Yes, there are spoilers below about Stranger Things and Stranger Things 2. If you haven’t watched yet and want to remain spoiler-free, please keep that in mind.
In the first season of Stranger Things, Will Byers gets sucked into the Upside Down in episode one and isn’t rescued until the last chapter. Even though what happens to him drives most of the action in those initial eight installments, for obvious reasons, we don’t see him much. As a result, when Stranger Things debuted on Netflix and its young cast members suddenly became the most high-profile preteens in America and beyond, Noah Schnapp, the actor who plays Will, got sidelined from the spotlight. He was the Stranger Things kid that everybody forgot about, even though nothing would have happened in Stranger Things without him.
After watching Schnapp in Stranger Things 2 — which, hey, did you hear, is out on Netflix today — I have a feeling he won’t be forgotten this time. While all of the actors, younger and older, do a fine job of making their unusual, otherworldly circumstances seem authentic and relatable, Schnapp has the most challenging task of anyone in the cast. Once again, Will’s experience is the primary driver of the surrounding action. But instead of disappearing into a dark, dank parallel universe, Will must be physically present, but mentally split between the Upside Down and his hometown of Hawkins, Indiana. He’s basically playing the classic possessed-child role, which requires him to succumb to convulsive fits, display genuine fear, and exhibit the steely blankness of a diabolical monster, sometimes all within the same scene. If he’s anything less than convincing at any point, it could poke a hole in the narrative, leading all the tension and emotional air to leak right out. But thankfully Schnapp, who turned 13 earlier this month, more than pulls it off. He’s deeply dialed into each moment, and he’s simply terrific throughout the season.
In a recent, lengthy conversation with Stranger Things creators Matt and Ross Duffer — more of which will roll out next week on Vulture — the brothers confirmed that even they and fellow producer-director Shawn Levy were surprised by how extraordinary Schnapp turned out to be. “Shawn describes it as, it was like we had a Ferrari, this beautiful Ferrari, just sitting in the garage all last year,” Matt Duffer said. “I didn’t know he was this amazing. He blew everyone away and surprised everybody.”
The scene in Stranger Things 2 that first shows Schnapp hitting truly vulnerable notes comes in episode four, “Will the Wise,” when Will tries to explain to his worried mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder), what happens when he has his seizure-like episodes. After Joyce asks him to describe what he’s experiencing when he sees the entity that is eventually dubbed “the shadow monster,” the roots of terror slowly start to spread across his face.
“I don’t know,” he says, his eyes tearing and bewildered. “It’s almost like a feeling.”
The more Will tries to put that feeling into words, the more distressed he becomes. “It came for me, and I tried,” he says. “I tried to make it go away. But it got me, Mom.”
By the end of the scene, Will is sobbing in Joyce’s arms and ripping viewers’ hearts right out of their chests. Schnapp is so convincingly wrenching here — and in a subsequent scene in which he tries to explain “now memories” to Joyce and Hopper (David Harbour) — that he accomplishes multiple things. First, he generates immediate empathy for Will and Joyce, who is crushed to see her boy going through so much anguish. He not only elevates his own performance, he elevates the one by Ryder, who has been acting in films since she was basically Schnapp’s age. He also fully hooks the audience so that, if you weren’t hooked already, you feel compelled to learn more about the shadow monster and how to banish him from Will’s consciousness. There are a lot of factors that enable the audience to invest in Stranger Things 2. Schnapp’s work is in the top three, at least. You can’t care about this show without caring about Will and you can’t care about Will if Schnapp doesn’t make you care so much.
The young actor is just as believable when he’s working in a semi-creepy vein (“He likes it cold,” Will tells Joyce, after complaining that the bath is too hot), and later, in episodes five and nine, when he physically and violently surrenders his body to the dark Upside Down side within.
The Duffers have been extraordinarily fortunate to find so many talented young actors for Stranger Things. (Sadie Sink, who plays Max, the new girl in town, is yet another strong, authentically stubborn addition to the cast.) But they’ve been especially lucky to find kids who aren’t just charismatic or sharp with a one-liner, but able to tap into a primal wellspring of anxiety and suffering. That ability — which is a special skill of not just gifted actors, but the kind who are young enough, at age or heart, to access their imaginations without inhibition — is often what turns what might have been good horror or sci-fi movies into enduring classics. (Think Linda Blair in The Exorcist, or Henry Thomas in E.T.)
Millie Bobby Brown, who plays Eleven, emerged as the Stranger Things stand-out last season when she proved she had that same mechanism. Will isn’t as vocabulary-deprived as Eleven, but Schnapp’s portrayal is just as reliant on what he does with his eyes and facial expressions to reflect the character’s pain. The kid is constantly crying out for help, even when he doesn’t explicitly say so.
Will Byers may have gotten lost in the first season of Stranger Things, but in the sequel he is front, center, and essential. That’s not just because the scripts demand it. It’s because Noah Schnapp’s performance is so powerful, it refuses, over and over, to let us forget about him.