The pool glistens in a sultry teaser for “Stranger Things” as revelers splash and frolic beneath the summer sun. The camera briskly pans to a phalanx of leisurely ladies perched atop their chaises. In the center, Karen Wheeler, played by Cara Buono, purses her carefully crafted lips and lies in a suggestive pose. She wants to be seen.
In Season 3 of “Stranger Things,” arriving Thursday on Netflix, audiences rightfully expect to revisit the supernatural, tweened-out nostalgia of Hawkins, Ind. But they will also see Mrs. Wheeler finally awaken from a suburban and domestic slumber after encountering Billy Hargrove (Dacre Montgomery), a mulleted, Camaro-driving charmer, who happens to be younger and also happens to be a lifeguard at the city pool. The show creators, the Duffer Brothers, described it to me as “an unexpected pairing” that may “shatter the world she has built for herself.”
Viewers got their first glimpse of said pairing at the end of Season 2, when Billy knocked on the Wheelers’ door, looking for his sister. . Mrs. Wheeler greets him in a bathrobe, batting her eyes as he takes her hand. He is shamelessly flirtatious and she is coyly delighted; he bites into a cookie and she ogles him as he walks away.
The brief but charged scene electrified the internet, with many fans clamoring for more from the provocative couple. (A smaller contingent wanted less, claiming a Mrs. Robinson-inspired trauma.) The eager ones get their wish in Season 3 — no spoilers — as Mrs. Wheeler develops, as a character, into more than just Mike and Nancy’s mom.
It’s a signature trajectory for Buono, who was previously best known for small but increasingly noteworthy roles on two of TV’s most acclaimed shows. Often cast as tough and independent, she challenges troubled men: In the sixth season of “The Sopranos,” she starred as Kelli Moltisanti, the girlfriend and eventual grieving widow of Michael Imperioli’s drug-addicted mobster Christopher. In “Mad Men” she played Dr. Faye Miller, whom she described as “the most feminist” of Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) love interests, earning an Emmy nomination in 2011. She has also appeared in series like “Third Watch” and “The Dead Zone.”
On a sunny morning at the Gramercy Park Hotel, Buono, an early-rising, lifelong resident of New York, discussed taking risks, second wave feminism and women’s visibility in Hollywood. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
We get to see more of Karen Wheeler this season. What’s her back story?
Actors are often left to fill in the blanks and I always create a detailed one for my roles. Karen committed to stay at home and be there as a housewife. She gave something up, and never developed an independent identity apart from mother and wife. She has two teenagers and then a very young child. Maybe she was thinking about a way to get out of her marriage and then, surprise! Here is another child.
It’s interesting that a show about children and the paranormal raises principles of second-wave feminism.
She does read a lot of romance novels, though. This is how she escapes, and she does the same with music and wine. I wanted to give her a glass of wine in as many scenes as possible, and maybe that would develop into some plot point. That’s her self medication. I imagine she’s drifting off into space, imagining what her life could have been had she gone back to work. But being seen, for herself, beyond mom and wife, triggers this pent-up feeling. It’s an awakening. So when young Billy shows up at her house and surprises her, she literally and figuratively “opens the door.”
Were 1980s parents free-range, or just oblivious?
Today, there is more of an emphasis on teaching lessons, instead of “don’t do this” or “don’t do that.” There are more conversations about what the parent is telling the kid to do, and the distance between kids and parents has shrunk. A lot of people say, “I’m my kid’s best friend.” Back then, people didn’t talk as much about parenting. Eighties parents like Karen don’t know what the kids are doing in the basement. Fans love this childhood freedom.
People on your social media are very “yasss” about the Mrs. Wheeler-Billy flirtation. Others hate it. Why do people react so strongly to May-December romances, particularly when the woman is the older one?
Forbidden fruit. It’s the abandonment of the customary because they leave behind what’s expected of them and they go with their feelings and wants. But does the audience want to see them move in together and get a house on the other side of town? If you go back to that last scene of “The Graduate” where Ben stops Elaine’s wedding and they run off together, so now what? It’s about imagining yourself as taking a great risk and shedding off a perceived notion of who you are.
So, what have you shed off?
I’ve run the New York City Marathon three times. Before the first time, my friends staged an intervention, saying, “You don’t work out” and “You’re so unathletic.” My dad, who still lives in the same house in the Bronx, said, “Bring a token because you’re not going to finish and you’ll have to take the subway home.” At first, it took two months of training to run one mile. I was not in any kind of physical shape, but I built up to it slowly. I completed my first marathon in 1998, in under five hours.
That “Prove ’em wrong” personality must be essential for actors.
I’m used to negative pushback. Someone tells me I can’t do something, I’m going to do it. I had a drama teacher at LaGuardia High School who would say, “You will not survive eight shows a week!” When I graduated and went to college here in the city, I did two plays at Lincoln Center my freshman year, down the block from my old school. Eight shows a week as a full-time student. And I paid for college myself.
Didn’t you go to Columbia? Your parents must have loved that.
I used my acting money, some scholarships and a Pell Grant. And a lot of debt. My parents didn’t have any money saved. They’ve always been proud of my work, but I think they probably wanted me to be in the more corporate, secure world. When I was first on “The Sopranos,” I called home from Bhutan where I was doing medical volunteer work. I asked what they thought of the show, and my dad said, “Eh,” hoping I would be a well-paid mobster.
Meh! You could still become a nice doctor.
It will be inspirational material for my screenplays. I have stories to tell. Writing helps you control the future and not be dependent on what’s coming down the pipe. It makes you take an artistic, emotional risk, and then put it out there. If I’m going to put time in it, I want it to be the riskiest thing I do.
Shawn Levy, an executive producer on “Stranger Things,” told me that women “don’t get less interesting as they get older, they get more interesting.” Feel free to age.
Women were girlfriends and wives, and men were always leading the plotline. Now, people want to see themselves represented. And this is profitable! Half of our population is women! There’s a long way to go, but women are now controlling the narrative in a way that was not possible before. And we’re finally giving them something to see.
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