After three seasons battling demons in the Upside Down and investigating mysteries in Hawkins, Indiana as Nancy Wheeler on the Netflix phenom “Stranger Things,” Natalia Dyer trades the supernatural for the faithful in this summer’s “Yes, God, Yes.” Dyer, who leads the film as Alice, a devout teenager coming into her sexuality, discusses her transition from community theater actor in Nashville to breakout TV star.
Tell us about your first day on a professional set.
The first big, big set I was ever on was the “Hannah Montana” movie. I must’ve been 13 or 14. I was only there for a couple days, but it was huge. I had done a lot of community theater, I loved theater growing up, and I was getting into film. The whole hurry up and wait is very much a part of the job, which I wasn’t used to. And how oddly fast and oddly slow everything moves. You can do two or three takes and you're waiting between takes, and you’re waiting all day. If you're the kind of person that likes that, your first time on set, you’re hooked: “I don't want to be anywhere but working on one of these! This is where it happens, this is the place to be even if the hours are crazy.” I think what’s most lovely about pretty much any set you're working on is you know the people who are there love what they do, they love this lifestyle and there's a real sense of community there.
What is your worst audition horror story?
I do remember there was one where I was chewing gum and the casting director didn’t like that. I was like, Of course you wouldn’t! Why did you? It wasn't something for me to help me feel the character. Every casting director is different, and sometimes you’re reading with someone who’s great and sometimes you’re reading with someone who feels like wallpaper. It's your job at the end of the day to make that your audition. I rarely walk out of an audition like, “Nailed it!” I can't tell if they liked me or they were just being nice.
What’s the wildest thing you ever did to get a role?
I remember for “I Believe in Unicorns,” I ended up taping a few extra scenes from it and sending it. That was one where I really, really, really wanted it. I think it’s a good strategy if you can do something [extra]. On our show, Dacre Montgomery, his famous audition tape—it catches people’s eye. Sometimes you never know if they want more or that's really going to turn them off, it’s tricky. When I was younger, my parents knew nothing about this industry and were trying really hard to be supportive: “If you get a callback, wear the exact same thing as the audition because they liked it.” [Laughs] The main thing you can do is be confident in what you're giving them. The trick for an actor is: This is me, this is my version, take it or leave it. It's a hard thing to do.
What advice would you give your younger self wearing the same audition outfit to the callback?
That would be one. [Laughs] I look back to my younger self as something to look up to almost. One of the hardest things for actors is to get out of their own head. I loved playing pretend as a kid. I loved being lost in my own world. That's really what the heart of it is at the end of the day. The more you get involved in the business or the politics and the industry side of it, you think of it more as a game to be played. There's ways to manipulate a situation. I think it really boils down to getting lost in your own world and not caring and doing it for you. That’s something my younger self really had going for her. As often as I can I try to get back to that space. Actors, we're just a bunch of kids who want to play pretend. That’s the heart of it, really.
What has playing Alice in “Yes, God, Yes” added to your acting skills?
Working with Karen [Maine], she was first-time directing, not being set in the way of how things should be. She was really open to trying things her way and taking advice and asking questions. Watching any woman in a competent leadership role on a set is really instructive. I haven’t done too many comedic roles, and even though Alice is very grounded and subtle, it’s not huge, flamboyant, slapstick comedy, it’s a little bit [of] you can’t take yourself too seriously.
What performance should every actor see and why?
I think acting is a very personal thing and from what I’ve learned, it’s very subjective. You can watch a film with someone and be like, “I thought that performance was absolutely amazing,” and they go, “Really? I didn’t believe them at all.” Harking back to kids, sometimes watching kids play if you’re around any children or going back to what that younger self is because it’s just about getting lost in something for a little bit. Like any sort of art interpretation, it’s very distinctive to who that person is.
How did you first get your SAG-AFTRA card?
It might've been “Unicorn.” It was some bigger job. I don’t think it was “Stranger Things.” I’d have to ask my mother!
I think I have an idea about what your big break is, but I’m interested to hear what you consider your first big break. Who was the casting director who cast you?
Obviously, I think “Stranger Things.” I thought I’d had a big break before that, but that definitely stepped it up a few levels. Carmen Cuba, she’s great, she's such a great casting director. That's the one that's been the most life-changing. There’s parts of me, as much as it’s a little bit of a cringe when you think back to “Hannah Montana,” again that was my first thing on set, that was my first IMDb credit, that opened the door in its own way to other things. It’s hard to talk about a big break and not talk about “Stranger Things.”
What was your first headshot like?
Oh my gosh! My very first headshot, I must've been quite young. I had bangs and curly hair and I think I had a bit of a gap, at least a little tiny gap. I didn’t get it fixed, it just grew in. I was wearing this ruched, rainbow shirt with this little pendant—everything you’re not supposed to do in a headshot. Very loud bright rainbow shirt. But smiling! It's funny to think about headshots in this day and age with technology. That used to be such a thing, getting your headshots every couple of years.
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