As Eleven in Stranger Things, Millie Bobby Brown became the world’s most famous 12-year-old – she talks instant fame, going by instinct and the importance of vulnerability
The female staredown is back. Sultry, mesmerising, threatening, inscrutable, hungry: women giving good eye on screen literally inspires how we mirror emotion and communicate, whether through gif or IRL. The ferocious women of Kill Bill taught us that killer looks can prove fatal, Lauren Bacall pioneered the no-nonsense side-eye, and Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth Salander made the chilling stare of a sniper seem chic. These steely-eyed women have a new little sister-in-arms: Eleven, the enigmatic, Eggo-pilfering, telekinetic dynamo from Stranger Things. Portrayed by newcomer Millie Bobby Brown, her stare is genuinely enthralling, paralysing monsters – and boys – in their tracks. She reminds you of Natalie Portman in Leon or V for Vendetta – or a young Winona Ryder, with whom Brown stars in the series. She carries the onscreen gravitas of a future Oscar-winner, and the doe-eyed, gamine appeal of a budding fashion darling. Before we go any further, please note: she is 12 years old.
It’s a muggy day in Brooklyn when I’m confronted by that stare in person. Brown sits as serene as a statue on a stool, having her hair and make-up done. “Hi,” she says, sounding a bit subdued when greeted, and flashes a quick smile. I consider for a second what it’s like being 12 and surrounded constantly by adults, and wonder if she is simply having a shy spell. Sure enough, once set free of the chair, she explodes wide-open with personality; within minutes, we’re discussing how mental it is that she just met Barack Obama.
“Netflix, very clever people, gave Obama the (Stranger Things) tapes, and he watched them on the way to – how do you say it? Is it Air Force One? So, he was watching it and then he came back and watched it with his kids – crazy!”
Encounters like this are all part of the – well, pretty strange! – reality of life post-Stranger Things for the young actor. “They didn’t tell me anything,” says Brown of the role that would dramatically change the trajectory of her teenage years. “They just said, ‘Your name is Eleven – relate yourself to ET. That was it. I got the job the next day.”
And what a job: Eleven is one of the most fascinating female characters ever to hit the small screen, embodying a twist on the coming-of-age stories that inspire Stranger Things. In this universe, the classic boy-gang ends up rallying around a superhuman girl in an ultimate testament to their five-way friendship. After six months of shooting, the show wrapped, and the kids – including Finn Wolfhard, who plays Eleven’s onscreen semi-crush Mike Wheeler – went about their normal lives, unaware that those were the last few normal months of their childhoods. Brown remembers premiere day. “I was actually in a car on my way to San Francisco. I didn’t even watch it when it came out. I just saw my Instagram followers going up every second. I went from 25 to 1·4 million – pretty cool.” For advice on how to handle it all, she might turn to fellow junior prodigy and social-media magnate Maddie Ziegler (of Sia video and Dance Moms fame). “We just had a sleepover,” Brown laughs. “It was funny, because she videotaped me and I was dancing around her room singing ‘The Greatest’ and she was like, ‘Millie, shh – stop it!’ because I tried to dance like her and I’m really not good.”
“They didn’t tell me anything. They just said, ‘Your name is Eleven – relate yourself to ET. That was it. I got the job the next day” – Millie Bobby Brown
Brown has always been unusually self- motivated. Home-schooled since she was nine, she’s a vivacious learner with a curiosity about the world. “I’m very outspoken,” she says. “I will ask a silly question, but I really am deadly serious. I’m like, ‘I want to know the answer.’ Ha!”
She sets the scene of her acting origin story with charming modesty. “I was bored one day, so my dad took me to this acting school. I liked it more than having fun – I liked it for an actual job,” she says, citing her British-born family’s stint in Florida. Sixty bucks later, she dragged her dad to meet with an agent.
“The agent was like, ‘You need to go to LA.’ So I said to my dad and my whole family, ‘Can we move to LA?’ They were like, ‘Sure!’” she says, innocently describing what seems like the most ludicrously drama-free cross-continental move in history.
In the ‘small-town, big-trouble’ spirit of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Brown encapsulates in Eleven a young girl with an extraordinary ability she never asked for and has yet to fully harness, or contain, who must form alliances to survive. On-screen, El is like a cornered animal, and will cower or kill like one accordingly. She’s been prodded, probed, and asked to vicariously envision horrifying things, in the name of... science? Greed? Does it matter? Brown’s fascinating turn is almost exclusively non-verbal – as Reddit user ValdemarSt notes, she utters a mere 246 words in total – and, as such, El’s personal tics have a complex appeal that is very much in Brown’s hands. “Eleven is going a lot by instinct,” she explains. “The look, obviously; her body language, definitely. You know, the head tilt. We all just collaborated on our ideas and then we made magic.”
“I met (Winona Ryder) in the production office... and she just came in and was like, ‘I was told that I look like you!’ We’d sneak away to her trailer to eat cheese and crackers and gossip” – Millie Bobby Brown
Brown is nothing if not gracious, crediting the show’s female-positive feel to her other co-stars, too. “Winona is also a heroine in the show – and Natalia (Dyer, who plays Nancy Wheeler). We’re all just in a different age range, but it’s cool to have female heroines.” Ah, yes: Ryder, elusive though she is in person, exerts a huge influence over the programme and its young cast. In fact, it’s her presence that brings the show’s 80s world-building blissfully full- circle – bring up her name, and Brown lights up.
“She’s incredible, ultra-professional and a really good friend,” she says. “I met her in the production office and we were all having lunch and she just came in and was like, ‘I was told that I look like you!’ We’d sneak away to her trailer to eat cheese and crackers and gossip.”
In the show, and in contrast to Millie’s real-life put-togetherness, Eleven’s appearance is hard to forget. No doubt inspiring this year’s most popular Halloween outfit(s), our first glance of her as a superhuman captive in a hospital gown and shaved head soon transitions to suburban beauty norms and poignant attempts at trying to look ‘pretty’, as she whispers. When Mike and the gang try to disguise her as a ‘normal’ girl, they opt for a cast-off powder-pink dress and blonde wig – literally things little boys think little girls wear, and which feel as alien to Eleven as they do to the boys. She looks both too mature for the clothes and overwhelmed by them, but the off-kilter performance of femininity only adds to her bizarre intensity. Brown acknowledges the paradox: “Eleven is strong. She’s very vulnerable, but she can be very, very badass.”
I ask what she’d want to tell Eleven, who has become so synonymous with herself. “Don’t give up, that’s it. She’s always trying to give up, but she can’t. But maybe one day she will! You never know.” She lets the suspense hang in the air.
“Eleven is strong. She’s very vulnerable, but she can be very, very badass” – Millie Bobby Brown
Unsurprisingly, she cannot comment on Eleven’s fate, or if she’ll return to the show. “I don’t know, I have no clue,” she says in a singsong voice when I ask if she has any travel plans coming up (Editor’s note: since the time of going to print, Brown’s return to the show has happily been confirmed).
What she says for now is that she’s open and excited to try almost anything, including pursuing music when she’s older. She’s already delivered turnt-up televised performances of Nicki Minaj’s “Monster” and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk”, so the evolution is easy to envision. Without doubt, whatever she explores next, we’ll be watching her, ready for her to surprise us again. But she’s not letting the hype go to her head. “At the end of the day, I just do my job, I love my art. But I genuinely want to change the world. I’m very generous and I really want people to see that I am – that’s really it.”
Hair Holli Smith at LGA Management using Bumble and bumble., make-up Kanako Takase at Tim Howard Management using M.A.C, set design Kadu Lennox at Frank Reps, photographic assistants PJ Spaniol, Max Dworkin, styling assistants Louise Ford, Victor Cordero, Gabe Guttierrez, Claire Tang, Nicole Chan, digital operator Matt Kanbergs, production Mary-Clancey Pace, production assistant Thibault Henriet