“I seem to have the best onscreen mums,” the 22-year old English actor Charlie Heaton said on the phone last week from northern Spain. Case in point: His latest, on this summer’s surprise hit Netflix show “Stranger Things,” was none other than Winona Ryder – something that hasn’t escaped even those in the tiny town of Asturias, where he’s been tucked away this summer filming Marrowbone, a thriller he stars in with Mia Goth.
There have been selfies with “Stranger Things” admirers and a flood of fan art and thirsty comments on Instagram, but Spain hasn’t been all fun: Heaton has to rely mostly on Goth to speak Spanish, and then there are the scenes of the film, which he described as “one of the most intense movies I’ve ever shot.”
“Yesterday was emotionally quite a big day,” he said. “You know when you’ve had a hard day or you’ve cried for a bit and you get to that point where you don’t feel anything anymore? You’re like, I just don’t even want to think, I just want to be able to go to bed.”
This sounded like off-the-cuff sincerity rather than media-trained actor-speak. It’s the type of honesty that Heaton brings to his roles, and maybe even more so since he started working with Ryder. “She kind of told me to be okay with being vulnerable,” he said of playing her son, Jonathan Byers, a sullen teen distraught over his brother’s disappearance in the sci-fi series, set in suddenly supernatural 80’s Indiana. “I’ve never been to acting school, so I’ve never really had any formal training, but to work with someone like her — it’s kind of a bit of a master class.”
It’s one he first started last year with Naomi Watts, who also plays his mother in Shut In, a thriller that comes out later this year about the disappearance of a boy played by Jacob Tremblay. (“A lot of missing going on!” Heaton acknowledged.) It was Heaton’s first feature film, and Watts “kind of took me under her wing,” he said. “She taught me to be able to be relaxed.” That carried over off-camera, too: She once took him for a spa day in Vancouver, where they were filming, for facials and back massages. “It was one of those Scandinavian spas where you’re supposed to be completely silent, and people were getting so angry at us because we just couldn’t stop laughing,” he recalled.
Less than two years ago, that type of moment would have been unthinkable for Heaton, who up until that point had barely even considered acting. “It wasn’t something I was looking for in the slightest,” he said. Born in Bridlington, a small town on the coast of England, he moved to London at 16 and started drumming for a handful of bands, eventually heading on the road for a year with the noise rock group Comanechi. But even after some dates with big names like the Gossip, Heaton needed cash – so he took his sister’s advice and headed to a commercial booking agency. Soon, one of the ads he shot between playing music and working at a bar ended up at the Cannes Lions awards for advertising, and “acting kind of took over,” he said. “I just got these opportunities and wanted to run with them, I guess.”
Though his lack of thespian training made Heaton nervous at first, he now considers it something of a blessing. “I think acting’s very natural. It comes from a place of honesty, and if someone tries to teach you their way of doing it, that could be quite damaging,” he said.
It helps, too, that Heaton looks for roles he can connect with. His recent projects might suggest he’s quite dark, but to Heaton, it’s a bit more complex: “I look for a layered character who has problems and issues — which, by the way, we all do have.”
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