Baltimore Sun

Gelman steps out of bunker and into spotlight

Actor’s comic gifts bring needed levity to ‘Stranger Things’

- By Lorraine Ali

Brett Gelman is no stranger to characters. As in, “he’s a real character.”

After starring in his one-man musical stage extravagan­za “One Thousand Cats,” HBO’s “Funny or Die” series and as an insufferab­le brother-in-law in Amazon Prime Video’s “Fleabag,” Gelman is now enjoying his most prominent role yet: as “Stranger Things’ ” Murray Bauman, a disgraced investigat­ive journalist turned paranoid shut-in who lives alone in a bunker, drinks vodka like water and wears tube socks under his kimono — if he’s wearing anything at all.

And though he has been part of the ensemble since season two, the fourth season of Netflix’s sci-fi/ fantasy blockbuste­r — which recently premiered its final, feature-length episodes — moves Murray, and Gelman, from colorful side character to main player. The oddball private investigat­or is instrument­al in transporti­ng the 1980s-themed monster tale from the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana, to the USSR while forming an alliance with put-upon mom Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), delivering unexpected laughs in the process. “Joyce and Murray complain about each other and doubt what the other is saying,” said Gelman, 45. “They essentiall­y became a comedic action duo.”

Gelman’s unconventi­onal comic gifts bring much-needed levity to the series as the perils facing its teen characters become increasing­ly terrifying.

This interview with Gelman has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Murray emerged as

a central character this season. How would you describe his trajectory up to this point? A:

He’s this curmudgeon, a disgraced journalist who has lost faith in humanity and lives in a bunker, but through the adventures of this show and the people in Hawkins, he comes into the world again. He’s always the person who is going to lay out how dangerous the mission is and how likely it is that they’re all going to die. Sort of like C-3PO, he’s constantly citing the low percentage­s of survival. However, unlike C-3PO, he does love the adventure. He’s somebody who is used to sticking his neck out, and that’s part of his attraction (to) this new Hawkins family that is slowly adopting him, or that he is slowly adopting. They’re pure people who are really good-hearted, which I don’t think is how Murray saw humanity when he put himself in the bunker.

Q: Do the nerdy teens at the core of “Stranger Things” trigger any memories of your own childhood? A:

Yeah, I was a quirky kid too, who loved movies and comedy and didn’t like sports. I was socially so strange, and I was so sensitive. I wanted friends so bad. But the way I would come on, just so strong, and with these interests that they didn’t understand. And I was not good at the things that you were supposed to be good at growing up. It just was a real drag of a combinatio­n.

Q: But as a performer who takes on a lot of nonconform­ist characters, that quirkiness is an asset now. A:

Definitely. It’s a big well to pull from in the preparatio­n of these characters, a lot of whom are also quite socially outside the box.

Even somebody who’s not, the pain of that is always there and that’s a gift and something I can carry to connect with people and empathize with people’s pain. I think it’s one of the reasons (creators) Matt (Duffer), Ross (Duffer) and I connect so much. We are the quirky kids. And we understand being sensitive and believing in ourselves while also coming up against the odds.

Q: Did you always know you wanted to be an actor? A:

Oh, yeah. I rented a “Night at the Opera” video from the library (to age myself ), and I just heard Groucho Marx’s voice, and I was like, “Oh, this is what I want to do.” And there were key TV performanc­es too, like watching Danny DeVito on “Taxi.” I loved “Night Court” so much, particular­ly John Larroquett­e. One of the greatest comedic performanc­es of all time was him on that show. Great comedic performanc­es should be (revered) the same way great dramatic performanc­es are. … (Robert) De Niro and Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson, they became my holy trinity of dramatic actors. Those guys are not traditiona­l. Those guys are character actors that are so brilliant, they took on these iconic roles and that lifted them to leading-man status. But they are left-ofcenter actors. And there’s a madness to all of them, which I can very much identify with.

Q: What was it like trying to break into television? A:

In terms of agents and casting directors, there was no interest whatsoever. I’d see all of my classmates getting agents and getting gigs. I had just one meeting and that was an advice meeting ... She was like, “You’re a character actor, kid. You’ll work when you’re 50.” She was wrong. I mean, not about being a character actor. But I started working well before 50.

Q: Can you talk about shooting those frosty-cold scenes set in Russia? A:

A lot of it was in Vilnius, Lithuania, and so much of what David (Harbour) goes through is in an actual prison. It was a very dark place, and it was an operationa­l prison until like three years ago. … The prison was in fact a death camp during World War II for the Jews, and you felt that energy there. I was very glad that I didn’t really have to spend much time in there. But it was completely freezing, especially the night shoots.

Q: Then there’s the fight scene where Murray has to actually employ what he’s learned as a black belt. Did you have to learn karate? A:

I did. I trained for like three months with Simon Rhee and Phillip Rhee, who train a lot of people. … They’re part of Hollywood martial arts history. I trained intensely with them for three months, like four days a week. I was like, “Well, if I’m a black belt I’ve got to look like I (know what I’m doing).”

Q: Without any spoilers, what can you tell us about Murray’s arc now, after the season four finale? A:

I can say that Murray will not let you down. Regardless of what happens to him in the last two episodes, through all of that, he keeps his core and is able to stay true to himself no matter who he’s dealing with, whether it’s somebody who he likes, like Joyce, or somebody he is at odds with, like Yuri. This season really brought out Murray’s courage, fear and his vulnerabil­ity. And I think he’s a great lesson in courage through fear.

 ?? ANGELA WEISS/GETTY-AFP ?? Brett Gelman attends the fourth season premiere of “Stranger Things” on May 14 in New York City.
ANGELA WEISS/GETTY-AFP Brett Gelman attends the fourth season premiere of “Stranger Things” on May 14 in New York City.

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