SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched Season 4 of “Stranger Things,” now streaming on Netflix.
Jamie Campbell Bower is a bit of a method actor — whether he refers to himself that way or not.
In Season 4 of “Stranger Things,” he plays a vital role of Henry, aka One, aka Vecna. But when he first auditioned for the part, he was told nothing. In fact, he wasn’t even sent scripts. “I first got two sets of sides, one from ‘Primal Fear,’ and one from ‘Hellraiser,'” Bower tells Variety. “I had no idea what this character was; I wasn’t sent any material from the show.”
As a huge fan of “Stranger Things” and creators Matt and Ross Duffer, he immediately recorded his audition on tape. Then he waited for a call — a wait that, since it was the holidays, was longer than usual. When he finally did hear, he was sent “dummy sides” to show him a tiny bit more of the character.
“I went crazy for, like, two days. In my apartment, I put a picture of Will Byers in the middle, and then all the other characters around it, and then sort of made this Claire Danes-esque from ‘Homeland’ mind-map of who I thought this person was. I stepped back from it after two days, and was like, that feels kind of good,” he says. “So I took a picture, and then I printed out all the pictures and put them in this little folder — and then I got a phone call saying Matt and Ross wanted to meet.”
The meeting went well, and before it ended, he asked if he could show them what was in his folder. They said yes.
“I think they might have just been kind of humoring me. So I presented this thing to them, and then we flipped through it. They looked up at me after going through it, and they went, ‘Have you been given the scripts?’ I was like, ‘No, honestly, all I’ve been given are your dummy sides, and the two sides from the show,'” Bower explains. “They were like, ‘This is literally perfect. Everything that you’ve gotten here is perfect. Your references are perfect. The inspiration is perfect. Do you mind if we show you some more visual references that we have and what we’re thinking, and tell you a little bit more about the character?’ I think by that point, they knew I wasn’t completely insane.”
The Duffers also told him about Henry’s true identity during their discussion, which lasted about 90 minutes. Three days later, he received the news that he’d landed the role. “And then came more chaos,” he laughs.
During Episode 7 of Season 4, Henry’s full identity is revealed to Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) in a dark scene; Bower has an extremely lengthy monologue, which was about 10 pages, during which he explains to El that he killed his family (Victor Creel was his father) and was placed under Brenner’s (Matthew Modine) care. When Brenner found out how strong he was, he made Henry his first test subject — One — and later tried to recreate him, eventually leading to Eleven.
“I was just fervently going through it and building it and it was a lot. I remember doing it in the rehearsal and Millie just looking at me and saying something like, ‘You’re a freak,'” he says.
That reaction just got more intense. As the speech went on and Henry became Vecna, Brown began to cry.
“She was terrified, like, literally terrified, and when she saw Vecna, she burst into tears and she said, ‘That’s not my friend. I don’t know who this person is anymore. Where’s he gone?'” Bower says, noting that as the character, he knew that was a good thing. But it was difficult, and he really had to dig deep.
In fact, the mental preparation — both before and on the day of the intense scenes — was just as consuming as the physical one. During Episode 7, he filmed many scenes opposite both Brown, and a younger actor, Martie Blair, who played a young Eleven.
“It was scary, I’ll be honest with you. Particularly when I’m Henry or One, there’s so much manipulation that’s going on in there,” he shares. “To work with a young person or a child or somebody who’s much younger, that was an interesting dynamic. And the things that would sort of pop up in the brain were quite weird and odd.”
He says the pandemic was helpful to get into that state of mind, because it gave him extra time to really go to a new place mentally, and do “lots of weird stuff.” First, he filled his office with figurines and posters from “Hellraiser,” “Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Dracula” and other key projects from the ’80s to dive more into the horror genre.
Then came the real darkness.
“For Vecna, there’s this deep, deep, deep resentment. It’s his fuel, so I really had to tap into that, and I consider myself not somebody who holds onto resentment. So, digging that up from within me was quite a lot,” Bower says. “I mean, I wouldn’t speak to people. I wouldn’t speak to anybody outside of the ‘Stranger Things’ world for at least four days before filming anything. I would find myself doing some pretty wild stuff. If anyone saw me walking around the streets of Atlanta at 2 o’clock in the morning talking to myself, they would understand. I was just bringing up a lot of anger, particularly for Vecna.”
For Henry, it was all about focusing on being nice repeatedly — then manipulating repeatedly.
“I would write post-it notes and stick them all over wherever I was living at the time,” he tells Variety. “They said, ‘it’s all for you’ or ‘be nice to her’ or ‘she’s like you.’ I had mood boards, photographs, kind of everywhere, both from the show and external as well, and just built that up.”
Once it came time to physically transform into Vecna, it was quite the process. While viewers may assume that it’s mostly CGI, it’s actually “90%” Bower, he estimates. The vines are real vines on his costume; the only thing added in post-production is the movement within them.
The transformation took about seven and a half hours, with his day usually beginning at 3 in the morning. After about 10 to 12 hours of filming, he’d head back to the chair to get it all removed, which would take another hour.
While in the chair, Bower would stay extremely focused and quiet.
“I came in in character, wearing the character, so I’m sitting in the makeup chair very still, not really talking to anyone. Music is a big help for me. I find it to be a very visceral experience,” he says. “I had a few records that I was just constantly spinning on repeat as I’d been building the character I’d had on anyway, so there was that, sort of, subconsciousness that was coming through.”
In order to keep himself removed from others, he called one of the production assistants on the show, with whom who he’d previously worked on “Twilight,” and asked if he could have an extra 30 minutes after hair and makeup was done before filming began, to sit in the full look alone.
After the PAs figured out what he needed, they found a room that Bower could sit in.
“It was totally pitch black. I’d sit in there between the takes and go for it. It was it really interesting. About halfway through, I started to become quite afraid of Vecna,” he says. “I remember seeing Matthew Modine one day and being like, ‘Modine, I’m terrified of this person. It’s really weird.’ He’s like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s good!’ I was like, ‘Oh, thanks for your help, buddy!'”