Stranger Things Star Natalia Dyer On The Upside-Down Of Fame
Nancy Wheeler goes full Nancy Drew in season 3. But will prying eyes let Dyer retain any mystery in real life?
Natalia Dyer groans. The Stranger Things star is sitting in the cozy Café Mogador in New York's East Village, a liter of Pellegrino and a cold brew in front of her, and gives my question a mile-long stare. Is she trying to avoid spoiling the ending of her Netflix blockbuster’s third season? Have I asked her something that’s out-of-bounds; perhaps too personal? No, the question sitting in front of Natalia Dyer is when she’ll know she’s fallen into the Hollywood machine. She shudders.
“I think it’s if I start posting a lot of random selfies,” she says with a laugh. Dyer does have a point. As Stranger Things’ season 3 premiere looms less than a week away, the actress has a mere 82 photos posted to her Instagram account, @Nattyiceofficial, a title culled from a high school nickname. You’ll spot red carpet photos of Dyer, editorial fashion photos of Dyer, and even a few shots of her IRL boyfriend/Stranger Things love interest Charlie Heaton on the page, which has 3.7 million followers. But, there are just four selfies of the 24-year-old to be found (yes, she is 24, no matter what lies Wikipedia says). Half of those selfies seem to be more about her dog Ozzy than herself.
Dyer rarely wants to turn the camera on herself, but the rest of the world certainly does. Ever since Stranger Things’ 2016 breakout, two versions of the Nashville native have powered a cottage industry of Twitter threads, fan speculation, and think pieces. The first image is that of her character, Nancy Wheeler, the quiet 1980s teen who becomes a monster fighter… and survives a love triangle more challenging than any Demogorgon battle. Is Nancy a feminist superhero or a sexist disaster? There is an internet article out there for every flavour of opinion; you just need the right search term.
Then there’s the Dyer we see splashed across the Daily Mail week in and week out with Heaton, who plays Nancy’s boyfriend Jonathan Byers. Every time you glimpse the duo in their two-dimensional tabloid selves, they’re clad in baseball caps and big jackets, attempting to, in DM parlance, “enjoy a stroll” — despite the strange cameras tracking their every move. These are the cameras they never look at.
But, the Dyer in Café Mogador is neither of those personas. She may share a voice with Nancy and the downtown New York-friendly duds of a woman dodging tabloid paparazzi, but this Dyer looks you straight in the eye while talking about working with Heaton and the always-viral Stranger kids to the rumours about when their show will end.
Right now, Dyer is working on embracing her anger. Atlanta’s oppressive summertime heat almost pissed her off last year when Stranger Things filmed its upcoming eight-episode third season, premiering Thursday, July 4, in the Georgia city. Almost. Today, on a sunny June day, it’s a rude passerby who almost disrupts her unfailing preternatural calm.
“I was walking down the street on my way here, and like, you know that little dance that you do?” she asks, before pantomiming the sidewalk shuffle all polite women know well. “This guy literally just like pushed me out of the way. I was like, What?!”
After a flicker of shock, Dyer, let it go. After all, she grew up a quiet art school student in the South whose supportive mom ferried her to community theater rehearsals. Her close-knit family, which also includes her father and younger sister, isn’t prone to explosive East Coast anger. But then, Dyer changed her mind. “I was like, ‘Get mad! He pushed you! Get angry,’” she recalls of the incident. Still, Dyer lets it go a second time, sighing, “But that’s a waste of energy most of the time, though.” It’s the thought that counts.
It’s easy to imagine Dyer’s character, Nancy, tracking down that sidewalk stranger to tell him off. Ever since viewers met Nancy in July 2016 when Matt and Ross Duffers’ surprise Netflix creation broke the internet, she has embodied no-nonsense teenage relentlessness. She is a girl who once marched into the Upside-Down while on the hunt for her best friend Barb (Shannon Purser) and managed to come back to our dimension alive. Nancy went claw-to-pistol with the Demogorgon, a nine-foot tall interdimensional beast with flower bud-shaped rows of teeth for a face. She spent season 2 trying to shut down the lab responsible for Barb’s death.
Nancy doesn’t ask to speak to your manager; she breaks into your back office and drags him out by his ear. That’s why, when Dyer is asked what Nancy would do if someone shoved her in the middle of the street, all she says in response is “Excuse me,” in the character’s classically persistent timbre.
When Stranger Things returns, it’s 1985, and Nancy is the lowest woman on the totem pole at the Hawkins Post. While the cub reporter is hellbent on breaking news, her superiors simply wish she would go pick up their lunch orders and stop talking. But silence, as we’ve learned over the years, isn’t Nancy’s strong suit. Especially as some very strange reports start bubbling up in Hawkins.
“I have to see how people react to it. It will be a very timely little arc,” Dyer teases of her character’s upcoming storyline, which feels like Stranger Things’ answer to #MeToo discussions around workplace harassment. “It makes you think. I’m glad the brothers were going in that direction [with the show] and would like more. Let’s have it, we want it.”
After three seasons of playing Hawkins’ answer to Nancy Drew (as her belittling male superiors call her), Dyer is more certain than ever about where Nancy should be going next. “This season more than any other season — maybe similar to Nancy — I had a lot more dialogue with the [Duffer] Brothers about suggestions,” Dyer explains.
The actress isn’t the only one on set who notices a connection between Nancy’s fearless drive this season and Dyer’s own behavior on set. “Natalia has always been incredibly confident from day one,” Stranger Things’ Cara Buono, who plays Dyers’ on-screen mom Karen, tells Refinery29 in an email. Nancy and Karen share one of the most thoughtful and emotional scenes of season 3 as the former is continuously knocked down by the sexism at the Post. “Just as Nancy is taking risks in her work, Natalia isn't afraid to put herself out there and challenge herself.”
Dyer is enjoying the challenge. “It’s really nice to be able to be like, Hey, this line is weird. Or, I feel like because of this past scene… [The Duffers] will be like, Oh. Huh. You’re right. We need it to do this. What can we do?,” Dyer explains. “It’s easy sometimes to take the backseat as an actor and be like, I’m here. You hired me. Tell me where to stand. Tell me what to say. [To need] validation like, Was that good?”
That period of her life is waning as Dyer learns to trust her gut. When she speaks about collaborating on the Stranger Things’ set, she describes work as “playing.” It’s a word that comes up again when she describes working with Charlie Heaton throughout season 3. While the series usually jumbles up pairings episode-by-episode, Nancy and Jonathan spend the first half of season 3 in their own little world, investigating their Indiana town’s latest supernatural crisis.
“It’s an interesting thing to work with somebody who you go home with,” she admits of her “long days” on set with Heaton. “It’s always really fun. We’re really comfortable with each other, so we can play and feel more free, and we can talk about it before.”
A certain level of uncertainty also makes Dyer appreciate her working relationship with her real-life partner. When the Stranger Things crew first wrapped season 1 — and long before the sci-fi series was a phenomenon — the cast had no idea what was next. “We were all very much like, ‘Well, I don’t know if I’ll ever seen you again,’” she confirms. A small part of that dubious energy remains in the actress’ mind.
“There’s that sense of who knows if you’ll ever work together with this person ever again? Who knows?,” Dyer says of her scenes with Heaton. “This might be your only chance to play like this.”
While she visibly lights up talking about acting with her boyfriend, Dyer is less interested in speaking about their personal life together. “That’s something important to me — with my family, with my friends, I really like to keep it for me,” she says.
It’s protective moments like this that crystalize just how abruptly Dyer was thrown into instant, peak 2010s fame. At 20, Dyer was a bright-eyed NYU sophomore just starting to explore her love of language, art, and her dream city when she was tapped by Netflix for a top-secret new project and shipped to Atlanta for half the year to film. The little series surprise premiered over the summer of 2016. One second, she was an aspiring actress with a small part in the Hannah Montana movie and possible future in writing. The next, Stranger Things was a mega hit, and Dyer was plastered across gossip sites and Reddit with her body, relationship, and every waking moment up for debate.
“It was definitely something to navigate,” Dyer, a self-described social introvert, says. “Especially living in New York, I was so used to this life of walking around and not thinking about anything. But very quickly I was like, Sunglasses. Baseball cap. Keep your head down.”
“Nobody really tells you about the baseball cap thing,” she laughs. “All I know is I’ve never worn one before, and I now I wear them all the time.” Yet, Dyer isn’t avoiding her fans. In fact, she would be happy to shake your hand and thank you for enjoying Stranger Things, or Coco in Netflix’s Velvet Buzzsaw, or maybe her upcoming coming-of-age movie Yes, God, Yes, which premiered at SXSW Film Festival earlier this year to a 100% Tomatometer rating from early reviews.
“Sometimes you do have a good conversation, and then in your mind you’re like, Please don’t ask for a photo. Please don’t ask for a photo,” she says of fan interactions. “It’s like a lovely human-to-human thing. It’s not for the ‘Gram. It’s just for us, and it’s so nice.”
As Dyer figures out her own boundaries, she’s also watching her much younger co-stars like Millie Bobby Brown, 15, and Finn Wolfhard, 16, manage that same relationship. “They’re handling themselves really well, and they have families who love them and are grounded,” Dyer says. Regardless, she still “feels” for them.
“It can be vulnerable. It’s the sociology celebrity thing — how does that affect how they’re going to grow up, and who they’re going to be?,” she asks. “Hopefully not that much, but how could it not?” At least the last time Dyer saw the Stranger posse, “They were still lovely kids,” she confirms with a smile.
No one can predict what’s ahead for Dyer or any of the Stranger Things kids — or when this ride will be over. Although many wonder if Stranger Things 3 will be the series’ swan song, she isn’t so sure. “I’ve heard like four different versions of how long the show’s supposed to go for,” Dyer says before painstakingly choosing her next words. “Umm, I will say the end, definitely leaves us… in a place… Where you… do… want more. I would want more.” The Netflix spoiler police is always looming.
Outside of Hawkins, Dyer is looking for a project that will make her “uncomfortable.” “I’m waiting for that next thing that really ignites me,” she announces minutes after raving about her latest binge watch, Fleabag (yes, she agrees Hot Priest is hot). “I’d love to do like a really funny movie. I’d love to do an action movie, just because it sounds fun. I read for a lot of younger roles or coming of age [parts] … But you want to be like, Let me show you that I can be sassy or something.” She would also be interested in doing theater, trodding the boards on the Great White Way like her Velvet Buzzsaw co-stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge.
It’s this open-ended ambition that has Dyer rolling her eyes about inquiries into when she’s planning to settle down, get married, and start popping out babies. Apparently quite a few people have been asking, and she has a response. “No, like never, if you ask me now … I think I’d have to really feel like, Well, I did literally everything I wanted to do,” she muses. “[It’s] far too young for me. If there are people who [are ready]... I admire you.”
After a little bit more chit chat, Dyer is ready to be off. She slips back on one of her baseball caps, one the Daily Mail seems especially fond of featuring. It’s a black hat with a red devil on it, the same color scheme as the Stranger Things logo. The three dimensions of Dyer — 1980s Nancy, paparazzi dodger, and the real one with a love of Phoebe Waller-Bridge and linguistics — achieve singularity.