Attention Stranger Things Fans: Shannon Purser’s New Movie Will Give You Major Barb Vibes

Shannon Purser - Lead
Photo: Aaron Epstein / Netflix

“I don’t want to be Barb for the rest of my life,” Shannon Purser admits of her iconic and Emmy-nominated Stranger Things role. “She was my first character and I really care about her a lot. I put a lot of myself into her at the time.” But the actress is ready for a change — specifically, one that involve less high-waisted jeans, she jokes.

In the time since 21-year-old Purser left cult hero Barb behind, she’s tackled several new characters, including the lead in Netflix’s latest teen rom-com, Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, which hit the streaming site this week. In the film, Purser plays a book-smart, anti-cool high school girl named Sierra, who’s totally confident not being a cookie-cutter, tiny blonde — until she develops an online relationship with a guy who has mistaken her for one of those tiny blondes. So she seeks the help of her former nemesis, a popular girl who has more to her than she lets on. The kind-hearted flick is ultimately about what it means to be happy being yourself. And catfishing.

Purser fell in love with the character of Sierra because she’s “unique and complex and cerebral, which I really relate to,” the actress says. “What really sealed the deal was having a Skype meeting with our director, Ian Samuels ... I could tell how committed he was to making this movie authentic and relatable.” And Sierra is relatable to any woman who’s ever doubted her own worth, whether in high school or after.

The film fits right into Netflix’s current rom-com resurgence, which has also included recent fan fave To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, whose love interest, Noah Centineo, is also Sierra’s. But true to Barb’s idiosyncratic ethos, Sierra is not a damsel in distress and she’s not defined by getting the guy in the end.

Purser wanted to walk the line between boy-obsessed teen and free-thinker with Sierra. “When I was a teenager and I had a crush on a guy, it felt like the heavens were opening up and it was all I could think about,” she says. “And I wasn’t a traditional boy-obsessed teen. Crushes feel so all-consuming when you’re that age, so I wanted to tap into that. But I didn’t want to make her a caricature of a person. She doesn’t depend on this boy for her happiness.”

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Purser, who describes her own high-school experience as having had its “ups and downs,” pinpoints those mid-teen years as the time she most struggled to feel comfortable with herself too. “That’s when I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression,” she says. “That made life kind of difficult. But there were also some really beautiful moments too. My first real love was in high school. I made some incredible friends and went on amazing trips. I wouldn’t change it, but it wasn’t always easy.”

Purser still deals with anxiety and depression, which she discusses publicly with her fans on Twitter, and says that acting has been one way to sort through what she’s feeling. “It gives me the chance to work through some emotions I maybe would not have dealt with in real life.” On the other hand, “Having this much visibility and attention can be anxiety-inducing.”

Despite the nerves that come with being a suddenly well-known actress — especially one who generated as much attention as Barb — Purser wants to make sure she doesn’t take her platform for granted. She came out as bisexual on Twitter last year, writing “I don’t normally do this, but I figure now is as good a time as any to get personal. I’ve only just recently come out as bisexual to my friends and family.” She’s interested in being as authentic as possible, mostly because the actress feels like a lot of Hollywood is not. Purser tweets about everything from the books she’s reading (currently Sharp Objects and the works of Stephen King) to politics to what it’s like to deal with anxiety.

“We see these celebrities that are larger than life,” she says now. “The way fans interact with them is like they’re gods or heroes. It’s important for me that I be myself. I don’t want my online persona to be different than who I am in real life. If I’d had more role models when I was growing up who were willing to talk about difficult things and their struggles and be more forthcoming, maybe that would have made a difference in my life. I want to be that person. No actor is obligated to be a spokesperson for anything, but I do have this platform and I want to use it for good.”

Next up, Purser will return to Riverdale as recurring character Ethel Muggs when the show comes back for its third season on Oct. 10. It may bring some surprises for fans. “She’ll definitely be a part of season three,” Purser teases. “It’s a darker Ethel. It’s definitely going to be a bit of shock, but I’m excited for people to see it.”

For Purser, projects like Riverdale and Sierra Burgess Is a Loser mark a chance for her to continue figuring out what sort of actress she wants to be.

“One of the things about this business is that you never really know what’s going to come next or what kind of script you’re going to get in your inbox,” she says. “There’s so much creatively and originality that I like being surprised. I want to try a little bit of everything.”

So anyone have an offer for Purser? “If the character is complex and real, and it’s something that’s a bring I can bring something to, I’m interested.”

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