Interview: Matthew Modine on 'Stranger Things,' Netflix, Whole Foods

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

By RODNEY HO/, originally filed Friday, July 8, 2016

In Netflix's first Atlanta-produced series "Stranger Things" set in 1983, Matthew Modine plays a serious, no-nonsense scientist with mysterious motives.

In the actual year of 1983, at age 24, Modine's movie career was just taking off, with parts in such films as "Baby It's You" and "Private School." His star rose quickly, landing key roles in "Birdy" (1984), "Vision Quest" (1985) and "Full Metal Jacket" (1987).

"It's weird because I was so busy in the 1980s, I don't remember the 1980s!" Modine said in a recent phone interview to promote the series, which debuts Friday, July 15 on Netflix with eight episodes. "I did 'Streamers' with Robert Altman. There was 'Vision Quest.' 'Mrs. Soffel' with Mel Gibson and Diane Keaton. 'Birdy' with Alan Parker. Nicolas Cage and "Full Metal Jacket.' Then 'Married to the Mob.' I was so busy! I don't even remember the music!"

As an avowed environmentalist, he did notice something about the 1980s while being on sets replicating that era: "What's flabbergasting is how ugly the cars were. Very boxy! When we were filming and the cars were running, the pollution was coming out of them. It was pre-catalytic converter. They stunk to high heaven! You wonder how we all existed with the air quality so bad. Emissions from cars and fuel efficiency is so much better now!"

He also drew the line when"Stranger Things" creators the Duffer brothers wanted him to smoke. "I can't do that," he said. "I used to smoke. I can't go back even as a character in a movie. I had a script recently about a character based on a true story. A smoker. Even if you smoke those fake cigarette cloves, you're still taking fire into your lungs, taking smoke into your lungs. I don't know if it's worth it."

The series, which also stars Winona Ryder, is an homage to 1980s films such as "Poltergeist," "ET," "The Goonies" and "Stand By Me." Ryder plays a single mom struggling to raise two sons. One of her sons disappears with no explanation but paranormal activity begins happening that soon ties to Modine's Dr. Brenner and his questionable Cold War experimentation.

Modine was reluctant to say much about Dr. Brenner for now, preferring to keep it shrouded in darkness until folks get to binge watch the season. But he did talk about his look, which was not what the creators had originally envisioned.

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

"They wanted a guy wearing jeans and was unshaven," Modine said. "My feeling was go the opposite of that. Remember the actor Robert Shaw from 'Jaws'? He was the captain. I saw him in a movie once where his hair was bleached white. He was a Nazi. And there was Cary Grant in 'North by Northwest' with his very famous blue suit when he's climbing Lincoln's nose [at Mt. Rushmore] and running from airplanes. The blue suit never got soiled. It never gets dirty. And his white shirt stayed pristine. I thought, 'That's how I want Dr. Brenner to be. Neat and clean like Cary Grant. And I wanted to have my hair bleached white like Robert Shaw in that movie. Not gray. White. It's so white it's almost blue!"

He loves Netflix, was a stockholder before he was an employee. "I've never met anybody from Netflix," he said, "which is really extraordinary. They leave the filmmakers alone to do their work. They're not telling anybody how to make their show. They've given the Duffer brothers the faith to be creative and deliver on what they've pitched."

Modine, while in Atlanta, stayed at the Georgian Terrace. He loves to just walk and he did so all around Midtown. He was seeking "something cool."

"I must have walked six miles in every direction," he said. "Up and down Ponce. I walked through every neighborhood. One day, I found the Whole Foods near the old Sears & Roebuck. I started talking to the man at the juice bar Hasani. We had lunch outside. And that's when I realized I found the cool. Everybody that is anybody in that central downtown part of Atlanta goes to that Whole Foods. It became my favorite place to eat. I sat in front. I saw Beyonce go by one day. Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers. It was crazy!"

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

(Ponce City Market, across the street and clearly striving to be Atlanta-centric cool, was not fully open yet when Modine was here. I'm sure he would have liked that, too. If the show gets renewed for a second season, I'm sure someone will point that out to him.)

I speak to a lot of actors who say how much they love Atlanta. Sometimes, it even sounds sincere. Modine sounded sincere when he said, "I love the people of Atlanta. There's something about Atlanta that is different from every other big city in America. I haven't quite put my finger on what that is but I think a big part of it is burned down after the Civil War. There was purification. Atlanta has roots in the Civil Rights movement with Martin Luther King."

He is also a fan of SCAD, which presented him with an honorary doctorate of letters. "I'm a doctor!" he said. "I'm so impressed with the students and faculty there. If I was a young 18 year old, that's the school I'd want to go to!"

We then talked a bit about how Hollywood movies are now either small indies or big blockbusters. It's tough to get anything cleared in the middle.

Modine has taken a paycheck twice for big blockbuster efforts. First time: "Cutthroat Island" in 1995 with Geena Davis. He also did "The Dark Knight Rises" in 2012. "One made a billion dollars. The other made $15 million. One you get punished. The other, you get applauded. It's weird. That's why they call it show business. The business of show."


"Stranger Things," available 3:01 a.m. EST Friday, July 15, 2016, Netflix, (eight episodes)