[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the first season of Netflix's Stranger Things.]
Within the space of a year, Noah Schnapp saw his world turned upside down - but unlike his character on Stranger Things, it's the good kind of upside down.
Consider what the young actor accomplished in one year's time: in October 2015, Schnapp appeared as Tom Hanks' son in the Steven Spielberg movie Bridge of Spies, which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and a Best Supporting Actor victory for Mark Rylance. One month later, Schnapp lent his voice to one of the most iconic cartoon characters of all time: Charlie Brown in The Peanuts Movie.
Both roles paled in comparison, however, to the global attention on Stranger Things, the summer 2016 Netflix series from brothers Matt and Ross Duffer that sprang up out of seemingly nowhere - perhaps a shadowy alternate dimension commanded by a menacing monster. Schnapp was right at the heart of the tale, playing Will Byers, a small-town kid who becomes stranded in a nightmare world, with only his closest friends and family fighting to save his life. In the end, they succeed, rescuing Will from the so-called Upside Down and its blood-hungry monster, nicknamed "The Demogorgon." But sometimes there's no such thing as waking up from a nightmare; sometimes, the nightmare stays with you, as glimpsed in the season's final scene, featuring Will vomiting baby monsters into the sink.
With season two of Stranger Things confirmed but not yet in production, Schnapp took some time to speak about his work on the first season, his predictions and hopes for what's next (including why he wants Will to take a darker turn), reflections on his recent successes, and more.
What are your earliest memories of getting involved with Stranger Things and landing the role of Will Byers?
I definitely remember that it was a long process, the auditioning. At first I went as a normal audition into this casting office, and I originally auditioned for the role of Mike (Finn Wolfhard). But when I got my callback later on, they asked me to play for Will. We used scripts that went way forward, and at one of the last callbacks, we read scripts from Stand By Me. We were all in L.A. at the time, and I had only met Caleb [McLaughlin], because we had met at another audition. They told me that I got the role while I was at camp. Honestly, when my parents called me, they were like, "We have someone on the phone for you." And I was like, "Who is it?" And they were like, "It's the Duffer Brothers, those people from Stranger Things!" I thought they were lying. They told me I got the role, and it was crazy. I was in camp, and I was just so excited.
And you were excited to play Will, even though you originally tried out for Mike?
I was so excited to play Will. He goes into the Upside Down, and he has some pretty crazy experiences.
Indeed, and it starts right away, within the first scene of the whole series, when Will first encounters the Demogorgon. What do you remember about shooting the show's first sequence, when Will is pulled into the Upside Down?
I remember we shot it using a bunch of different takes. First, they put smoke everywhere. Everyone was coughing; it was very foggy. They shot me running through the woods a whole bunch of times. Then when we filmed all of the parts in the house, the Duffer brothers had a long talk with me about what I'm going to do and where I'm going to go. When I had to pick up the phone, there was a speaker that I didn't even see, and it played the Demogorgon noise - that roar. I freaked out. It scared me so much. It actually felt so real, that I was really so scared.
Hearing the Demogorgon is one thing. Seeing it must be something else. Can you describe what it was like to put your eyes on the practical Demogorgon, for those of us who only saw the monster through a screen?
First of all, just being able to play with a real character with the Demogorgon was so helpful. It was a guy inside this very tall suit. He has these big, long hands, and they're remote controlled. They were really long, huge. The feet were really long too. He was very tall. He would just tower over you. It would creep me out so much. It was so scary.
What's the grossest thing you shot on Stranger Things? It's such a nasty show.
There are two gross things, and I think they're tied. One of them is when I was getting rescued from the Upside Down, and I was in this little hole. I was covered in all this goo and surrounded by these nets, and there was this big, plastic, disgusting thing in my mouth, all the way down. I had to keep putting it back in my mouth in each scene, and it was already filled with my spit. There was this cold, slimy goo hanging all over me. It was so gross.
That sounds awful.
It was. (Laughs.) The second thing was when I had to cough up the slug. They made this weird mixture of... I think it was licorice and gummies and apple sauce. I actually thought it would taste good! So I took a big scoop on the first take, and I put it in the back of my mouth, and oh God, it was so disgusting. At the beginning of the scene, I'm supposed to pretend it's not in my mouth, and then I cough it up. But inside, I was already gagging.
Not great. Did it make you actually throw up?
Well, I was definitely gagging, and it looks pretty real!
You can only speculate right now, of course, but I'm curious for your take on that scene. It's right at the end of the season: Will is back from the Upside Down, but he's brought some of it back with him, as he's vomiting tiny monsters into the sink. What do you think this means for Will and the show moving forward?
Just like you said, I don't know. But my guess is that maybe he's going to become evil in the next season. If he's coughing up these baby Demogorgons, or eggs, or something, maybe he's incubating or holding these eggs inside of him and he's trying to fight his good side against his bad side in the next season. That would be cool to see, to see him become evil.
Is that what you want to see next, for Will to develop a meaner streak?
I mean, there are so many ways Will can go in the next season with how they set it up. But honestly, any way would be pretty cool. But it would be pretty cool to play an evil Will.
Either way, he's definitely keeping a secret. He goes right back to dinner after he vomits up the monster, and doesn't say a word. When you were playing that scene, how did you interpret Will's choice? Is he scared to confront what's happening to him?
When I was filming the scene, I was so angry. I wanted Will to tell Joyce so badly! I wanted to see what she would say after. But he hid it from her. So I had to play it like I'm keeping it to myself, where I'm trying to hold it in, where I'm very scared, and I don't know what's going on.
The finale jumps ahead one month after Will's return. You have to imagine that the people of Hawkins are looking at him very differently, after his high-profile disappearance, the fake body being discovered. How do you think Will is reacting to the attention?
I think Will's mind is going crazy right now. So much has happened. He's seen this crazy monster. He's been in another dimension. He's seen this other world. He's probably thinking: "What is happening with me?" When he comes back, I think he's trying to fit in and act normal. But he's trying to hide what's actually happening to him.
The season focuses on Mike, Lucas and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) teaming with Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) to find Will. In your mind, how do you think Will fits into this group of friends? Mike is the dungeon master, Dustin is the quirky kid, Lucas is tough. Who is Will within this group?
I think out of the whole group, Will is the heart. He's the nice one. Obviously, they're all nice, but Will is the one who cares for all of them. He holds them all together, that big, long-lasting friendship, because he's so sweet and so easy to talk to.
That would make things very complicated if you get your wish, and Will goes evil in season two.
I know! That's why I'm excited to see if that happens, and how it would turn out.
Will and Eleven have not met yet. How do you expect their relationship to play out, if they get to meet?
Well, I actually think they did meet. In one of the episodes, Eleven sees a picture of me, and she points at it and says, "Will." So I think maybe one time... maybe I didn't meet her, but maybe she saw me somewhere. So I'm excited to see if Eleven meets Will in the next season, what would happen there?
Did you spend time with Millie [Bobby Brown], even though you didn't have scenes together?
We're really close. We've hung out a bunch and had a ton of sleepovers together. Even though I wasn't there the whole time like the other kids, it's surprising, that we're all really close. We have such a close bond. Whenever I came back to the set, it was like another reunion. We would all meet up and it was like nothing ever changed.
How about your relationship with Winona Ryder, and building the dynamic between Will and his mother?
From the start, I knew she was a great person. There were so many moments where she was like my real mom. We were doing a CPR scene and she came up to me with a packet of gum. She gave me a piece, looked me right in the eye and said, "This is so our breath doesn't smell bad." Mr. [David] Harbour [who plays Chief Jim Hopper] had to push really hard on my chest, and she went up to my mom to make sure that it was okay. She was just really sweet.
People loved Stranger Things. How often are fans coming up to you on the street?
When I'm with the other cast, going to interviews, like we did in New York City, people do recognize us. I like meeting fans. It's amazing to me. Without them, the show wouldn't be what it is. It's amazing to meet them and see what they're all like.
You've been on a roll lately. Beyond Stranger Things, you were also in a Steven Spielberg movie, Bridge of Spies. On top of that, you voiced Charlie Brown in The Peanuts Movie...
I can't even explain how grateful I am for the things I've done and the places I've gone. I also got the chance to visit this place called Sundance Lab in Utah, where I got to work with a ton of adults. I was the only kid there. They taught me so much. Then there was Bridge of Spies, where I got to learn so much from an amazing director like Mr. Spielberg, and worked opposite an actor like Tom Hanks, who taught me so much. Then I was Charlie Brown, and I got to work with [Peanuts director] Steve Martino, who would show me exactly how Charlie would react in the movie.
Is Will the Charlie Brown of Stranger Things? They both have very bad luck, and after a while, you can imagine Will channeling Charlie's catchphrase: "Good grief!"
That's funny! (Laughs.) I had never thought about that before. Now that I think about it, it makes sense! Will does have the bad luck of going to the Upside Down, so it makes sense.
How would Charlie Brown handle the Upside Down?
I don't know if Charlie is as great at hiding as Will is. I think he would get eaten up pretty quick.
Who would be the Eleven of the Peanuts gang? Who would have the psychic powers and the cool hair?
Really? I thought Lucy might be the Demogorgon to Charlie's Will.
So who's the Demogorgon? One of the angry adults who babbles at the kids?
I was just going to say that! Exactly. The teacher is the Demogorgon, and Lucy is Eleven. (Laughs.) That's it.