Netflix staged one of the most anticipated events of this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour: A panel on Stranger Things, the throwback thriller that channels elements of 1980s horror and science-fiction cinema to depict the mysterious happenings in and around a small Midwestern town in 1983.
Two of the most noteworthy actors in a series full of them are a well-known face and a new one: Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers, whose son vanishes in the series’ first episode, and Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven, a 12-year-old with an enigmatic past and supernatural abilities. At the TCA, The A.V. Club participated in a roundtable discussion with Ryder and Brown to discuss various aspects of Stranger Things. Ryder started out by discussing her character:
Winona Ryder: I think that my character reacted completely appropriately to that situation, which was incredibly both unimaginable in terms of the grief, but also completely bizarre in terms of what was happening. I can’t imagine what else she would do, or what any parent would do.
Millie Bobby Brown: It was very believable. With some projects, you look, and you’re like, “How can I make this so believable?” And especially with my character, and Winona’s, we are very emotional. But not only do we cry, we have to tell it with our face. So there’s this storyline of Joyce Byers, who has lost her son for a long time now. It’s pretty amazing how we sort of come together and collaborate to make such an amazing project. It really isn’t to do with crying, it’s more just with the emotion itself. Trying to be happy, and trying to get through things, but really deep inside we’re really broken.
WR: I think one of the best pieces of direction that I ever got was when I was about your age [to Brown]. I was working with Jason Robards and Dan Petrie Sr. [in 1987’s Square Dance], and I had to cry in a scene, and he came and he said, “Don’t cry. Whatever you do, don’t cry.” And I was like [Cries.] immediately. So it’s almost this weird thing of trying not to, I don’t know.
MBB: It’s quite funny, actually, because I had done Intruders, and I had a scene where I had to cry after a traumatic scene. So it was crazy, because Glen Morgan, who wrote The X-Files, came up to me and was like, “Do you have a dog? Well, that’s just dropped down dead right now.” [Ryder throws up her hands.] And he’s like, “How do you feel about that?” And I’m just like, “Let’s just roll!” And we’re rolling.
When I used to go off set [on Stranger Things], and I would come back on, and I would see Winona filming, it was heartbreaking. Even my mom was like, “I can’t even watch it, it’s horrible, really, isn’t it? Just the reality of things.”
WR: I was her [Brown’s] age that year [that the series is set in], in 1983. Because I was born in ’71. That was a really sort of big year for me, because I was learning a lot about what was happening in the world, and getting more involved. I joined Amnesty International—I joined the local chapter and licked envelopes. I guess my parents must have maybe sheltered me a bit before then, and then sort of thought, okay, she’s ready. Because I was very curious, I’d always read the paper with them. And then I started wanting to read it on my own. So I remember going on marches and sitting on railroad tracks when we were bombing the contras. I remember it being a sort of pivotal year for me, in terms of what I started to really care about. It was also during the nuclear freeze. Things just seemed very real.
MBB: I think [that sense of nostalgia] is what appeals to people. I think it appeals to all age ranges. The nostalgia comes with the package of watching the show. You sort of gain that whilst you’re watching it.
WR: Yeah, I think there’s certain things: You’ll hear a song, and it’ll take you back, and you’ll remember exactly where you were and exactly where the light was. Even if it’s so random and not really seemingly meaningful, but that happens to a certain degree. I think the way that [the series] is shot—I’m not saying that that’s what it looked like back then—but when you went to the movies, it’s what those movies looked like. It’s interesting if you look at it from a purely psychological clinical standpoint—it must trigger emotions and memories in people. It’s what I seem to be hearing.
WR: Usually the roles that you get offered that are the mom roles are very much the mom role. Literally, like standing in the doorway [Crosses arms.], “Oh you kids!” with the fluffy slippers. This was different. She was much more than something to service the plot. So it was a really great opportunity.
It’s like all the Marsha Mason movies that were so great, and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore… I’m not comparing the show to those movies, but you watch Marsha Mason in these movies, and she’s a powerhouse. There’s something just so heartbreaking and human about them. I feel like a lot of women are almost shamed—women who maybe had dreams—they thought they’d go to Europe. Then she had kids, and she doesn’t regret having kids, and the kids are her life. But when you talk to women even today about that, they’ll say, “Oh, I was going to do this, but… I don’t regret that for a second.” The fact that they feel the need to even explain that or say that is interesting.
In the show, there’s a line about, “[Joyce] has had anxiety problems.” And I wonder, who wouldn’t, if you’re a single mom struggling to make ends meet, you have two boys, the dad took off and was a complete deadbeat? Look at Hopper, he does pills, booze, but I’m the one with the emotional problems? Like, it’s certainly not a flaw. It’s just very telling.
AVC: Millie, how did you become so accustomed to your acting career at such a young age?
MBB: I think I was quite accustomed to it. I knew what the industry was about—I knew that it was competitive. I had best friends who were in the industry, and I’m like, it’s cool if you get a job, and I’m happy. Before an audition, I’m like, “Good luck,” I really am. So I think that it’s important just to stay humble and really not make it a competition. It’s about the art and you’re being a participant.
AVC: You seem so grounded, yet you keep getting cast in these otherworldly productions like Stranger Things, The Intruders, and even Once Upon A Time In Wonderland.
MBB: You know, I always just think I bump back into them. It’s kind of crazy. For some reason, I like seeing people feel emotional. My dad doesn’t ever cry, but watching this show, he did. I’m like, if I get that response from people, then maybe I’m making them more soft, you know? I kind of like that.