SPOILER ALERT: This story discusses several important plot developments in Season 4, Vol. 1 of “Stranger Things,” currently streaming on Netflix.
For Season 4 of “Stranger Things,” Millie Bobby Brown had the rare opportunity to revisit the role she’s been playing since she was 11, mentoring another girl to play an even younger version of the character. Extended flashback sequences set in 1979 – four years before the events of the show’s 1st season – depict Eleven’s time as a captive child at Hawkins Laboratory with Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine). As the vast majority of these sequences are viewed through the prism of Eleven’s memories, Brown performed most of these scenes. But occasionally, young actor Martie Blair (“The Young and the Restless”) replaced the 9-year-old version of Eleven, and her face was digitally replaced with Brown’s in post-production.
As 18-year-old Brown explained to Varietyshe worked extensively with Blair on set for these scenes, to help her capture how Eleven would have moved and reacted.
“I was like, ‘Let me explain what I went through and let’s find out together,’” she says. “It was really good.”
Brown also discussed what it was like to float in the saltwater tank Eleven uses to access her repressed childhood memories, why she implicitly trusts Stranger Things creators Matt and Ross Duffer, and what she thinks. truth happened in the final scene of Vol. 1 of Season 4 — when young Eleven sends One (Jamie Campbell Bower) to the Upside Down, where he begins to transform into Vecna.
One of the most remarkable things about this season was seeing young Eleven in contrast to you now. How did that work on your side?
This process was very unique to me. I had to really sit down with the Duffer brothers and Shawn Levy to understand what specifically was going on, who was playing what and how it was going to work. Once we talked about it, it only made sense for me to play my younger self, and every time she sees a reflection of her, or remembers a memory, it’s her. [actual] me younger. We have an amazing kid to play me, Martie Blair.
How did the face replacement work?
I went to Los Angeles and we did a really cool process called the Lola machine. For three days, I worked in this room and basically did all the scenes that Martie did, but I just acted with my face to replicate her every move. It was a very interesting process – definitely once in a lifetime.
How did you work with Martie when she was filming her stunt sequences?
It was really important for me to help her with that because I didn’t really have anyone helping me figure out who Eleven was going to be. I came to set before my scenes and steer her through it all. I hid behind the wall and yelled at her when she was eager to yell to get my powers. I would help her with some of her facial twitching and stuff like that – very specific things that no one would probably say, but me watching the show, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t help her.
The Duffers also told my colleague that in order to get Eleven the right age in the flashbacks, they sent the VFX team clips of you from “Once Upon a Time in Wonderland” as you were approximately 9 years old.
I did not know that. Wow. That’s wild.
So how did you feel when you finally saw the final version and yourself, basically, at 9 years old?
I mean, it always shocks me what we can do on our show. I was so happy with the result. And, you know, Martie’s performance was amazing. They just had to add my face to it. This mix of all of us working, collaborating together – it was so strange, so different.
In the show’s present day, Eleven also takes a step back socially after her move to California – Martin even tells her she’s regressing. What was it like for you to play, given the progress she makes in Season 3?
It was really nice to see Eleven dealing with some of the biggest and most real monsters in the world, like bullying and self-identity. These are things that I’ve personally gone through and been struggling with. As a 17-year-old, you start to gain more autonomy and you really try to stand on your own, and that’s what Eleven is trying to do. She is trying to continue her journey without male influence in her life. So I think she has to regress, go through those things to keep going and do her best.
For every scene where Eleven is inside Nina’s tank, I kept worrying that water would pool in her eyes. How was shooting?
I won’t lie, it was difficult. The amount of salt they put in there for me to float is real. They actually take an egg and put it in the water, and if it floats, that’s where I can get in. I stay there for a few days, 10 to 12 hours a day. Everyone is moving around you and you can’t get out. I couldn’t hear anyone, because obviously my ears were underwater. So when I took the notes, I just hoped I was doing what maybe they were saying. We had to use a microphone for them to actually pass their note to me. Also, I suffer from claustrophobia, so when we closed the tank, I definitely felt, “Oh my God, I’m eleven, I’m really going through this.” Obviously, what she has to go through, reliving those memories, was probably harder, though, than a tank.
In the flashback sequences, what was it like for you to put yourself back in Eleven’s mindset at that age? She’s so young, and everything is so harsh and terrifying.
Because she was raised in an asylum with a man she is not biologically related to, but emotionally and psychologically bonded and connected, she suffers from severe Stockholm Syndrome. I didn’t know this when I was 10, because no one would have explained it to me – and neither did I probably need to know. But now at 17, going back to that 10-year-old self, I learned all this new information about Eleven. So I brought a new dynamic and insight to Eleven that I was never able to explore because of how young I was. This person who hurts her, Dad, he also loves her more. And facing him again, in this relationship that is so destructive and so painful, was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do on the show.
In the final episode of Vol. 1, Jamie Campbell Bower delivers an extended monologue to you that explains a lot about his character and the mythology of the series itself. First, what was it like filming where El has to be paralyzed in terror for so long?
What I found really interesting about the scene is that it really concludes the memory that she has to relive. So I mean, in all honesty, The The hardest thing I ever had to do as a young actor, in my short career, was having to play Eleven recovering from dissociative amnesia. She really needs to remember something her brain protected her from. So this conversation, she doesn’t actually remember because our brains protect us from it. I almost have to pretend I’ve been through it, which was also really hard, and then relive it all over again. It’s so exciting, and so confusing, because this little person is being told all this information and almost being invited to join him on this evil, demonic journey he wants to go on. And again, going back to self-identity, this is the moment she realizes she’s not the monster.
Was it satisfying to have so many questions answered about Eleven and the Upside Down?
It is clear. I’ve had so many questions for years and years about where Eleven came from, who she is. What were the intentions of Dr. Brenner? What are his intentions now? He is still alive? But, you know, the Duffer Brothers, they’re the only people in this world who know “Stranger Things” better than we do. I trusted that they would always take it home and answer everyone’s questions. So this season was the season where you get all those questions answered.
Please help resolve a debate I’m having with my colleagues: Did the Duffers tell you that Eleven created the Upside Down in the scene with Jamie’s character at the end?
They told me. She makes. She opens the slit.
But was the Upside Down already there when she opened it, or was it not there before she opened it?
This is too big a debate for me to answer. I’m so worried. I think – no, no, no. I think the alternate universe has always been there. That will always be under Hawkins. I just think she has access to it. I don’t think she created the Upside Down. No, I think she’s always been there, I think she just created a gate to it that no one else could before.
Who won? Was it you or a colleague?
I – I think! So there are two more episodes for the season of Vol. 2, which opens July 1, and each of them are effectively feature films. Did you get a sense of that while filming them?
Well, when I was filming, I was like, they’re going to have to cut so much to fit into hour-long episodes, because we’ve been filming for three years. So when they told me the episodes were, you know, really long, I was like, ‘Oh, okay, I get it now – all scene is getting.’ We just have a lot of story to tell.
Eleven ends Vol. 1 finally regaining control of his powers – so what are you looking forward to people seeing in Vol. two?
Going back to the Duffer brothers, they created Eleven in such a dynamic way this season, and really directed and wrote this heroine with layers and layers that we have to peel back. These two episodes really give you an insight into this heroine coming to life and letting Eleven do what she needs to do to save her friends.
The Duffers have said they will start work on season 5 soon – what would you most like to see happen?
Because the Duffers have always done everything I wanted for Eleven, I’ll leave that to them. I know it’s a very boring answer, but I don’t think about it. As soon as I get on set, they tell me what I’m doing, and that’s it. Let the geniuses be geniuses and let the actors act. Millie Bobby Brown quote!
This interview has been edited and condensed.