Spoilers ahead for season one of Stranger Things.
Since it dropped onto Netflix two weeks ago, the eight-episode ‘80s throwback Stranger Things has become a binge-watchable cult phenomenon. And perhaps the most beloved figure to emerge from that phenomenon is Barb, the bespectacled, responsible best friend who gets thrown to the wolves — well, technically, Upside Down world monster — so that her BFF, the ultraperfect Nancy, can get it on with a hot dude with a bouffant hairdo.
Barb is not a Nancy. Barb is the third wheel. Barb is the girl who gets put in a corner and stays there, because a Patrick Swayze type never shows up to announce that no one should put Barb in a corner. Barb is the outcast who refuses to be anyone other than who she is — if Stranger Things had been made into an actual movie in the mid-’80s, she totally would have been played by a young Winona Ryder — and that is why the internet loves her. In a summer when women have been unfairly criticized for busting ghosts and seeking this nation’s highest office, Barb has become a symbol of the marginalized female everyone can comfortably rally around.
Of course, behind every symbol of marginalized womanhood, there is an actual woman. The woman behind Barb is actress Shannon Purser. Her role in Stranger Things is the first of her career — it’s literally her only IMDb credit so far — and it’s already thrust her into meme and fanfiction territory. Purser, who graduated from high school just two months ago, called from her home in Atlanta to talk to Vulture about what it’s been like to watch her character become a subject of cultural conversation, and whether Barb could reemerge if there’s a second season of Stranger Things.
Since Stranger Things landed on Netflix, Barb has become an internet phenomenon. Have you been paying attention to all the social-media and traditional media attention that the character and you have been getting?
Yeah, definitely the internet buzz for Barb specifically was a lot more than I ever expected. Me and my sisters and my mom, we all gather around and look at all the fan art. It’s absolutely incredible.
What has been the most interesting Barb tribute you’ve seen so far?
Definitely when I saw the Barb mural that somebody had created. I don’t know if you’ve seen that one — on the wall, you know?
Yeah, I did see that.
That was really surreal. I’m not sure if that was digitally edited or whatever. But the idea that somebody might have painted my face on a wall is totally crazy and surreal for me.
If I’m not mistaken, this is your first role. How did you get cast as Barb?
I had grown up doing a lot of theater and really liked acting. As I got older, I fell more in love with movies and thought it would be incredible to someday be in one. So I kind of got discovered by an agency through an acting group I was with and spent a couple of years auditioning, doing the regular thing: sending in self-tapes, going in to meet casting directors, that sort of thing. Then one day I got an email about Stranger Things. I sent in a few self-tapes, and then they wanted to meet me in person, so I read for the Duffers. It went amazing. They were amazing. I love them so much. Then I booked the role. That was probably one of the craziest days of my life, for sure.
Tell me about that day. How did you get the news?
It might have been less than a day after that audition when they told me I booked the role. Which was amazing because I expected to wait at least a few days, you know, if I even got the part. I remember I went to the movie theater with my mom and we were sitting and watching a movie and I checked my email and there was an email that said I had booked the role. I just didn’t even believe it was real.
Were you in the middle of watching the movie at the time?
Yeah. I know. It’s probably not good social etiquette.
Well, this is a special exception.
There was nobody else in the theater and I was very excited. [Laughs.]
What movie was it?
Oh, man. I really can’t remember.
Did you stay to the end or were you like, “We have to get out of here and celebrate”?
We didn’t leave or anything. I just whispered, “I got it,” to my mom and then put my phone away.
How old are you, Shannon?
So you’ve had your own high-school experience. What was that experience like compared to the high school in Stranger Things?
I actually went to a very, very, very small high school, so it wasn’t really a whole lot like the traditional big, public-school experience. It was actually really cool for me to be in that kind of setting because I had never seen what that was like. I just graduated high school this May. When I was shooting it, I was still in high school. It was very much walking out of one school and into another.
This was your first experience on a set. What was it like to be in that environment for the first time?
Being on set is just a unique and surreal experience, and it’s one I always dreamed about having. And then I had it. It was incredible to see all of the effort made by the cast and crew: the set, the costuming, the background workers. Everybody was incredibly talented and worked so hard.
I would just stand back and realize where I was and what I was doing. I’d just feel like my dreams had come true, you know?
You mentioned costumes: You get to wear some super-’80s stuff. Did you have any input into what Barb was going to look like?
I had a little bit of input. There were certain things where the makeup artist or wardrobe would ask if I liked it, or how it felt, that kind of thing. Altogether I was really impressed and happy with all of their decisions. I mean, I’m seeing fan responses that they loved the costumes for Barb, and I do, too. I think they turned out so great. I love the whole mom jeans and the sweaters and the stirrup pants.
In most of your scenes, you’re with Natalia Dyer and the actors who play teenagers. Did you get to interact with some of the other actors, like Winona Ryder, at all?
Winona, I unfortunately didn’t have any scenes with. That would have been sick because she is incredible and I grew up watching her movies and I think she’s so unique and talented. I saw her around sometimes. There was a cast dinner at one point and I sat across the table from her and I was totally in shock, trying to play it cool, like this was something that happened every day. But on the inside, I’m like, “Wow, this woman: Edward Scissorhands, Little Women” — I love her, for sure. So it was incredible to be that close to her.
In terms of being around the other cast members, I would see a lot of the kids around on set and it was amazing to get to hang out with them and talk with them. They are all as precocious and funny and sweet as they all seem to be.
Why do you think so many viewers are responding so warmly to Barb?
It’s been really amazing to see how many people relate to Barb. There was this hashtag going around, #WeAreAllBarb, and it’s funny to me because I think, to a certain extent there’s a stigma — we all want to be the popular, beautiful person who gets the cute boy or the cute girl and who gets invited to the parties. People saw Barb and saw how unapologetic she was about who she was and what she believed in and what she wanted to wear, even. I think they admired her for not wanting to please others too much, and for being an honest and loyal friend.
Everybody has had that experience where your friend drags you to a party because the person they’re crushing on is there, and you don’t really want to be there but you go there with them anyway. Everybody has been a third wheel, and Barb is a wonderful, nerdy third wheel. People really relate to her and her outcast, left-out position because everybody’s felt that way at some point.
So what are your plans now? Are you planning to continue acting?
I love acting, so now that I’ve just gotten the opportunity to do it, I love it even more. Getting to experience it really confirms that this is my calling and what I want to do. I’m still definitely pursuing acting right now, that’s my dream and my No. 1 goal. I do have plans to go to college in the fall, maybe take some online classes. We’ll really just see where it goes from there. I’m really thankful for the response that I’ve gotten from this show, and I really hope it helps me get some opportunities.
I know it’s only been a couple of weeks since the show debuted, but is it having any kind of notable impact on your career?
Yeah, I think so. Such a big part of acting is getting your face out there and getting recognized. So I’m really thankful to have gotten this kind of visibility and I think it’s already really started to help people see me and, you know, find someone a little bit more unique for the characters that they want.
At the end of Stranger Things, it appears that Barb is pretty dead. But, even though a second season hasn’t been announced yet, I’m wondering: Is there any chance Barb could be brought out of the Upside Down and return as a character?
Personally, I would love to come back as Barb. That would be incredible. I’ve loved playing her and I would love to work with everybody again because it’s been an incredible experience. But yeah, I haven’t heard anything yet about a confirmed season two. I know the Duffers have talked about possible ideas and that sort of thing, but there hasn’t been an official confirmation from Netflix. So we’re not really sure if they’re going to go forward from there. If I had the opportunity to be Barb again, I would love to be Barb. You know, it’s a sci-fi show. Anything can happen.
What about a Barb spinoff? I feel like that could work.
That’s so funny, because a lot of fans have mentioned, “We want a Barb spinoff.” One of my favorite ones was about Barb moving to New York and starting, like, an artisanal cheese shop. Which is so weird and so niche and totally something she would do. I think that’s hilarious. If that happens, I would totally be down for it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.