Natalia Dyer has realised something while doing interviews for her latest film, Yes God Yes.
She's really passionate about the depiction of female sexuality.
It's been a learning curve for the 25-year-old actor who plays Alice, a Christian schoolgirl living in the American 'Bible Belt' receiving the kind of sex education which dictates that the only choice is abstinence, while coming to terms with her own sexuality.
'What I realised is just how much I care about female sexuality and not making it a taboo… it's something I really do care about,' she says choosing her words carefully, explaining that it's a subject you really have to 'have your words together about how to talk about these things'.
We speak over a grainy Zoom call from Atlanta, Georgia where Dyer has been living since filming on the fourth season of the show that catapulted her to fame - Stranger Things - was halted due to the Coronavirus pandemic earlier in the year. It only resumed filming over the last couple of weeks.
Yes God Yes is a departure from Stranger Things' Nancy Wheeler. There are no sci-fi effects and everything is laid bare: the struggles of teenage girlhood, masturbation, porn and the guilt that comes with feeling differently to what your upbringing expects of you (in this case being told that normal teenage sexual urges equate to sin).
Dyer, who is warm, friendly and relaxed, was born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee - another state associated with for its conservative attitudes. There were similarities with her own and Alice's upbringing, Dyer says, though her parents were a lot more open-minded.
'There are definitely parts of Alice that I understood, like going to Bible class. I grew up very religious, going to church. But my upbringing wasn't as strict or conservative, my parents let me guide myself. By the time I was in high school, I was on a different wavelength.'
Though serious messages of gender equality, freedom of expression and, like Dyer said, eradicating the stigma associated with female sexuality run through the film, it is punctured by lighthearted moments too, finding the humorous elements in teenage sexuality. It's refreshing too: it's rare to see female teen horniness on a par with what we've seen portrayed on screen by teenage boys since the age of time.
'It was like nothing I'd ever seen before,' Dyer says of the script. 'It felt okay to laugh, reminisce and get into the headspace of innocently discovering yourself and what that looks like. Sometimes it's embarrassing and confusing, sometimes it's gross and you don't know what's going on. I feel like a lot of female sexuality is portrayed so performatively and that's where a lot of fears or hang ups about doing any sort of sexual thing in film [come from]. But, Karen [Maine, the writer and director] made it very straightforward and I didn't have those worries, it was just something totally different.'
This foray into indie films - Dyer also starred in the 2019 Netflix horror The Velvet Buzzsaw - doesn't mean Dyer will be done with Stranger Things anytime soon ('I'm so excited for this season,' she says. 'There's a lot going on').
The sci-fi drama - which follows a group of teenagers in the 1980s who become witness to strange goings on in their fictional hometown of Hawkins, Indiana - was a surprise hit for Netflix when it first aired in 2016, amassing a cult following and breaking records for the streaming service. When the third season was released last year, more than 40 million households watched in the first four days of its premiere. Just a few days ago, Dyer's co-stars including Millie Bobby Brown, Finn Wolfhard, Noah Schnapp, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin celebrated 'Stranger Things Day' - a fan-led annual celebration of the show.
A post shared by mills (@milliebobbybrown) on Nov 6, 2020 at 9:12am PST
By comparison, Dyer's Instagram activity is much more limited and sporadic. Despite amassing more than 20 million followers on the platform, Dyer has only posted twice this year - once to promote Yes God Yes and once to support the Black Lives Matter movement.
'I really don't find social media easy,' she says, shyly. 'Almost increasingly so. Everybody's different and some people are very good at it. And some people really enjoy it. For me, it kind of just seems like a lot of anxiety and asks a lot.'
The main reason for Dyer's reluctance to have a big presence on the social media platform comes down to how much she values her privacy. When she does post, it's usually about work, and never her personal life.
'I've always been very private and that [Instagram] account was started - I mean I had maybe three followers - with just me and my friends and then the show came out and it got verified and then it was...' she tails off. 'You know, a lot of the things that happen in my life I want for myself and my immediate surroundings. I feel like I tend to give through my work, so personal posts are a little tricky for me.
'It’s almost expected of the "celebrity" to have it and engage and it's just counterintuitive to my nature. Sometimes there are times I really get into it, and then there are times like during this whole year where it's been very nice to not be there except for certain moments where I just want to be clear on where I stand and what I think.'
It's also clear that as well as social media, interviews, press and the flashing lights of cameras are a side of fame that Dyer is less comfortable with.
'There are definitely parts [of fame] I enjoy and the pros outweigh the cons. I love the opportunities that it's afforded me. It's amazing. Meeting young, really excited fans is always so lovely. But, it's been an adjustment period of figuring out where my boundaries are and how I handle things. One of the hardest things has been people asking for pictures or people just taking pictures. Paparazzi have always existed but nowadays with smartphones, it becomes a sixth sense - you can almost tell when someone's taking a picture of you from afar and you're just trying to have dinner somewhere.
'I love talking to people but sometimes people come up and literally just say, "Can I get a photo with you?" and then leave and you feel very commodified. It feels very weird, it leaves you for a few hours like, "that didn't feel good". Now, if people ask, I generally say - unless they're very young - "I don't like taking pictures". But, I'd rather stop and have a real conversation. When I was living in New York, I loved walking around the city and it became very sunglasses, baseball cap and head down, and that was a little tricky. This year it’s been very chill and easier to just exist. I feel a lot more comfortable now than I did in that first year.'
Having all her co-stars go through the same thing at the same time must have helped with the transition to fame? '100 per cent,' she nods. 'Going back to set recently and seeing everybody reminded me that it was a very particular experience with a small group of people. Only we know what it feels like to have gone through that, we can share our experiences and it’s very cathartic. It would have been unimaginable to have gone through that by myself, I never would have made it - I think I would have gone insane.'
Undoubtedly having her partner Charlie Heaton, who also stars on the show as Nancy's on-screen boyfriend, sharing these experiences must help, but Dyer won't be drawn on directly discussing her relationship with the British actor. Though she does laugh when asked about how fans react to seeing Nancy Wheeler and Jonathan Byers in real life.
'Yeah, I would imagine it's weird for them,' she smiles. 'For me, it's just me and my life. I just went to work, did a thing and then I'm still me just living my life. It's the world around you that reacts to the choices you make and the things you do. I don't have a lot of trouble filtering out my life from my work because it's kind of what I do, that's what I’ve always done.'
Now in its fourth season, the show's stars have grown up before fans' eyes. Dyer was 21 years old when the show started, Bobby Brown and Schnapp were aged 12 when they became Eleven and Will Byers, Wolfhard was 13 when he signed on to play Dyer's on-screen little brother, Mike.
'I definitely feel protective over my younger castmates. They've grown up so much and now a lot of them, technically, are adults,' she squeals shaking her head. 'They’re driving! There's a weird older sister-ness for me. They’re definitely morphing into their own and are very intelligent and aware people.'
Nancy has grown up too, evolving from a conscientious student to a monster-slaying, gun-wielding, fighter for justice. And with multiple seasons under their belt, the young actors clearly feel comfortable having input on the show. Last year, season three newcomer Maya Hawke, explained how she had a part in her character Robin being gay instead of entering a heterosexual relationship with Steve Harrington (Joe Keery).
'There was one scene from last season that I did with Charlie which was written one way and then we discussed with the [Duffer] brothers giving them a little bit more of an emotional moment,' Dyer explains. 'The great thing about the show is that it balances this action, plot-driven story with characters with a lot of heart. For a lot of the actors we really care about that, and they really collaborated and let us try different things in the end and I think, personally, it turned out for the best.'
Dyer follows the character when choosing projects, citing Margot Robbie as an example of someone whose career she'd like to emulate, an actor who can fearlessly go from playing Tonya Harding to Queen Elizabeth I to Harley Quinn all within a year or so of each other.
'I would hope to just get to play a diverse array of characters and challenge myself, playing female characters that we haven’t seen before. I’m less interested in the tropey females,' she smiles.
And with that, Dyer leaves our interview and travels back in time to Hawkins.
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