Joe Chrest. Photo by Collin Richie.

The creatives: Role model

Joe Chrest


St. Alban’s, West Virginia

Actor, Stranger Things

The whole thing is painless, but all the more frightening for it. Immediately the lights flood in. Unnatural lights. Stranger things.

When actor Joe Chrest tore his retina recently, he went right back to filming scenes. All in a day’s work, he thought.

“Suddenly you see a lava lamp, a kaleidoscope of blood,” says the LSU Theatre alum. He could have been blinded.

Exactly one week before, Chrest and his wife Christine were at the Screen Actors Guild Awards celebrating with Winona Ryder, Matthew Modine and the rest of the cast of supernatural drama Stranger Things for their big win. “It was the weekend of my life,” says the veteran Baton Rouge-based actor and LSU instructor who co-stars as aloof father Ted Wheeler.

Now fully recovered from eye surgery—“They use lasers, it’s a real welding job,” Chrest says—he has landed a key role in the film Assassination Nation and is ready to get back to work on the hottest series on Netflix.

Filmed largely at Screen Gems Studios in Atlanta, Stranger Things’ mind-bending thrills and E.T.-inspired bike chases are set among the rolling suburban hills outside that Southern city. Chrest says he’s most creative when making the 7 1/2-hour drive from Baton Rouge to Georgia. That’s when he can turn his mind from his daily duties to a world of dreams. His is a quiet but layered performance that counterweights the surreal nature of the main plot.

“They’re all different versions of being a dad,” Chrest says of the spate of film and television roles that have filled his resume these last few years. He’s fathered everyone from Jonah Hill to Elvis Presley.

The biggest lesson he takes to a lot of these characters and to the students he teaches is one he learned from his own children.

“A lot of acting training is so ‘me, me, me,’ and how can I express myself, and I think that’s the wrong approach,” Chrest says. “Knowing your role is more important. The creativity is in us naturally. We have it as children, and we lose it at some point because someone tells us that’s not cool anymore.”

Chrest sees that spark in the young cast of Stranger Things and works to bring it out in his students. “I’m teaching college students how to play kids’ games,” he says. “Because acting is more about imagination than knowledge and research. And I think this is what applies to any creative field or business: You have to tear away all of those barriers, the adult blinders we put on, and tap into free creative thought.”

Season two of Stranger Things is in production now and arrives in October.