You probably couldn’t pay most people to revisit their difficult teenage years, but Natalia Dyer is different. Instead of recoiling at the thought of reliving that time of awkwardness and embarrassment, she relishes it. In her still relatively early career (her first professional role was 2009’s Hannah Montana: The Movie but she didn’t really begin to break through until 2014) she’s portrayed a lot of young women going through pivotal moments in their adolescence. For her first major film, I Believe In Unicorns, she played 16-year-old Davina embarking on a doomed road trip with a toxic boyfriend. Then she tackled a teen struggling to communicate with her mum as Mountain Rest’s Clara and, most famously of all, endeared the world to Stranger Things’ Nancy Wheeler, a high schooler whose typical life gets turned upside down by the disappearance of her best friend Barb.
For Dyer, the opportunity to go back is actually quite healing. “It’s interesting to look back through a lens once you’ve grown up a little bit,” she explains down the line from Atlanta, where she’s been sheltering since filming on Stranger Things came to a halt, in part because they didn’t know when production would restart. “That time is hard and people are confusing at that time. I feel like I always come out of those roles feeling compassionate for my younger self.”
In a way, those turbulent years of adolescence are quite similar to the world’s current state – full of uncertainty and anxiety, feeling like there’s always something lurking around the corner to trip you up. That certainly rings true of Dyer’s latest teen character – Yes, God, Yes’ Alice, a Catholic schoolgirl going through a sexual awakening in the early ‘00s. “It’s such a juicy, full part of people’s lives – coming of age, whatever that means,” she says. “They’re really just stories of people coming into themselves and gaining some knowledge about themselves and the world. That era has a nice transition from a naïvety to being empowered by knowledge. For everyone, I think it’s a very visceral time of life.”
Written and directed by Karen Maine (Obvious Child), Yes, God, Yes is quietly important – it doesn’t so much shout about the points it’s making but gently ushers you along their trail instead. It’s light on dialogue but big on feeling, with each actors’ expressive embodiments of the script at times more powerful than words could be. Unlike most other films depicting sexual self-discovery, it focuses on the female perspective and does so in one of the most authentic ways shown on screen, filling it with awkwardness, nerves and curiosity. In one scene, Alice tries to get experimental with the vibrate setting of an old school Nokia; another sees her stumble into her first cybersex session, a bowl of luminescent Cheetos by her side and her parents preparing for dinner the floor above. In a sea of movies that show women in a more fantastical, idealised form when it comes to sex, it feels incredibly necessary.
“Film and TV are very powerful – if you don’t see aspects of yourself reflected back at you it’s very confusing”
“It’s important for women to see themselves and to know that they’re OK, to know that they deserve pleasure and self-exploration as much as men,” Dyer says. “Film and TV are very powerful – even subconsciously, we look to these people to check in on ourselves and if you don’t see aspects of yourself reflected back at you it’s very confusing.”
The 25-year-old originally played Alice in the 2017 short version of the film, which Maine made as a sort of ad for what the feature-length take could be. Her own experiences attending a private Christian school in Nashville helped Dyer find some common ground with the character. “I didn’t grow up as strict as what Alice was going through, but having these sorts of biblical ideas colour your every day – things like Bible class and going to a chapel every day – were similar for me,” she explains. “Thinking back to that time and the growth that I’ve gone through since then is what really connected me to Alice.”
In Yes, God, Yes, a chunk of Alice’s exploration takes place at a Bible camp. Dyer had her own important life experience at a sports camp that her parents sent her to as a kid. On the first day, she sprained her ankle and was moved to the drama group instead, where she fell in love with acting. Afterwards, she immersed herself in her hometown’s community theatre scene and snagged her first stage role at the age of nine, playing To Kill A Mockingbird’s Scout.
“I really loved being on stage,” she recalls. “I was a big pretend kind of kid – I would play by myself for hours and hours.” That, she explains, is her favourite part of the job even now: “You get to make art and [perform] with people you really like! That’s the most fun part.”
“I feel really protective of my personal life”
One part she’s less keen on, though, is the public interest in her personal life that comes with starring in a hit TV show. “At first, it was very exciting, but also very intimidating,” she says. “I’ve started to come into setting boundaries for myself and really figuring out what I can give outside of my work and what I cannot.” She points to a combo of the show and getting older as helping her become more comfortable with everything: “You just get a little more confident during your twenties, but also more confident in where to draw the line.”
Despite that, she’s still not too comfortable with the idea of being idolised by fans. “I want to direct people’s attention to other people, I think,” she says. “A lot of actors can get mixed up by these ideas of role models and celebrity and fame. While I would want to maintain a life that is mostly role model-worthy, I’m just trying to be the best me that I can be and I’m constantly figuring myself out.”
Unlike many other people her age, you won’t find much evidence of Dyer’s personal journey online. She’s reticent to use social media much – she hasn’t tweeted since 2016 and her Instagram is mostly populated by the occasional Stranger Things promo – despite reluctantly acknowledging it’s become almost “a part of your portfolio or career these days”. “Some people really love to do it and I think that’s great, it just doesn’t fit my life or my frame of mind a lot of the time,” she says. “Before Stranger Things came out, I was a little more into it but, with the concept of everyone watching and digesting everything, I feel really protective of my personal life.” Who can blame her? As well as the show’s success amplifying the wider world’s interest in what “normal” people could keep private, there’s also her relationship with co-star Charlie Heaton (who plays Jonathan Byers) elevating her status as potential tabloid fodder.
Although she’s avoided being sucked into the endless scroll of those platforms during lockdown, Dyer has become slightly more active online. One of the two Instagram posts she’s shared this year focuses on the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement – a shot from a protest she attended in Atlanta. “Please know I am reading, watching, listening, and educating myself,” she wrote in the caption. “I am with you and I am angry.”
“We need more diverse stories out there”
“As much as I’m not hugely on social media, it can be an important way to point to others or to point to things that matter,” Dyer says now. She describes joining the marches that flooded streets across the world in the wake of George Floyd’s death as “infuriating, eye-opening – and [they] made me feel really helpless”. She adds: “They really showed me something that I’ve never seen before and I think it’s important to see that and to hear and see people crying out to be seen.”
As a white person in the film and TV industry, Dyer is aware of her privilege and says she’s spent recent months thinking about how she can utilise that to make the field fairer and more diverse for everybody. She’s sympathetic to how the constant rejection of the profession can make you feel like you need to grab whatever you’re offered, especially before anyone knows who you are, but says she and her peers need to “check [our] hunger for the job” and consider what’s important.
“All of this has really made me look at scripts differently – if this story is just the same story by the same kind of people that we’ve seen, why does this need to be told right now?” she explains. “There are so many stories out there that haven’t been told and haven’t been told by diverse enough people. I think that’s something to consider. We just need more Black and more diverse stories out there.”
While she continues to help push things forward, Dyer is also counting down the days until she can get back onto the Stranger Things set. She’s not sure exactly when that will be, noting that it depends on when the production team think it’s safe to return. “The one thing 2020 has taught me is to not plan so far ahead,” she adds wryly.
“The one thing 2020 has taught me is to not plan so far ahead”
In the interim, she’s been missing acting – something her housemates (Heaton plus two of their friends) will be only too aware of. “I bought a bunch of plays and I’ve been trying to force them to read them with me, with some success but now not so much,” she says, laughing at her own eagerness and how swiftly their interest nosedived. “It’s hard to do by yourself and for yourself all the time – it really requires that interchange of people.”
When she’s finally back on set, she’s looking forward to a “really great, fun season” and being reunited with Nancy. She has to stay tight-lipped about the upcoming fourth series, but even when she speaks broadly about playing her character and being a part of the show, the amount of love she has for it is palpable.
“Nancy’s had such an incredible journey and an incredible arc, and I feel very grateful to get to play that,” she says. “I think we’re all deeply invested in our characters at this point so I think everyone wants those moments where they get to really see inside of their character’s mind. There’s a lot of go, go, go [in the show], but I think we always really relish the scenes where there are conservations with heart and dialogue where you really get to see what’s going on emotionally in their lives.”
Some of Dyer’s favourite moments as the high school student and, more recently, local newspaper intern, have been her action scenes. “I feel like a lot of the work I’ve done – which of course I’ve loved and want to keep doing – has been emotionally challenging,” she says. “But I did really enjoy the moments of doing crazy running or fighting. It’s a lot of fun, I’m always like, ‘I could definitely do this for a couple of months!’”
“Nancy’s had such an incredible journey in ‘Stranger Things’“
In fact, ask her what kind of part she’s looking to do next and Dyer first answers quite seriously: “I’m always interested in any role that you have to learn something outside of yourself for, whether it’s a skill or an accent.” Then, her voice grows giddy. “I’m ready and willing to do an action movie cos that would be a lot of fun,” she says. “Something Tom Cruise-y!” Having spent her career so far fighting Demogorgons and toughing it through teenhood, she seems more than ready to dominate the Mission: Impossible life and leave Cruise shaking. After all, what’s a bunch of baddies to someone who enjoys submerging themselves in the cringeworthy, clumsy horrors of puberty?