It's no secret that the Duffer brothers' Netflix series Stranger Things has become the cult hit of the summer, partially thanks to its stellar casting, which includes the likes of Winona Ryder and Full Metal Jacket's Matthew Modine. However, one particular actor has become the defacto heartthrob of the series -- 22-year-old British actor Charlie Heaton, who plays requisite, broody loner, Jonathan Byers. A relative newcomer to the trade, not a ton is known about the affable, off-the-cuff Heaton, so we snuck in some time with him to talk about everything from the bizarreness of newfound fame to having his career go up in flames -- both figuratively and literally.
Stranger Things has the distinct honor of being an overnight cult phenomenon, which is kind of crazy for a streaming-based series. Were you overwhelmed by the intense reception?
Definitely overwhelmed -- still overwhelmed. Every day it keeps growing. Its fan base keeps growing. I just remember reading the pilot and being like "Alright!" You know when you pick up scripts, some are good and some are great, and this really felt great. It felt like I was reading a classic script. Everyone worked so hard for it to be received like this, so it's amazing. I keep pinching myself.
Was working with Winona Ryder also a pinchable moment? Was it weird having such an iconic woman play your mother?
Yeah. I mean, she is an icon and she's worked with some of the best people. It's weird, I didn't really think about [the fact that] I was going to be working with Winona Ryder. I knew I was playing her son but [there was still a part of me that was like] "Oh my god! This is insane." But then I got to set and she's so lovely and wonderful and forgiving. Instantly, it felt like working with any other person. She's amazing, but she's also very down to earth, very supportive of whoever she's working with. It's kind of cool. I mean, it's super cool. I mean, fuck. Yeah, fuck, it was so cool.
I feel like every teenage boy I knew had a poster of Winona Ryder in his room. I mean, even I had a poster of her in my room.
Yeah, I [freaked out a little] on the inside, but I tried to keep it together. She's gorgeous and cool. It was nice, we hit it off pretty well. It was just super fun to be able to hang out with her. She gave me some t-shirts, actually, as presents.
I can't remember how far [into filming] we were, but she was like, "Charlie! I got you a present!." And because Jonathan's really into the Clash, [she gave me] a Clash tour t-shirt. An original she got when she had gone to see them when she was younger. She was like, "I used to go and watch the Clash a lot and I got this shirt, but I want you to have it." So that was such a special present. I still have it -- I've got it on me.
I would wear that everywhere. I found it kind of funny though that the Clash was Jonathan's favorite band. Are you a big fan yourself?
No. I know the Clash, but no. Not really, ha.
Is there another band you wish Jonathan liked more?
I kind of like the Cure, but I think they were a little later.
So you're a big new wave sad boy? It is the '80s, right? I feel like the Cure would also be an acceptable option. Plus they're way spookier than The Clash.
It's funny, we talked about [the bands that I liked from that time]. But I read online [about this one scene where] Jonathan's playing a mixtape and he's like "Bowie, Television and the Smiths," and someone made a comment that was like, "I don't think the Smiths were around that time."
I like [The Cure's] Disintegration. Let's Google it! [humming]. So Disintegration was May '89, so [we'd have to] travel to the future and then Jonathan would be into the Cure...But Pornography was out in '82 so you know, maybe, maybe. For season two, I could be like, "Hey guys, maybe Jonathan could like the Cure now."
Speaking of music, I know before acting you were in a noise outfit called Comanechi. Can you tell me a little about that?
Yeah, was I was playing in other bands [with older friends when I was like 17]. My uncle has a recording studio and so I moved to London when I was 16. I didn't have too many friends at college, and didn't really gel with most of the people. I mean I got along with them, but they were into different things, so I used to hang out [at my uncle's studio] a lot.
I think everybody's looking for a drummer in a band and they're the hardest to find...So I was doing that and playing in these little bands [with my other friends] and then [someone] mentioned that this band, Comanechi, were looking for a drummer to go on their second album tour. I had just finished college, so I didn't know what the fuck I was doing and [so when they were] like, "Do you wanna come and tour with us?," I was like "Fuck, yeah! Let's do that." So I joined them and I was lucky enough to go around the world touring for a bit. [And back in] London I was working in a bar, so I was able to go and have that lifestyle. It was really nice -- most people my age are just at university and I was just living this little, weird lifestyle for a while.
That's the post-grad dream -- playing music, bartending -- at least now you've "made it" and don't have to clean glasses again.
[The bar I used to work at is still] my favorite place to go when I go home. It was great I worked there for like a year, but I got fired.
What did you do?
Oh god. Terrible stories. We would all drink...You were encouraged to drink and everyone was having a good time. I had been with my friend and we had dinner and wine and that was fine [and so we went to my bar]. I was kind of tipsy and there was this local who comes in all the time getting a double whiskey for himself. He was like, "You want one too?" So it was all going great, I was bouncing around, it was fine. I walked up to my manager and I was [pretty drunk], and the area manager had come in to spotcheck the bar -- just to make sure everything was alright on this one night. And my manager was trying to get me away saying, "Alright, Charlie you're done for the night" and I was like, "Yeah, yeah, whatever" and I walked off and completely fell over the chairs and it was a big mess. The worst thing was that my manager was so upset about firing me.
I know! She was like, "Everybody has that one night where they go a bit too drunk." Unfortunately mine was in front of the area manager...[Getting drunk is sort of] the unwritten rule of bar staff, isn't it? It's like everybody does it but nobody...falls over.
So circling back, I'm curious as to why you wanted to make the switch to acting?
It was something that happened organically. Like I wasn't all of a sudden like, "Shit, I want to be an actor." I think the tours that we were doing, they'd kind of come to a natural end. And I just needed some money, and you don't earn much at the bar. Well, especially when [you get fired from your bar job].
But my sister, she was trying to be an actor too, had mentioned this commercial agency. So I went to this open day. They picked me out and I started going to commercial castings where you like do the most degrading things. If you've ever been to a commercial casting audition, you'll know it's the worst thing. It's like [you have to] eat a Malteser [candy bar] and have it be the most sexy, sensational thing you've ever done. It's just stupid...But I got this one commercial which was a Swiss advert with a real story arc and character [development] and it was like 8 minutes long. So I shot this commercial, and it won a Cannes Lion. Through that, I got a talent agent and then he started putting me up for roles...I did a bit of TV in England and then I got LA representation, so they told me to come over for pilot season last January. So I did and I saved up some money and I went over to LA and stayed in a hostel with backpackers.
It was called the Banana Bungalow.
It was fine. So I'm staying in this hostel and during the day it was like, "Oh you've got an audition at Sony or like Paramount"...And in the night I'd like sneak off with some people I'd met and be like, "Yeah I'm just gonna go out." And then we'd come back and kind of be in a shitty hostel. It was my first experience of American people, because I'd never really been around Americans, and all of a sudden I was able to like watch them.
[It's funny though, the] last time I went to LA, which was not so long ago -- it was right after Stranger Things had finished -- I had money and I was like "Great!" I was gonna hang out in LA for a bit and, I don't know why I did this, but I was like, "I can go back to the Banana Bungalow, that's fine!" So I booked myself in this fucking hostel and unfortunately I realized it wasn't as exciting the second time around. After two days, I called my manager and I was like, "I need to get out of here, this is fucking horrible." I was in an 8-person room. It stinks, there's nowhere to put your clothes, people are just laying in all day, and you know, it was not good. But in my head I still had this idea that it was so much fun and this is where it all started and it'd be like, "I'm back" and it would be so cool. But that wasn't the reality. It was fucking horrible.
But I tried it! I tried to do it! The intention was there.
Just out of curiosity would you even attempt something like that now? Like since Stranger Things aired, have you gotten any like weird fan mail or had any strange IRL encounters?
Yeah I mean it's been crazy. I never thought I'd be stopped by anyone. So at this moment I'm [filming in this] tiny, little Spanish-speaking town and I went out on Saturday and I got stopped so much. [But this one time] I was having a pee, you know, just minding my own business, and this guy -- who's also having a pee -- stands up next to me and turns his head and is like, "WAIT, ARE YOU?"
I mean, I don't know if he said those words exactly, because he was speaking Spanish, but he was like [excited] and then he wanted to take a photo, and I was, like "Yeah, yeah, that's fine. At least let me finish taking a fucking pee."
Ew, I really hope he at least washed his hands before that.
Yeah, that's been strange. A lot of personal messages on Instagram from all over the world -- a lot of nice things, a lot of really nice compliments, a lot of girls who need me to write to them for whatever reason.
Well, you have become the unspoken heartthrob of the series.
Honestly, I was kind of really disappointed that you and Nancy didn't get together at the end.
You got no intel for me? No Season Two sneak peeks or anything?
I was also really bummed that they didn't get together. And I think a lot of people are, but it's kind of good for building [character]. You can't always have everything you want and neither can Jonathan. We kind of talked about it with the [Duffer] Brothers and I think it came from a place where Jonathan is so solely focused on finding his brother. Like Jonathan is discovering himself throughout the season, he's a teenager going through adolescent. He's discovering himself and I think he's been branded as an outsider, and where that comes from is [the fact that] he is so much more mature than his peers. He has so much more responsibility and then he has to grow even more across the series. He has to be the man of the house, especially cause his dad left. He has to deal with things. He's finding himself and through Nancy he's able to open up a little bit and kind of be himself, or at least find some social connection with someone his own age, which is nice. Obviously they are both [working to find Will and Barb], but there is interest there.
And the thing is, it's only been a week. The whole show [takes place during] a week. But I think once his brother comes back, [he's going to have to be with Will]. He's just gone through this terrible thing, so it's more about [Jonathan] being there for his brother. Maybe he doesn't have time to be there for Nancy, and Steve is there for Nancy.
Fucking Steve. Fuck Steve!
But, it also makes sense. I mean poor Nancy [just] lost her virginity. You know we can't expect [something instantly] with Jonathan...But I could speculate. We still don't know the exact reasons why she's back with Steve. I mean, obviously, they have feelings for each other, so I'm sure that will be explored more in Season 2. I don't know, maybe Jonathan will end up being a third wheel, which kind of happens in real life, doesn't it? When you like someone and they like somebody else and you're just like...
Yeah, totally. Speaking of the show itself, it's pretty fucking terrifying. Were there any moments during filming when you were freaked out?
Mmm...I burnt my hair on New Year's Eve in an incident. We had to add extensions onto my hair.
Were you smoking or...?
No, no. It was so stupid. It was just the dumbest, like Home Alone. I was washing my hands in the bathroom sink and I was washing my hands kind of bent over, and when I came up, I just saw myself in the mirror -- my hair on fire...There was a candle right in front of the sink!
And the gave you extensions. I'm dying.
I know. I was dying too. The next day, I was like, "It's over, it's done." I was obviously hungover from New Year's with like a big bald spot on the front of my head, [just feeling] like, "This is it."
Were there any story-related things though that were terrifying? You're obviously trampling around the woods at night with this fucking crazy scary creature thing.
I mean, it's kind of hard to be scared when you've got 50 people around you all the time. But there were moments in the woods at 5 in the morning...but we were just working. I mean the monster was really cool, or the guy in the 7-foot suit [was really cool]. He's a nice guy too, once he's got his head off.
True. Speaking of movie monsters, are you a big 80s pop culture buff? Like was there a particular reference in the show that you enjoyed?
I mean Stand By Me is an amazing movie. My sister used to watch it over and over again when I was like 2 when and she was like 6. That was just terrifying that was really terrifying for me. We watched I mean like a lot of kids we kind of watched a lot of 80s you know, ET . I liked [A Nightmare on Elm Street's] Freddy Krueger when I was little...But, yeah, I love 80s. What I like about 80s movies -- and [this is something] we've done with our show -- is that sense of normal, [relatable] people being in a very strange environment...the paranormal meets the extraordinary.
photos by Lindsey Byrnes