‘Stranger Things’ and the Benefits of “Nostalgia Casting”

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As a viral swarm of reboots continues to invade our screens, we’ve become accustomed to getting our nostalgia fix via the reanimated corpses of childhood favorites. But Stranger Things is a different creature, an original story that hits the same nerve as a remake: It envelops viewers in the warm waters of familiarity, a sensory deprivation tank where our minds our free to float back to a time when faux-wood panels lined our walls and kids went outside to ride bikes instead of chasing virtual monsters on their phones. Created by brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, the Netflix original was released less than three weeks ago, yet somehow it already feels like a cult classic.

Stranger Things — about a group of kids (and one very determined mother) in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana, circa 1983, who band together to save their missing friend from a mysterious, otherworldly creature — taps into a potent nostalgia for ’80s-era, kid-friendly supernatural thrillers like The Goonies and E.T. Having Winona Ryder play the mother of the missing boy, Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), is itself a neat bit of “nostalgia casting,” i.e., when a famous actor whose star has faded pops back onscreen in an unexpected role — particularly, in these boom TV times, when a film actor makes the move to the small screen. It’s John Travolta hamming it up as Robert Shapiro in The People vs. O.J. Simpson, or, in that same series, David Schwimmer making an unexpected star turn as Robert Kardashian (OK, it’s basically everyone in The People vs. O.J. Simpson).

But the real “nostalgia casting” on Stranger Things is the selection of the stellar young actors, who make it easy for viewers to revel in a different kind of nostalgia than the “hey, look, it’s that actor from that show I loved 20 years ago” variety. Finn Wolfhard as group leader Mike; Millie Bobby Brown as the telekinetic, government-manipulated Eleven; Caleb McLaughlin as the skeptical Lucas; Gaten Matarazzo as the dynamic Dustin, the show’s comic relief; Natalia Dyer as Mike’s teenager sister, the sensitive, intelligent Nancy; Shannon Purser as her geeky best friend, Barb; Joe Keery as Nancy’s cool-dude love interest, Steve; and Charlie Heaton as Will’s older brother, the social outcast Jonathan — all these actors bring Stranger Things to life, creating a world that feels intimate, authentic, and familiar despite the fact that we don’t recognize most of the faces onscreen.

Casting director Carmen Cuba (to whom we owe a great debt: she also cast Magic Mike and its sequel, Magic Mike XXL) took her inspiration from films that feature dynamic groups of children, or young people forced by circumstance to grow up way too fast. She re-watched Stand By Me, Pan’s Labyrinth, Jaws, E.T., and Freaks and Geeks when preparing to cast Stranger Things. For Cuba, the chemistry of the group was more important than any one actor: “It really is almost as if that group was a role unto itself,” she wrote in an email to Flavorwire, “because until we had them all in place we couldn’t really pull the trigger on any one of them.”

What this cast of young, talented, unknown actors brings to Stranger Things is the same thing the young, talented, and then-unknown cast of Freaks and Geeks brought to that show, also set in the early 1980s: Actors who look like real people add texture and authenticity to a show set in the past — like a set-dresser choosing to decorate an ordinary living room with a shabby couch and threadbare knit blanket versus a sleek leather sofa. This is particularly true for a show set in the 1980s, that notorious nadir in fashion, design, and hairstyles.

When I think of Reagan-era beauty standards, I think of Molly Ringwald vs. Haviland Morris or Blanche Baker in Sixteen Candles; the mousy brunette set against the blonde bombshell with legs for days. I think of my weekly trips to Blockbuster as a kid, puzzling over the covers of ’80s movies that always seemed to feature the cast peering out from between a woman’s legs. Judging by those covers, in the ’80s, it was cool to look like you’d just stepped out of plastic Barbie-doll packaging.

But the teenage characters in Stranger Things don’t look like vacuum-sealed figurines; they look like real people. With the exception of 22-year-old Charlie Heaton, the teens on this show are played by actual teens (unlike 25-year-old Haviland Morris or 24-year-old Michael Schoeffling playing teenage lovebirds Caroline and Jake in Sixteen Candles). Purser — who makes her screen debut as Barb — has become an unwitting symbol for awkward but sensible teenage girls everywhere, and something of an internet sensation.

Another reason it was so important to cast unknown actors: As the Duffer brothers told Vulture, they wanted to write a series in which the ordinary meets the extraordinary, the kind of story that peaked on film in the 1980s. “What you’re looking for are kids that feel real and naturalistic,” Ross Duffer said in that interview. To that effect, Cuba looked for kids with theater experience — like Gaten Matarazzo, who performed on Broadway in Les Misérables and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert before he was cast in Stranger Things.

Casting unknown actors to play these kids makes the show’s through-line of innocence lost that much more powerful. The young kids go from playing Dungeons and Dragons in the basement rec room to battling actual monsters in the wild; Nancy goes from a doe-eyed virgin to a deflowered, disillusioned monster-slayer; and Eleven is a human incarnation of purity corrupted, a young girl blessed — and cursed — with innate abilities that render her a weapon of the state. It’s easier to believe these are real kids going through life-altering tribulations when you’re seeing the actors onscreen for the first time. Despite its supernatural elements, the world of Hawkins, Indiana feels grounded in reality. We can thank the kids for that.