absolutely what people are responding to. Hence the #JusticeforBob campaign. But is Bob in fact dead?
Oh, Bob is good and dead. But there’s no need for [#JusticeforBob]. Bob has justice. He died in the line of duty. Bob had a skill set equal to the moment, and he did his job to save his girl and her family because he knew how, so that’s it. It’s a sad, tragic death. It might be nice to have a little moment for him, but they gave him that, too — that little drawing that Will does of Bob Newby, Superhero. That’s a better hashtag than #JusticeforBob. Everybody knows what Bob did, and Bob died heroically.
So you won’t be in Season 3, but what would you want to see?
I heard Millie say something in an interview about wanting her and Max to be friends. I want to see that so badly. Steve is pretty special. It’ll be interesting to see what they can do now that it’s locked in that Steve is selfless, that he’s a hero. And Will has just got to have a break. It would be great if Will and Joyce got to do something that was nice and relaxing — like get a pedicure or something. I’ve had my time in the sun, and now I just sit back and have to wait for a year to binge Season 3 with the rest of the world.
Did you have any advice for the kids, having been in their shoes once upon a time?
They were looking for guidance, and that felt great. In terms of the kids, my work was with Finn [Wolfhard] and Noah [Schnapp]. With Noah we talked a little bit about technique. His performance in this season is Emmy-worthy as far as I’m concerned. He’s taken his place in that tradition of world-class performances by children. When that thing is possessing him and he’s freaking out, that’s not easy to do.
I’m very impressed with who they are, how they approach their schoolwork, how they’re managing their friendship with each other. You know, it’s not easy. I pray that the values that they all seem to possess now sustain them once this whole phenomenon is over. There’s the expectation that gets created for everyone [which] is that they should work consistently now for the rest of their life. And that’s maybe not what’s going to happen and maybe is not the best thing for everybody. I just hope that as their careers ebb and flow and they choose new direction in their lives that they will just hold on. I have confidence in them and I care. I really care a lot about people having a similar experience to the experience I did.
I think there’s a responsibility that performers have not to go overboard, but to be respectful of people who came before you. And then when you look at people coming up behind, you want to set an example. They didn’t really need to hear that much from me; they already know what they’re doing. But from now until the rest of time, if any of those kids want to reach out and talk to me about anything about their life and career, I’m here for them.