[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for “Stranger Things” Season 3, including the finale.]
Billy Hargrove died as he lived: loud and defiant. The former high school bully had won plenty of enemies when he had joined “Stranger Things” last season, but after getting possessed by the Mind Flayer this year, Billy finds the strength to fight back to save others. Unfortunately, it’s at the cost of his own life.
Despite closing that chapter on his brief “Stranger Things” career, Dacre Montgomery is thrilled with where Billy was able to go this season. He actually had no clue that co-creators Matt and Ross Duffer had wanted to beef up his role significantly from annoying jerk to the creepy main antagonist. Well, the human vessel of the other-worldly monster antagonist.
“There’s a table read, but only for Episodes 1 and 2. The deal is they haven’t really written them [all upfront], so when you’re doing Episodes 1 and 2, they’re only really finishing up writing Episodes 3 and 4. So we get it very last minute. It’s very hard to keep up,” Montgomery said.
“But here’s often a discussion about where your character arc is going to go at the start of the show. So you kind of have a rough idea, but I didn’t know Billy’s story was going to be as big as it is by any means. I’m so grateful.”
When the season opens, it’s the summer of 1985 in Hawkins, and Billy is even cockier than before. He’s a sun god whose tanned pecs and abs turn hot mom heads at the community swimming pool, and he continues his flirtation with the very married Mrs. Karen Wheeler (Cara Buono) in a heated conversation filled with double entendres. Despite his rather sleazy proposal, Montgomery makes sure that Billy comes off as charming.
“I recall very early Mel Gibson films where he’s kind of cheeky,” said the actor. “I wanted to embody those qualities, definitely. But it’s really interesting, because I think that people imagine the Mrs. Wheeler thing at the start of the season, and that’s what they get, but then so quickly it takes a very quick turn somewhere far darker.”
Courtesy of Netflix
But before he can make good on his rendezvous, Billy is pulled into the Brimborn Steelworks where the newly escaped Mind Flayer takes over his body. And thus a new Billy is born, one who is remorseless and acquires new bodies for the Mind Flayer to take over one by one. It’s a chilling performance that is calm and steely one moment, and volcanic and violent the next. Montgomery revealed that he studied Jack Nicholson’s career for inspiration.
“In all of his films, he makes really interesting acting choices that I don’t think are predictable, and I think that keeps the audience on their toes,” he said. “So I went back and watched ‘Chinatown’ and ‘The Shining’ for the contrast between those two characters in each of those films, and how they’re similar.”
As the Mind Flayer in a Billy suit, Montgomery was also able to deliver a menacing monologue threatening the super-powered Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). The speech can be heard in voiceover in the Season 3 trailer:
“In terms of my actual acting, I don’t really like to to copy anyone or replicate anything that I’ve seen,” said Montgomery. “Pretty much the whole way throughout, keeping in mind Jack Nicholson’s choices are really interesting, but making my own choices, in the monologue, in anything, it’s really important.”
Usually when Eleven exercises her powers, she enters into a mental void that has no scenery or furniture – only a vision of the people she’s seeking. When it comes to Billy, however, she must go deeper since his psyche is buried beneath the Mind Flayer’s. What emerges is a beach-scape where Eleven sees Billy’s memories as a young boy in California with his biological mother, before she had abandoned him and his abusive father.
These scenes are partially the result of Montgomery’s input. “[The Duffers] are so collaborative. You never feel like your voice isn’t heard or that you haven’t been considered,” he said. “I really wanted to learn about my biological mother in the season, and that’s something that gets delved into and unpacked completely.
“Just working with Millie predominantly this season, she’s got so much emotional maturity,” he added. “I just felt that life breathe through her into me, and we’re just working off each other.”
In the big finale, the Mind Flayer has taken a much bigger physical form that has drawn on the bodies of many other humans. Billy is separate, but still possessed so that he can serve up the ultimate prize: Eleven. But by delving into his memories, she had awakened something in him, and it’s Billy who is finally looking out of Billy’s own eyes again. What he sees is an innocent young girl and her friends will be sacrificed. With an unholy scream, he intercepts the Mind Flayer in a scene that is excruciating to watch as tentacle-like protrusions invade his body.
Courtesy of Netflix
“It was a more physical performance, but it was also more emotionally exhausting this season because it’s also so emotional. There’s constantly the struggle underneath the surface with Billy the whole way through,” Montgomery said.
His final scene was the most taxing of them all. “I was super emotional, exhausted. It was some ungodly hour of the morning, and we all had a good cry,” he said. “You put so much into it, and you’re so emotionally exposed. On the last day we were shooting a really emotional scene, it was just tears.”
So what’s next after taking on a creature from another dimension? Last season, Montgomery had hoped to see the softer, more romantic side of Billy. Although that didn’t pan out for his “Stranger Things” journey, he will get to exercise those muscles for his next project, Natalie Krinsky’s “The Broken Hearts Gallery” alongside Geraldine Viswanathan (“Blockers”) and Utkarsh Ambudkar (“The Mindy Project”).
“I’m doing this romantic comedy in a couple weeks. It’s so left field for me, The pace of comedy is so different to drama. I think that scares me, and I’m really excited to jump into that.”