Charlie Heaton on Growth, Improvisation, and the Closing of Stranger Things

Riddle me this, readers: how does a kid from Leeds go on to star in a blockbuster Netflix series, lead a Marvel spinoff movie, and establish himself as an indie darling, all before the age of 28? Just ask Charlie Heaton, the Stranger Things star who’s cracked the code. Even over Zoom from his London flat, Heaton telegraphs a certain cool humility. He enjoys the perks that come with ascendant stardom, but he’s grateful for it all. “I mean, look,” he says, “[fame] has a lot of positives and luxuries. The places you get to go, the travelling. It is amazing.” Perhaps he’s able to view the whole Hollywood thing from a healthy remove because, to get to where he’s going, he remembers where he’s been.

As a boy, Heaton acted in school productions and youth theatre, but he never saw a future in it. “I never thought [acting] was a thing that you could do past that,” he says. He pursued music instead, playing gigs around London and back home in Leeds (and once in Toronto at the Silver Dollar Room, the famed venue just north of Chinatown that closed for remodelling in 2017). “It seemed more viable,” he recalls. “You need an army to make a movie. You only need like four people [for a band], and you don’t have to be that good!”

But after making inroads with an American casting director and an agent, he used his meager savings from acting in commercials to buy a ticket to Los Angeles. “I literally thought I was going to go to L.A., just have a good time, and come back in two months.” Heaton was bunking in a hostel — his big break this was not, he thought. But then he booked a role in a movie. And then another one. And then came the role of Jonathan Byers, the brooding, heroic older brother of Will Byers in Stranger Things, the sci-fi juggernaut that established Netflix as a streaming innovator and Heaton as a bright young talent with a rocker’s insouciance and an artist’s soulfulness.

Heaton’s ethereal allure (and his uniquely expressive face) has kept him from being pigeonholed. He’s as believable playing a young actor in 1980s London (2021’s The Souvenir II) as he is playing a modern-day mutant (2020’s The New Mutants). “I never went to a drama school. I never got the chance to play around. My chance to play is when I’m filming, which can be scary.”

Heaton’s lack of formal training means he’s learning as he goes. But it’s freeing; he’s not bound by a method or theory. That came in handy on the set of The Souvenir II: British director Joanna Hogg generally outlines scenes but literally doesn’t stick to the script (because she doesn’t use one). “You kind of turn up and she says, ‘Hey, you’re gonna play Jim and he’s an actor,’” says Heaton. “I literally remember calling my agent the night before my first day, and I was like, ‘Why did you put me in this? I don’t even know what I’m doing!’” The film, however, was a critical sensation.

“I never went to a drama school. I never got the chance to play around. My chance to play is when I’m filming.”

For Stranger Things, Heaton recently reprised his role in the show’s fourth season. (At a reported $30 million an episode, it’s also the series’s most expensive.) He says its themes this season are the darkest yet. “I think the smart thing about [setting the show in] the ’80s is they’ve got so much source material or ideas to pull from,” says Heaton.

With only the fifth and final season left to go, Heaton is emotional about closing this chapter in his career, which is understandable considering he’s spent the past six years working on Stranger Things. He has, after all, watched the show’s cast of kids, like fellow breakouts Finn Wolfhard and Millie Bobby Brown, grow up on set. Luckily, he received some advice from his famous friends in similar boats, like Game of Thrones’s Maisie Williams. “You know, when you’re in something that’s loved so much, it’s quite a nice experience to have people so engaged,” he says, paraphrasing Williams’s wisdom. “[But on the other hand,] I think you are excited to move on and explore something new.”

When Heaton thinks back to that fateful trip to L.A., he remembers feeling like his dream of being an actor “wasn’t a reality until it was happening.” Well, it really is happening. For Charlie Heaton, the future is wide open.

Photography by Erik Carter / Netflix