Jamie Campbell Bower: “For a long time, I was afraid of the darkness in me, and I would run from it”

The actor behind this summer’s most recognisable baddie on life in the Upside Down and embracing the macabre in his new music

This summer, the most recognisable person on TV doesn’t actually have a face. With his deep, booming voice and hideous skinless body, Stranger Things’ biggest baddie Vecna has dominated conversation and propelled the man beneath his suit to new levels of fame.

Luckily, Jamie Campbell Bower is taking it in his stride. “All the interest [in me] that’s happening at the moment is because the show is so brilliant,” he explains to NME calmly via Zoom from his apartment in Los Angeles. “I’ve removed myself from it entirely – it’s nothing to do with me. Ultimately, it could have been anyone [who got this role]. I’m very lucky and very grateful that it was me, but it’s the power of the writing – and the group of people who came together. They genuinely gave a shit and wanted to make something beautiful.”

Bower, a British actor and singer from London, has been here before, even if not to the same level. Over his 15-year career, he’s appeared in a handful of other projects that have similarly passionate – and massive – fan bases to Stranger Things. Between 2009 and 2012, he played vampire Caius in Twilight. In 2010 he appeared in Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 1 as a young version of the evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald, reprising the role in 2018’s Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.

“I don’t want to apologise for Vecna’s murders – I’m not sorry!”

“I’ve been fortunate enough to work on some pretty big cultural projects – thankfully not at the front,” he says. “So I’ve seen a lot of it and experienced it before. I was with one of my acting agents in London two days ago, and he said to me something I’ve been saying privately to myself for a while. He said, ‘Darling, we’re just putting on shows in the barn’ – I believe that. We’re putting on shows at the barn for our friends, and if they love it, that’s fucking awesome. If we fuck it up, they’re gonna let us know, and we’ll do better next time.”

The reaction from Bower’s new, Upside Down-loving pals around the world has been nothing but positive – even if people aren’t happy with Vecna for killing off this season’s other new favourite, Eddie Munson (played by Joseph Quinn). “I haven’t got a single boo [on the streets] yet,” he laughs, “but when we went away to South America [for promo] they tried to make me apologise to Joseph. I was like, ‘I don’t want to apologise – I’m not sorry! He’s a victim’.”

Despite playing the powerful villain who hunts down and kills local teenagers, Bower has had some wholesome fan moments. The day before we speak, he was boarding a plane from London to LA when a mother and her daughter recognised him. “The daughter was quite reserved, but she just blossomed and bloomed in front of me,” he explains, fondly re-enacting their interaction. “Her mum was like, ‘I’ve never seen her like this before’. This is what I love – being able to encounter people [and hear how] the show means everything to them and [how] it makes them feel heard.”

CREDIT: Courtesy of Netflix

The Stranger Things cast are as tight-knit a community as their audience. With the core team having been together for three seasons prior to his arrival, Bower describes his first day feeling like “the new kid at school”.

“I was sat behind Millie [Bobby Brown] at the read-through, and when I started talking, she turned around and looked at me in the eye,” he recalls. “Winona [Ryder] came up to me and introduced herself, and I was like, [eyes widen] ‘I’m a huge fan, I don’t know why I’m here!’”

Among the cast, Bower’s best mate is probably Quinn – according to the internet, at least. If you type either of their names into YouTube, you’ll be met with a barrage of compilation videos highlighting their “bromance”. It all began with a cigarette break during the readthrough when they bonded over three things they had in common: they were both smokers, they were both new kids in Hawkins, and they both came from Britain.

“Vecna recognises a lot of himself in Eleven”

“He would always check in on me and vice versa while we were working,” Bower says. “Then after the new season came out [in May], we got to hang out more together [during the press tour], and it’s been great. I love that guy, he’s so funny. Everyone who I’ve introduced him to who’s seen the show is like, ‘What? That’s fucking Eddie Munson?!’”

Talking to Bower might be a funny and enjoyable experience, but the characters he plays in Stranger Things are less pleasant. Chronologically, we first meet him as Peter Ballard, a friendly orderly at Hawkins Lab, where he befriends Eleven. As the season progresses, though, it’s revealed that he is not just the mysterious One – the first child to be experimented on by Dr. Brenner – and Henry Creel, who is the real murderer behind the crimes his father Victor has been locked up for. He’s also who will become Hawkins’ latest tormentor – big, bad Vecna.

Bower has theorised publicly since the release of season four that his most monstrous incarnation is acting from a position of righteous justice. He thinks, Bower argues, that he is helping change the world and rid it of what he sees as something very toxic. But in a scene in the season finale, when he has Eleven in his clutches, he also lays bare another motivation – revenge.

Jamie Campbell Bower
CREDIT: Erik Carter

“Wildly, yeah, I think revenge is a huge part of it,” Bower says. “One of the things that I would always say to myself and that I wrote down [while preparing] was, ‘You took everything from me, now it’s my turn to take everything from you’. Before Eleven sends him to his untimely demise in the Upside Down, he’s left alone in this space for a long time, stewing, with nobody to talk to. But while revenge does play a big part in his relationship with her, I think he probably still has a desire to take her with him and live in a different sort of way because she is part of him, and he recognises a lot of himself in her.”

At the end of season four, Vecna is defeated by Eleven, but you get the sense that it is very much only temporary – and with a lot more chaos to come from him yet. “He’s pissed, he’s properly vexed,” Bower grins. “I don’t think he’s slunk off licking his wounds in misery. He’s rebuilding, and he’s out for blood. It’s like, you’ve really fucking pushed the buttons now, that classic Jason Voorhees [the hockey-masked killer from Friday the 13th] thing – you’ve made a big mistake.”

Although Bower doesn’t know what will happen when Vecna returns in season five – Stranger Things’ final run – he does have his own ideas. “I think Vecna and Will have a connection that’s yet to be explored,” he muses. “As a fan, I’d be interested to see more of that.”

“My music deals with finding personal power through moments of real loss”

Acting might be what Bower is best known for right now, but it’s not his only passion. “Music came first,” he says. “Growing up, I used to make my fucking poor parents sit and watch me and my best friend do air guitar covers of ‘90s hits.

“Then, I played drums in an indie band called William K. Our friends who ran a label, Young And Lost, put us in an article for NME. I even remember getting our first show listing in NME!”

From 2015, Bower led the punk band Counterfeit, releasing one album with the five-piece, 2017’s ‘Together We Are Stronger’. By November 2020, though, the band had gone their separate ways. A month later, he restarted his musical journey with the release of two solo tracks, ‘Paralysed’ and ‘Start The Fire’. Both are built around poignant piano lines and string accompaniments, Bower’s emotionality displayed in an urgent, erupting rasp on the former and a more melancholy sigh on the latter. Since then, he’s shared a further three songs – ‘Run On’ and ‘Devil In Me’ in May and, earlier this month, ‘I Am’. The latter canters through western guitar loops as Bower glowers: “Before the devil comes for you / Make sure you have paid your dues.”

CREDIT: Courtesy of Netflix

Each song continues the same thread, inspired by Dante’s epic 14th-century poem Inferno. “[When I found Inferno], it felt like all of the things that I wanted to be talking about and all my experience was so beautifully captured in this story, about descending into hell, into the underworld,” Bower explains. If ‘Run On’ found him leaving the “surface world” behind, his new songs sink down into purgatory where he’s “being called towards this church that’s crawled out of the ground”.

“But in the church is this figure of hell, beckoning them in to bring them further down into the next circle of hell,” he adds.

Although Bower plans to continue with the project through further releases, a collective album is not necessarily on the cards. Spontaneity and a fast turnaround from conception to release is something he’s enjoying currently – and something that takes away his ability to tinker with things until he hates them.

“I always found that in my greatest moments of grief or suffering came work that I could feel”

Singles aren’t the only musical project Bower is spending his time working on, though. He’s also building what he calls “an experience”, which definitely won’t take the form of an album and is also inspired by Dante. “The hope is that it goes beyond just going to see a band play a show at a venue,” he explains. “I have ideas and wishes and designs for it, but I don’t know quite what it is yet. But I know that there is something with that particular body of work, and I’m really excited by that as a possibility and as an opportunity.”

The experiential piece details similar themes to the music he’s recording for the more conventional release – “finding personal power through moments of real loss and the story that Inferno has in it of how, once you’re in hell, you discover who you really are, and then you resurface”. Compared to the dark twang of his singles, though, it features more “spatial audio and very heavy guitar work, and a choir too”. “It’s like I constantly flip between Nick Cave and The Cure to Tom Waits and fucking Sunn O))),” he laughs.

Another theme that seems to fill a lot of Bower’s output  – be that in music or acting – is darkness. The macabre has always interested him, he says, and is something he’s come to accept as part of himself. “I think for a long time, I was afraid of it, and I would run from it because it’s a bit like a sledgehammer of truth. But I always found that in my greatest moments of grief or suffering came work that I could feel, and that’s, I suppose, what people would refer to as darkness.” He pauses for a second and then, with a smile, adds a cheeky David Brent reference: “But it’s always darkest before the dawn. And, as somebody else said, you can’t have the rainbow without the rain.”

Jamie Campbell Bower
CREDIT: Erik Carter

Right now, Bower’s skies seem to be full of rainbows. Flying high from Stranger Things, he’s got a wealth of intriguing and exciting music in the pipeline, as well as two new film projects. Next year, he’ll play Ed Becker in True Haunting, a film about the first televised exorcism, and very soon, he’ll head off to Utah to appear alongside Kevin Costner in the western Horizon.

“I want to do as much as I possibly can do,” he says, leaning forwards conspiratorially. “I want to try, and I want to give as much as I possibly can do to this, and I’m very inspired at the moment and have found some stories that I’m really interested in pursuing. So we’ll see what happens.” For now, it looks like the world is Bower’s oyster, whether in his Vecna suit or out of it.

Jamie Campbell Bower’s latest single ‘I Am’ is out now; season four of ‘Stranger Things’ is available to stream on Netflix