If you’ve watched the Duffer Brothers’ Netflix show Stranger Things (and really, if you haven’t, what are you doing? Watch it, right now!), you will have been struck by how amazing the performances of the young actors are. The characters of Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Will (Noah Schnapp) are brilliantly brought to life, but the show’s breakout character is arguably the mysterious, taciturn and powerful Eleven, played by Millie Bobby Brown.
We got the chance to talk to the young star about the challenges of playing a mostly silent character, the physical preparation required and watching scary movies with Winona Ryder.
How did you get involved in Stranger Things?
I was in London at the time and I got an audition. They said to me, “There’s this show coming out, it’s called Montauk, it stars Winona Ryder, you can audition, it sounds good, there’s not a lot of information about your character yet but there are some sides, read them, go over them, see how you feel!” “OK, sounds good, Winona Ryder, a legend!”
At the audition I said, “I really like this one.” It’s so weird and I thought “Eleven, what a strange name,” I wanted to know more. When I actually went for the screen test in London for the Duffers and Shawn Levy and the other producers, I was like “This is great!” I didn’t even know it was called Stranger Things at the time, I thought it was Montauk. I read the script with them, I met Finn Wolfhard who played Mike, and I was like “I love this now, I really want this to be mine.” And then, I went back to the hotel and my dad said, “Listen, there’s a phone call on the other line! Do you want to take it?” I was like “OK, sure!” And it was the Duffers telling me that I was their Eleven!
Was there much information about who the character was? The first few episodes don’t give much away!
No, not at all! They didn’t tell me much! All I knew was that her name was Eleven, she was very emotional and she loved Mike. And I had so many lines in the dummy sides, I was so excited! I love learning lines, as soon as I look at a script I know it, and then I went to the read-through and…wow…I have no lines!
In the trailer, when I say “Hiding…” I remember that day, I was with the Duffers and they came up to me and said “Millie, you know, you have a line today!” It was literally like a Christmas present, I was so excited that I had a line! And I really give credit to the Duffers because they really envisioned what they wanted for that character. I didn’t have to speak much but I really had to portray through my face and my emotions what my character had to do.
How challenging was that, to play a character that’s so important but doesn’t say much?
It was actually quite challenging because you have to talk through your face. And when you have to talk through your face you’re like “How am I going to do this?” Saying “Oh well, she’s sad, she’s confused, she misses someone.” So I thought, who do I miss?
I didn’t know much about the character but I knew that, although she didn’t talk, she really emotionally and physically talked through her body language. I don’t like to watch myself on screen but it’s amazing to see how it came out, the way the Duffers edited it is amazing.
I remember one day I had this really emotional scene where I had to say goodbye to someone and I was like, “This is emotional!” I didn’t know what to do, and I remember I said “I can’t!” I was going back and forth from school and I was emotionally drained. But Matthew Modine is such an amazing actor and to work with him was amazing. I’ve watched him in some movies but to work with him in real life was amazing. We went out to dinner together, we did so much fun stuff together.
It was exciting to channel that intense vibe, that inner sensitivity and emotional side of my character, and I do have that physical, don’t mess with me side, bad-arse!
At what point did you know that you’d have to shave your head?
I had no idea that I would have to shave all my hair off until Ross Duffer came up to me at the screen test and put his hand over my head going [electric razor noise] I was like “I don’t know what that means!” “We’re going to shave all your hair off!” I called my mum after the audition and she said, “You’re not doing it, that’s wrong, they can’t do that to you, you have beautiful long hair!”
I was like “Mum, let’s just cut it off, it grows back, it’s not permanent and I need to show how much I’m involved with this character and how much I’m involved with the show.” I wanted the best for the show and if that’s what I had to do, then that’s what I had to do!
Shaving my hair, it threw me off a little bit. I had quite long hair, but I thought, “No, society’s telling people that girls have long hair, boys have short hair.” I didn’t want to rebel, but I thought, “I’ve got to change something, I’ve got to make sure that everybody knows that it’s OK to have short hair,” because it is! It’s fine! Yes, I get called a boy quite a lot but I don’t care! I love this show and I put all my hard work into it, so yes, I might be called a boy on and off, and yes, my brother calls me Dave! But it doesn’t matter! I don’t mind, I think Eleven’s character has a place in my heart now! It’s just hair, it grows back!
The show’s got such a strong personality, did it feel like the Duffers had a very clear idea of what they wanted on set?
Yeah, of course. At my audition for it, they knew exactly what they wanted, because they wrote this in 2012. And I was like “They know what they want and I just hope that I’m the thing that they need!” So I did my best and when I got the job, I thought “This is it, I’ve got to do this now, for them and for myself and for the show. This is going to be great.”
So I was really excited and when we were shooting, I thought “Wow, they know what they want,” but I think [casting director] Carmen Cuba is absolutely amazing, she knew what the Duffers wanted, and when she cast us we each gave our own bit. We got to say “We want to do it this way because we don’t think that we would do that” and when we collaborate like that, with Shawn Levy or the Duffers, it’s really fun. That’s what I like to do with acting, where we collaborate or have ideas, it really is just magic. With a good script and with a good cast, with a good storyline, directors and crew, we can make magic.
Finally, what was it like working with Winona Ryder?
Winona’s just a phenomenal, amazing actress! We have a really good friendship, and because she was a child actress and she cut her hair, and I’m a child actress and I cut my hair, I think we just have so much in common. We love to watch movies; she doesn’t like scary films so I have to sit with her!