From his early stage-setting disappearance in Stranger Things’ first season, young Will Byers hasn’t been able to catch much of a break. While he’s enjoyed the role, which has taken his career to new heights, Noah Schnapp has been there for all of the hurdles, taking on scenes that would daunt most young actors.
In Season 1 of the retro fantasy series, Schnapp was lost to The Upside Down—separated frustratingly from the rest of the cast and crew—with the promise of big things to come. In Season 2, as Will returned to Hawkins and saw his hopes of normalcy dashed, Schnapp took his character from the fringe of the narrative to the forefront, portraying Will’s PTSD and later demonic possession with such fierce authenticity that he was hailed the breakout star of the season.
“The season was challenging because most of the stuff I had to do, I’ve never experienced in my life—and a lot of those kinds of scenes are hard because you have nothing to base it off of, like the exorcism, or the seizure, or having a monster inside of you,” Schnapp says, during a break from production on Season 3. The cast member most often left to act opposite the Mind Flayer and other unseen forces, Schnapp has done the hard work of selling Will’s plight, carrying the series’ stakes and believability on his shoulders.
As the actor joins the awards conversation this season alongside co-star Millie Bobby Brown, he reconfirms what many have said about The Duffer Brothers’ sensation: That its greatest asset lies in its young talent.
Tracking as a frontrunner in the Emmys’ race for Supporting Actor in a Drama—opposite a stunning lineup of veterans—Schnapp may be on his way to making awards history. If he secures a nod on July 12, the 13-year-old will tie as the youngest male actor ever to be nominated for a drama series, matching a record set by Johnny Crawford back in 1959.
Season 1 of Stranger Things ends with a major cliffhanger, indicating that Will Byers remains far from safe. What were your thoughts when you read the finale script?
When I finished reading the Season 1 script, I was confused, just like I was with Season 2, because I had no clue what they were going to do past that, and where they would go with the story. Before we even started the show, [executive producer] Shawn Levy told me, “Noah, don’t worry—in Season 1, you’re not going to have that big of a role. But just wait. This is kind of a set-up for your role in Season 2.” So I just held on and sat tight. He really made me excited for what was to come.
I remember reading the Season 2 scripts and they were just beyond what I expected. There were so many different things—acting challenges—I would’ve gotten to do in Season 2, and I was so excited. I was also a little bit worried because I didn’t know if I could pull it off. It was just a lot of challenges, but it was definitely fun and I’m so glad I got all of these opportunities.
Coming off Season 1, which was framed around your character’s absence, what was it like switching gears and finding yourself at the center of the narrative?
It was definitely very different in many ways. Just filming Season 1 was different because I had to fly back and forth, in and out. I remember the show was just so relaxed because no one knew what the show was; we used the words “Stranger Things” on all the sides, and all the cast names. Then in Season 2, you used code names for everything, and they just had to up the security.
That was the year I got to go on set and film every day, and it was definitely a very different experience, but I really enjoyed it because I made such close friendships with the cast and the crew. We’re all like a family, and I’m really glad to work on such a great set.
With the added level of security you mentioned, what was the process in coming to understand the nature of your Season 2 arc? How early on were you given each of the new scripts?
Usually they write the first four scripts before the season starts. For Season 2, they wrote Episodes 1 through 4 and we did a table read for it. Then, we did 1 and 2 at the same time, and once we finished those episodes, we filmed 3 and 4. While we’re doing those episodes, the Duffers are writing 5, 6, 7 and 8. It’s definitely very stressful for them because they have to go in and out from writing and directing, but the scripts come as we’re filming. It’s always a surprise.
As you learned about the journey your character takes, what were you most excited to take on?
I was really excited for the hospital scenes, just because I got to explore so many different things. At the end of the season, I got to do the exorcism scene; I was really excited for that. Then the scene where I did the seizure on the field, I thought that was pretty cool, too.
Of all actors on the series, it seems that you most spend the most time acting opposite the unseen—the shadow monster, or the hellish storm swirling above Hawkins. What have those scenes demanded of you?
I always say what makes acting so much easier is when you get to act off of good actors. Being with Winona Ryder, she’s so good at what she does that she makes my job easier. It’s so much harder when you have nothing to bounce off of and react off of. That’s a lot of what I had to do in Season 2, so when I was in the field screaming at the monster, I was staring at the sky. When the monster was coming inside of me, in my veins, nothing was happening. I just had to imagine that there’s this big, scary monster standing right in front of my face. It’s all up to my imagination I guess, to show what the audience sees and make it look real.
How did you tap into Will’s psychology, in terms of the PTSD he’s experiencing after Season 1, and how that presents?
Will’s definitely suffering from PTSD, just from spending a week in The Upside Down. He’s away from his family, he’s alone in this scary dark place, so he’s definitely changed after Season 1—and after Season 2. I did a lot of research on all this medical stuff, like PTSD and seizures and exorcism, which was kind of a separate thing. I looked at the physical and mental things that happen to you during PTSD. I remember learning in school about shell shock, after people come back from war, where they’re just so traumatized from what they’ve seen.
Is it challenging to stay in these heightened emotional places throughout the course of many takes?
Yeah, it’s definitely one of the things I was worried about. I had to do a really emotional scene with Winona, but I texted her about it and she talked me through it in her trailer. The realest way you can do it is just to put yourself in Will’s shoes and think, “How would I feel if I was left in The Upside Down for a week, and then this massive monster comes up to me and takes over my body, and I’m just a different person?” You’ve just got to get to how Will feels. Then being in scenes with Winona, her facial reactions helped me get a little more sad. The director, Shawn, really made it great for me too, because if I was right on the verge of tears, he would do the scene just to build it up, but not film. Then once we were really in that moment, he would go, “Okay, now let’s start filming,” and we would start from the beginning. Everyone just made it really easy.
From what I understand, this season’s work took a certain physical toll on you, beyond the mental gymnastics you’ve mentioned.
Definitely. I remember doing the very last scene, and it was a full night shoot. We filmed until 8:00 in the morning, it was the last day of filming, and it was the scene where they’re doing the exorcism, and I was screaming. I remember they told me, “Noah, for certain parts, you don’t have to scream.” I felt like it would look so fake if I didn’t scream and I just opened my mouth, so I decided I would scream, and I thought, Okay, I can do this. By the end of the night my voice just disappeared for the next week. It was gone. It was like, “This scene better turn out good.”
Several new actors joined the fold this season, including Sean Astin and Sadie Sink. What did that mean for the show?
I love having new cast members; it just really changes things up. I loved getting to work with Sean. I learned so much from him; I learned so much from David Harbour and Winona Ryder. I feel like this age, as a kid, is my best time to be learning. I love getting to work around them, and even when I’m not filming, just watching them.
Between seasons of Stranger Things, you took on a couple of films. Are there things you’ve found enjoyable about the film side that you haven’t experienced with television?
Everything has its pros and cons to it. I love TV shows just because I get to spend so much time with everyone, and make such close relationships with everyone. Movies are also great just because they come out really quickly, I guess. But I love them both.
Outside of this series, is there anything specific you’d like to do as an actor? A role you’d love to play?
I have my two top kinds of roles that I really want to play. Definitely, I’ve always wanted to play a really eerie serial killer—a creepy, scary kind of role. Just something that’s very different from who I am. I also would love to be in a fun superhero kind of movie. I think everyone wants to play those kinds of roles, just because they’re so fun and exciting. But I’m happy with everything that’s come at me.
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