The Cast of Stranger Things on Tackling the Horrors of Coming of Age

The Cast of Stranger Things on Tackling the Horrors of Coming of Age
Image: Netflix

In the time that has passed since the Battle of Starcourt, the friendships that make up the heart of Stranger Things have been spread apart, thanks to that season three cliffhanger. We’ll pick up with the characters six months after the events of last season, even though it’s been three years since audiences have been able to watch the hit Netflix series.

In the most recent trailer, a new big bad was teased in the form of Vecna, a powerful lich from Dungeons & Dragons, who’s been lurking in the Upside Down ready to prey on the people of Hawkins, Indiana. And there’s also been glimpses of Eleven (Millie Bobbie Brown) and Will (Noah Schnapp) missing their friends back hone while trying to adjust to life in California, far away from the traumatic events they both endured.

Gizmodo took part in a roundtable with the young cast of Stranger Things to discuss what it was like growing up on the show alongside their audience — and what it’s been like returning to portray their characters, who are gearing up to face the hardest battles of their lives as the show approaches its endgame.

How are Eleven and Will doing in California?

Screenshot: Netflix/YouTubeScreenshot: Netflix/YouTube

In many ways, the themes of Stranger Things — about kids who must continuously step up to face horrors that just won’t stop — mirror real life more than ever. Considering that a global pandemic halted the world, the cast is aware of the time they’ve been away, especially from their young audience. Noah Schnapp, who as Will plays the survivor of the Upside Down’s first season threat, remained very active through his YouTube channel during the past few years. At the roundtable, he spoke on the awareness the Stranger Things family has about reconnecting with the story, “Yes, so much time has passed. I think the Duffer Brothers do a great job in telling, you know, talking about the time that has passed, but also moving forward.”

After Joyce (Winona Ryder) took in Eleven as part of her family when they lost Hopper (David Harbour), the Byers family was relocated to California for their protection in case anyone were to go after them in connection to the events of last season. Millie Bobby Brown loved the opportunity to see who El was outside of Hawkins​​ “I think it’s really nice to see our characters out of that environment, out of that group,” she said. “You have to learn that you are your own person and it’s OK to grow apart, too. Eleven is more dependent on her friends. And she’s also trying to find out who she is without them, without Mike [played by Finn Wolfhard] specifically.”

Both El and Will get a breather from the supernatural, at least from the looks of this season’s opening, but not so much from the horrors of high school.“It’s traumatising. The supernatural stuff is all in our head. But the high school stuff is real kind of relatable stuff that is happens to everyone,” Schnapp shared, elaborating on how Will and El at least have each other. “I love their sibling kind of relationship that we get to show this season. You kind of see Will as an overprotective brother to El this season through all her struggles in high school.”

While it’s heavily hinted that her character gets a call to save the world again, Brown is excited to dive into Eleven’s personal journey of finding the power within to accept herself and overcome the limits put on her. “Without her superpowers, who is she? You know, she’s getting older. The kids are all getting older and growing up,” Brown said. “Young people want to gain autonomy from not only their parents but also their friends. Really finding out who they are and searching for that. So I think it’s quite nice to allow them to do that this season.”

Advocating for the importance of youth having not just the space to come into their own but having supportive friends to face high school and the end of the world is why Brown feels the show will easily speak to its audience today.“Our show is so important for fans because it shows people that you’re not alone in what you’re suffering from. Everyone in our show is struggling with something, whether it’s supernatural or natural, and it’s relatable to fans across the world,” said Brown. “And that’s why I think people love it so much because they just connect and resonate with it.”

What’s going on with the kids in Hawkins?

Screenshot: Netflix/YouTubeScreenshot: Netflix/YouTube

Meanwhile in Hawkins, the supernatural just doesn’t let up. A string of deaths keeps the town in fear and brings back together friends who’d drifted apart since Starcourt. Max, who’s been isolating herself and is still engulfed in grief over losing her brother, begins to see things first as the deaths begin, becoming the centre of the horror this time around. That’s something actress Sadie Sink is no stranger to, having recently starred in Netflix horror trilogy Fear Street. In the trailer, Max is seen facing off with Venca. “I think like the physicality of Fear Street really helped just in getting comfortable with a lot of stunt work and stuff in that realm,” she said of her recent work informing the horror elements, but she emphasised that Max is really going through it mentally. “And then I did a movie with Darren Aronofsky that was very dramatic and I think that helped with like the more emotional stuff in this season a lot. A lot of it like contributed to to kind of like crafting like my performance this year and just kind of like getting into the mindset of Max too a lot of it has to do with like her innermost thoughts.”

Max and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), who start the season off very separated, come into the forefront of the events unfolding in Hawkins. In the first episode we see Lucas coping by throwing himself into becoming part of the popular crowd, which further divides him from even his closest friends Mike and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo). McLaughlin gave some insight that while things on the surface look good for Lucas away from the old crew, it may not entirely be the case. “You know, they’ve been his friends forever and he still feels like a nerd, but he wants to experience this new world. I don’t think he wants to exactly dive into this whole new, cool-guy jock thing,” McLaughlin explained. “But his friends are like, ‘Nah, that’s not who we are.’ I feel like a lot of kids can relate to that because when you go into high school, you kind of get lost and you forget who you are. Sometimes you have to remind yourself, you have to step outside of the box to see and appreciate the person that you are.”

Sink added that being a teen is complicated and informed why Max cut off all her friends, including Lucas. “It was time in the show to explore how these events over the past few seasons are affecting our characters,” she said. “And Max was the perfect candidate for that. So that’s obviously caused a lot of changes in her life, and as a result, she’s just feeling lost and in a lot of pain. The way that Max deals with that and is kind of just shutting herself off — trying to keep it to herself. And it’s sad to kind of watch her close herself off from the people in her life that want to help her. But, you know, she’s stubborn.”

Season four’s explorations of Hawkins youth dying in grotesque ways raise the “wow-I-can’t-believe-they’re-going-there” factor of horror on the show. The town reacts by going full Satanic Panic, with Mike and Dustin’s new D&D dungeon master Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn) becoming a prime suspect. Things get tricky when Lucas’ new basketball teammates decide to target Munson in retaliation. “Lucas has dealt with so much in terms of, you know, supernatural events, but now he’s kind of dealing with himself. I feel that because of the separation this season between the group, he’s like, ‘All right, what can I do?’” McLaughlin said. “His role has expanded so much. Now he’s just trying to figure out certain things that he can do for himself. I just feel like a lot of people can relate to that. It’s pretty realistic. Lucas, he’s had to mature faster than the average teenager because he’s dealt with unworldly things. But, you know, it’s life. And Lucas — he’ll be fine. He’s going to get through it.”

While we don’t know how things will shake out, given what we know about Stranger Things’ characters thus far, it seems highly likely that no matter how much time they’ve spent aprt, they’ll still show up for their friends. With the fate of the world at stake (again), our Hawkins heroes will rise up together… not just as kids, but young adults ready to fight back.

Watch the first drop of Stranger Things season four episodes on May 27, with a second batch concluding the season on July 1.

Want more Gizmodo news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel and Star Wars releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about House of the Dragon and Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.

Editor’s Note: Release dates within this article are based in the U.S., but will be updated with local Australian dates as soon as we know more.