Natalia Dyer on Playing a Badass ’80s Teen

Netflix’s new original series Stranger Things is the hands-down hit of the summer, thanks to its creepy storytelling, perfectly executed 1980s nostalgia and absolutely stacked cast. Refreshingly, that cast has included a range of fleshed-out female characters, including Nancy Wheeler, a perfectionist high school student, beleaguered older sister, quasi-girlfriend, and ultimately, dimension hopper. talked with Natalia Dyer, who plays Nancy, about the Nancy-Steve-Jonathan love triangle, getting acquainted with the ’80s, and what makes Nancy’s BFF Barb so lovable. (Spoilers throughout, but if you haven’t watched yet, what are you waiting for?)

This show pays homage to a lot of ’80s movies — Carrie, Firestarter, ET. Since you’re a little younger, were those movies you were familiar with before doing the show?

Here and there. My mom loves the ’80s. I grew up hearing a lot about the ’80s. But it was definitely an education for all of us younger people involved, to go back and watch these movies and hear everybody reminisce about props that were on set and to dress in the clothes. It was the closest I’m ever going to get to living in that era, which seemed like a really fun, more innocent way to live. Very different from our current information overload.

So you went back to watch older movies to prepare — were there any you particularly enjoyed?

I had never seen Pretty in Pink or Sixteen Candles, some of those girly movies of the ’80s, and it was fun to go back and watch and pick up on the vibe of those. But I’m really not one for the horror genre in my own life! I still went back and watched things like Nightmare on Elm Street, which also ended up being fun. I enjoyed it.

But you’re not a scary movie person.

I’m not. Good luck dragging me into a horror movie! I get so scared. It’s an overactive imagination or something.

There’s a big difference between movies from the ’80s and our horror movies today. Carrie is one thing, but Saw and The Purge are next level.

Especially because there’s so much CGI! That’s one of the things that was nice about a lot of the special effects of our show — they were real effects, so there was a lot right there for us to play around with.

So the monster was a real guy, and not a CGI tennis ball on a stick or something?

We had a real actor, a movement specialist actor in this crazy monster getup. I think there are some enhancements and effects, but we were getting to actually act with this creature. He was definitely there and definitely scary! [Although] monster is a great, fun guy in real life.

What about the Upside Down, was that scary even though you knew it wasn’t real?

It was crazy. It was wonderful. We’d get to set, and our art department would have done such a number. And we’d stand there, like, how are you doing this? Props to our art department, because it looked really, really scary in real life, as well as on-screen.

Why do you think Nancy chooses Steve?

That is the question, isn’t it? I will say that the Duffers [brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, who wrote and directed the series] and the three of us all discussed it, and I think if you look at the storyline as practically as you can, all of these events take place over a very short period of time. Nancy’s only just met Jonathan, and Steve really has a bit of a turnaround. Also, Jonathan is dealing with all of this stuff on his end, with Will coming back and with his mom, and Nancy has the loss of Barb. As far as it goes, by the end of the season, it doesn’t seem like the timing is right for Nancy to be making any moves toward Jonathan. It seems right for where they all are at the time.

Right. It’s not like Nancy’s choosing someone to marry.

Yeah! My thing is Nancy’s got a lot more on her plate by the end of the show than just worrying about who to date.

Exactly — part of what made Nancy so interesting as a character was that she had relationships that weren’t romantic, especially her friendship with Barb. When did you find out that Barb was going to really die?

The Duffers were writing the last couple of episodes after we had started filming. It was all kind of a big mystery that got slowly revealed to us. It was like reading a book and not knowing how it ended until we actually got the scripts. But it’s sad! I know everyone is hoping that Barb’s not dead dead. But I think the idea was that the Duffers really needed the world to seem dangerous, someplace where things and people could be lost. Barb was the unlucky one. We had this thing on set where we’d just go, “Poor Barb!” She’s done nothing wrong, and she still gets the short stick. And I think it’s an understatement to say that Nancy feels really bad. Nancy feels so bad she goes to another dimension. It’s a tragic thing to have happen.

People have really gotten excited about Barb. Why do you think she’s gotten such a big response?

There’s something about her that’s very relatable. She’s real, she’s fine doing her own thing; she’s not the popular girl, and she’s not the action hero. She’s just a good friend who doesn’t dress in the hippest clothes! And, of course, Shannon Purser [who plays her] does a great job.

When you were growing up, were you more of a Nancy or a Barb?

I’d say it’s about 50-50. I did have a kind of perfectionist determination like Nancy has and always wanted to get good grades. But I think we’re all kind of like Barb in a way. We all spend some time on the sidelines, and try to stick to our morals and stay grounded. We’re not always glamorous! Not always slinging guns and monster slaying.

How did this role compare to others you’ve been offered?

I do see a lot of roles that are, like, the girlfriend or the love interest or the girl next door. Maybe not totally well-rounded kinds of characters — women who are more of a plot device in a way. It was really nice to see a character like Nancy. She does have that love triangle and boy drama aspect to her, but she’s independent and strong, and her main focus is about finding her best friend and solving that mystery at any cost. It’s such a blessing to get to live in that role and bring that to life. And to be surrounded by other female characters while you’re doing it! Having strong women who aren’t damsels is so nice.

© Lauren Hoffman
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