Following his breakout role in this year’s biggest, strangest Netflix sensation, British actor Charlie Heaton discusses finding his inner self-belief.
Charlie Heaton is still pinching himself. Two years ago, he was just a normal kid, doing things that normal kids do, like going to gigs and hanging out with friends. Now he’s being sent scripts from all over the world. In fact, he’s currently on a set somewhere in Spain, shooting Marrowbone, a psychological thriller, with Mia Goth and Anya Taylor-Joy. For the 22-year-old, things are pretty strange indeed.
“I’m still struggling to believe it all,” he modestly mumbles down the phone, but when you think about it, though, it’s not that hard to believe at all. As one of the stars of Netflix’s critically acclaimed, mass binge-watched sci-fi series Stranger Things, there’s barely a person on the planet who doesn’t know Charlie’s name, let alone one who wouldn’t want to work with him. “I mean, I’m not struggling to believe the reaction to the show,” he adds, hastily, “it’s amazing, but yeah, I didn’t really expect how crazy it would be.”
Drawing in over 14 million viewers in its first 35 days online, Stranger Things is one of the most successful shows in Netflix history. A mash-up of all the greatest sci-fi flicks you’ve ever seen – The Goonies, Firestarter, Twin Peaks, E.T., Alien, The Thing – it’s both stylistically nostalgic and grippingly unique. “I’d never seen anything like it,” Charlie admits. “The producers sent me a script as well as a trailer of all these different 80s movies cut together; it was the same trailer they used to sell the show to Netflix. I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is really different'”. Set in a small suburban town in 80s America, Charlie plays Jonathan Byers, an outsider who keeps himself to himself. Abandoned by his deadbeat dad, Jonathan is forced to take care of his single, somewhat neurotic mother, played brilliantly by iconic 90s actress, Winona Ryder, and his younger brother, Will. When Will is kidnapped by a monster from another dimension, an event that’s covered up by a mysterious government organisation, it’s up to Jonathan, his unrequited love, Nancy, his rival for her affections, Steve, a trio of highly precocious school kids, and a strange girl with psychokinetic powers to save the day.
Aside from an alien stealing his brother, involvement in uncovering government conspiracies, and an American accent, Jonathan and Charlie’s upbringings were pretty similar. Born in Bridlington, a small seaside town in Yorkshire, Charlie’s parents split up when he was just a kid. While Charlie hasn’t yet had to save the world, growing up in somewhat difficult circumstances forced him to deal with things far beyond his years. “Jonathan comes from a single parent family and is very working class, which is very similar to me,” Charlie reflects. “I was brought up by my mum on a council estate. My mum worked really hard, we had a fine upbringing, but there was always this sense of having to get on with things and not complain about anything. I’ve had to grow up quickly and deal with things myself. Jonathan has this responsibility to his younger brother, he works two jobs; he also just has to get on with things. I think you learn a lot of life lessons when you grow up in slightly difficult circumstances, where you don’t necessarily have everything and you have to make your own way.”
Like most actors, Charlie finds the acting process very cathartic. “It gives you a chance to get things out that maybe you don’t share in your day to day life,” he muses. “Adopting these roles allows you to convey emotions that you don’t necessarily want the outside world to see.” Hearing how passionate he is about his profession, one could be forgiven for thinking Charlie’s had a burning desire to act his entire life, but in actual fact it’s something he simply fell into two years ago. Up until that point Charlie’s life had been about music. At 16-years-old he moved to London to live with his dad, where he joined punk band Comanechi, and toured the world with them for a year as their drummer. When the money dried up he joined a talent agency. “I wasn’t looking for anything,” he says earnestly, “but then these opportunities came up and I did a commercial which was more like an eight minute movie, signed to an agent, got US representation and then realised, well ok this is something I enjoy doing.”
The first major part he landed was that of Steven Portman, Naomi Watts’ paralysed son in the upcoming psychological thriller Shut In. “I don’t want to sound pretentious or anything but I think with Shut In I really found a belief in myself,” he recalls. “I was very unsure before. You know, I was nobody, but to get this role, which is a very strong role and demands a lot from the actor, gave me a lot of confidence in myself. I just wanted to do the best I could with the character. And then you start striving for more roles and being selective.”
After Shut In, Charlie landed two more, equally dark, and psychologically challenging roles; a council estate junkie in the 2015 British drama Urban & The Shed Crew, opposite Anna Friel and Richard Armitage, and a teen delinquent in the soon to be released As You Are, opposite Amandla Stenberg. “I tend to get drawn to dark roles,” he admits. “When I’m looking for a role, I always have to find something true that’s in myself that I can put into the role. I’m not saying I’m really dark or anything, but it’s about finding that vulnerability. Everyone has vulnerabilities that they maybe don’t want to share. You find yourself being drawn to characters that are somehow similar to yourself or have gone through things that you’re going through or you can relate to them somehow.”
In just two short years, Charlie’s gone from total unknown to Hollywood’s next big thing. Critics are hailing him as the next Dane DeHaan or River Phoenix, a comparison he doesn’t yet feel entirely comfortable with. “If people are saying that because of the work, then that’s incredible, but it could just be because I have a look similar to those people,” he says humbly. “They’re such huge shoes to fill, it’s so flattering, but I also think it’s important to make your own identity. You know, I haven’t been properly tested yet.”
With Shut In about to hit cinemas, Marrowbone out next year, and season two of Stranger Things just announced, is global fame something Charlie is ready for? “It definitely scares me,” he says, laughing nervously. “It’s very exciting, but I’m not sure. The whole fan thing is a bit mad. I just want to keep working and focus on acting. Do I think I’m ready? I don’t know. We’ll see!” Well, stranger things have happened.