In 2016, Americans and beyond were terrified by a looming, evil presence on their television screens… And no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump at the presidential debates, but rather the diabolical “Demogorgon” on Netflix’s runaway smash hit, Stranger Things—the show we all binge-watched (and rewatched) this year.
Hearkening back to the nostalgic Steven Spielberg-era family horror of the ‘80s, Stranger Things became, ironically, the least strange and most comforting escape in a world gone mad when it premiered on the streaming service over the summer. Its cast of endearing, relatable kids anchored the show’s otherwise dark and conspiratorial premise with a sense of levity and heart. Natalia Dyer was one of those kids—or rather, teenager.
Playing Nancy Wheeler, the high school-aged big sis to Mike, the Eleven-crushin’, Dungeons and Dragons player trying to unravel the mystery of his disappeared friend, Dyer’s character started off as the typical vision of any early ‘80s cinematic coming-of-age teen girl: an eye-rolling, boy obsessed princess caught between the worlds of popularity and authentic friendship. Facing incredible danger, however, Nancy quickly evolved into one of the show’s most badass feminist players alongside Winona Ryder’s desperate, relentless Joyce Byers and Millie Bobby Brown’s fierce fan-favorite Eleven.
Below, the Nashville-bred, New York-based actress and I converse about what it was like landing her life-changing gig, getting caught up on ‘80s cinema (a decade she never personally experienced), learning how to navigate the industry with grace thanks to a certain iconic co-star, and, of course, justice for Barb.
Can you tell me a little bit about growing up in Nashville and the art scene there?
I was born and raised in Nashville. Looking back on it, it’s such a pleasant place to call home. Of course it’s known for music [but] I was never in the music scene. I got started in the local community theater scene, which is really lovely. When I was younger, there wasn’t a whole lot of film work. Just little things here and there. Now, I guess, it’s starting to pick up, as is the rest of the city. It’s kind of blowing up every time I go back, which is as often as I can. My family is still there, my friends are still there. So, I go back as often as I can. It’s really exploding, lots of people are moving there. There are new things every time I go back. But it still has a very nice, mellow, Southern pace of life, which is the best thing coming from the city.
You attended the Gallatin School at NYU. How did you enjoy that?
It’s good. Technically, it’s still going! [Laughs] I had to start and stop here and there for work stuff, but it’s wonderful. It’s probably the only way I could sanely do college. I can’t see myself living in a big campus situation. And the way Gallatin works is that it’s like design your own major. There’s a lot of freedom to do exactly what you want to pursue and where your interests take you. It’s a blessing and a curse! I tend to wander with that a little bit. It’s so fun. They’re very nice to me there, very lenient with my schedule.
That’s good, because I’m sure your schedule is gonna get even crazier.
[Laughs] Yeah, I think so. I already tentatively signed up for fall classes and I was like, ‘I might have to take a leave of absence… again.’
One thing that I read about Stranger Things was that the Duffer brothers were very particular about the kids they chose for the cast, which I thought was really cool. You guys, the teens on the show and of course the younger kids, are the heart of the show. What was that audition process like for you?
It’s funny. At that point in time I was just super… I was moving out of my dorm, I was very stressed out. I remember, from the first audition I went in… but I came out of it feeling terrible about it. I don’t know, something about the vibe, I told myself, ‘There goes that one.’ So yeah, I was surprised to get a callback. And the callback felt pretty similarly bad! Magically I somehow got cast. And it was crazy and wonderful and scary and exciting. In the room, I didn’t actually meet the casting director, Carmen Cuba, who is wonderful, obviously. But I didn’t get to meet her until I was on the third audition. It just kind of crept up on me, actually, which is nice.
That’s so funny to me because I feel like you were so perfectly cast in that role, like it was tailor-made for you. What’s interesting, too, about your character is that she is not the typical victimized, damsel in distress teenage girl. There’s a lot of strength to her.
Yeah, absolutely. I’m so happy with the way Nancy turned out. The response to her is really satisfying. A lot of times, there’s a lot of damsel and victim roles around. It was nice for me to get to play a girl who finds her strength, who is really courageous and does cool things. I was really happy with that. I hope that I brought that to life in some way. Nancy is all badass. I always love to give credit to the Duffers for giving the backbone to that character.
When I was watching the show, she reminded me of another famous ‘80s Nancy character, the protagonist of Nightmare on Elm Street. Have you watched that film?
Yeah! That was actually a big part of my homework, because I hadn’t seen it. They were like, “You gotta watch this, and you gotta watch that!” It took some guts, because I know it’s kind of gory. That lovely ‘80s gore that’s kind of hilarious, but also gross when you watch by yourself. That scene is something else. Yeah, I think they actually reference that character a couple of times. It’s a different vibe, but I think there’s definitely some inspiration there.
You’re 21, but I was born in ‘89, literally the last of the ‘80s babies. But I did grow up with a lot of the films that inspired Stranger Things. I’m sure you’ve seen some of them as a kid, too. Were there certain ones that you hadn’t seen that you watched to prepare yourself for the role?
Yeah, I definitely spent some time [watching films like] Nightmare on Elm Street, Poltergeist, Close Encounters of the Third Kind… I hadn’t seen things like Pretty in Pink or Sixteen Candles. Our time period is a little more early ‘80s. There is a big difference between early ‘80s and late ‘80s. Early ‘80s is more of that ‘70s vibe. But yeah, I had to give myself a little bit of time to catch up. My mom, it’s funny, I think it was the biggest time of her life in the ‘80s! So I kind of grew up talking about the fashion, music and dancing… ‘80s everything with her. It was nice to experience that. It’s enjoyable, fun and [there’s] an innocence to that time period. It’s a pre-iPhone, pre-technology era. It’s nice to play around in that mindset.
That’s so true. I feel like one of the funniest scenes in the first season is when Hopper goes to the library and he’s looking for newspaper clippings.
[Laughs] Yeah! We were talking about how now it would be so silly. Now you have apps, GPS on your phone, Find My Friend—there’s a lot more mystery to play around with on the show. You don’t know everything. Now we have Google.
One of the most exciting announcements about the show in the weeks leading up to it was the casting of Winona Ryder. To anyone who grew up in the ‘90s especially, Winona is that iconic ‘80s and ’90s star. What was it like working with her? Did you take anything away from that experience as an actress?
Totally! I’m really impressed and inspired by the way she handles herself and how her life is private. She’s just graceful with how she handles her career and her exposure. Because of that, I think she’s so real in person. She’s such a cool lady and very talented. I learned a lot in terms of going forward and how to handle myself and carry myself. She has a lot of fame! And she’s had it ever since she was very young. That’s hard to deal with and I think she’s done it very well. I know that if I ever need anything I can ask her.
I agree, I think she definitely has a lot of grace and humility. It comes off, not necessarily through her characters, but just through her as a person in interviews or on the red carpet. She’s just so beloved, I think.
She is very endearing and genuine and very talented. Just so good. It’s no small thing to watch her do her thing in person. It’s a cool gift.
Something that really stood out for me in the last episode was when Will is in the hospital and everyone is celebrating having him back. Your character, however, is lingering in the doorway and there is this incredible moment where you can see both this sense of relief and sadness flicker across your face. As a viewer, I took that as, “Okay, this character is relieved that this entire ordeal is over, but at the same time her best friend is gone…” Nancy just went through all this trauma. I think that was a really poignant—and not to be condescending by any means, but an incredibly well-acted moment. Where does this season leave Nancy and what do you hope will to be resolved next season?
Thank you for that. The thing about it is just like, the course of events start off super quickly. The whole series happens over a very short amount of time. This group of characters’ lives is horribly turned upside down. They are really tumultuous times and at the very, very end when Will is back, things are great, and that’s kind of the goal of the whole thing. But this leaves Nancy without her best friend and that is definitely a huge emotional event to reconcile with, as well as the crazy experience they’ve all shared. It’s really ripe for exploring what happens next and how everybody copes with what happened, and that unknown element of what else is going on out there. And I would love to see justice for Barb! [Laughs]
I think that’s really important! You know, it’s an emotional thing for her to sit with. She didn’t know that was going to happen when she sent Barb home. That’s gotta hurt. And you know, she has the friendship with Jonathan and her and Steve. Things I’d like to see next season: I literally have no idea what’s going to happen, but [I’d love to see] how characters interact more, what their relationships are to each other. And yeah, learn more about what’s going on in that other dimension. The emotional impact of everything is what interests me.
That’s the heart of the show; that’s what keeps the whole thing pulsing. Did you have any idea that literally, in one weekend, Stranger Things would become a huge pop culture phenomenon?
Oh my gosh, no! There’s really no way to expect that kind of response. I think everyone involved knew that we were making something really, really cool. The story was really cool and they were all super excited about it. And Netflix is a really cool company to work with, work for, and be a part of. It’s very much in-sync with our generation and our society. The response has been really, really great and really nice. Everybody who I’ve talked to about the show loves it and has great things to say about it. And that’s really amazing to be part of. Also, it takes some getting used to. Living in New York, especially: The week before it came out, I was walking down the street, going to my normal coffee shop and the week after, I’m getting recognized. ‘Oh my gosh, are you Nancy?’ It’s a crazy turn of events. I could not have expected this.
It’s difficult to predict what is going to become a media juggernaut.
[Laughs] And what BuzzFeed article is gonna start it off! It’s crazy. It really just kind of accelerates pop culture. It’s beautiful and scary. It’s crazy to be an actual part of it now. And for people who grew up in that ‘80s age-group, this has really hit a sweet spot, and that’s really cool too. It’s cool to hear we got it right.
Now that this thing is out there in the world and people are so excited about it, what’s next for you?
As an actor, what I really want to say is that I’m looking forward to the future. It’s almost a hand to mouth kind of job. You don’t know when you go audition or read a script. I’m always looking for good stories and projects to be a part of and bring to life. But after this, for now, I’m enjoying life and crossing my fingers for season two. I like really good juicy stories. That’s my jam.