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Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown on Playing Eleven, Her Love-Hate Relationship With Scary Movies, and Acting Without Speaking

Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Millie Bobby Brown is only 12 years old, but in the Netflix series Stranger Things, she delivers a performance that many adult actors would have a hard time matching. As the mysterious, telekinetically powerful Eleven, she’s able to fling bodies across a room in one scene and quietly convey a sense of deep sadness in another, a notable feat considering her character rarely speaks.

In real life, though, Brown — whose resume includes a role in the BBC series Intruders and guest appearances on Modern Family and Grey’s Anatomy — is extremely talkative and gregarious. During a recent telephone conversation, she spoke in her thick British accent, one that disappears completely in Stranger Things, about her obsession with Winona Ryder, her complicated feelings about scary movies, and why she wishes she could have lived in the 1980s, the decade in which Stranger Things was set.

I’m sure you know that a lot of what’s in Stranger Things was influenced by films and books from the early 1980s. How much of that stuff had you been exposed prior to doing this project? Had you seen E.T. before, for example?
Oh yeah, I’ve seen all of those movies actually. It’s crazy because, you know, my parents always want me to watch old films to make me realize how amazing some of the older actors are. And I was obsessed as soon as I watched Stand by Me. Me and my brother watched it and I just love it. I was like, I’ve got to watch some more of these. And yeah, I watched E.T., which I absolutely love. I’m not a big crier, but that just always makes me cry. And then Close Encounters — a lot of really great films that we resemble in the show.

I felt like the relationship between Eleven and Mike mirrors the E.T. and Elliott relationship in certain ways. The way he’s introducing her to certain things in his house — that reminded me a lot of E.T. Was that something you were thinking about while working on those scenes, or were you just trying to play the truth of it as your character?
The thing with Eleven is she really is — E.T., he lived in space. Eleven lives in a laboratory. It’s not very exciting, and I think she didn’t see much. It’s a lot different because E.T. doesn’t know what physical things are, but Eleven doesn’t know emotionally what things are. She doesn’t know what friendship is. It’s that struggle, throughout the show — she’s trying to find out what it means, and the boys and Winona and everybody’s characters come together and try to show me they’re sticking by me.

Had you ever seen any of Winona Ryder’s movies before you did this project?
I was absolutely obsessed with Winona. [Laughs.] I was, like, crazy — I loved her movies. I think she’s just so phenomenal. She’s a great actress and I loved Girl, Interrupted, Edward Scissorhands, Heathers — amazing films. As soon as I auditioned, they told me Winona was on the project and I was so excited to meet her. Everybody says we look a lot alike. I was just very intrigued — she was a young actress and I could just really, really relate to her in a positive way.

She was your age when she started acting in movies. Did she give you any advice or did you have any conversations about what it’s like to be an actor at such a young age?
Like I said, we had a lot in common. She’s very helpful and I would suck sometimes on scenes and think, I really don’t know how to deliver this. She’d help me a lot. I actually used to sneak in on set. When I’d leave, I used to go back in and watch her scenes because I loved watching her on the monitor, you know, how she’d take direction. It was very fun.

Eleven doesn’t talk that much. A lot of what you do is wordless acting. Was that difficult?
It was a lot more difficult. My past projects, Intruders, I had a lot [of dialogue] — paragraph after paragraph. It was difficult, but it’s easier to talk. To be able to express that through your face — it was difficult at first. But I got so intrigued and involved with my character, I knew what she would do and I knew what she wouldn’t do.

Did you really have your hair cut or did you just have a wig?
Oh, my goodness, of course! I had very long hair and I cut it all off for the part. I read the script and I was so happy with my character and I thought, This is how it’s gotta be. My mom and my grandpa were like, “No, you can’t do that.” It took me 12 years — well, 11 years — to grow something. [My hair] wasn’t thick, but it was long. And then they shaved it all off and it was very hard for my parents. But I convinced them. I was like, “Dude, it grows back. It’s fine.”

One of the other challenges has to do with your character’s telepathy — she can move things and do things with her mind. A lot of times when people have to play moments like that, it can look silly. You did it in a way that didn’t look silly and was very believable. How did you figure out, for example, what the most effective telepathy face would be?
I go by my instincts. It’s whatever I feel in the scene in the moment. I think, Oh I’m going to give them this look now. And I had this look, and I knew what I wanted. As soon as I went into the audition room and I went in to the read-through, I told them, “I know what my look is going to be for the show. I know what I’m going to do.” And they were like, “Alright, that’s cool.” I was like, I want to make sure you like it. And I’d done it and they were like, “This is bad-ass!” Other than that, I didn’t want to put my hands up and say, “Abracadabra!” [Laughs.] I wanted to do something different and more scary-looking.

Speaking of scary, there are also some scenes in the show where your character is scared. Are you a horror fan? Do you like watching scary films, and did you draw on that when you were working on this?
I love scary films. See, if my mom were here, I know she’d go, “No, she isn’t!” I’m going to be truthful: I love them, but I don’t watch them. I can’t. I love the trailers and I think they’re thrilling and intriguing but I’m just so — I can’t watch them. I watched recently The Conjuring 2 and, oh goodness. It’s hard. [Laughs.] The thing with me is I can watch, like, “Thriller.” I can watch burglaries and stuff like that. You know like — I can’t remember what it’s called, with Jodie Foster—

Silence of the Lambs?
No, no. I wouldn’t watch that! I can’t remember, but me and my mom watched it and I loved it. But like devil stuff freaks me out. I can’t deal with that.

What’s the scariest movie you’ve seen?
I think it would have to be — oh, there was this kid and she was in it, she was brilliant actually. It’s called The Possession. I can’t remember her name but she was very good in it. I liked it a lot. It was very scary. And The Conjuring — again, it’s so scary. It’s like you can’t go to sleep at night. You just look out your window and go, “Who is watching me?” [Laughs.]

So did you see the first Conjuring?
Yeah, I watched the first one as well.

I haven’t seen the second one, but I thought the first one was very good.
The second one’s very good. Actually, I watched one very recently that really scared me and my whole family. Because on a Sunday my whole family, we all go for a roast dinner and then we come home and watch that kind of movie. So we watched The Shallows with Blake Lively. Oh, that scared me. Sharks freak me out. I love whales, and I’m very intrigued by whales. I write many essays on whales. I love whales, especially orcas. And dolphins. I just don’t like sharks. They freak me out. The thing is, everybody says “Oh, you know, you get in the water, they don’t touch you.” It’s only if you bother them. And I’m like, “No! No, it isn’t. They’re evil! They come out and they eat you and that’s not nice. So I’m not going to be doing that.” Blake Lively was so good in that as well.

Have you seen Jaws then?
Yes, I’ve seen Jaws.

That’s the problem. That makes you scared of sharks forever.
I know. I went to Universal and I went on the boat trip. Oh — that’s just honestly the worst thing you can possibly do if you don’t like sharks.

I feel like there’s a point in every kid’s life where they see the one movie that’s so scary that it wrecks their childhood for a little bit. For me that was Poltergeist, which you guys reference in Stranger Things.
Oh yes, exactly!

I saw it when I was 9 and I did not go to sleep until the sun came up for a month afterward. I was very afraid one of my dolls would attack me.
The thing with Poltergeist, it’s just the little girl. She was so amazing in it. That one line — that’s all I’ve ever wanted, is that one line where everybody just says it and it’s like, Oh my god, I know where that’s from. [Adopts Carol-Anne voice]: “They’re he-re.” I’m like, stop it!

So you’ve seen a lot of scary movies then, because you know exactly what I’m talking about!
I know, but I just don’t very scary movies where there are a lot of devils, and oh, I can’t deal with it. But anyway, I watch [them]. Obviously I have two pillows next to me and my sister’s holding my hand and I’m cuddled up next to my mum and my dad. And eating popcorn. Eating takes my mind off of scary films.

As somebody who wasn’t alive in the ’80s, what felt weird to you about kind of going back in time and seeing how things were back then? Was it the lack of modern technology?
I think it was the freedom. Because they had so much freedom back then and I’m very limited in my freedom now, because I can’t go outside without my mom literally standing right beside me. It’s crazy because my mom and dad always said, “We used to ride our bike down to the shop and we’d get a pint of milk and go back.” And I’m like, goodness, I would never do that. If I told my mom I was going to go down and get a pint of milk and some sweets she’d be like, “Right. Okay. Well, go get in your sister’s car and we’ll ask your sister.” It’s never happening. I go to boxing, and my mom walks me — because I box every day — my mom always just walks me straight to the door.

So you do a boxing workout or you’re actually training to box?
It’s not a training workout. I train to box. Obviously I don’t want to do it professionally. But I have done some inter-clubs before. It’s at Phoenix MMA U.K., down in London. It’s a great gym, and I have lots of friends. Because I’m homeschooled, I get kind of lonely sometimes. So I like to go to the gym. I do Thai boxing Mondays, jujitsu Tuesdays and Thursdays, and Wednesdays I do boxing with Mark. He was a world champion at one point. I absolutely love it. I actually have a punching bag right outside in my garden. I’m obsessed with working out. I eat like a pig so it kind of makes up for that.

If you had to go back and live in the ‘80s, what device or modern-day convenience would be the hardest thing for you to give up? Would it be Snapchat, just your phone in general …?
I could give up my phone any day. I don’t need it. The hardest thing for me to give up would probably be my Netflix account.

It was so much harder to get movies to watch back then. You have no idea. You had to go out to a store and rent them, and the movie you want might not be there and then you couldn’t watch it. It was a whole different world, Millie.
Oh, goodness. I really do wish I lived in it, though.

I do. I love the ‘80s. I’m obsessed with it. I love the hair and the people. I think I’d give up anything.

You kind of got a chance to live in it by doing this show.
I did. I have this one story, I’ll quickly tell it. I was on set and I said to my dad, “What is that thing? It’s like red and it’s really weird and it’s got a stick coming out of it and it’s not right.” He’s like, “You know that’s a record player. That’s a record player, Millie, you don’t know what that is?” No, I don’t know what that is! I was very intrigued by it. On set I was like, can we play it? And the crew played it. It was this weird music, and I was like, goodness, I love it. My mom and dad, they got me one for Christmas and I have not stopped using it. I love Adele. Adele is my favorite artist. She’s British, she’s funny, she’s just an amazing, incredible voice, and I love to sing as well. So I got it for Christmas and I was absolutely ecstatic. It was better than any makeup or anything. It was great.

So what records do you listen to on it?
Adele. Amy Winehouse. And Ed Sheeran. I love Amy Winehouse. I’m obsessed with her, I think she’s brilliant. And Ed Sheeran is just my all-time fave.

I went to Atlanta, and I couldn’t obviously take my record player. I came back and my record player was in my sister’s room. I was like, “Hey, you’d better give that back.” She was like, “I love it. It’s amazing!” I was like, “I know, it’s great. But it’s mine.”

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Stranger Things’ Millie Brown on Playing Eleven