After Brett Gelman devoured the first season of Stranger Things, he knew that he needed to be on the show. “I immediately called my agent,” he says of his first time watching the show. He then joined the Netflix original in season two as Murray Bauman, Hawkins’s resident ex-journalist-turned-crackpot private investigator, who begins poking around the unexplained disappearances in town. Murray quickly ascended to fan favorite status, memorably striking up a Slurpee-fueled bromance with Soviet scientist Alexei (Alec Utgoff) and imploring other characters to act on their palpable sexual tension. As Gelman returns as a series regular in seasons four and five, he strikes up a new dynamic with Winona Ryder’s Joyce Byers, as they team up to rescue Hopper (David Harbour) from a Russian prison. “Playing that dynamic was really fun. Without the romance, obviously,” he says. “Well maybe not obvious, who knows?” he adds coyly. “We would joke a lot about how we were going to drive David crazy by telling him that the fans were going to start calling us ‘Moyce,’ and ‘Moyce’ was going to eclipse ‘Jopper.’”
Playing eccentric weirdos has become second nature to Gelman, who also took on the role of Martin, Claire’s insufferable husband in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag. The actor believes that the deep roots of trauma shape the people we cast as villains onscreen and in the real world, and finding empathy in even the most morally bankrupt characters has become essential to his process. “Unless they're a complete sociopath,” he adds. “Then you're just seeing the world as you or I would see a mosquito.”
The actor cites his Jewish culture as the driving force behind his approach to the world, both in terms of humor and empathy. But his heritage also plays a surprisingly large role in his fashion sense, as he draws inspiration from eras where culture was dominated by macho Jewish men like Elliott Gould and Richard Dreyfuss. Gelman’s personal style, which he credits to ’70s aesthetics, ’90s streetwear, and modern power players like Bode and Demna’s Balenciaga, all lend to his overall shtick, which he has coined “Jaddy” (a portmanteau of “Jewish zaddy”).
Ahead of the Stranger Things season 4 premiere, Gelman spoke to W about the evolution of Murray, being part of a dynamic duo with Winona Ryder, and how to achieve Jaddy status.
What drew you to Murray?
I didn't totally know, in all honesty, what I was walking into when I auditioned. I just was excited to be a part of the show. Once I found out who he was, he reminded me of Richard Dreyfus’s character in Jaws, only way more neurotic. One of my heroes of all heroes—one of my acting gods—is Gene Wilder. The way that Murray is always freaking out is very much like a Gene Wilder character.
How do you feel Murray has evolved over your time on the show?
As a character he's become more part of life, and has allowed himself to have friends in it—most notably Joyce and Hopper. He’s sort of like the distant uncle to the kids, but really to Joyce. You see that in this new season. It's wild to be a comedic duo with Winona Ryder.
I feel like you get to have really interesting dynamics each season, and now you're teaming up with Joyce. How has it been working with Winona Ryder?
She's become a really great friend of mine, so I forget sometimes. I'm like, “Oh my god, I'm working with one of the biggest movie stars of all time, and somebody who I grew up being in love with.” Winona is one of the nicest, funniest people I've ever met. We have a great time. It felt like we were in a way these offbeat versions of like Harrison Ford and Karen Allen in Indiana Jones, or like Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone.
In the beginning of season four, we see you and Joyce embarking on a dangerous mission. Who from the cast would you bring on an endeavor like that?
Winona. Just my number one. I feel like Gaten [Matarazzo] or Joe Keery would be really good to bring on that because I'm intensely neurotic and a major worrier. Joe and Gaten are very even-keeled, chill, centered people. I think I would need them to balance me out.
I have kind of a chicken-and-egg question here. I noticed that Murray does karate, or mentions it a few times over the course of the season. And I saw on your social media that you also recently got a yellow belt.
Mhm. I did.
What was the influence? Did you influence the karate? Did the karate influence you?
The karate influenced me. Because Murray was a black belt, I wanted to start training. And so it got me really into it. I love it. I work with these amazing guys, Simon Rhee and Phillip Rhee, who are these masters. The whole mental philosophy of martial arts is something that I'd say is good for me. [Taekwondo] balances out the panic and the neurosis and the un-centeredness of me.
You have racked up quite the reputation for playing eccentric characters, and even douchebags, like Martin in Fleabag. How do you create bonds with these characters who can be, at times, unlikable?
I never think about a character as unlikable, or even likable. I just start to think about where they're coming from, what they want, and what they're up against in their life. I think a lot of these characters start from a major place of isolation in one way or another. That's something that I can relate to: feeling alienated. I've always been a strange, eccentric person. Unfortunately, you can become so alienated that it can turn you into being as destructive as even somebody like Martin. A lot of bad behavior comes out of compensating for senses of alienation, loneliness, self-hatred, and unfortunately, all of those are things that I've felt a lot in my life, as we all have. It's essential to humanize who you're playing, so you can't ever think of anybody as a villain. Even if you're playing…I don't even want to name the villains of today. I'm so sick of hearing their names. But you know who I'm talking about.
Is it hard to find that empathy?
Having worked for so long, that's an immediate instinct to start doing that. It's also a worldview that I have, that I don't believe in evil. The most hateful, violent person—in order to get to that place where they are hurting someone else—they had to go through such a process of deadening, the violence and hatred they feel towards themselves.
I have to ask you, Jew to Jew: what is a “Jaddy?”
A Jaddy? It’s a Jewish zaddy! Elliott Gould's a Jaddy, but so is Adam Sandler. Especially like an Uncut Gems Adam Sandler. The Sandman is a major Jaddy. It's like a sexy, Jewish, masculine man. I think there's a lot of versions of being sexy. And look, this is not a cause that I'm starting here. I'm a white straight, cis, male, I’m not in a group that is suffering and oppressed. I do have thoughts on antisemitism, of course. I think antisemitism is very much the whispered bigotry, in terms of for both men and women, of how attractiveness can be perceived. I think that there is a lack of representation amongst Jewish men with a man's face like mine. I don't have a boyish model face. And I think that was something that was really present in the ’70s. I want to bring that back.