'Stranger Things' postmortem: Sean Astin reveals the secrets behind Bob Newby

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
From left: Winona Ryder as Joyce, Noah Schnapp as Will, Sean Astin as Bob, and Finn Wolfhard as Mike in Stranger Things (Photo: Netflix)

Warning: This interview contains spoilers for the second season of Stranger Things

#JusticeforBarb is so 2016. After bingeing on Season 2 of Stranger Things, the battle cry we’re rallying around is #JusticeforBob. That would be Bob Newby, the ultra-nerdy, ultra-normal Radio Shack manager played by geek icon Sean Astin of The Goonies and Lord of the Rings fame. Introduced as Joyce’s new beau in the first episode of the second season, good ol’ Bob quickly endeared himself to us with his “aw, shucks” attitude and obvious affection for his trauma-plagued girlfriend (Winona Ryder) and her two kids, Will (Noah Schnapp) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton). Even his name — Bob — speaks to his personality as the ultimate square-jawed nice guy dropped in the middle of a crazy situation.

Unfortunately, that name also hinted at his ultimate fate. “I think the Duffer Brothers named him Bob because it started with a B like Barb,” Astin tells Yahoo Entertainment. “And if you weren’t 100 percent sure about it, they finish it up with ‘Newby.’ I’ve never asked them, but the comparison is not lost on me. Bob kind of plays the role that Barb played [last season], but Bob lasts a lot longer!” In fact, Bob lasts all the way until Season 2’s penultimate episode, when he’s finally fed to the Demodogs as the love of his too-short life escapes. It’s a heroic fate that’s already earned him lovingly penned “In Memoriams” and Twitter tributes like the following:

For his part, Astin feels that Bob’s seemingly bitter end couldn’t be sweeter. “His death is heroic and satisfying for me as a performer,” he says. “Bob doesn’t need justice — he just needs a nice salute for a soldier doing his job.” We spoke with Astin about his big death scene, and why he’s a Joyce/Hopper ’shipper at heart.

I have to admit, up until his last episode, I kept waiting for Bob to reveal that he was a bad guy all along. He just seemed too nice!
I guess I see that. I stepped into the role when they hadn’t 100 percent decided what they were going to do with Bob, so I guess that possibility could have happened. Who could possibly be that nice, right? [Laughs.] But I think Bob serves a function for the show in that he’s the one person in Hawkins who isn’t in the middle of all that stuff. It’s flattering that you’re glad I didn’t turn evil because the other option is that I could have turned bad and lived! Would I rather be alive and bad or dead and heroic? I think it went down exactly as I would have liked.

So Bob’s fate wasn’t completely decided when you initially joined the show?
The Duffer Brothers had a lot to think about, so it wasn’t like figuring out Bob was the most important task. The earliest hints were, “You’re not going to last long!” But they liked what I was doing and Winona [Ryder] liked it, and they saw there was a vibe between us. I think you could feel the energy that suggested there was something special that Bob could contribute. The only thing I said out loud to them was: “I would love it if Bob did something heroic.” And that was at a time where they didn’t know what the heck Bob was going to do! They may well have gone there anyway, but that’s what I was advocating for.

Was there a version of the season where Bob died even earlier?
I think so. I mean, I say that without having been in the writers’ room or inside the Duffer Brothers’ head. They may have been committed to killing him sooner, but I think they were open to seeing where it went. That was part of the fun for them with that character; he’s not on the spine of the plot, so they didn’t really need to figure it out 100 percent. They wanted to see what Bob did for Joyce and Will [as characters]. There’s that great scene [in Episode 3] where Bob tells Will how to get through his nightmares and ends up almost getting him killed. You’re just like, “Oh, Bob.” With friends like that, who needs enemies? [Laughs]

The Duffer Brothers on the Stranger Things Season 2 set. (Photo: Netflix)

What are the Duffer Brothers like as collaborators?
When I would ask them a question or throw out an idea, it was incredible to see them think about it and give an answer. It’s highly entertaining to watch them feel their way through this stuff. They’re like puppy dogs: They look so young and yet they have all this responsibility. And yet, you have absolute confidence that they know where the story is going, and that they’re confident enough in their storytelling instruments. I never saw them have any self-doubt, even though I’m sure they did, because otherwise they wouldn’t be human beings! Hopefully, the audience will continue to embrace the show and give them a chance. I want to see what happens in the third season! It’s not over for me in my mind, even though I’m over [in the show], and that’s the sign of great storytelling.

Let’s talk about your death scene in the eighth episode, where the Demodogs make a meal out of you. What was it like shooting that sequence?
The Duffers luxuriate in their storytelling, building suspense and creating those jump-out-of-your-skin moments. For the running stuff, I’d either chase a golf cart down the hall or the golf cart would chase me, with a camera rig on the side. To watch it [on set] you’d just think, “Oh, it’s just a guy and a golf cart.” But when you’d look through the monitor, it would look so cool! The magic is in the cinematography; Tim Ives [the director of photography] is as much a character in the show as Eleven. The biting scene was exhausting for everybody. It took a long time to shoot, and there was a lot of screaming and writhing on the ground. They put dots all over you, and at one point one of the writers got on top of me and I writhed with them so that my clothes would crinkle up. They painted them out so all you can see is me. Then they brought in this crane thing for the blood spurting out of the mouth. It was a big sequence to do, and a heck of a send-off. I remember hoping that if I got killed off the show, it would be memorable. I think there’s a chance that people will look back at Season 2 and go, “Oh right — Bob’s the guy who got eaten by the dogs!”

Since you have Paul Reiser in that scene telling Bob where to go, I half-expected him to die like Reiser dies in Aliens: cornered in a confined space.
Since being on the show, I’ve changed my profile description on Twitter to read: “I guess I’m meta.” I love Paul and I love Aliens, which is one of the greatest horror/action movies ever made. To have Paul Reiser in my ear telling me which way to turn while running down hallways with a gun like I’m Ripley … I guess I’m meta! [Laughs.]

It’s also great that, before his death, Bob saves the group with the power of BASIC. Were you a coder back in the ’80s?
In 1984, when the season is set, I was shooting The Goonies and was more of a “run around the neighborhood” kind of kid. But my brother Tom had a big career writing code and software. If I’m just doing a scene about a guy writing code, I can survive, but not doing it myself.

As an ’80s kid myself, it kind of blew my mind to see Mikey from The Goonies in a relationship with Lydia from Beetlejuice. Did you and Winona Ryder reminisce about the old days?
I don’t think there’s any difference between Bob hugging Joyce and Sean hugging Winona. It’s the same thing. We have such affection for each other, and we relied on that shared experience. Some people have high school reunions, but visiting with her feels like visiting with my childhood.

Had Bob lived, do you think he would have convinced Joyce to come away with him to Maine?
You know, I was a fan before doing the show, and I was always rooting for Joyce and Hopper. So when I got cast as Joyce’s boyfriend, I was like, “I don’t know if I’m rooting for myself or not!” [Laughs] I don’t know that I ever reached a moment where I thought that Joyce would be better off with Bob. There are certain moments, like when they’re dancing on Halloween night or when he’s offering to move with her to Maine. Maybe in real life that’s what should have happened; it would certainly be in Joyce’s best interest! But I don’t know if that’s what should have happened on the show.

I love that you didn’t want your own character to come between Joyce and Hopper! 
There’s that moment [in Episode 5] where we rescue Hopper in the tunnels. He gets his knife, stands up, looks over at me, and goes, “Hey Bob.” I don’t know if it comes through in the show, but with just those two words, all of a sudden I was back in the AV club in high school and he’s gonna get the girl because he’s such a tall and powerful guy. And she’s on the other side of me, so I’m not even next to her! I felt bad for me there.

This season is set in 1984; if they jump ahead to 1985 in Season 3, are you hoping for some Goonies cosplay like we got with Ghostbusters this year?
I hadn’t thought of that, but now that you mention it, it would be an outrage if they didn’t do it! [Laughs] Or at least hear the Cindy Lauper song in the background! The Duffers told me after they hired me that they had a conversation questioning whether they should hire me. When they saw my audition, they were like, “That’s our Bob.” But they also thought, “It’s also Sean Astin, which is maybe too much.” They wanted me to know they hired me for who I am in this moment, that Bob was deserving of a casting hire that wasn’t just a stunt. Hopefully, it all fits!

They did avoid any overt references like having the kids say something like, “This is our time!
Yeah, but they weren’t afraid to have me point to the X on Will’s map and go, “Hey, is that a pirate treasure map?” [Laughs] So I don’t think they went over the line, but they went right up to it.

Photo: Netflix

Stranger Things is currently streaming on Netflix.

Read more from Yahoo Entertainment:

‘Stranger Things’ Season 2 Chapter One recap: Return that frown to the Upside Down 
• ‘Stranger Things’ Season 2 Chapter Two recap: Going crazy together
• ‘Stranger Things’ Season 2 Chapter Three recap: Reunited and it feels so slimy
 ‘Stranger Things’ Season 2 Chapter Four recap: What happened to Baby Jane?
 ‘Stranger Things’ Season 2 Chapter Five recap: Tangled and strangled
 ‘Stranger Things’ Season 2 Chapter Six recap: They’re heeeere
 ‘Stranger Things’ Season 2 Chapter Seven recap: Baby’s day out
• ‘Stranger Things’ Season 2 Chapter Eight recap: Blackout forever
• ‘Stranger Things’ Season 2 Chapter Nine recap: Ward and savior