In New York, Natalia Dyer sits in a warm coffee shop on a glacial afternoon. It’s something like 10 degrees outside but she’s not complaining about the “polar vortex.” Her voice flits over the many animated city-dwellers fighting to get an edge in around her. I hear the chatter, talk of art galleries this, circumcision that. Even though she speaks softly, her voice chimes above the rest because of its fragile honey. To all of those that know the name and not the face, or know the face and not the name, Dyer is emerging, from a cocoon, from younger husks of herself, and from her childhood home, Nashville, as a talented actor.
As Dyer tells it, becoming an “actor” was a gradual process, but there is one defining moment. She grew up in an athletic family, and in elementary school, she followed her sporty sister to an athletic camp. On the first day, she had twisted her ankle in a race. She admits that she “fudged the pain a little.” Perhaps, as Dyer felt the first twinge of discomfort, she also felt that her first instinct was to act, to embellish just a little. While her initial courtship with acting seemed natural, it took some time before she realized her calling: “I didn’t think it was what I was going to do as my career, for my life. I wasn’t sure it was feasible or reliable. And it’s not necessarily either of those things—it’s a lot of luck and persistence and patience.”
Thankfully she has all three in spades, and Dyer soon found herself offered roles like the one that would become her most recognizable character, Nancy Wheeler in Stranger Things. Her talent was immediately apparent—in an interview, musician James Bay told NME that he called up Natalia after binge-watching season one of Stranger Things to ask her to be in his music video for his song “Wild Love,” saying afterward that the process was “wonderful”: “She’s as lovely and simple in her approach in chatting to you as she is in her acting.”
But Nancy Wheeler is not a simple role. She is a dynamic and richly layered character, and Dyer fully embodies her dynamism. Just in episode three, Dyer does a formidable job of navigating Nancy’s emotional shifts as she embarks on a budding relationship with love-interest Steve and confronts her rising fear over her friend Barb’s sudden disappearance. Dyer succeeds in defining Nancy’s fraught internal motivations and emotions in this early episode, and with two seasons (with a third season coming out in July) her understanding of the character continues to evolve. “It’s nice when you get to grow with a character. I really like Nancy. I love her storyline and where she’s going. She’s very human and relatable,” Dyer tells me. But Nancy isn’t the only Dyer character subjected to otherworldly horrors. As if the “Upside Down” wasn’t enough, her most recent role finds her sharing screen time with carnivorous paintings.
On February 1st, Netflix released Velvet Buzzsaw, a satirical and biting look into the LA art scene. Dyer plays Coco, a young intern who is trying to make it in the absurd gallery world, appearing alongside Jake Gyllenhaal’s turn as a cynical, snidely pretentious critic. Dyer emphasizes Coco’s hard work, and sympathizes with her hard-earned realization in the film that the world is not “quite fair,” to put it mildly. This insight into Coco’s character seems to sprout from Dyer’s own evolving realizations as a rising talent.
Just like Coco, Dyer is eager to learn. She absorbs lessons from each film, and she describes the most exciting part of acting to be “exploring a little bit about myself with each character.” And you can see Dyer in the characters she plays—she’s present in Nancy Wheeler’s growing confidence, in Coco’s determination, and, as SXSW audiences will see in March of this year, the intimate vulnerability of Alice in Yes, God, Yes.
In 2017, a short film (also titled Yes, God, Yes) was released, exploring the hypocrisy and hilarity of navigating female adolescent sexuality. This year, the feature-length adaptation will have you marveling at Dyer’s seamless portrayal of an emotionally aware and curious 16-year old. One subject of her inquiry: what do a mop, a phone, and a back massager have in common?
Alice is a watchful, independent, and somewhat surprising main character, and Dyer captures it all. You can see the unfolding revelations and seismic spiritual shift in her gaze in a pivotal moment, when Alice discovers her anti-masturbation preaching Catholic mentor doing just that which he preaches against. Guilt, lust, and furtive Titanic viewings mingle to create a story that is redemptive in its sympathy for human fallibility. But the true shift in Alice’s perspective occurs in a dimly lit bar, when Alice orders a Wine Cooler and shoots the shit with the leather-clad bar owner. After some much-needed perspective from her new, more experienced friend, she finally realizes the absurdity of her worries, naming her “sins” and finally smiling unencumbered. “I thought I was going to hell for having cybersex,” she laughs. Dyer, as Alice, even twists her ankle again, and again she maybe embellishes the pain to attract the attention of the dimple-smiled football jock—but this time Dyer was paid for her efforts.
A self-proclaimed “introvert,” Dyer says she stays grounded partly through her minimal use of social media, and she humbly draws from her own experiences to imbue her characters with an easy, unforced authenticity. “During filming, there is a lot of introspection, self-analyzing, and reflection. I am not remotely grown into myself, and I learn more on every shoot. With these roles, the internal stuff isn’t always vocalized, but it’s there. When I was younger, I tried to tread lightly when drawing from my own experiences, but with a role like Alice, I can go back and examine what that was.”
Dyer tells me she loves to walk, and I imagine her “treading lightly” through the avenues of New York City. If she were given a day with no obligations, she tells me, she would spend it weaving down side streets and exploring storefronts, enjoying the surprises that a stroll can bring: “If I can just wake up and be with friends, walk, and get food, honestly that’s a day for me,” she says. She constantly strives to learn while embracing serendipity, finding “part of the fun to be when things just fall in your lap.” She’s eager to grow in range and in roles, saying she “would love to do more comedy or action, to try things that are challenging but in a different way.” Dyer has a thrilling race in front of her, and this time she shows no sign of stumbling.