Perhaps not since the debut of Henry Thomas in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial has a child sci-fi star resonated so deeply with audiences around the world as Noah Schnapp, who plays the missing son of Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) on Netflix’s Stranger Things. (Quite the impressive feat considering the fact that Schnapp’s Will Byers character has even fewer lines than doomed damsel in distress-turned-Internet-sensation Barb.)
But then this tween actor, who will turn 12 next month, is hardly a newcomer. “I was working with Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg when I was nine years old,” Schnapp says matter-of-factly, referring to his role as Hanks’ son in the Oscar-winning Bridge of Spies. And good grief: Last fall, Schnapp also embodied the iconic Charlie Brown in The Peanuts Movie.
Not that success has gone to Schnapp’s head. “I take the school bus,” the seventh-grader says of his morning commute. This interview with ET happened to take place on his second day of school, and he has more important things on his mind: Like homework, for instance.
Despite the fact that Schnapp seems wise beyond his years, there is no doubt that he is, in fact, still just a kid. “Even me being in this TV show -- and I just saw it for the fifth time -- I’m still scared,” Schnapp says of watching Stranger Things. “When the monster is creeping up behind me? I’m like, ‘Ah! I can’t watch!’” Meanwhile, millions of other viewers can’t look away.
ET: You’ve been acting since the age of six. What do you consider to be your big break?
Noah Schnapp: Honestly, I think it’s Stranger Things. This is one of my biggest projects and it is my first TV show. I mean, it hasn’t changed my life yet, but my life is not the same as it used to be. I am still a normal kid, but when I’m walking on the street, there will be people who ask me to sign a poster or take a picture with them.
What presented the biggest acting challenge for you: Playing Tom Hanks’ son in Bridge of Spies, Charlie Brown or Will Byers?
My biggest challenge was playing Will Byers. I was biking in one scene, [fell] off my bike and ran away from the Demogorgon [a monster] all the way home. Those kinds of scenes are very challenging when you have no words and you’re running and the whole scene is based on your emotions.
Are you a fan of any other Steven Spielberg films aside from the one that you made?
I am a big fan of E.T., of course. And I remember watching Jurassic Park -- I was so into it. Oh, and Schindler’s List. That one was amazing, too.
Do you think Spielberg would appreciate Stranger Things?
That’s a good question. I think he would definitely like it because Stranger Things is inspired by E.T.
Stranger Things references a lot of other classic movies from the ’80s. Were you aware of all the film references?
I remember [siblings and series creators Matt and Ross Duffer] had this big board when I was in one of the later callbacks and it said “inspiration board,” and it had a bunch of movie posters with movie names on it. They told us to watch all of these movies: Poltergeist, E.T., The Goonies, Stand By Me. And the cast watched all of them and we loved it.
How did Spielberg’s directing style compare to the Duffer brothers?
Well, I can definitely say that they’re both amazing directors in their own ways. But Mr. Spielberg was an amazing director because he was always balanced. He gives [actors] a chance to do their own things. He still gives them direction and tells them what to do, but he still lets them do their own thing at the same time, which I think is pretty amazing.
And what about the Duffer brothers?
They don’t really do it that way. They’re great directors; they have a very specific vision of what they want to see.
Like you, Winona Ryder started acting at a young age. Did she share any advice about surviving child stardom?
Well, first of all, she was always helping me. And she was always looking out for me. I remember in episode eight, she was with me when we were doing a CPR scene: She gave me gum and she put gum in her mouth and she looked me in the eye and said: “So our breath doesn’t smell bad.” Because she had to put her mouth on my mouth. And I also remember her talking to my mom to make sure I was OK for that scene when David Harbour [Chief Hopper] had to really push hard on my chest. Honestly, she was amazing.
What is your favorite Winona Ryder movie?
Well, it’s pretty embarrassing, but I haven’t seen any of her movies yet. I actually have one downloading, which I am going to check out right after this interview. It’s called Edward something.
Edward Scissorhands? You’re very young, so I am not surprised that you haven’t had a chance to see her movies.
Yeah, but I’d still like to check them out to see what she was like as an actor when she was younger.
You just started school, but you’ll have to leave next month when pre-production on season two gets underway. How do you feel about that?
It’s exciting in some ways and not in others. I mean, I’m pretty sad that I have to leave all of my home friends and I can’t see them for basically half a year. That’s not a great thing, but we’ll FaceTime and stuff. What I’m excited for is to be on the set with all the Stranger Things cast.
You shared a story from The Hollywood Reporter on your Instagram account that mentioned three new characters -- like Max, a tomboy who rides a skateboard -- who will be introduced next season. How do you think your character will interact with them?
I don’t know what the characters are going to be like so I don’t know how Will could interact with them. I don’t know if they have anything to do with the Upside Down. But my thought would be that maybe Max could be a new friend.
What did Will eat the entire time he was stuck in the Upside Down? There weren’t any Eggos there.
You know what? I always thought about that, too! Maybe he ate little growths off the ground and stuff and that is why it’s in his body. But I don’t know how he survived in there.
Did you cough up baby monsters in the series finale?
This is hard to explain. Kind of baby monsters. Like, not yet live monsters who are still in eggs, maybe. They’re not yet grown, so they’re incubating inside of me, and I cough one up at the end of the show. That’s what I think.
Do you think Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven character is dead? She disappeared along with the monster at the end of season one, but Sheriff Hopper still leaves Eggos for her in the woods.
I sure hope not. I don’t think she’s dead because she was an important character. They can’t just take her out in a snap like that. And you didn’t see her die -- you just saw her disappear. I don’t really think that she’s dead, but there’s so much to tell.
What do you think of the fan theory that the monster is actually the Upside Down version of Eleven -- that they’re actually one in the same?
Eleven and the monster are related, you mean? That’s a good theory. It makes a lot of sense.
Were you surprised that Barb [Shannon Purser] became the breakout star of the show?
I am proud of her. It’s amazing for a character like Barb, who was only in the beginning of the show. I think it’s amazing how, I guess, how well [Shannon] played her character -- she made everyone feel bad for her. And she got everyone hooked on her so that when she disappeared, everyone wanted her back.
Why did the monster eat Barb right away but not you?
I don’t think it would have eaten me because as Winona said, I’m very good at hiding. [Barb] was bleeding and that’s why it fed on her. But the Duffer brothers like surprises, so you can never predict what is going to happen.