“Should I get in this box?” Natalia Dyer is looking at the hollow upturned end of an apple box halfway through a photoshoot, a quizzical smile on her face. At the crew’s urging, in the box she goes, plopping down for a series of playful shots in a ballooned, iridescent Christian Siriano dress.
As I’ve come to learn, she’s adept at rolling with the punches, making the best out of unpredictable circumstances. It’s a frosty Valentine’s Day in New York City when we meet, temperatures dipping into the low 20s. Back then, handshakes and hugs were still standard greetings, instead of customs of a bygone era. Dyer, 25, fresh-faced and clad in a black coat over a button-up cardigan and striped navy trousers, gamely arrived at a downtown Manhattan studio at 8 a.m. with a bottle of Just Water in her hand, cheerfully calling out, “Hi!” We stand in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Hudson River, watching the people hurry about on the streets below. “It’s good to be back here,” she exhales. “I’ve missed it.” The day seems to warm up.
She’s here to squeeze in a photoshoot and interview — squeeze being the operative word. Though she normally lives in the city, she’d flown in just for the day from Atlanta, where she was due to begin filming Stranger Things; she would get on a plane again that evening to make it back down south in time for a Valentine’s dance party with friends.
Months later, the only dance parties to (safely) be had are virtual, socially-distanced ones. When we catch up again over the phone at the end of June, Dyer’s pedal-on-the-gas schedule has slowed to a sputter, along with that of anyone else fortunate enough to safely quarantine during the coronavirus pandemic. Filming of Stranger Things has halted indefinitely, and she’s sheltered in place in Atlanta with housemates, including boyfriend and co-star Charlie Heaton. The past few months have involved plenty of “board games and deep thinking,” and she’s taken up running again, even if her knees don’t like it very much. It’s been weeks of attempting to get her roommates — Heaton and two of their friends, both of whom are from Atlanta — to play Clue, and “nobody [is] playing with me.” She laughingly concedes that they’ve been kind about it.
It’s an interesting time to be working in the film industry, she admits. She’s unsure of when Stranger Things can safely get back to production, not that she’d be able to discuss the top-secret plot points of the upcoming season either way. Coincidentally, on the first day we met, the teaser trailer for the next season dropped, prompting her to joke, “I guess Hopper's alive, I can say that now.” Of her character Nancy Wheeler’s trajectory, Dyer can only say that her transformation won’t be quite as drastic as it was last season: “She's not — at least I'm not getting a perm this year, I can tell you that much for sure.”
Meanwhile, her latest film, Yes, God, Yes, has faced the fate of nearly every other movie this year that wasn’t a direct-to-streaming original: the release date was pushed back, and it eventually nabbed an on-demand release at the end of July. Dyer has taken it in stride, finding the silver lining in the murky waiting game she’s been playing since lockdown began. She hopes the movie, with its themes of sexuality and female pleasure, might actually lend itself better to the intimacy of a home viewing.
In Yes, God, Yes (a short film turned full-length feature written and directed by Obvious Child co-writer Karen Maine), she plays Alice, a Catholic good girl who turns to a religious retreat in an attempt to suppress her burgeoning sexual desires. Dyer, who grew up going to church in Nashville and spent her elementary school years and some of her middle school years at a private religiously-affiliated school, found some common ground with Alice — especially when it came to sex education.
“We definitely didn't talk about pleasure,” she says. Instead, she had the kind of lax, PG sex ed in which she and her classmates were taught just the basics. Extra class time was filled with a screening of Space Jam.
Maine, who calls Dyer a “director’s dream,” says she had been casting the short film version in 2017 when her producer Colleen Hammond suggested the actress for the role. By then, season one of Stranger Things had dropped on Netflix, and it only took Dyer’s first few scenes from the pilot for Maine to be “instantly convinced” she would be perfect for the role.
“The role of Alice is quite challenging because she doesn’t actually have a lot of dialogue, which is unusual for a protagonist,” Maine says via email. “I knew we needed someone who could convey Alice’s feelings and thoughts through more than just language, which is a lot to ask of a young actor. Natalia, thankfully, was amazing at it. In a less capable actor’s hands, Alice’s sense of guilt and shame wouldn’t have been nearly as convincing.”
If Stranger Things and Netflix’s 2019 movie Velvet Buzzsaw (in which she plays a hapless art assistant to Jake Gyllenhaal’s rapacious critic) solidified Dyer’s ability to shine amongst an ensemble, Yes, God, Yes has cemented her leading lady capabilities. Like Stranger Things, Yes, God, Yes is a showcase of Dyer’s ability to play on duality and sell character growth — the capacity to give you one thing, and then in the course of her screen time, flip that thing on its head. Nancy Wheeler goes from a would-be damsel in distress to taking a Demogoron head-on; Alice seamlessly goes from being ridden with Catholic guilt to coming to an epiphany about her own shame.
When Maine began writing the semi-autobiographical script, the character was based almost entirely on her own experiences as an adolescent growing up Catholic in the Midwest.
“After Natalia was cast though, Alice morphed into a character who still resembled teen-me in some ways, but really was her own person,” she says. “Natalia made Alice unique and brought such vibrancy to her.”
By the end of the movie (spoiler alert), Alice hasn’t exactly found God at a Catholic camp, and neither did Dyer, who eventually moved from private school to a public arts school.
Sports camp, ironically enough, was where she discovered her passion at eight years old. The middle child in an athletic family — she has an older brother, an older sister, and a younger sister — she remembers not wanting to be there, but it was then that she fell into acting, almost literally.
“I sprained my ankle, like, the first day, so they put me in the drama camp where my leg made a remarkable improvement,” she says wryly, eyebrows arched.
There wasn’t much of a precedent for acting in the Dyer family, but that didn’t matter. Her parents were supportive, driving her to rehearsals and auditions for local plays. The first theater role she landed was Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, and to this day, the stage is her great love, with its sense of community and space to really explore with other actors. When it came time for college, she enrolled at New York University’s Gallatin School in 2013, knowing two things: that she wanted to live in New York City, and that she wanted to pursue acting. Then, in a one in a million shot amid the many auditions a young actor in the city might find themselves in, Stranger Things happened. Overnight, Dyer went from being one of the city’s countless NYU transplants to being recognized and stopped on the street by fans, a sensation she’s still navigating.
She sincerely appreciates the vast amount of love coming her way, and maintains that there are so many good, incredible things about having her work recognized. But a sticking point she often returns to is the question of boundaries, and how she can maintain hers as a star of the most popular streaming show in the world. She will, for example, indulge Stranger Things fans who come up to her on the street, but she’ll politely decline selfie requests. It took time, she says, to figure out what to say to eager fans requesting a photo, and she still walks away feeling “really weird” after gently turning them down. Usually, she’ll say, “I don’t really do that,” and offer to have a conversation instead, and most fans don’t press.
“I mean sometimes, this is what I want to say: It’s for my mental health,” she says slowly, looking off into the distance. “I always know that I would rather talk to [a fan], and the exchange of the photo thing — you feel like a commodity in a way. For both of us in the interaction I'm like, ‘this is going to be so much better, I promise.’”
Sitting side-by-side with me on the couch in mid-February, Dyer fiddles with the laces on her sneakers, admitting to feeling like she has to fight for her privacy sometimes. A few years in the public eye and over six million Instagram followers have helped her cultivate a sixth sense for anyone snapping what they think is a surreptitious candid photo of her. She remembers reading an interview with Riverdale star Lili Reinhart, who discussed the same phenomenon, the way she can feel when someone has their phone angled just so, ready to catch a famous person in the wild without their knowledge. Sure enough, look around online for long enough, and you’ll see plenty of candid photos of Dyer and Heaton, taken by paparazzi and fans alike.
“Some people are so good at it” — it being the act of giving your private self to the public — “some people love it and they're so good at it, and that's lovely. I envy it sometimes, but I don't know.”
Here, she gets quiet, trailing off.
“I'm sensitive,” she says eventually, shrugging. “I don’t know.”
Sensitivity, more often than not, gets a bad rap. It can be read as weakness, fragility — a belief that glosses over the strength that can exist in vulnerability. It is heartening, for example, to see a young woman in the public eye knowing and setting her own boundaries, and being honest about it. Being able to do so is rare, and with that in mind, I ask if she thinks she’ll be able to continue fighting for her privacy, no matter where her career takes her.
“Hopefully, yeah,” she says thoughtfully. “Hopefully I just become more confident moving through the world regardless of it, in a way. I think it was such a shock to my late teens, early 20’s self where you're just like, ‘Who am I?’ And then it was like, I really have to figure it out because everybody's looking at me.”
Being looked at as herself and not in terms of a character she’s playing is disconcerting for her, particularly when it comes to social media. Witnessing her teen sister’s generation and seeing how addictive social media can be, Dyer is wary of it — the way young people are “guinea pigs” for this new technology that hasn’t been around before the millennial generation, the long-term mental health effects of which are virtually unknown.
Months after our initial conversation, Dyer may still be cautious about Instagram and Twitter, but her perspective on social media has shifted amid the growing Black Lives Matter movement. As protests took hold all over the world, she began to reckon with what place she might have in the fight for Black lives, and what it meant to have such a large platform — to be, as she says, “a quote-unquote celebrity on social media,” especially a white celebrity. Her initial inclination was to “shut up and listen,” to not do anything that would take away from people whose voices needed to be heard.
“But then I think it became clear to me in conversations with my friends, that it was important for me to at least say that this is important to me, that this matters,” she says. “I definitely didn't quite understand that [at first] because I don't really participate that much on social media or put a whole lot of water in it. But I had a friend who felt like I was quite cynical about it, and obviously everything that's going on is really only possible with the power of social media — sharing and amplifying things, and seeing things circulated.”
She adds: “I'm learning, I guess. And I'm scared to trend on anything or anybody. So, it's been hard for me, but I definitely want to show up when it's important to show up.”
In addition to sharing a list of community bail funds to donate to on her Instagram profile, she’s been showing up quite literally, by going to protests in Atlanta. “Please know I am reading, watching, listening, and educating myself,” she wrote in the caption of a photo from a march in early June. “I am with you and I am angry. If you can protest safely, please please consider it. If you can donate, there’s a link in bio for places to contribute.”
Speaking to me over the phone weeks later, Dyer says she wanted to encourage people to protest, “especially white people,” though she acknowledged it wouldn’t be easy for everyone, with the coronavirus still spreading across the U.S., and physical safety becoming an issue as protesters in many cities are met with violence.
“The first [protest] I went to was just really impactful,” she says. “I went there thinking I was upset and angry. And I left just absolutely enraged and confused.”
It’s her hope that the wider social consciousness that seems to be gripping the nation will go beyond the current moment, that our desires to return to normal after a worldwide pandemic won’t brush over the very real need for systemic change.
“You have to look at it as, every single day, there are things you have to confront in yourself and conversations [to have],” she says, the transparent resolve in her voice pouring from the other end of the phone into my ear like water straight from the tap. “I do think it's a lot of internal dialogue, and questioning and challenging myself came from that.”
She self-deprecatingly says she sounds “all over the place,” but it’s clear that Dyer has put a lot of thought into this, into the role she may play — not only as an actress — but as a person who cares deeply about the world she lives in. During a time when it’s been argued that celebrity culture is “burning,” perhaps she is wise to eschew the trappings of fame, to protect her privacy and be careful about what she puts out there. The emotional work of growing into yourself while everyone is looking at you isn’t easy, nor is it work she takes lightly. Just don’t expect her to post about it online.
Photographs by Jingyu Lin, assisted by Guario Rodriguez. Styling by Samantha Sutton, assisted by Tara Gonzalez. Makeup by Mary Wiles. Hair by Ben Skervin. Production by Kelly Chiello.