There is a subtle homage to a classic Winona Ryder film in Season 3 of Stranger Things, courtesy of new cast member Francesca Reale, who plays lifeguard and Mind Flayer victim Heather. Riffing on her character's name, Reale decided that her popular, privileged Hawkins girl would have a lot in common with Heather Chandler, the first murder victim of Ryder's Veronica and her psychopath boyfriend in Heathers.
Fresh from finishing her very first Reddit AMA ("I honestly thought no one was going to show up!"), Reale chatted with SYFY WIRE about her sources of inspiration for the part (and the connection to another fictional Veronica), what it was like to drown, and the need for a social media campaign for the Flayed.
You shot an indie film that premiered at South by Southwest called Yes, God, Yes, in which you played the best friend of Natalia Dyer's character. Did you ask Natalia for any help or guidance when you were trying out for Stranger Things?
Honestly, no — although we did joke about it a lot after filming Yes, God, Yes. I would see her in L.A., where she was filming Velvet Buzzsaw, and I'd be like, "How cool would it be if I got to work on Stranger Things with you?" But I never brought it up with her when I got the audition because so often in this industry, it's so hard to find an actor friend who is just your friend and nothing more. We had become so close during the filming of the movie, but I never wanted her to think I was abusing her position or anything like that, I would have felt kind of icky doing that, so I didn't actually tell her until I got the role. She was the first person I called.
I mean, they said I couldn't tell anyone, but I figured she was the exception! [Laughs] I was like, "Guess what!" And she was so ecstatic for me, and so supportive. She's the sweetest being to ever live. And then she told the Duffers that she knew me, how much she liked my work, how excited she was for me to be on the show, and I'm sure that was very helpful. I'm sure that made them feel much more confident in their casting decision! So yeah, she's great.
A couple of your other friends helped you out in different ways, though. One helped you prep for your audition, which was the Drew Barrymore scene from Scream …
I wanted to make it more '80s. I wanted to make it different. It's such a famous scene, and it's been parodied so much that it was burned in my brain. But I went to one of my best friends from high school for help, because he is not in the industry and he's actually never seen Scream. So I was just like, "Read this scene and tell me what you think is happening." And he was like, "It sounds like some girl is sitting on a couch, on the phone, probably snacking on some Cheerios or something." And I was like, "Oh, that's amazing!" And then I just kind of gave myself a bit of a fro, as '80s as I could get my hair to be, and put on the most '80s print I could find in my closet.
So we made it more like a preppy girl who's sitting on her couch watching a movie, instead of preparing to watch a movie, and I'm just gabbing with someone, more like assuming they're a girlfriend, and then she realizes it's a crazy person, instead of the Drew Barrymore version, where she is fully aware that she's communicating with a stranger, but she's talking to them anyway. So I went more the route of "Oh, we know who we're talking to," and then there's a tonal shift, just to make it different. That was really hard to do, though. It took us all night to come up with that. I just wanted to give her a bit of the flair that female characters in '80s teen horror movies had, which unfortunately was pretty ditzy. They're just there to be murdered. Lose their virginity and die.
And then Camila Mendes helped you out, indirectly …
[Laughs] I had this line where I had to say, "Daddy," and I was trying to work on it, but it's just so weird. It sounds overly sexual when you say, "Sorry, Daddy."
And then every Wednesday I would watch Riverdale because Camila is on it, she's a friend from college, and I support her fully, and in this one scene she says, "Daddy." And she makes it sound not crazy or weird. She actually makes it sound kind of strong and powerful. And then I made the mistake of typing into Google "Veronica Lodge" and then "Daddy" … and these strange compilations came up on my YouTube page that were insane, but very helpful. Insane in terms of how many there were, and how long they were, of just Camila as Veronica Lodge saying "Daddy."
Someone took the time to put together these videos!
And so I would just listen to that, awkwardly, before I would say the line on set. The entire crew made fun of me, because I was listening to these videos with the word "Daddy" being repeated over and over into my ear! [Laughs] I wanted to get it right in the context of the scene. I don't think there's a world where Heather would be saying it very optimistically, or in the way you normally hear "Daddy," like loving or caring. So it fit what's going on in the moment.
In terms of a possessed Heather attacking her father.
I was so afraid during that scene! Like, what if I accidentally hit [Michael Park]? Or what if I accidentally jam my heel? You hear all these rumors where someone accidentally breaks an ankle, or accidentally gets hit in the face. But they take all these precautions to make sure that doesn't happen, so while it was scary, it gave me a good lesson in terms of having trust and comfort in your scene partner and the people you're working with.
My very first day was when Dacre Montgomery as Billy was walking me down into the basement when I get abducted by the monster. And I was like, "Hey, man, your possession acting is so good. Like, what are you doing? How are you doing that?" And he mentioned that he was watching a lot of Jack Nicholson movies, like The Shining. And I was like, "Oh, that's a great idea." And he recommended movies for me to watch. So I did a mix of movies with female characters who have this type of trauma —The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby — and those were very helpful in studying the physicality and the tone and the eye contact, what that would be like.
My favorite image is when Heather has the pan of cookies out — "You guys want a cookie?" — because she's definitely not there at all. And I also watched a lot of movies that I thought Heather would watch, like Dirty Dancing, Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, all of those.
Do you think Heather would like Heathers?
I think Heather would love Heathers. I think she'd be the type to go, "Oh my god, that's my name!" and just fall in love with the movie for that.
We actually had a long discussion about the bows, because all the Heathers wear hair bows. I don't know if anybody noticed this, but we made an effort to give her a bow for every costume she's in, in reference to the movie Heathers. Like when she's a lifeguard, she wears a big red bow, and then she has all these other bows in other colors. I like to think that Heather and Billy came up with the idea for their dinner scene to poison and abduct her parents from Heathers. I know that's not what happened, but I love this idea where they're sitting around and she's like, "Oh my god, I love this movie, and I love how Heather is poisoned with her drink, and we should do that with my parents." That's a dream of mine.
What was it like to shoot the drowning scenes?
That took forever. I was reverse drowning myself for two different days, basically. Or giving the impression that I was drowning myself.
We did one half-day in the tub, which is just me and Millie Bobby Brown, and I had weights all over my body so I wouldn't float up in the tub, which was filled with silicon cubes, not ice, which I was like half accidentally eating. And then for the pool scene in the black void, they put a black bottom down and they attached this mechanism to my ankle that would pull me down and make me look like I was being dragged by the monster. That was almost a whole day, because I had to practice with the stunt coordinator, get used to the mechanism, and find out what was most comfortable for me.
But just getting used to opening my eyes underwater, making sure my eyes were visibly open, and my mouth was open, but no bubbles were coming out, that took a very long time. That was so hard. So hard. It was literally like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. It was my Tom Cruise moment, but it was physically very exhausting, mentally very exhausting. I don't know if any acting class or coach could have prepared me for that. It's kind of one of those things you just have to do.
They probably don't train you how to become goopified, either. To be dissolved and incorporated into monsters.
[Laughs] When we did that, they were basically like, "All right, walk up to this mark, act like you're having a seizure, and then drop to the floor." They explained to me, kind of vaguely, what was going to happen to Heather, that she was going to kind of become the monster, but they couldn't show me yet what they were talking about, and it was hard to visualize.
I was a little worried about what it was going to look like, but when I saw it, I was blown away. It's incredible. Incredible.
There was a #JusticeForBarb campaign. Do you want #JusticeForHeather?
I've been thinking a lot about this. It seems like more people are sad about Alexei dying than Heather because he's such a sweetheart, but I think Heather and all the other Flayed deserve more. Heather, her father, her mother, all the other people who were taken and incorporated into this monster.
I don't know if they'll do that in the fourth season, but I hope they give us a little more time to mourn the 30-plus people who are gone, especially Billy, because his death was so intense. I cried. So, yes, I would love a memorial service for the Flayed. I would love it. July 4, 2020!