It must be strange to live in a town in the US Midwest 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 Thursday, 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 of Hawkins, Indiana, 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 1980s-era touchstones that this series is famous for cribbing from, as the innocence of ET 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’s new shopping mall.)
The Stranger Things friends are 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
While the Stranger Things friends once again contend with hideous beasts of the human and nonhuman 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 or 10 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 very different from a typical teenager’s, even as they strive to stay humble and normal.
In individual interviews, the young Stranger Things actors speak about growing up, on camera and off, their appreciation for the sometimes inexplicable pop culture of the 1980s and what they have learnt about themselves. These are edited excerpts from those conversations.
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 has 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 1 Will is more shy and reserved, and then in Season 2, after the monster attacks him and takes over his body, Will gained more courage and became braver. Throughout Season 3 you see how the monster's still lingering inside him, and how he deals with that. Because he's not fully better.
Gaten Matarazzo It seems that the stakes for Dustin's stories have 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 any more. It was just because of me not going to school. But I don't really talk to them that much.
Matarazzo Obviously, it's sad. I always think about this one thing my history teacher told me this year. He's sitting there on his desk, sipping coffee, talking about how this generation sucks, as he always does. And he's not even that old. He's, like, 40. [Laughs] And in the middle of his lecture he goes, "I was just thinking earlier this week, there was this one time I was hanging out with my friends, all of us together – and then it never happened again. Something happens or something changes, and then it never happened again." And that's how friendships work, especially when you're a kid.
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 onscreen 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?
Schnapp A lot of Stranger Things is having to be able to, in your mind, turn a little tennis ball into a huge monster. In Season 2 there was one scene where I was screaming at the monster – and I was screaming at nothing. It was just the sky. So I really have a big imagination, I guess. In another scene I had to collapse and have a seizure. I've never experienced one; I've never seen anyone have one. So I just researched it on the internet. I looked at videos of it. Winona [Ryder] helped me too – she talked me through one of the scenes.
Brown 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 did you know about 1980s culture before Stranger Things?
Wolfhard I had already seen all the classics. I'd seen all of John Hughes's movies. All the Spielberg stuff. A bunch of 1980s horror, like Evil Dead. It was cool when the Duffers assigned a list of movies to watch. Gaten and I were just, like, Oh, we've already seen these. And they were, like, All right, well, good.
Matarazzo My parents were so keen on making sure I knew all that. I remember my dad showed me a Duran Duran album once, and I was obsessed with it. And so was my brother, but my brother was only obsessed with the song Girls on Film, and he played it about 14 million times in a day. And it drove me nuts. But now I have a connection with that album and that time.
Sink My mom always plays Madonna in the car, so I was kind of familiar with what she was into in the 1980s. I'm a huge Back to the Future fan. I rewatched it recently, and I see a lot of similarities between Max and Marty. They have the same skateboard, the same backpack.
What’s something from the 1980s 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 2 we had the arcade set, and all the games were working, so in between takes you could go around and play whatever you wanted. I never actually played Dig Dug, though, because the machine they had didn't work. [The show introduced Max in Season 2 as a Dig Dug ace.] The night before that scene I was looking at how to play Dig Dug, making sure I was prepared. And then I got on set and they were, like, Okay, it's not working, so you're just going to press this button like you're playing it. I was so ready.
Schnapp My parents always told me about VHS tapes. And the Walkman, everyone had those. I had never even seen one until I got on to 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 Beyoncé. Bruno Mars. Jay-Z. Migos.
Wolfhard If you don't realise that there are great rock bands out there, you should look for them. Pup, who's like the most amazing, they're keeping rock'n'roll and punk alive. A band called Whitney. And my friend Snail Mail. All those are so important.
Schnapp I always wonder if Apple iPhones and all these electronics that we use today are still going to be a thing in, like, 10, 20 years. It's nice being on set, because it teaches you, Oh, you don't need your phone all the time. People lived like this.
How have you seen yourself change since you started working on Stranger Things?
Sink I've definitely grown up, but I'm the same Sadie now that I would have been, even if I wasn't on Stranger Things. I've always been laid back, go with the flow. There's that whole thing about how child actors all end up being crazy, but I don't think that's the case for any of us. We're all just good kids, especially when you surround yourself with supportive, loving people.
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.
Brown I've learnt to like new things and different things. Obviously, my lifestyle has changed quite drastically. Taking more safety precautions and my privacy, being more careful. But me, my love and passion for acting hasn't changed at all.
But has it been strange to grow up in front of millions of viewers?
Brown People think that we haven't had a childhood. If you have a daughter, everything your daughter has gone through or is going to go through is exactly what I've been through. You still cry. You still get emotional at random things. It's like any other kid: "Let me go be a kid, and let me do things."
Matarazzo There's going to be so much footage of me from the past, and it's never going to leave me alone. When I'm, like, 30, all I've got to do is type in "Gaten Matarazzo when he was a kid", and then a bunch of stuff is going to come up, and I'll be, like, "Oh, no."
Schnapp I'm the youngest on set, and I've never felt, like, Oh, they're so much older than me. But it's crazy now – like, Caleb has a beard. Everyone's tall. We've grown up so much. But it's nice to be able to look back at Season 1 and see, like, Wow, that's what our voices sounded like. We have that forever. – New York Times