Stranger Things, social media, and struggling with fame…
I’m hovering in the kitchen of an East London house with Natalia Dyer. We’re waiting here until the room where our interview will take place becomes available. Testing the temperature of a pot of coffee that looks like it was made over an hour ago, the American actress tells me about how she’s been travelling Europe for the last few months, finishing up in London just a few days ago. Tonight she will be attending the Fashion Awards. When I ask if she’s presenting an award, she physically shudders at the thought and laughs.
“No, no, thank God,” she says.
“Good stuff,” I say. That’s strange, I thought… I always imagined famous people really loved presenting awards.
In the same way that Michael Cera became the unrivalled ‘awkward indie nerd’, or Zooey Deschanel became every director’s favourite ‘kooky love interest who wears glasses’, Natalia Dyer has emerged as a natural for the role of ‘teenage girl in midst of a dramatic and identity-defining awakening’. She’s played a girl who has her idea of romance shattered in 2014’s I Believe In Unicorns, and a girl who is only just discovering cybersex in the experimental short Yes God Yes. But it has been through her role as the monster-slaying good-girl-turned-bad Nancy Wheeler in Stranger Things that has made her a star.
“I read pretty young,” says 20-year-old Natalia, “so I often read for that coming-of-age 16/17-year-old who’s losing their virginity and discovering their sexuality, in a high school drama setting. I like that, because it is a very important, impactful, transformative and muddy time of life.”
“That story isn’t often told well,” I tell her. “When I was a teenager, those stories were coming through films like American Pie. Now, kids are getting such real accounts of their teenage years.”
“I’m sure American Pie was very real for some people,” she laughs.
Dyer grew up in Nashville and speaks with a very subtle Tennessean accent, the kind that makes you think of country music and nice people in cowboy hats saying ‘Hey y’all!’ – if you also have absolutely no real knowledge or experience of the American South, like me. She tells me she was a well-behaved, quiet and studious kid. On the side, she did community theatre, and appeared in Hannah Montana: The Movie at the age of 11 when it came to film in Nashville. But she used to get sick. A lot. She missed months of school because of asthma and other illnesses. Each year, she would get pneumonia without fail.
“I guess my immune system was just terrible. I became pretty good at entertaining myself and being in my own worlds, in my own head, playing games.”
“That must help with the acting game?” I say.
“Of course. There is an element of that which you have to grow out of as you grow up. But what’s great about acting is that I get to retain that in a professional setting. We are all kids playing pretend in a way. It’s all just working to get back to that sense of play and creativity.”
“We are all kids playing pretend in a way…”
I detect a microscopic fragment of weariness about Natalia when I bring up Stranger Things. When I ask her about the all the fun and wonderful capers they must get up to on set she says, “Yeah, I could gush about it for hours” in a way that seems to say, ‘Please. Please don’t make me gush about it for hours.’ When we do talk about the show her face becomes a glowing smile and she says things like “I miss filming when we’re not and I’m looking forward to doing it again” and “they are all very talented people” in a very charming but rather pre-programmed way, like when someone in the office kitchen asks how your weekend was.
It’s no secret that the younger (and most prominent) members of the Stranger Things cast have been through a frantic rollercoaster of fame. Within 35 days of the first season being published by Netflix, the modest and nostalgic sci-fi romp went from being an adorable baby pug of an underdog to becoming the third most watched Netflix show of 2016 (according to statistics from Symphony Advanced Media). It surpassed blockbuster shows like Making A Murderer and Daredevil, and dwarfed long-running prestige dramas like House Of Cards. It was the hit nobody saw coming, not even those working on it. The second season had a primetime advert during the Superbowl.
Something about Stranger Things breeds a certain type of fandom. Despite its adolescent characters, total sincerity and Spielberg-style accessibility, it also lends itself to being obsessed over and intellectualised through its references, call-backs, plot-thickeners, and gamer-esque culture of easter eggs (tiny clever details that reward repeat viewings and fuel fan theories). I’m not going to compare its directors, the Duffer Brothers, to Stanley Kubrick, as I’d probably get pipe-bombed as soon as I press save on this Word doc, but the Stranger Things feed frenzy has a strange similarity to the way people used to pore over Kubrick’s films – shot by shot, idea by idea, line by line – desperately searching for a secret logic or unseen narrative.
All this is to say, in the last two years its young stars have gone from being aspirational young hobby actors with distant dreams, to overnight superstars and objects of extreme adoration and manic infatuation for millions. This seems to have suited its younger protagonists just fine: Finn Wolfhard (Mike), Millie Bobby Brown (Eleven), Gaten Matarazzo (Dustin), Caleb McLaughlin (Lucas), and Noah Schnapp (Will) have become all-singing all-dancing darlings of the American showbiz industry, performing Motown covers with James Corden, presenting the AMA Awards and doing a rendition of ‘Uptown Funk’ at the Emmys. But Natalia’s path has been a little different. She does her fair share of press, but compared to the rest of the gang she’s like a lesser spotted snow leopard.
“Do you try to not get wrapped up in the fame and the industry?” I ask. “I’m very sceptical of it. You wanna do cool projects, work with cool people, be cool characters, work on cool movies with cool storylines, but there is an element of a game or strategy to this industry. I feel sceptical of some of the politics of it, I guess. So I take everything with a grain of salt, and try to figure out what’s important to me before I put myself out there. I try to stay off social media, because I find that a little overwhelming and toxic in a way.”
“I try to stay off social media, because I find that a little overwhelming and toxic…”
Last year, there was outrage when Millie Bobby Brown was sexualised by fans in some areas of the Internet, despite being 13-years-old. Finn Wolfhard was castigated on Twitter when he failed to stop to take a photo with a fan on the street, and responded with his own tweets about certain sections of the fanbase who harass his co-stars.
I looked at Natalia’s social media figures this morning before we met. On Instagram, her most popular account, she has 3.3 million followers. Curiously, on Twitter she hasn’t posted anything in over a year, despite being fairly vocal until that point.
“The thought of having 3.3 million people looking at all my photos, at the age of 20, would haunt me to an early grave,” I say. She lets out a long deep exhale. “Right? Honestly, it makes everything you want to post that much scarier. You’re considering everything.”
“I’d be constantly asking myself stuff like… is this picture of ice cream I’m about to post… somehow… racist?”
“Yeah, what is wrong with this post? Something has to be wrong with it? And then you’re like I can’t, I’m not, the time has passed. And you don’t even post it. It’s not my style man, not my personality to do too much social media. It’s exhausting for me. I’m an introvert.”
It’s not the first time she’s hinted at her introversion in our conversation, but it’s the first time she’s said it outright. We are entering an age where the successful introvert is no longer an anomaly, and there’s champions from Mark Zuckerberg to Sia. But many of them are experienced celebrities who can conceal and control their relationship with fame. I’m intrigued to hear how one of the most buzzy young actresses of the last 18 months strikes a balance between fame and introversion? As famous as Mark Zuckerberg is, I don’t think there is a global army of 14-year-old kids making Tumblrs of every look he’s ever worn. (Although I wish there was.)
“I struggle with the idea of fame,” says Natalia. “I never want to come across as rude or ungrateful. People on the street want to take pictures all the time, and for me, I tend to not take pictures. It feels very exhausting, and you feel like you have to be ‘on’ all the time. I will definitely shake your hand and say thank you. But I’m trying to figure out my boundaries still with all of that. It’s hard when you have a show with a passionate and lovely fanbase like ours, because it can feel overwhelming at times. Especially with the way the show took off. It’s been very quick to be suddenly recognised on the street, and for me as an introvert that is kinda, ‘Woah…’.”
“I like that she is not perfect, nice and sweet all the time…”
There is something about Natalia’s character, Nancy Wheeler, that fans and critics seem rather fascinated with. Her evolution as a character has been one of the most unexpected and controversial of the entire show, as she repeatedly makes decisions that either elate or infuriate the viewer. “Forget Barb: Fuck Nancy” ran as the title of one VICE essay, with the subtitle, “Say hello to the worst person in season two of Stranger Things.” To which the blog, Monkeys Fighting Robots, passionately responded with an essay titled, “Nancy Wheeler’s Unpopular Feminism”. “Nancy Wheeler,” wrote American journalist Claire McNear in another essay for The Ringer, “big sister, cherished daughter, piggy-bank saver, swashbuckling #Justice4Barb-seeker, Hoosier heartthrob, relaxed-curls champion and autumnal knitwear chieftain – is the only character on Stranger Things worth a damn.”
“How do you feel about Nancy?” I ask. “Are you getting sick of her?”
“I was a little nervous about this season coming out after we filmed, because I thought everyone was gonna hate her,” says Natalia. “Yeah, objectively, she makes some decisions that when you are watching you are like, ‘Why would you do that?’ But for me, it feels very human. I did stuff like that. You ditch your friend, you get trashed,” she says, making the ‘a’ last forever.
“I like that she is not perfect, nice and sweet all the time. But she takes charge when she needs to take charge. She is fearless in a way, which is fun to play. So, no, I’m not sick of her yet. I’m just very curious as to what is going to happen next.”