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Q&A: Actor/Performer Mark Steger talks “STRANGER THINGS”, “HOLIDAYS”

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Tool. THE PACT. STRANGER THINGS. What (or who) connects these pieces of art? The answer is actor/performer/choreographer Mark Steger. Since 1989, Steger has worked his ass off playing interesting and terrifying monsters, among various other entities. When I visited the set of Nicholas McCarthy’s “Easter” segment from HOLIDAYS, I walked around the corner and there stood Steger in full, provocative creature make-up. To be honest, the guy scared the hell out of me.

While you may not recognize his face, Seger most recently embodied the main monster throughout STRANGER THINGS, that is not only scary as hell, but also reminiscent  of classic creatures like in John Carpenter’s THE THING. FANGORIA recently spoke to Mark regarding his various roles throughout the years and, of course, the Netflix show that has millions of people smiling in genre joy.

FANGORIA: Going back to your work with Tool and with your performance group that you created, I’m curious about the journey from then to now.

MARK STEGER: In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s I was doing experimental theater in San Francisco and I decided to create my own company with a collaborator.  We started this group and it was basically an experimental, movement-based performance company and we toured quite a bit around the world with it, performing in unusual environments like castle ruins, ships, tree tops, the Los Angeles river, hanging off of bridges, etc. That was my main thing for quite some time.  

We moved to Los Angeles in 1995 and sometime around 1999, someone introduced us to Adam Jones of Tool. I was little familiar with their music and basically Adam invited us to work on one of their music videos and then suggested we perform with them live. The first thing we did with them was the “Schism” video and, as you probably know, Adam Jones directs their videos and is their guitarist as well; he used to work with Stan Winston’s studios.

FANG: That’s always insane to me.

STEGER: Yeah! I knew he worked on THE TERMINATOR and PREDATOR and all of those kinds of movies, so he makes a lot of use of practical effects and stop motion animation.

We did the first Coachella music festival where Tool headlined on the second night. We went on tour with them, where we performed hanging over the stage, while they played.  At one point they would go off the stage and we would come out and perform and the band would come out and perform.  That was such a trip, it was pretty mind blowing experience, and a lot of fun, a lot of performing at really big venues like Madison Square Garden.  Adam had other special effects people contact him and say, “Hey who was that in your music video?” I’d start to establish these relationships with other people in the industry, and I developed this unique style of movement and vocabulary over the years. It’s good for creating other beings.

FANG:  You’ve been in a lot of movies that I’m just extremely fond of, and I’ve always been enthralled by creature performers, or actors in general that really are passionate about doing that.  I’m friends with Nicholas McCarthy and man, I love your work in his films.   I did a set visit to the HOLIDAYS set, when you were filming…

STEGER:  Oh yeah, I think I remember seeing you.  Did we speak?

FANG:  I don’t think we had a chance to because you were about to film but it scared the living hell out of me to see you walk around the corner, it was just great.  Can you speak on what it was like working with Nick and the multiple times you’ve done that?

STEGER: Working with Nick is actually one of my favorite working relationships that I have had over the last few years, I’m very much in tuned with his aesthetic, where he’s coming from with his work and the fact that it’s not just gore, he’s so good with the slow creep. THE PACT for me, was a big break out for me, because though I love working and doing all of the creature stuff, it was a really fun experience to be this crazy guy who lived in a crawl space under a house, who came out to do dirty deeds every now and then.  I had a great experience and it feels very collaborative, which is what I think films should be, and it feels very collaborative working with Nick and developing the character.  Then we did AT THE DEVIL’S DOOR which had the original title of HOME, and then most recently, of course, we did “Easter,” which I don’t know if you saw the whole anthology, but I thought “Easter” rocked.

So that’s been a great experience for me and we were talking about working on the next one together too, which I don’t want to reveal too much on that but it’ll be a little bit of a departure for him and I think it’s going to be another special one.

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FANG:  That kind of aesthetic you were talking about I love. I love the ‘80s creature films and I love a lot of today’s films, but my favorite era for genre films and horror films in general is the ‘70s and I always feel that McCarthy’s aesthetic plays better into that era. Speaking of those eras, it must be somewhat overwhelming for you with STRANGER THINGS, because, just within the first two weeks of the show premiering on Netflix, it became this huge piece of instant pop culture. I think it’s one of the best first seasons of television in years.  How did you become involved with the Duffer Brothers and STRANGER THINGS?

STEGER:  I got a call one day to go meet with them.  I don’t even remember who referred me to them but I got a call to go meet at a casting studio and we just had a normal conversation.  They showed me designs that Aaron Sims did of the creature, and we discussed it, and we discussed influences. A lot of influences that people are obviously familiar with now, people who have been following the show, and following the interviews with the Duffers, things are obvious in the show as well.  Do you know what I mean? Stephen King references, the original ALIEN, John Carpenter’s THE THING, these are all touchstones for them.  Early Cronenberg even, and one of the specific directions they gave me was the shark from JAWS.  

To imagine my character as the shark from JAWS and from there, I extrapolated a little what is it about sharks, I actually remember I called up this one experience I had when I was scuba diving in Australia in the barrier reef and the first time I ever saw a shark. It was off in the distance and my diving guide like pointed it out, 30 feet away in murky water.  I just kept floating there, and I was like “Perfect” that word just popped into my mind.  The thing about a shark is that it’s an organism that hasn’t evolved much in hundreds of millions of years because it’s so perfect at what it does. I thought that was a great direction.  So I imagined myself as this sort of perfect organism for what it does, and I have to ask myself these questions, where does this creature come from? What’s gravity like where it comes from?  What does it breathe? What’s the nature of its consciousness? It’s obviously not psychologically human, how did it develop?  

Once you’re in this incredible suit that has a whole new set of parameters for your biometrics function.  All of that stuff helps me get into character.  Then you’re in these sets they build, and some of the shots were in the woods, it’s great, like being a child on this grand scale.  It felt like that on set, it felt like playing, with all these kids who were really fun to work with and you know there were certain times that I kind of kicked myself because of the fact that I had found some kind of continuity between my childhood and my adult self.  I used to read FANGORIA as a kid and now here I am talking to FANGORIA decades later!!

FANG: That’s awesome.  When people and directors decide to go primarily with a practical route, as opposed to 100% CGI stuff, you know the creature itself could look great, but I feel like most of it depends on and lies with the performer.  Your scenes in the show are just enthralling.  They’re so fun to watch.  I felt like a kid watching the show because of a lot of this stuff.  It took me back to being a kid, loving these monster movies and that kind of stuff.

STEGER: It’s a classic monster, it really is.  So much stuff went into it, the design, the fabrication, the animatronics, and the performance.  The Duffer Brothers were very smart about how it was shot, I think it’s not revealing too much, there were some sensible use of CGI, visual effects ,  but I think that’s what really pays off is knowing how to use these tools together.  And that makes my job and my performance that much more exciting, when I know what’s going into it.  They know what they’re doing.  I really had that sense.

FANG: What was it like working with the Duffers?

STEGER: It was terrific. They’re this amazing creative binary, they’re twin brothers you know; they function so kind of seamless.  Their direction is great, they would say a few words to me and I would be inspired and I would kind of run with it and I’d create.  Most of the cosmography, the bible for this is inside their heads.  So I had a bit of license with the few directions they gave me to create my own cosmography and history of this creature. What is it actually?  Is it an animal?  I think maybe it’s something more of mushroom, which has DNA that is closer to an animal than to vegetable but not either, or maybe I’m made of individual organisms that’s formed into this creature. 

It’s really fun to create something from nothing.  It wasn’t created from nothing but to have license to really run with something like this, and like I said, it feels like a classic monster.  It does feel at times like something from IT.

About the author
Jerry Smith
A lifelong genre fanatic, Smith loves all things Carpenter and plays a mean game of hide and seek. Currently the Editor In Chief of Icons of Fright, Jerry hails from the dead center of California and changes diapers on his off time.
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