Sean Astin does not want to take the elevator.
It’s a Monday afternoon when Astin arrives at a downtown L.A. building for an interview. And, sensing some upward travel will be required, he mentions that ever since the Northeast Blackout of 2003 — in which he volunteered to help first responders in New York rescue people trapped in elevators — he is a stairs guy.
But if a power outage should happen here, it’s at least comforting to know that Astin, 46, is in the building ready to spring into action. It’s even more comforting if you’ve binged Season 2 of “Stranger Things” since its release last week. (If you haven’t, bookmark this story for later. Spoilers ahead.)
Astin — known for playing Samwise in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the title character in “Rudy” and Mikey in the 1985 cult classic “The Goonies” — has emerged as the MVP of the sophomore outing of the ’80s-set sci-fi adventure series. He plays Bob Newby, the adorkable, mild-mannered boyfriend of Will’s mom Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder).
“Bob brings in an element that’s, hopefully, different than what the show’s had before,” the L.A. native says. “Kind of an optimism and a brightness, and that’s meant to complement what’s going on.”
Bob Newby is the kind of guy who says “easy-peasy.” The kind of guy who calls his car “the Bobmobile.” The kind of guy who knows how to operate a JVC video camera — he works at Radio Shack, after all. The kind of guy who rents “Mr. Mom” and loves Kenny Rogers. The kind of guy who can stand back and recognize that a bunch of colored scribblings that snake around a home is actually a map of complex tunnel systems underneath Hawkins, the town he lives in.
As Matt and Ross Duffer, the creators of the show, tell it, Bob is the “beating heart of Season 2.” Bob is someone who earns the moniker he jokingly gave himself: Bob Newby, Superhero.
He’s also the guy with the most heartbreaking death of the season.
In the penultimate episode, Bob is savagely killed by a Demo-dog, one of the ferocious creatures terrorizing the town, after volunteering to hack into the security system of the lab he’s trapped in with Joyce and company to help them escape to safety. They make it out. He doesn’t.
To say that fans had a strong reaction to his demise would be putting it mildly. Hashtags such as #TeamBob and #BobNewbySuperhero have sprung up to commemorate the character. There’s even #JusticeforBob, with many suggesting Bob is the Barb of the second season of the drama.
“My cousin sent me a text saying, ‘Nooooooo!,’” executive producer Shawn Levy said by phone. “No one wants Bob dead.”
Noah Schnapp, who plays Will Byers, is in that camp.
“I was so mad when I found out!” Schnapp said by email. “We all loved having him around and begged the Duffer brothers to keep him.”
If there’s any consolation, it’s that Bob lasted longer than originally intended. “He was supposed to die sooner in the season,” Levy said. “But we could sense that this was a character that we liked having around.”
According to the Duffers, it was the hardest scene to write in the entire season.
“We actually had a breakdown the night we wrote [the death] scene,” they said by email. “It just felt wrong to write. It made us feel sick. But we knew that, in order to raise the stakes for the final episode, we needed a low point — someone had to go. The good guys don’t always win.… Can we just blame George RR Martin?”
Astin, whose recent gigs have included voice-over work on animated series such as “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “Bunnicula” and a recurring role on FX’s “The Strain,” had known about “Stranger Things” and how it was revered for its throwback to ’80s classics like “The Goonies.” But after trying an episode when it debuted, he opted not to continue.
“Yeah, the kids are on the bikes [like ‘The Goonies’] and that’s kind of cool,” he remembers. “But, this is different ... it’s scary. I don’t like scary.”
An email from his agent about an audition for the second season spurred him to overcome his apprehension and binge the whole first season.
“I was hooked,” Astin says.
He originally auditioned for the role of a newspaper reporter investigating Barb’s disappearance, but, he recalls, “I got home and that day [the Duffers] said, ‘We thought it was great, but we think there’s another part that you’re even better for.’”
Truth be told, it almost didn’t happen. The Duffers were initially reluctant to hire Astin because they thought it might be perceived as stunt casting.
“But ... we couldn’t shake the idea,” they said. “Sean is not just an ’80s icon, he’s a great actor and, as fans, we wanted to see more of him onscreen. We ran the idea by Winona, and she flipped out ... they had worked together before and she felt a real connection to him. So we cast him, and he brought a warmth, a sense of humor and a childlike innocence to Bob that made us want to write for him more and more.”
For Astin, stepping into this world as an adult felt the same, and he was particularly impressed with the child actors, an experience he understands.
“These kids and their ability to become famous and stay themselves is pretty extraordinary,” Astin continues. “When I showed up, I was a little curious to see whether that was organic or if that was something that was, you know, a choice to kind of put it on. And what I came away with was an appreciation for just how professional they are. They’re so ready. I had more scenes with Noah — and seeing him in that scene in the hospital and he’s freaking out because the thing is in him … watching him go there — to be at a thousand percent — was unreal.”
Schnapp, who noted Astin offered great tips on how to access emotions and not force them before shooting that hospital scene, said he was most impressed with how Astin handled Bob’s death scene.
“It’s so hard to do something like that, screaming over and over again, it rips up your throat and he was amazing,” Schnapp said. “When I saw the final scene and watched him die, I was upset all over again.”
Astin, a self-proclaimed hero junkie, was happy to take one for the team. He wanted to play the hero, even if it meant death, mostly because he remembers a critical moment when he wasn’t.
He recalls a time during the filming of “The Goonies” on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank when Kerri Green, who played Andy, slipped and fell off the plank on the pirate ship. While others dove in to help her, Astin froze.
“My legs felt like cement. I saw people going in to get her from the water and I froze. And I remember thinking, I will never have that feeling again.”
“I said to the Duffers from the beginning, ‘Please let me do something heroic.’” Astin added. “I’m a little boy in my heart, and that’s what I want. And I don’t think they’ll ever go for 5 foot 7 stocky James Bond. But this is something I can do.”
And when Astin heard that, in the final episode, an image of Bob Newby, Superhero drawn by Will is caught by the camera, it made him emotional.
So what, in Astin’s view, does he hope people see as Bob’s superhero power?
“Logic,” he says.