Once upon a time, there was a little series developed by Netflix called Stranger Things. Despite the attachments of prominent talents including Winona Ryder and David Harbour — on the rise following turns in Suicide Squad and The Newsroom — no one involved at the series’ inception anticipated its tremendous success, least of all first-time Emmy nominee Shannon Purser.
Pulling a nod for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series with her very first project, Purser has occupied a unique space within all this. A local discovery in Atlanta for casting director Carmen Cuba, Purser was at the time more well-versed in stage performance, learning the ropes of screen acting on the set of Stranger Things and witnessing the collective shockwave rippling throughout the internet as fans reacted to Barb’s graphic death at the hands of the Demogorgon, with hashtags such as “#JusticeForBarb.”
Speaking with Deadline, Purser discusses the fact that, while the doors closed on Barb with the events of Season 1, the series has flung open all doors for the actress to pursue the film and television career she always had in mind.
Stranger Things was your first television series. How did you come to be involved?
I was about 15 when I decided that acting was what I wanted to pursue professionally. I’d been doing theater since I was a kid and signed with an agency, and I’d gotten familiar with doing auditions. I had never booked anything, gotten close calls, and then one day I got an email about this new show called Stranger Things, asking for a tape.
I taped my audition, had a really fun time doing it and sent it in, but didn’t really think anything would come of it until they said they wanted me to come in and read for the Duffer Brothers. That’s when I really auditioned for the first time. They emailed me that night and said I’d gotten the part, which was the craziest day of my life.
Bearing in mind that the project had no hype around it in development, what compelled you about the story at its center?
When I auditioned, I didn’t even get a full script. I just got the sides that I had to audition with. When I did finally receive the first couple scripts, I remember being so drawn in, because Stranger Things really is everything that I love. I’m a big science fiction fan; I love films from the ’80s, so it was such a cool, interesting combination of that. I really couldn’t have asked for a better thing to start off with.
Thrust so suddenly into a top-tier project, how did you learn the ropes of screen acting?
I think it was an advantage that I had taken some on-camera classes and done theater, so I kind of knew what was expected of me, but I definitely remember my first day on set, seeing the cameras and all the equipment and feeling so out of my league. I’m really lucky, though, because the Duffers and everybody on set were really gracious and patient. It was also really encouraging to me that I did feel like I was able to pick it up pretty quickly. It made me feel good about my decision to try and pursue this. It just fell together so perfectly.
Coming from Atlanta, where the show is shot, did that familiarity lend itself to a certain level of comfort on set?
It was definitely great. I was in my senior year of high school when I did Stranger Things, so I think it definitely helped to be able to go to set, and then drive home and talk with my parents about my day at work on my first job. I think it definitely helps to have that familiarity with all this new information being taught to me, but it is really interesting, and I felt very fortunate that I got to do that. I didn’t have to take a break from school or leave my friends and family. I got to really have it all.
When in the process of Season 1 were you made aware of Barb’s tragic fate?
It took a while, and I think that’s because they were working on the script as we were filming. I do remember there was this secrecy about Episode 7, which is the episode where [Chief Hopper] finds Barb’s body. None of the cast really knew — they hadn’t received the scripts, and they didn’t really know what was going to happen.
I can’t remember where the revelation came from, but I think it might have been one of my makeup artists who was just like, “Just so you know, you’re not going to make it. You have to come in in a couple days and we’re going to have to test death makeup on you.” That was a fun day, for sure. We tried so many different looks; at one point, they put red eye drops in my eyes to make it look like I was bleeding out of my eyes, which thankfully didn’t go through, because those were really uncomfortable. But it was crazy.
When we see Barb in the Upside Down, was that you or a prosthetic version of you? We obviously do see you being dragged forcefully by the Demogorgon into that world.
That was not me. They made a very cool and creepy dummy, which was definitely quite an experience, too — the whole head casting process. For the makeup, we tried different things; at first, they were thinking lots of blood coming out of my face, but we showed [executive producer] Shawn Levy, who directed that episode, and he said, “Nah, that’s too much.” So we really simplified it, which was cool. I didn’t actually spend too much time in the chair, getting makeup done for that.
Can you describe the experience of shooting that moment where you’re being dragged down into this underworld?
That was definitely an adventure. I think it was also my favorite day of shooting, getting to do that scene, because as an actor, you don’t really have anything to go off of, and you’re screaming at the top of your lungs. It was a challenge, but it was really cool to get into that emotional place, and I’m really proud of myself for pulling it off because I definitely wasn’t sure at first.
The set was super cool. Even though I’m sure there was editing done, it looked very convincing. There were these gross vines everywhere, and they put glycerin and slime all over the whole set, which was both disgusting and cool. They did have little spores and stuff floating it the air. That was really awesome.
What most people don’t know is that Mark [Steger] — who basically is the Demogorgon — was there on that day. Even though it didn’t show him on camera, it was really nice of him that he was there, and he was in the suit, obviously. I could still see his face, which was a little bit uncomfortable — he was wearing the whole animatronics suit, which was really creepy. That was a really fun day. I definitely got a lot of bruises at the end of it, but it was great.
What were the behind-the-scenes logistics of pulling that shot off?
It wasn’t incredibly complicated. For the whole driving thing, they did have a platform underneath the lip of the pool, and a stunt coordinator literally grabbing my ankles and pulling me down. They wouldn’t tell me when, which is good, and adds to the surprise. Then, at one point there’s a scene where they wanted me to fall really quickly out of it, so they did put me in a harness and drag me down, which was fun. I wanted to do it all, and I still do. I’m so in love with the whole process. I want to be as involved as I can.
How was the experience working with your fellow actors, particularly Natalia Dyer, with whom you share most scenes?
Everybody was really great, really nice. All the boys are really funny. Natalia is incredibly smart and kind and professional, so she was great to work with. I feel like I learned a lot just from acting alongside her — I think casting was incredible for the show. Everybody, from background to David [Harbour] and Winona [Ryder], was wonderful.
Noting that this was your first entrée into the Hollywood sphere, what were the biggest challenges you faced on the series?
The greatest challenge — and it wasn’t even too terrible — was the fact that I hadn’t ever done anything professional like this before. I’m receiving contracts that I have to fill out and sign, I’m figuring out all the logistics, and then having days when I’d be working 5 p.m. to 5 a.m., learning how to stay present, even when you’re exhausted. I’d never done anything like that before. But like I said, it made it so much easier that we had this really great crew and cast who helped me out.
Acting for the screen is so different than acting for the stage. With your theater experience, was there a learning curve in adjusting for a different medium?
I think that’s absolutely true. When you’re on stage, you’re playing to whoever is in the back of the room, and TV and film is so much more detailed and nuanced, but I think that’s what I always wanted to do. As much as I love theater and musical theater and would love to do it again, I really love the subtleties of film and theater acting.
It’s weird, but I think doing all those auditions for those years when I didn’t book anything, watching myself back on camera and getting notes from people really helped me understand how to make a performance feel real and genuine. It really is kind of a miracle, this whole situation.
Beyond the profile of the show, Barb became such a talking point in her own right last year. What has it been like to witness this audience response?
It was fascinating to me. It still blows me away that she got the kind of response that she did. A lot of it, I think, is timing. I think a lot of people definitely relate to the people who are less than conventional — at least by Hollywood standards — people who are an outcast and awkward, because more often than not, we don’t feel like the cool, popular kid who had everything together in high school. Most of us have been a third wheel or have been stuck at a party we didn’t want to be at. I think there’s definitely this fondness about Barb and her situation because we’ve all been there before.
I try to approach every job that I do now the same way, but I think it really helped that this show was so important to me. It was my first professional job — it was my chance to really show everybody what I could do, no matter how limited the script was, and to really put my heart, soul and passion into this character. I feel like that’s what I did. In my mind, Barb wasn’t a stereotype or a trope: She was a real, complex human being, and that was really my goal in playing her.
When you’re thrust into a position like the one you experienced with Stranger Things, how do you balance that desire to prove yourself with a performance based in the motivations and experience of your character?
Acting isn’t always about the amount of talent you have, or your ability to cry on command. The point is, how well can you take direction? How well can you put aside your own ideas or ego and listen to the ideas of the director and the people above you, while not giving up the passion and drive of that character? It’s a weird balance, but I think a big part is gratitude. I was so thankful to be a part of that show, and I still am. The doors that it’s opened for me are so amazing, and as one of my favorite theater teachers always told me, “Be the nicest, easiest person to work with on set.” I try to take that with me wherever I go. It’s just as important to be a good human being as it is to be a good actor. I guess that kind of helped.