This interview includes spoilers for the entire fourth season of “Stranger Things.”
The final episodes of the latest season of “Stranger Things,” which debuted Friday on Netflix, included several tragic send-offs. One of the most powerful was the goodbye between Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven and her “Papa,” the white-haired mad scientist Dr. Martin Brenner, played by the Hollywood veteran Matthew Modine.
Brenner, who helped Eleven hone her telekinetic powers at the infamous Hawkins National Laboratory, was the show’s main (human) villain until he was mauled by a Demogorgon at the end of Season 1. But he made a surprise return this season, and Modine brought his unique sense of intellectual menace to flashbacks that filled in the origin stories for Eleven and the villainous Vecna (Jamie Campbell Bower), as well as to a subplot in which he forced Eleven to relearn her very special set of skills.
Brenner again met what appeared to be a violent end, being shot multiple times by a sniper from a helicopter in the season’s penultimate episode. But is he gone for good?
Not even Modine is sure, he said in a recent phone interview, but he would love to come back somehow. During the conversation, the star of acclaimed films like “Full Metal Jacket,” “Birdy,” “Married to the Mob” and the groundbreaking HBO docudrama “And the Band Played On,” discussed how “Stranger Things” has changed his life and why he hopes Brenner’s story isn’t over. These are edited excerpts from the interview.
As you have already experienced once yourself, characters who seem to die on “Stranger Things” often don’t. Is Dr. Brenner going to come back in Season 5, which is slated to be the show’s final one?
I certainly don’t know. I would love to have the opportunity to come back. To my knowledge, the Duffer brothers haven’t even begun writing Season 5, let alone filming it.
Do you think Dr. Brenner is a villain?
Well, that’s an interesting question. Ambition is such a complicated thing. The question that I think you’re asking is: “Is Brenner capable of empathy and compassion? Did he love the numbers? Did he love Eleven?” There’s no question that I, as a performer, wanted to imbue the character with that love and compassion for them. He wasn’t just exploiting them. He absolutely loved them.
Eleven excelled at what Brenner was trying to discover: this ability to have telekinetic powers. Brenner is trying to understand the power of thought. Is it possible to manifest those things that you think? An interesting thing is that he encourages her to use her anger, and that’s where Eleven’s power comes from. Almost every time she uses that power, it’s in a destructive way. I think that’s a fascinating thing that maybe in Season 5 the Duffer brothers will explore: the destructive power of our thoughts.
It sounds as if you feel there are still themes for you to unpack.
Absolutely. I would also say, there’s an interesting thing that the Duffers put into the story: It’s never really explained how Brenner survived the Demogorgon. How is it that he also survived Vecna? The door hit him in the face and broke his nose, but he survived. Why didn’t he die with everybody else? And when Eleven, after successfully getting her power back and blowing those guards up in the air, tries to use the power against me, Brenner says, “You really didn’t think it was going to be that easy, did you?” It leaves an opening, in my mind, that maybe there’s more to Brenner than meets the eye.
How much of his back story have you been told?
The only back story I have is the one I created in my own mind to play the part.
The Upside-Down World of ‘Stranger Things’
After a three-year wait, Netflix’s sci-fi series returns with a fourth season.
- Season 4 Guide: As in seasons past, this go-round is full of nods and Easter eggs to 1970s and ’80s pop culture. Here are the major highlights.
- Review: “Stranger Things” has gone from lovingly echoing 1980s touchstones to industriously copying itself, our critic writes of the show’s fourth installment.
- The Duffer Brothers: The “Stranger Things” creators seem to share a brain. But they could never lock themselves in a writing cabin together.
- An Athlete on the Side: Caleb McLaughlin, who plays Lucas on the show, is currently filming a LeBron James biopic. And he still finds time to slay on the tennis court.
I try to understand what kind of degree would Brenner have. How did he get that job? How did he imagine the job? When I received the script, Brenner was kind of like Peter Coyote in “E.T.” — I think they called that character Keys. He wore jeans and a flannel shirt; he had a couple days’ growth of beard; he had a lot of expositional dialogue. When they told me that’s what I was doing, I was like, I’m not going to imitate Peter Coyote.
So I said, “What if I died my hair white?” I was thinking of Marlon Brando in “The Young Lions” and Rutger Hauer in “Blade Runner,” and the Japanese anime bad guys always seem to have white hair. And: “I would love to wear a suit like Cary Grant in ‘North by Northwest’ — when I fall down and stand up, the suit is still clean. I want to be so clean-shaven that the audience can smell my after-shave. And all of this expositional dialogue, I’d love to give it to people around me so that all of Dr. Brenner’s focus can be on finding Eleven.”
His concern is what happens if she gets in the hands of someone that is truly evil and exploits her. Brenner, in my point of view, was never wanting to capture her because he was angry or trying to harm her — he was trying to bring her back because she could be weaponized by someone if she got away.
What do you make of the affection for ’80s pop culture the show has inspired, particularly in viewers too young to remember it?
I suppose it was kind of like when “American Graffiti” came out: I thought it was the coolest and most amazing thing ever. I loved the music. I loved that postwar optimism that all the kids had before the Vietnam War. “American Graffiti” for me is what everybody is experiencing with “Stranger Things.” Having lived through the ’80s, I know that it wasn’t so great, but that’s what nostalgia is: We pick out the best moments, and everything makes sense. For a child growing up in the pandemic, there are no masks and kids on bicycles with walkie-talkies and a beautiful song by Kate Bush — I think that it just seems like a friendlier, less dangerous time.
Has this show changed how you’re approached in public?
Yeah. In the old days, if you were successful in 60 territories, that would be phenomenal. I think Netflix is in over 190 territories. So to be a part of something that’s so successful around the world is something that didn’t exist a decade ago.
Millie and I would go out in public, and she’s instantly recognizable to young people. I would have to remind myself that I was with “Millie Bobby Brown, the actor” and not this young girl that I’ve known since she was 11-years-old. To me, she’s just this girl who’s got a charming personality and a great sense of humor. And then you go out and you realize, oh, part of her belongs to the world.
We were driving to Florida — we had a break in filming in Atlanta, so we drove down to the beach with her family. We went into a Wal-Mart to pick up some supplies and people just were like: “What?! Dr. Brenner and Eleven are in Wal-Mart! What’s happening?!” Talk about the Upside Down. We turned people’s lives upside down in that moment. It’s wonderful. I’m so proud of her and the other castmates — with this kind of global success, there hasn’t been a train crash. There hasn’t been something terrible that happened to any of them. I don’t want to use names, but we can look back in the ’80s and ’90s at young performers whose lives were chewed up and destroyed by fame and wealth and popularity. They’ve all done very well at keeping their feet grounded.
Would you say that this show has opened doors for you?
I don’t know, it could be too soon to tell. I’m the guy who turned down “Top Gun.” It wasn’t a good fit for me. First of all, I’m 6’ 3; I couldn’t fit in the cockpit. [Laughs.]
I’ve never been driven by the desire to be famous and wealthy. What I love about this job is the opportunity to learn, like Harper Lee says in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” that we never really understand another person until we get inside their skin and move around.
I think of “And the Band Played On”: to understand what was happening during the AIDS/H.I.V. crisis; to meet those scientists who were on the front lines trying to solve that problem was an extraordinary experience. It was really important because, particularly in my profession, it was like a brush fire that was going through my colleagues and taking the lives of people. There’s a great line in that movie: “When a house is on fire, you don’t look for someone to blame. You grab a hose and you put the fire out.”
That’s what we have the opportunity to do: to help people live vicariously through characters that can make you feel better about life and give you the opportunity to learn and become more empathetic.