Charlie Heaton | Every Quest Needs Its Hooded Deacons
The experience gets off to a surreal start. After an hour of wandering through the back streets of Dalston—a mecca for London’s bohemian artists and hipsters—I find the unremarkable entrance to the set where I am to meet 23-year-old actor Charlie Heaton. I am taken through some clinical plastic-sheeted doors into the hazy confines of a busy studio; it’s almost impossible to see through the dense fog of thick dust and smoke inside. You’d be forgiven for thinking I’d somehow entered the alternate Upside Down dimension of Hawkins, the eerie fictional town where Stranger Things is set.
Suddenly, Charlie Heaton emerges from the fog. He greets me and we joke about the smoke. It turns out I’m seeing the remnants of a photo shoot where dust has been thrown around to create a scene that reflects a world combining both reality and fiction. This is fitting for Heaton, of course, who has spent much of the last few years inhabiting the worlds of two very different realities: his humble beginnings in Bridlington, Yorkshire—a small coastal town in the north of England— and the dream-like sphere of Hollywood, thanks to a series of roles taking place in fantastic alternate universes: Stranger Things, his latest movie Marrowbone, and a role in Marvel’s next X-Men installment, The New Mutants.
It’s not long before we’re sharing stories of our beginnings—like Heaton, I’m from the north of England. We leave the set and amble over to a nearby café. Heaton is dressed head to toe in black and wears a heavy winter coat. The actor lights a cigarette and starts to tell me more about his northern roots:
“I heard a really nice story, going back to Bridlington,” Heaton tells me, detailing a recent trip home to see his family at Christmas. “My auntie told me about this woman who wanted to thank me because she said her daughter, who was 13 or 14, was really into acting.” The woman’s daughter, Heaton continues, was from his Bridlington hometown and had decided not to pursue her dream of acting, largely because of a perception that actors in Hollywood don’t come from small regional towns in the UK, well-away from the cultural center of London. “She found out I was from Stranger Things and that I’m also from Bridlington and so she decided that she would still pursue acting. I was so heart-warmed.”
I ask him about his own improbable path to success. “You have to put yourself in the situation. When you’re in a small town it feels impossible at times, like it’s all a distant dream. But it is possible,” he says, seemingly still a bit in awe of his own success. “Yet even for me now when I think about it... for me to think of even being in this position would have been crazy. I never thought I would be here.”
Heaton’s career trajectory is anything but conventional. Leaving school aged 16 and moving to London to join a band shortly after, Heaton had no formal drama training. In fact, his journey into acting was a happy accident that came at just the right moment, as he was trying to make ends meet while drumming for the rock band Comanechi. It turns out I had seen Heaton’s band some years earlier, when they supported The Gossip in London when he was just 19.
“Shepherd Bush Empire!” he beams, when I tell him, thrilled at the memory. “That was the first tour I’d ever done. I’d kind of come out of college and Comanechi asked if I would play drums for them. I’d only maybe played in front of like 20 people in a bedroom or 20 people scattered around a venue at a club before. And then they asked me if I would go on tour; the first tour they had was supporting The Gossip and I had two weeks of rehearsals and then the first gig was like 2000 people. The difference was like...”
Breaking off, he pulls a nervous-excited look whilst hiding behind his hair, which is drooped heavily over his face. Sweeping it back into a huge, messy quiff, he smiles at the memory. “It’s such a historical venue. That was so long ago, but I still remember it.” It was only 4 years ago, in fact, but to be fair it might seem like a lifetime for Heaton—he has experienced a great deal in that time. “I’d never known anyone else who’d ever—certainly from my friends and family—done anything like that. I got to tour around and play everywhere. It was such a huge thing, but now, looking back, it kind of seems like a little journey.”
I wonder if he has any regrets about leaving school so early, but it’s quickly evident he doesn’t. School, he tells me, was not something he enjoyed. “I took drama and music but I wasn’t that good at anything else. I was quite a naughty kid in school—I could never sit through a whole lesson,” he recalls with a chuckle. “I’m quite hyperactive now, but especially so when I was a kid. I would get sent out of class all the time. But I don’t write education off. For certain people getting a training and education is this kind of need in the arts but I also think there’s that other side where sometimes you don’t need training—you need the practical side.”
Like many millennials in search of the new fantasy of a fulfilling career, Heaton took risks instead of adhering to a more traditional path, effectively stumbling into acting by accident. After appearing in a few commercials to earn some money after his tour with Comanechi, he quickly found himself in TV shows, and then he landed a role in Shut In alongside Naomi Watts. Soon after, he auditioned for Stranger Things, winning the part of introverted teenager Jonathan Byers.
“The first pilot episode was called Montauk...I taped a few scenes and they were like,‘We loved your tape.Would you Skype us?”The Skype chat happened, unglamorously, at a burger bar in London’s Hammersmith area. Heaton laughs fondly at the memory. “Then it was literally three days later, four days later and I was on a plane to LA to do screen tests. It happened really quickly.”
In many ways, Heaton is the very embodiment of a generation that, by necessity, has taken a more fluid approach to life and work. Without a clear-cut path, he had to find his own way. But despite his lack of formal training, Heaton has arguably received one of the best apprenticeships a young actor can—working alongside Winona Ryder who plays Jonathan’s mother Joyce in the series, and David Harbour, who plays Chief Hopper.
“For most of the first season, Winona and I were shooting together and most of the time we were in tears. When you’re doing something quite vulnerable like that you become very close through the chemistry of the characters. Everybody works in a different way,” he reflects, head lowered in thought. “With Winona, it’s all about emotion and feeling. That was so cool to watch. She’s so raw in everything that she does. Whereas David has this kind of really amazing control over his emotions. I think you learn from doing. I’m a very practical learner so having those people guide me has kind of been my drama school education, so to speak.”
Part of Heaton’s method in choosing roles has been a desire to seek out characters he can empathize with. There were, he recalls, important parallels between his own life and those of Jonathan’s. “Instantly what stuck out was Jonathan’s background. He’s from a working class family and a single parent home. He’s brought up by his mum, as was I. I’m definitely not as introverted as Jonathan—I did have friends at school and I wasn’t quite as quiet—but it was easy to understand this kid as well. He’s quite a relatable character tolot of people and I think you lookfor those points.”
Part of the program’s enduring popularity is because of the relatability of the characters, particularly the manner in which their flaws often turn out to be strengths. The new ideal of not fitting in, of it being okay to be apart from the crowd has proven a pervasive narrative for the show— “You shouldn’t like things because people tell you you’re supposed to,” Jonathan tells his brother Will in season one.
There’s a deep sense of familiarity that many viewers experience when watching the show, due to both the naturalness of the characters and the meticulous attention to evoking the feeling of a small American town in the 1980s. The nostalgia, Heaton tells me, is part of the drama’s popularity, not least because it offers the fantasy of life before the internet. With the Season 2 premiere of Stranger Things drawing close to 15 million viewers in the immediate days after landing and the series averaging 8.8 million viewers per episode, according to viewing figures from Nielsen, I wonder if he and the cast had any idea the show would be such an overnight success.
“I don’t know if you can. You all hope when you do a project and you see it from the inside that it’s going to be a great success. I remember getting to the end of season one. Me, Joe [Keery] and Natalia [Dyer] had become really close and I remember us all saying goodbye, wondering if we’d ever see each other again. Really, we had no idea that it was ever going to be as big as it was globally. I was in Spain when it came out and I had people in this tiny little town coming up to me,” Heaton tells me with a laugh. “I’ve now traveled all over the world—it really has gone everywhere and it seems to just keep on growing.”
Ahead of the season two premiere, Heaton’s soaring ascent was hit with an Icarus-like interruption. Refused entry into LA because of alleged cocaine possession, he was sent back to the UK and missed the premiere. Issuing a statement where he emphasized that he’d not been arrested or charged with any crime, Heaton largely remained silent whilst he worked to rectify the issue. I ask him how it felt to deal with the ensuing media frenzy that encompassed the news.
“It was fucking awful. It was just awful,” he repeats, his head lowered. Can he return to the US for filming the new season? “Yeah, it’s all sorted now,” he says. “We go back in April so I plan to go back to America next month, and yes, I can go back.” It’s clear the incident is a painful memory.
“It was hard. Everything happened so fast, and I hadn’t come to terms with the fact that I was famous. When something steps in from the work you are doing and breaks into your personal life...you feel kind of vulnerable. All of a sudden it becomes a very big story and it gets really blown out of proportion.” After the news broke, the media arrived on his doorstep as well as at his parent’s home in Yorkshire, something he describes as very “hard” and “upsetting” for them to deal with. “At the end of the day I just wanted to go back. I want to work and continue to work—that’s all I’ve ever done.”
Focusing his attention now firmly on the next season, I ask him what we can expect to see. “I don’t know, I’ve not seen the script!” he explains, laughing and shrugging. “I know they’re writing it at the moment and we’ll find out soon—we’ll see. I’m interested in the love triangle—Jonathan and Nancy are now together. I’m interested to see where it goes.”
When Heaton mentions the love triangle, a wry smile appears on his face. Of course, in real life Heaton is rumored to be dating co-star Dyer, with the couple now having made several red-carpet appearances together. After his other recent media intrusion, however, it’s apparent he values his privacy. Yet his fervency when describing the bond with all his fellow co-stars is unmistakable. Spending seven months together each year on set, he explains, means it’s like a family. “You’re all trying to go along this trajectory as actors alone but then you all come to do it together, and there is an excitement in getting to do that.You have to trust each other and you spend a lot of intense time with each other. That’s one of the best parts about doing this work.”
For the next seven months, Heaton will be filming season three. His last film, Marrowbone— an English-language Spanish horror film—was released in Spain late last year. Similar to Stranger Things, Heaton’s role was emotionally challenging, taking place in a setting where fantasy and reality blur. It’s an area he feels he has been strongly attracted to. “There is a draw or a pull to it, not because it’s a darker role, but because there is a complexity to such roles, an emotional depth that is always really fun to play,” he tells me. “You really feel like you’re pulling yourself to a place where you have to give a piece of yourself to the camera. Now that I’ve done the darker roles, I know I can explode or cry or get these dark feelings out of myself.”
Heaton’s ambitions have only grown. He tells me he would also like to venture into theatre soon. “I would love to do theatre: it’s live, similar to music. The excitement you get—the nerves before going on stage and how every night is different. You get an immediate justification for performance, an immediate response...I know a lot of people get kinda scared about theatre, but that’s part of the whole attraction to me of doing it.” He saw Hamilton recently, he tells me excitedly—“It’s so good. I didn’t have a lot of money before I got into this and theatre is quite expensive. Up until recently I only maybe went once a year with my dad, or the pantomime at Christmas,” he laughs.
Theatre is likely to be some way off for Heaton, though, as he already boasts a packed schedule. First on the roster is a role in the upcoming X-Men New Mutants series launching next year; the film is now in post- production. “It was like, ‘I’m going to be a superhero!’” he squeals, expressing his delight at discovering he had won the part in the coveted franchise. “It was so exciting.” But, he knows, hopping on for a ride on one of Hollywood’s biggest franchises is a major commitment. “There’s always a worry when you pick a franchise and you’re going to be doing it for maybe quite a lot of years. It needs to be the right thing, and for me with this one they are trying to do something very different. X-Men is a very cool franchise because it has these people who are flawed, they go a bit into that outside vacuum...it has a very human story to it.”
In the midst of the wonderland of opportunity and success in which he has found himself, returning home to Bridlington is one of the best anchors he has. “It’s important for me. I just went back recently—seeing my old mates, it keeps things very leveled. There’s this very northern sense of ‘hang on mate, don’t get too big for your boots’ too, and it keeps you grounded.”
We end where the interview where it began: with music. He describes returning to Shepherd’s Bush recently, playing drums for a friend as a favor. After the gig, he purchased a portable music studio to make music on the road. “I don’t want to release an album or anything,” he laughs, describing his little studio. “I just want to make music for me, to have a go. I thought I’d try it and see what happens.” It’s a strategy that has worked for him so far, so why stop now?
Written by Elizabeth Aubrey
PHOTOGRAPHER: CROWNS & OWLS AT ICONOCLAST.
STYLIST: HELEN SEAMONS.
GROOMER: SAMANTHA COOPER USING TOM FORD SKIN, MARC JACOBS BEAUTY & ORIBE HAIR CARE AT CAROL HAYES MGMT.
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: ANNA SMITH AND CARINE HARRIS AT ICONOCLAST.
PRODUCER: RORY MARTINEZ AT ICONOCLAST.
ART DIRECTOR: IBRAHIM MBOUOMBOUO.
GAFFER: ANGUS CHINN.
LIGHTING ASSISTANT: MATTHEW SMITH.
RUNNER: LOUISA RECHENBACH.
LOCATION: DALSTON PIER STUDIOS.