The kids of “Stranger Things” are, in fact, kind of strange — but in a great way. Child actors can struggle to blend their cute, normal selves with really acting when called upon, but the young ensemble of Netflix’s new hit had no such problems. And leading the way with the most challenging role of Season 1 was Millie Bobby Brown, the 12-year-old U.K. native who brought intimacy and humanity to Eleven.
Brown, who was born in Spain to British parents, made her way to the United States (by way of Florida) at age seven where she took up acting. After moving to Los Angeles and landing parts in “Intruders,” “Modern Family” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” Brown was living in England when she got the call about auditioning for “Stranger Things.”
“It really came out of the blue, to be honest,” Brown said, sitting down with IndieWire on the set of Season 1. “I was in England, and I didn’t get a lot of auditions there. So I did the first audition — a very emotional audition — and they said, ‘Come back for a callback.’ And I was like, ‘Okay!'”
What followed was a taped audition, a Skype conversation with creators Matt and Ross Duffer, and another audition in Los Angeles — all of which were done using “dummy sides,” or fake scenes written to test Brown without revealing any key plot points, in case she didn’t get the part. It wasn’t until the final audition, though, that she was first told of one of the trickier requisites that came with the part.
“So I’m standing in the room with them, and Ross Duffer comes over to me and is just like, ‘Bzzzzzzzz’ on my head, and I’m like, ‘What’s that mean?'” Brown said. “And Ross said, ‘Well, you’ve got to shave your head!'”
Brown was more okay with it than her mother was. “My mum’s reaction was like, ‘Oh my God, nooooo!’ [laughs] ‘I don’t want you to do it! Please don’t do it!’ And me and my dad were like, ‘Mum, it’s okay! It’s just my head!'”
When the time came to cut it off, Brown was given a pretty badass example for motivation, via a kind and thoughtful video from the Duffer brothers.
“I sat in the chair, and, one by one, they cut it off,” Brown said. “I was like, ‘Oh no. What have I done? And they told me, ‘I want you to have the mind-frame of Charlize Theron in ‘Mad Max.” And we did this sort of split-screen of her and me, and the resemblance was amazing! I thought, ‘Wow, that’s such an amazing way to put it, you know?’ It was the best decision I’ve ever, ever made.”
While shaving her head may have been the earliest challenge of the role, Brown’s mental preparation was extensive. She was given homework (as was the rest of the cast) by her directors, which added to her understanding of the process even if Brown found the spirit of “Stranger Things” long before she actually got to watch it.
“They told me to watch ‘Poltergeist,’ ‘Stand By Me’ and ‘The Goonies,'” Brown said. “And basically, if you put that in a blender, you get ‘Stranger Things.’ You see parts of ‘The Goonies’ and ‘Poltergeist,’ but it’s not that. It’s very independent. It resembles other movies, but it’s not those movies. It’s completely different.”
For playing Eleven, the creators gave her a specific reference point.
“They told me that the performance that they wanted me to resemble was ‘E.T.’ and sort of that relationship between E.T. and the kids. I thought that was very interesting, and Matt and Ross were like, ‘Basically you’re going to be an alien.’ [laughs]”
But Brown expanded on that relationship in specific ways, noting the demands of a role without a ton of dialogue and how Eleven’s choices were motivated by her comfort level with specific characters.
“I find that her actions speak louder than words,” she said. “The only people she feels comfortable with are Matthew Modine (“Papa”), Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Joyce (Winona Ryder). So when she’s talking to them, she feels comfortable. There’s this little thing in the show where me and Mike always say, ‘You promised,’ and ‘Friends don’t lie.’ And if we do that together, Eleven knows they’re good people. I find that’s why she doesn’t speak that much, only to those people when she does.”
“I find it more difficult than actually having [a lot of] dialogue. Because if I have dialogue, I’m more focused on the dialogue. But with my actions, you know, I have to cry sometimes, and even if I don’t have to cry, I well up because she’s so emotional. And there’s this little scene where Mike and Eleven nearly kiss, and we’re [really close], but she doesn’t say anything. She’s completely plain.”
The relationship between Eleven and Mike is a crucial one, as their budding romance is carefully teased throughout the first season. But the actors found it quickly, before cameras even started rolling.
“I was working with Finn on the audition, and I knew from then that Finn and I had such an amazing connection and chemistry. We felt so strongly about the performance we gave. I texted him a couple months later, ‘Did you get the show?’ ‘Yeah, I got it.’ ‘Me too!’ [laughs]”
Now, Brown is just excited for people to see the series — and Season 2.
“Oh my goodness! I am so excited,” Brown said. “I’m very excited obviously for Episode 1 because it’s the best. And Episode 8 is amazing, the finale. You guys are going to die! It’s going to be so good. Everybody’s going to be on edge. You just want a Season 2 so bad! [laughs]”
Indeed, we do. And Brown herself is a big part of the excitement.