Spoilers for season 4 of Stranger Things ahead.
“When I turned, [Millie Bobby Brown] started to see a change in me and was a weirded out by it. The next time she saw me [on set] when I was [the villain], and when I went really dark, she burst into tears and she was like that’s not my friend, I don’t know who this person is, what’s going on?” Jamie Campbell Bower says to me over Zoom recounting the experience of filming season 4 of Stranger Things. He’s a series newcomer and arguably the star of the season playing the villain in different forms until his origin story is slowly revealed tying up many loose ends and unanswered questions the series has been posing since season one. Bower continues his story, “the only reason [Millie] knew who I was is because I smelled of cigarettes,” he says before laughing at the giveaway that differentiated him from his character.
Although smoking could be a fitting habit for a villain, Bower’s transformation was a much deeper psychological dive into the childhood trauma that shaped the perspective and belief system of the most multilayered villain Stranger Things has ever had. “I’ve taken great relish in any opportunity to dive into characters and one of the reasons I do this and I’m so fascinated about acting is that it’s an opportunity to discover what makes us human and the reason people are the way they are—so I went completely mad,” says Bower giving some insight into his own personal motivations. His character Henry’s origin story (revealed in later episodes) starts in his childhood during which he feels like an outsider, in his family and around other people his age, leading to the belief that there is something very wrong with the world around him. Henry has the same supernatural abilities as Eleven, played by Millie, and self-discovers them at a young age quickly learning how to wield them against others.
Speaking as Henry, Bower says “the first thing I would do was stop clocks, I was able to stop clocks with my powers and then I start flexing my muscles a little more and doing the classic serial killer stuff like killing the local pets.” An interesting trait about Henry that Bower absorbed to get into character was his relationship with spiders, and black widows to be specific. “I was in Atlanta prepping for the show and I went to this little shop on the outskirts of town that I knew was there and they had one [jar of dead] black widow spiders. So I bought that and I spent hours just looking at it,” he vividly recounts telling me that the show’s creators, Matt and Ross Duffer, would often pass him on set while he was enthralled by these black widows (swipe through his Instagram post below to see the jar). Pivoting back to his character, Bower says Henry’s abilities evolve into mind-reading and he digs deep into the emotional baggage and memories his father, Victor Creel, has been storing from his time at war.
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“[Henry] sees that his father organized a shelling of a house that he believed had the enemy inside of it when in fact inside were civilians and at this point Henry sort of snaps and he’s like fuck this, this world is all a lie, you’ve all told me that there’s something wrong with me when in fact there’s nothing wrong with me—it’s all you. So I kill my family apart from my father who I sort of frame the whole thing on.” As Bower vividly unveils the multilayers of resentment and rage that turn Henry into a villain, it becomes clear that Bower mentally had to go to some really dark places to fully immerse himself in the life experiences of his character and it all started with his first meeting for the show.
During the pre-production of this season, Bower had a meeting with Matt and Ross. Two days prior he was sent slides from Hellraiser and Primal Fear as the only indication of the type of role he could be playing. “I was living in downtown LA in this loft and I started with this picture of Will Byers. I printed it and put it up [on my wall] and then from there I had all the other central characters. I started to piece things together so I put up photos of Dracula, Hellraiser—these Clive Barker characters—and made this huge mind map that after two days, I stepped back and I was like I’ve got it, I know who this person is.” Almost intuitively, Bower sourced images and references that aligned perfectly with Matt and Ross’ conceptualization of Henry. Fans of the show will know how unusual this villain arc is as threats posed in previous seasons have always been supernatural, mysterious, and devoid of human-like qualities—which unknowingly all began with Henry. “At the end of the meeting, I was like can I show you my book of what I think this character is?” Bower says of a folder he brought with him containing all his research and reference images. “I showed it to Matt and Ross and they were like have you read the script? This is literally perfect.” Obviously, Bower got the part and his initial research was the starting point for a much longer journey of becoming Henry that happened almost organically.
“From there, it got progressively weirder like going to the shop and finding the only Black Widow spider, discovering Lacy [Aaron Schmidt] and Levi [King] and it all happened really normally and I went fully in,” Bower recounts referring to the two real-life convicted murderers he used as a reference. “What I found very interesting about Levi [is] he described growing up [with] this immense pressure on his brain. When he tragically and unfortunately murdered his next-door neighbors he felt like this pressure was relieved from his brain and all of a sudden he became very at peace. I found that really fascinating and I was like I’ll take that because that feels really nice and beautiful in a twisted sort of way.” Bower laughs after calling something so dark “beautiful” but he knew it was a sentiment his character would very much relate to.
All of this research helped Bower step into the shoes of Henry, who progressively leans into his resentment for the world and away from emotions of empathy, as he grows up. Back into character, Bower tells me what happens after Henry kills his family. “I end up in the care of Dr. Brenner and Brenner tries to control me, manipulate me, and test me at which point I lose it again. So he puts this inhibitor thing in the back of my head and I end up working at the institute and he recreates versions of me.” When this part of the plot is revealed, viewers finally understand the backstory of the institute that’s been alluded to since season one. Henry, who’s changed his name to Peter Ballard, is patient zero aka number One—he is what made Dr. Brenner try and develop more supernatural children. Bower continues, “Eleven comes along but the other kids [at the institute] are pretty mean to El and I see parts of myself in her but I also see an opportunity there to leave [and] to escape this place.” Ballard has evolved from his socially awkward days as Henry, and he befriends El using the power of human manipulation to earn her trust so that he can later convince her to help him escape.
When filming for this season commenced, most of Bower’s initial scenes were with Millie depicting the development of Eleven and Ballard’s friendship. “Millie and I built this really interesting relationship, I love Mills a lot but because I was being so nice—she trusted me quickly. She’s very open [and] innocent in that way so she trusted me immediately,” Bower shares before telling me the story of how Millie broke down in tears when he flipped the switch from friend to foe. Bower is a method actor completely embodying the character he’s playing and that’s not something he can snap out of when a director yells “cut” which is why Millie was taken back at the personality changes that felt all too real.
“I wouldn’t speak to anyone four days prior to filming and two days after filming anything just because I was carrying a lot of stuff with me but creatively it was the most fulfilling experience I’ve had thus far in my career.” Bower also practiced a lot of deep meditation and writing to get into his character’s emotional headspace. “I had this notebook and I would write things down like I am this great hand of evil, I’ve come to right injustice and bring justice to the world and that’s kind of how he sees himself. It’s a trip, the whole thing is wild.” It’s not Bower’s first or second time playing a darker role in a project that has supernatural beings and worlds beyond worlds, you may recognize him from Harry Potter, Twilight, or The Mortal Instruments. “I think because I, in my DNA, have a natural inclination towards the idea of an existence beyond the material world, spiritually I’m drawn to those things it doesn’t tend to be a conscious choice,” Bower says about the consistency in the projects he takes on and characters he plays.
Bower’s proclivity for darker themes extends to all creative facets of his identity, he was the frontman for punk rock band Counterfeit from 2015 to 2020 and continues to make music as a solo artist recently releasing the singles “Run On” and “Devil In Me”. “With music and with writing, in general, I very much lean into that sensitivity I have towards this darker side of life and it’s purely because it feels like that’s what my calling is, that’s what spiritually I should be doing,” he divulges about his creative intentions. Whether it’s music or acting, Bower knows one condition that’s crucial for him to put out his best work. “Vulnerability is everything when it comes to creativity, without vulnerability you’re merely presenting an idea of yourself rather than your true self. The key is to be able to tap into that vulnerability, to turn off the egoic mind and just be present and open.”