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Apr 29 2022
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Natalia Dyer is No Stranger
Apr 29, 2022
2

Elle-Natalia Dyer almost didn’t turn up for the audition for Stranger Things. What would the show have been like without the doe-eyed, big sister Dyer? Hard to imagine certainly. After all, as the Netflix sci-fi horror series nears the end of its marathon run, with season five being announced as its last rodeo with the Upside Down, it’s safe to say that viewers have formed an emotional attachment to Dyer’s character — the plucky yet righteous Nancy Wheeler.


                            
 

Filming for season one of Stranger Things commenced on 7 November 2016. Dyer was 20 years old then. In the not-so-distant past before that pivotal day, she was still a second-year undergraduate at New York University (NYU), studying at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study. Like every other college millennial, she too was figuring out what she wanted to be, and do, for the rest of her life. Her time was shared between going for classes and casting calls in the city, but the latter, at that point in time, didn’t seem to be getting her anywhere. “I couldn’t give you a number [for the auditions I did], but it was enough frustration that I almost blew off the audition for Stranger Things,” she recounts.

Intrigued by the 1980s setting coupled with the idea of the paranormal and supernatural, Dyer did eventually (and thankfully) turn up for the in-room audition, responding to the brief of a sister-type character. “Afterwards, I thought I completely trashed it,” she adds. Which is why, when she did receive the call notifying her that she had won the role of Nancy Wheeler, Dyer was thrilled.

“I was beyond excited. I’d been watching a few great shows from Netflix, but it feels unreal to be a part of it all,” she says. “I do think a part of me thought this would change my life — in the sense where I had to take a break from college at the very least — but I really had no concept of how well the show would do.”

Well enough to have its seasons continuously renewed with gusto (a strong indicator of a voracious viewership appetite); to have won Critic’s Choice Television Awards, People’s Choice Awards, and to be nominated multiple times for the Golden Globe Awards and Grammy Awards. The draw of Stranger Things lies in the way it so skilfully evokes the sweet, sweet yesteryear nostalgia of the ’80s, drawing references from old-school films like Back to the FutureGhostbusters, and E.T. There is a tender balance in the storyline genres, from coming-of-age (Michael “Mike” Wheeler, played by Finn Wolfhard, emerges as a brave and compassionate preteen who takes charge), conspiracy (What happened to Barb? Human test subjects? Alternate dimensions?), to horror (flesh-eating Demogorgon, psychic Mind Flayer that wants to take over the world).

“Existing in a time when technology wasn’t so readily available for answers really lends itself to the genre, and to the characters relying on each other to figure things out,” Dyer adds, noting that putting together a riveting viewership experience is really an ensemble effort. “It makes you reconsider how they feel about what’s going on, and what actions they take with what they have in front of them.”

Indeed, Nancy Wheeler did discover the intriguingly dystopian Upside Down when she barged right into a squelchy, slime-covered tunnel in a tree trunk in search of her best friend Barbara Holland (played by Shannon Purser) who’d mysteriously disappeared from a party. Her only point of reference? A black-and-white photograph shot by a schoolmate and love interest Jonathan Byers (played by Charlie Heaton). While briefly stuck in the Upside Down, Nancy was one of the first — if not the first (surviving) character — to encounter the Demogorgon.

Her character arc begins with her as a high school girl desperate to fit in with the popular clique at school, even dating the school jock Steve Harrington (played by Joe Keery). As more disturbances from the Upside Down start to bubble to the idyllic surface of the town of Hawkins, Nancy, in a bid to uncover the truth of things, quickly grows into an insightful young lady who’s able to assume leadership. After all, in season one, she and Jonathan were the ones who theorised that the Demogorgon might be attracted to blood and took the monster head-on; in season two she used her wits to shut down the lab responsible for Barb’s death, and in season three she earned herself the nickname “Nancy Drew” because of her nose for unravelling mysteries in the name of good journalism for The Hawkins Post.

“I think Nancy has really come into herself since the first season,” Dyer shares. “She’s more confident in her ideas, and has developed a more take-charge attitude.” The same could be said for the Nashville- born actress, who would spend most of her twenties being a part of Stranger Things — an episode in her life that she says has been integral to the growth of her as a person. Nancy’s character evolution would at this point converge with Dyer’s own take on life, as she eases into the six-year-old role. “I feel akin to Nancy in the sense that over the past few years I just gradually feel a bit more secure about myself,” she says. “It’s difficult to describe, but it’s a growing feeling of curiosity about who you are and less so about how other people perceive you.”

Graduating from the Nashville School of the Arts, Dyer is a self-proclaimed introvert. She grew up in a close-knit nuclear family (mum, dad, and a younger sister), and often took part in community theatre productions. “When the first theatre production I was a part of came to an end, I was devastated and sort of knew acting was what I wanted to do for a long time,” she says. But when the boom of Stranger Things did hit her, the following for @nattyiceofficial, her Instagram account made with a high school nickname, ballooned.

At six million followers, the line between Natalia Dyer and Nancy Wheeler blurred. As the series gained international traction, the Internet buzzed with Stranger Things fandom quizzes and op-eds, discussing the Demogorgon-slaying girl caught in a sticky love triangle — as well as her real-life relationship with co-star Charlie Heaton.

It was hard to describe how overwhelming being an overnight sensation felt for her — the actress was propelled to stardom, but at the same time thrown into the deep waters of online fame. The now 27-year- old was one moment an NYU sophomore with aspirations of becoming an actress, next, she was filming with Winona Ryder and Millie Bobby Brown in Atlanta, and when she came back to New York City, it was to discover that she had become one of Google’s most searched people.

“It feels a bit surreal, even now,” she says, politely, of celebrity-level recognition. Peer closer and one would realise that her Instagram account, Dyer’s most-followed social media platform, was last updated in December 2021. The last update on the verified Twitter account @NataliaDyer was in December 2016. Her bio for both platforms couldn’t be more succinct: simply “natalia dyer” and “actor on STRANGER THINGS” on Instagram and Twitter respectively.

“I’ve always been quiet about my personal life and at some point, I had to admit that social media makes me very anxious,” she lets on. “I just know some separation between public and personal is what I need to function well. I’m happy with where I am, but again I think having space between work and my personal side is integral to that.”

One may or may not ever know that Dyer is slightly addicted to the newsfeed app on her iPhone, almost never turns down French fries, enjoys black coffee, doesn’t talk about horoscopes (she’s a Capricorn) but might engage a friend in a conversation about birth charts — if not for the friendly incessant prodding courtesy of this interview. No amount of refreshing on @nattyiceofficial would trigger an orange-pink rim to light up on her display picture, nor see her 99 post count to jump to 100 — till she really feels like updating, that is. And Dyer enjoys the reticence, in that aspect. In fact, keeping her private life, well, private, is her way of processing the chaos that may be happening on the Internet.

What she’s more than happy to discuss in detail is her work; what makes for a good actress, and the kind of actress that she aspires to become. After all, Dyer’s barely getting started, her first role was a small one in Hannah Montana: The Movie in 2009. “The people I admire most take risks,” she says. “I think staying curious and preserving the part of yourself that isn’t afraid to fail or to look silly in order to grow is important.”

 

Yes, God, Yes was another one of the actress’ more popular films, following sexually inexperienced but curious Alice (played by Dyer) — a junior at a strict Midwestern co-ed Catholic school — as she navigates through the waters of her burgeoning sexuality, struggling between the beliefs of her faith and her need for, ahem, climaxing release. Alice will soon come to discover a way of self-pleasure using the vibration function of an old-school Nokia phone, and at the end of the film, goes home to masturbate to the sex scene in Titanic instead of accepting a penance of 100 prayers.

“I grew up in the South, sort of surrounded by religion, so I could relate to the innate confusion around female pleasure and sex education in general,” Dyer shares. “It was funny, cathartic, and very human. We tried to take a very grounded, unglamorous approach to the concept.”

Being willing to let loose and do the dirty is one of many things she does to better herself as an actress. People who strive to become the role models that they don’t see on screen, or in the industry, are the ones that she looks up to the most, and hopes to emulate. “I want to keep challenging myself to the end so I can be a better storyteller,” she adds. “I want to do things that make me think, and make other people think even a little differently.”

For now, Dyer’s taking her career one step at a time, starting with ending Stranger Things with a bang. Season four will hit Netflix at the end of May this year, and filming will soon begin for season five. “What a journey! I love my Stranger Things family and have spent more years with Nancy than any other character. It’s crazy to think there’s one season left, but all good stories have an end,” she says. And while fans gear up to aggressively discuss and dissect the new episodes, Dyer has some teasers to spill: “This season will begin to connect some dots for what’s going on in Hawkins. It feels more all-encompassing. And I think it’ll be pretty scary!”