It must be strange to live in a US Midwest town that is home to nefarious conspiracies, secret experiments and a portal to an alternate dimension populated by grotesque monsters. But coming of age is still stranger.
After an absence of almost two years, ‘Stranger Things’ returns on July 4 for its third season on Netflix, and a lot has changed in that time. It’s still the 1980s, the era of New Coke, Jazzercise and George A. Romero’s ‘Day of the Dead’. But as we catch up with the kids we’ve followed on their adventures — Will (Noah Schnapp), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Max (Sadie Sink), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and the psychic Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) — we discover they’re not kids any longer.
Season 3 finds them in the summer between their middle school and high school years, and they are unmistakably teenagers now, teeming with all the passions and messy feelings that come with that phase of life. Their growing up is reflected in the ’80s-era touchstones that this series is famous for cribbing from, as the innocence of ‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’ and ‘The Goonies’ gives way to reference points intended for more grown-up audiences, like ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’. (Fittingly, portions of this season take place in Hawkins’ new shopping mall.) While the ‘Stranger Things’ friends once again contend with hideous beasts of the human and non-human varieties, they are also finding their first loves, suffering their first break-ups and discovering it’s not as easy as it used to be to keep their gang together.
The actors who play these characters have also grown up: Some were as young as nine and 10 years old when they first auditioned for the Duffer Brothers, who created ‘Stranger Things’, and now they are between the ages of 14 and 17. They are poised and precocious, increasingly visible from their work on the show and in other projects. And they are supremely aware that they lead lives that are very different from a typical teenager’s, even as they strive to stay humble and normal.
The young ‘Stranger Things’ actors spoke about growing up, on camera and off, their appreciation for the sometimes inexplicable pop culture of the ’80s and what they’ve learnt about themselves. These are edited excerpts from those conversations.
Just like any other teenager, [Eleven] is learning not to be what people tell her to be and to be herself. I relate to that a lot.
What are your characters up to in Season 3?
MILLIE BOBBY BROWN: I don’t think El knows how to use her powers properly. That’s what she learns about this season. Obviously it’s led her to a different lifestyle, and she has a lot of PTSD. But she’s trying to become normal again. Just like any other teenager, El’s learning not to be what people tell her to be and to be herself. I relate to that a lot.
CALEB McLAUGHLIN: It’s so different from the last two seasons. It’s tasty. There’s a friendship between Mike and Lucas this season. We think we know a lot about life, and we think we’re all grown up, but we’re really not. I’m trying to teach Mike how to live life. I’m like the master, and he’s the grasshopper.
FINN WOLFHARD: Mike thinks he’s a man. He has a little bit of a God complex at the beginning. He’s a teenager and he has a girlfriend. He feels untouchable, he feels immortal, like any teenager that just turned 13. You’re like, “Whatever, I don’t care.”
NOAH SCHNAPP: In season one, Will is more shy and reserved, and then in season two, after the monster attacks him and takes over his body, Will gained more courage and became braver. Throughout season three, you see how the monster’s still lingering inside him, and how he deals with that. Because he’s not fully better.
MATARAZZO: It seems that the stakes for Dustin’s stories having been rising more and more. He’s always had his little side stories, but this year he’s got an entire shopping mall to contend with.
The new mall is a prominent setting, which makes sense given that your characters are now teenagers. One of the big themes this season is how their core group of friends is not only growing and changing, but also fraying and being pulled in different directions. Did that feel authentic to you?
McLAUGHLIN: Things happen. Friends separate. When I left school, I would check in on a friend and be like, yeah, I don’t talk to that person anymore. It was just because of me not going to school. But I don’t really talk to them that much.
SADIE SINK: Max makes friends with El this season. Me and Millie, on weekends, we’d have sleepovers and stuff — I think that’s why our on-screen relationship came across as very genuine, because of how close Millie and I are. Being the two girls on set, we had this automatic bond. It could have been a really bad situation or something, there could have been jealousy — “Oh, there’s a new girl.” But it wasn’t, because me and Millie just really get along.
The presence of the supernatural is still an important part of the show. Is it tricky to pretend to use psychic powers or react to monsters that aren’t really there?
I channel energy. I channel a lot of my memories. Especially when I’m angry — it becomes very raw and emotional and real and genuine. You’d think all that crying would make you feel better, but no, actually, you feel the opposite. Usually when I do those scenes, I go home. I take a bath, I listen to some sad music and cry it out myself. It lasts less than five minutes, but it’s something you need to do in order to get on with it. And then I’m good for the rest of the day.
What’s something from the ’80s that you hadn’t encountered until you worked on ‘Stranger Things’?
SINK: Definitely the video games. I knew Pac-Man, but that was it. In season two, we had the arcade set and all the games were working, so in between takes you could go around and play whatever you wanted.
SCHNAPP: My parents always told me about VHS tapes. And the Walkman, everyone had those. I had never even seen one until I got onto ‘Stranger Things’.
Is there anything from 2019 that you think will still hold up in 30 years?
SINK: I just saw ‘Booksmart’, and I felt like that really captured what it’s like to be a high-schooler right now. That’s definitely a movie we’ll look back on, that captures the spirit of 2019.
McLAUGHLIN: Beyonce. Bruno Mars. Jay-Z. Migos.
How have you seen yourself change since you started working on ‘Stranger Things’?
McLAUGHLIN: I have open ears, and I have a personality to hear out other people. I don’t really have a stubborn way about myself. I thought that I knew enough, but as I get older, I’ve realised that I don’t know a lot.
MATARAZZO: I’ve just become more of a sarcastic [expletive]. Other than that, I really haven’t changed much at all. I look back at the old footage of me, and my sense of humour then, and I’m like, ugh, that’s the people I make fun of now. The reason I’m sarcastic is from this deep-down insecurity that I was totally unaware of. [Laughs.] That’s all humour, though.
Don’t miss it!
‘Stranger Things’ season three begins streaming on Netflix on July 3.