While co-stars Natalia Dyer and Charlie Heaton have navigated plenty of peril while traversing the Upside Down through four seasons of Netflix’s hit show “Stranger Things”, nothing has quite prepared the two for this. The real-life and on-screen couple sit down with Vogue to play a friendly game of “Never Have I Ever”. The stars of Netflix’s crown jewel pull questions from a fish bowl and try to keep from blushing while discussing their secret cartoon crushes and dreams of reality TV stardom. Did Natalie try to crash a wedding? Did Charlie really walk out of an audition? Watch the film in full to see the co-stars spill all.
The actor on love in the spotlight and life in Stranger Things
There’s an apartment somewhere in New York with Natalia Dyer’s name on it. Well, not literally – the American equivalent of a small, blue commemorative plaque hasn’t been installed. But when we speak over Zoom one bright afternoon, the actor is days away from buying and moving into her own place.
‘Gaten [Matarazzo, who plays Dustin] is pretty hilarious in group chats. He’s got a really funny brain, that one. We have a fun time; a lot of it is getting to hang out with cool people and I feel very fortunate to have it as my job.’
Dyer credits the show’s older cast, such as Winona Ryder and David Harbour, for creating a valuable support network. ‘Winona is quite protective,’ she says. ‘I don’t think they knew anything either [about how big the show was going to be]. It was such uncharted territory for everyone involved. But I think it’s just natural when you have such young kids working with you. You watch them grow and you grow close.
‘She’s so lovely and funny in real life and is someone who’s worked out a balance of how to do what she likes to do, while also maintaining her sense of self. The nice thing about coming back to film each season is that it feels a bit like summer camp. It’s like, “Okay, we’re all here. That happened, but let’s focus, let’s be grounded. Let’s do it again.”’
Dyer also met British actor Charlie Heaton, 28, her real-life and on-screen boyfriend, who plays Jonathan Byers, on the show. The pair are famously private about their relationship, though Dyer is honest about how ‘special’ it is to work – and find fame – with him by her side. ‘It’s an understanding that would be hard to replicate. It’s an indescribable thing.’
While it might feel hard for Dyer to find the words to describe her connection with both Heaton and the wider cast, it’s clear from the way she speaks about them just how much they mean to her. ‘As actors, a lot of the time you’re constantly meeting new people and working, and I think, generally, working with people you feel comfortable around, where the energy’s good and you’re on the same wavelength, is really nice. It’s a really nice opportunity to do that.’
Beyond that, Dyer doesn’t really understand the obsession with their relationship. ‘I’m always curious as to why it comes up. Why do people want to know about it? I think it’s a natural instinct to want to know more about the people who are on your screens for hours, about what they’re like in real life. [But] now that I’ve experienced the other side of it… It sounds so cliché, but I’m just a person, too. Some people are very good about being open and sharing, and other people feel a little more comfortable holding some things for themselves.’
She’s also keen to point out that, as stars of the same show, there shouldn’t be so much pressure on whether they decide to go ‘red-carpet official’ or do interviews together, adding, ‘We were colleagues first. It’s a standard, natural thing that would’ve happened either way. We work on the same show – naturally we would do interviews together and things like that. The weirdest thing about [our relationship] is other people’s perception and reaction to it. Everything else just feels very human.’
When Dyer is in the UK, she loves going for afternoon tea and watching The Great British Bake Off. ‘I love scones and tiny sandwiches. When I was growing up, I thought that ‘high tea’ was tea time that happened every day. I always romanticised it, so every time I go to England, I have to get it. And I love The Great British Bake Off. It’s such a pleasant thing to watch; something about it just soothes the soul. I’ve seen some clips of the celebrity one, which I think is so funny. If they let Americans on… I’m keen.’
Pandemic-related delays mean it’s been almost three years since Stranger Things season three (which was watched by more than 40 million households in the first four days) aired, and Dyer is feeling the pressure. ‘It’s nerve-racking every time you put something out. It’s been so long that I wonder what the fans are going to feel.’ She hopes this season will help to answer viewers’ questions about the world of The Upside Down.
‘I’m always asking the Duffer brothers [who created the show], “How does this happen? Where is this going?” And this time we’re going to get some more clarity. Nancy’s doing a lot of cool things, and we have some new cast members joining us who are amazing. Such is the nature of our show that every press round, I’m like, “It’s darker, it’s scarier, it feels more intense.” But it really is!’
Netflix has confirmed Stranger Things will end with season five, and Dyer stutters over the kind of conclusion she’d like for Nancy. ‘Personally, I hope she doesn’t die. But if she does, I hope it’s a good one. I’ve always been so curious about what her life would be like after all of this. The most interesting thing to me is not all of the big things, it always goes back to the characters ending up in a place that feels like a satisfying end to it all.’
She giggles at the thought of a potential spin-off. ‘I wouldn’t write it off, if the [Duffer] brothers were involved. I’ve always had thoughts of Nancy becoming this detective type, cool spy, secret monster hunting…’
The Fame Game
The actor’s desire for privacy stretches to all aspects of her life. Despite having more than six million followers on Instagram, Dyer posted only three times in 2021, and she considers the impact of social media a lot. ‘Its role in our society is evolving so much, and I don’t know if we’re evolving as fast as it,’ she says. ‘In some ways, I’m very grateful to have a platform and fans that care about what you have to say. But I also think there’s a lot of pressure to say things, and in a lot of ways I feel underqualified.’ Dyer pauses.
‘I also wonder if being too overexposed could limit my ability to do what I do well. As an actor, I want to be able to try and fail at things. I also want to be able to melt into characters and be someone else. I have moments where it feels right to engage and talk about something, but in a lot of ways it’s about trying to absorb and listen and grow as a human before I throw out my ideas and opinions.’
But there’s also a fear of saying the wrong thing and getting caught up in cancel culture. ‘You want to choose your words carefully because the audience is so huge. It’s easy to miscommunicate. I’m not a politician or an expert on foreign affairs, and I don’t want to mislead anyone or misrepresent myself. I don’t pretend to be anything other than a 27-year-old actor, but sometimes it can feel like there’s an expectation to say something just to say something. We’ve all seen people say things and want to take them back.’
Much like social media, the concept of fame is something Dyer is wary of; constantly navigating the ever-changing landscape of what it means to be a celebrity. ‘It’s about being nice to yourself and checking in with yourself about it. I think you have to learn what your boundaries are. I’m lucky that my family is supportive. The whole fame thing can affect everyone in your orbit in some way. I try to respect how they feel about it, but they’re fiercely protective of me, which is so valuable. It’s very grounding to touch back into reality.
‘Sometimes it can be easy to lose sight of “Why am I here? What am I doing?” It’s not about you – it’s about telling the story you want to tell. I can get in my head about the fame thing. I don’t want to think about, “Oh, how am I going to come across in this?” rather than just trying to be there and present. It’s tricky. It’s a balance.’
When it comes to choosing her roles, Dyer is determined to not be pigeonholed. Yes, God, Yes saw her play a Catholic schoolgirl, while Chestnut, a drama that she filmed straight after Stranger Things wrapped last year, placed her in the middle of a queer love triangle. While ‘it’s amazing to get to be on huge sets, I also really love the intimacy of small films’.
But it was during filming for Velvet Buzzsaw, a 2019 Netflix thriller that featured Jake Gyllenhaal and John Malkovich, that she got a feel for asking for what you want on set. ‘It was amazing to work with people to see how they carry themselves, how they communicate with the director and what they ask for. Even if it’s to change a line, or do this differently, or to sit here.’ And she had a small scene with Gyllenhaal. ‘He’s got such a presence. I remember him being very involved in how best to do it, saying, “Maybe we try it like this” or “Maybe we do it like that.” Watching people who have done it for a long time, especially in film, it’s a real craft to juggle all of that and still be in the moment.’
Dyer also cites Margot Robbie, Reese Witherspoon and Olivia Wilde as actors who she has great respect for. ‘I love watching females experiment with different kinds of roles and who make the transition to produce, direct and write. There are so many female stories that haven’t been told. The ethos of “Okay, no one’s giving me these parts, no one’s making this, so I’m just going to do it.” That’s so badass.’
Is it somewhere she could see her career going? ‘Never say never. I think it’s really cool, and it does feel like a natural instinct to start to make your own stories, or at least get the ones you think should be out there, out there. So yeah. I wouldn’t write it off.’
For now, though, her focus is on her next project, the horror film All Fun And Games, and of course, moving house. ‘My things are in boxes in various cities, so that will be fun to figure out. There’s a lot to be excited for.’ Indeed there is.
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 Future, Ghostbusters, 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.
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!”