Stranger Things is one of the bonafide decade-defining coming-of-age stories in the sci-fi genre. But a lot of the show’s charm is carried by the performers, Winona Ryder being one of them.
Imagine a version of the show where Ryder never stepped into the shoes of Joyce Byers! From the beginning, Ryder’s portrayal of Joyce has been one of the biggest USPs for the show.
Series creators Matt and Ross Duffer, aka the Duffer brothers, reflected on this to Krista Smith in a new episode of the podcast Skip Intro. They mentioned how the character of Joyce didn’t have the same compelling depth it later came to embody until the serendipitous casting of Ryder. “Joyce wasn’t that interesting of a character until we cast Winona,” explained Matt.
It was Ryder’s unique acting prowess that prompted the creators to re-imagine the character’s potential. Drawing inspiration from Richard Dreyfuss’s role in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the iconic scene with the Christmas lights illuminating a message took form.
Matt remembered, “She’s such a unique actress that we wanted to lean into her skill set. So she became Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters [of the Third Kind], and that’s where we came up with all the Christmas light stuff. I don’t know if any of that would have existed had Winona said no to the role.”
Matt was, of course, talking about the pivotal plot device in season one. Ryder’s Joyce uses the Christmas lights to communicate with her son Will while he is trapped in the eerie Upside Down. Ross was also swift to add, “Imagining [Winona] in all these scenarios started to open up a much more interesting character than just, like, mom who wants her kid back.”
They spoke about how the initial sketches of the characters began to morph into fully realised personas once the talented cast was in place. The actors themselves became instrumental in shaping the essence of the characters they portrayed.
Incidentally, Ryder’s venture into Stranger Things marked her first foray into television. The Duffers admit that initially, they weren’t sure she would accept the role, given her absence from the small screen until then.
Matt elaborated, “She’s one of those actors that we all grew up [watching] and that we all loved and had so much nostalgia for.” To woo her onboard, the brothers presented an enticing pitch document capturing the show’s aesthetic, complete with iconic references from ET to John Carpenter classics.
“We sent her this pitch document that we made that had some pretty pictures in it that had ET and Jaws and all the John Carpenter [films] that tried to capture the aesthetic of the show,” Matt went on.
They even sent her a fake trailer for the show to reel her in. Matt said, “We sent her a fake trailer for how the show would feel. We sent her the script, and then had like a four-and-a-half-hour meeting with her, which was just — it was hard to even speak because you’re sitting next to Winona Ryder and trying to be cool. She said yes. And it was amazing because I think that completely transformed the show.”
The creators still find themselves star-struck by Ryder. Ross confessed, “Even now, it’s still trippy to get a text message from Winona Ryder. You never get used to it. There’s something really, really special about her.”
As fans patiently wait for season five’s arrival on Netflix, Ross left with a teasing statement about getting more Winona Ryder goodness in collaboration with the Duffer brothers, “…hopefully Stranger Things is not our last Winona [Ryder] project.”