Stranger Things’s Natalia Dyer Explains Why Nancy Wheeler Isn’t Your Average Big Sister
She gets real about playing one of the show’s most dynamic characters.
Natalia Dyer is straddling two worlds right now.
In one, she’s a 19-year-old student at NYU — she’s studying at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where she explains her focus as “looking at semiotics, language, and art and how they interact with each other.” But in the other, she’s one of the stars of Stranger Things, the Netflix show that blends the great high school films of the ‘80s with the horror movies from the same decade — oh, and includes a terrifying monster from an alternate reality known as the Upside Down.
Her character, older sister Nancy Wheeler, has a lot to deal with. High school is never easy; imagine what it would be like if your best friend and your brother’s best friend both went missing. And imagine navigating college while also planning to film the second season of a hit show.
Which reality is the Upside Down? That’s for you to decide. And so far, Natalia and Nancy are both handling it all just fine. Teen Vogue caught up with the actress to talk about how her character turns a classic ‘80s trope on its head, what she’s learned from costar Winona Ryder, and what she hopes to explore when we return to Hawkins, Indiana.
Teen Vogue: What initially drew you to the character Nancy?
Natalia Dyer: I see some similarities to her in high school and me in high school — just the way that she straddles groups. I was always a floater. I had a lot of different social groups, always trying to figure out where [I] really fit in. … As her character developed, she ended up just everything I could hope for — really, just, cool — and I think she’s turning into a really strong, self-sufficient girl. … That’s credit to the Duffers for being great writers, and [I] hope to get more of that in season two.
TV: It feels like the show is definitely driven by female characters. How does it feel to be a part of that?
ND: Right? Between Winona and Millie, it’s cool to see strong leading ladies. They’re very cool parts to play, and you don’t find them everywhere. You usually find a girl-next-door kind of thing.
I think what I really like [about Nancy] is she doesn’t just stay the love interest. Of course, there’s this whole love triangle thing that people are very interested in, but she has goals and drive and she’s on a mission.
TV: The older sister character is such a mainstay trope in ‘80s movies — Jeannie in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Lisa in Dirty Dancing, for example. But Nancy sort of flips the script. Have you watched a lot of ’80s movies prior to taking on the role?
ND: I had never seen the classics with Molly Ringwald, like Pretty in Pink or Sixteen Candles, or ’80s horror, like Poltergeist, Close Encounters, and Nightmare on Elm Street. I went back and watched all of those. It’s a different kind of movie, for sure. That was fun, going back in time.
I think the show does a lot of that: picking certain archetypes from the ’80s and delving deeper into the realness of those characters, and making them more human and more complex, and really exploring the relationships and not necessarily just the plot line.
TV: What is it like to be working with the Duffers? Do you get to help develop Nancy?
ND: We definitely talk and just hang out. They’re super cool and super approachable. They do ask for our opinions about what we think and what we might think could happen and [where] we think the character [is] going. I trust the writers of the show to make a really good arc. They’re very open to collaborating, I think, which is a gift.
TV: How did you and Joe develop the dynamic between Nancy and Steve, and with Charlie for her dynamic with Jonathan?
ND: A lot of it’s just kind of there. I will say that, in the original pilot, Jonathan was the clear choice because Steve was just such a jerk. They ended up rewriting it because Joe is a very charming, nice guy and he’s just too likable. They wanted to keep him around and explore his character. So she ends up with Steve at the end, and I think that’s where she should be. I’m not going to deny that there’s obviously some kind of chemistry between Jonathan and Nancy. I don’t think either of them know what it is, but I’d be excited to see where that goes in season two. We’ll see. Again, I literally have no idea.
TV: There’s this really great moment in the first episode, where Nancy tells Steve “no” when he’s trying to go further than she’s comfortable with. What does that scene mean to you?
ND: It’s definitely not that surface relationship thing where she’s a dainty girl and [he’s] the cool guy and he takes advantage of her. Again, in the original pilot, he totally did and it was not good. It was really dark, actually. There’s a little more there now. I think it’s more interesting, and it is nice and refreshing to see her say, “Slow down,” and he listens. And that’s great.
TV: Nancy spends a lot of time navigating the different social circles of high school. Do you have any advice for anybody who is going through that shift themselves?
ND: I have a 12-year-old sister who’s just starting to get into that whole [part of life where] kids are mean and your face is breaking out and it’s a lot of stress and a lot is out of your control. I just tell her, I get it. It’s going to get better. … It’s so cliché, but you really need to take care of yourself and take pride in your individuality, because honestly, when you get older, that’s going to be so much more important than hanging out with the cool kids.
The hardest thing is not caring about other people’s opinions. Especially in this day and age … it’s this culture of friends and likes. [But likes aren’t] an ultimate definition of who you are and how popular you are and how much people like you. It’s not real. That’s the thing I try to tell her. Social media: It’s not real life. I only caught the tail end of it in high school. It can be good and it can be fun, but you can’t let it get toxic. Your friends are real. You’re real and what you think of yourself [is real], not others’ opinions.
TV: What do you hope would happen in season 2 for Nancy, in general?
ND: I think there’s a lot of room for Nancy to explore a relationship with her younger brother after this. I think after going through this experience with Mike, it could bring them together in a really nice way, so I hope that relationship gels.
TV: Another relationship to explore could be the loss of Barb. Seeing the friendship take its course — even for a few episodes — is something a lot of people could relate to. What was that like?
ND: We all are Barb in some way or another. Personally I feel like maybe I’ve been in that kind of a situation, where [you have] to prioritize your relationships. Sometimes it gets confusing and you make poor decisions in those moments that just don’t always have such high stakes as Nancy’s.
TV: That’s just one instance where the show straddles these two worlds — the paranormal monsters and the very real issues people deal with. Do you have a preference of one over the other?
ND: I’m not much one for horror stuff, but my favorite part about the script and the show is the relationships. I’m really drawn to relationship stories and human emotions. I think it’s interesting to see how all these different pieces of the puzzle fit together, and how these different generations interact with each other around this event that happens.
TV: What was it like working with Finn and the rest of the kids?
ND: They just keep such a young playful energy around all the time. Sometimes when you get them all together, it can be like, “Wow, we actually have to film this scene, guys. I know we’re having a blast, but we’ve got to get down to business.” They usually do. It’s fun. They’re great. They’re obviously all still very much kids, which is really nice.
TV: How are you handling this instant stardom?
ND: I worry about the Internet sometimes and all of that attention. You never get used to it. It was very much an overnight kind of thing. One day, you’re just walking down the street and you’re just like, you, and then the next day, after Stranger Things comes out, it was like, “Oh, you’re Nancy.” I don’t know if you ever get used to that really, being recognized, being known by strangers, but it’s cool. Thus far, it hasn’t been anything bad.
I know there’s this “Natalia Dyer official” Instagram account that’s not me. That’s the other thing — you have all these people making fake accounts of you all of a sudden. It’s like, why me? I’m normally a really cautious, keep-to-myself person with social media, but you do want to reach out to fans. I just try to be careful with it and not take it too seriously.
TV: Has Winona Ryder given you any advice?
ND: I haven’t specifically asked her for advice or anything, but just by observing the way that she handles herself and her life and the precautions she takes, I think she’s really graceful with being able to keep something sacred and go out when she needs to and support work when she needs to. She doesn’t have a big ego or anything, and I think she likes to choose work carefully. I respect that for sure. Taking time for yourself, that’s what fuels your practice. It’s such a tumultuous business and career to go after that you have to give yourself some self-love time, some recuperation time.
TV: You’ve been working for awhile, but in some ways this might be the Juggernaut that’s going to inform the rest of your career. Do you ever think about that?
ND: It’s zero to 60 right now. I’m really interested in playing cool characters and telling cool stories, just being a part of that in any capacity. Whenever I can find good stories to bring to life, that’s all I’m after, I guess. The goal is to be able to live off of something you love to do. If I can do that, then that’s what I’m going to do.
TV: Is there any one dream character that you would love to play?
ND: I don’t know that this would ever happen, but I would love to do something like a Million Dollar Baby, because if you get cast in a film that’s about a boxer or a wrestler or something, they usually show you how to do things. Something like that, where I would actually get to learn how to do something new and cool and so different from what I do in my normal life, would be amazing. It’s all about getting to live in those different experiences.
TV: Did you ever expect people would be enamored with Nancy?
ND: Really, I had no meter to gauge what the reception would be. I know that she’s kind of goody-two-shoes, then there’s the whole Barb thing. That’s something I did not expect, is how much people really took to Barb. I get it. … It reminded me, just seeing the reaction, how powerful female friendship is and how important that is, those female alliances.