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Natalia Dyer on love in the spotlight and life in Stranger Things

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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.

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‘I’ve been travelling around a lot, but New York is home for me,’ she says, relaxed in a navy sweatshirt and little-to-no make-up, gesturing with red nails to the hotel room she’s currently living in. The deal ‘should close next week. It’s going to be me and my cat Mona’.

It’s a Monday in early spring, when the name ‘Natty’ pops up on video call. In what is an increasingly rare occurrence for celebrity interviews, there are no agents or reps on the line, and no time limit to our chat together. Instead, Dyer, who appears to be sitting on the hotel room floor, is thoughtful and measured with her answers, using her hands a lot when animated in conversation. A brunette wispy fringe brushes her eyebrows, as she reflects on fame, fandom and finding her feet.

Of course, it’s her role as Nancy Wheeler in the cult Netflix show Stranger Things that Dyer’s here to talk about. Ever since she came to our screens as the preppy girl-next-door turned shotgun-wielding monster-killer in 2016, more than 190 million households have watched at least one episode of the show, and now, the much-anticipated fourth season is about to land. But her love of acting started way back.

Growing up in Nashville, Tennessee, Dyer, 27, lived with an older sister (she also has a younger sister) and had very supportive parents. Her mum, an exercise physiologist, and her dad, a clinical engineer, were particularly insistent that their daughters found their ‘thing’, whether it was ‘pottery, painting or ice-skating’, and they would drive them to and from their various commitments until they found the one that really clicked with them. ‘I made good grades at school, but I was always writing, drawing or doing something creative,’ Dyer explains.

Eventually, a twisted ankle at sports camp led her to try her hand at acting club. ‘The person in charge spoke to my mum and said, “She’s into this. You should go to an audition for this show nearby.”’ The role was for Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird, and it was the beginning of her community theatre days. ‘From there, I fell in love with it.’

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It wasn’t long until Dyer made her big-screen debut. In 2009, aged 14, she landed a speaking role in the ever-iconic Hannah Montana: The Movie, as Clarissa Granger. ‘It was kind of crazy, but very exciting. I played a British person. I don’t think I did the accent justice, but then I don’t know if I can do a great British accent now,’ she laughs. ‘At the time it was so new to me; I was young and my mum was on set.’ It was also Dyer’s first premiere, where she wore a, shall we say, ‘peak 2000s’ strapless aquamarine puffball dress with black open-toe boots. Deadpan: ‘I dressed myself for that one, which is very obvious.’

What followed was a move to New York for college, where Dyer attended the Gallatin School of Individualized Study; a non-traditional interdisciplinary institute that encourages its students to design their own course. Despite thinking that she wanted to be a journalist, Dyer was still acting on the side, taking lead roles in indie films and smaller productions such as I Believe In Unicorns and After Darkness.

Eventually, the chance to play Nancy Wheeler in Stranger Things came along. ‘I auditioned twice for the role. I thought I bombed the initial audition, but then I got the callback, and I thought I bombed that as well.’

Dyer had no idea how big the show, which follows a group of friends grappling with supernatural forces in 1980s Indiana, would be. ‘At the time, Netflix wasn’t what it is today. They had some really cool shows such as Orange Is The New Black and House Of Cards, but I really wasn’t aware there was a possibility of a second season. The energy was like, “I hope people like it. We like it. We think this is cool.”’

As you probably already know, people loved it. Following its release in July 2016, around 14 million people watched Stranger Things season one in the first 35 days, making it the third most successful Netflix original series at the time. A follow-up season was announced just one month later, much to the delight of its already thriving fan base.

Stranger Than Fiction

Part of the success of the show, and why fans are so hungry for this fourth season, is thanks to the genuine off-screen chemistry between the cast shining through on-screen. Dyer’s affection for her cast mates, such as Joe Keery and Millie Bobby Brown, is clear, which she puts down to their shared journey into the spotlight. ‘It’s a bond that is hard to describe,’ she says. ‘We were all very excited and we hadn’t done anything like it before. So to have it become so big, literally overnight, was a very specific experience. It really tied us all together.’

In the six years since Stranger Things first aired, many of Dyer’s younger co-stars have turned from children to teenagers in front of her eyes. ‘Every time I see Finn [Wolfhard, who plays Nancy’s younger brother, Mike], it’s like, “You’re so tall! Are you taller?” There’s an inherent sense of protectiveness there. I’m always impressed by them; by how they carry themselves and how aware they are of the pressures. But it’s nerve-racking and I don’t envy them at all. I would’ve been a complete mess if I’d gone through that at their ages. It really is a lot.

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‘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.”’

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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!’

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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.’

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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.

Photographer: Josefina Santos @josefinasantos
Fashion: Cassie Anderson @cassieanderson212
Hair: Gonn Kinoshita for The Wall Group @gonn24 @thewallgroup
Makeup: Carolina Dali for The Wall Group @carolinadali @thewallgroup
Manicure: Kayo Higuchi for Bryan Bantry @kayo.hc @bryanbantryagency


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