9:00am PT by Josh Wigler
'Stranger Things' Star Digs Into the Psychology of Season 2's Big Bully
[Warning: This story contains full spoilers for season two of Netflix's Stranger Things.]
As Billy Hargrove on Stranger Things, Dacre Montgomery has yet to experience the full force of the Upside Down.
Currently, Montgomery is down under, recovering at home in Australia alongside family and friends, fresh off the whirlwind release of the breakout Netflix hit's second season. During the long flight home, Montgomery powered through season two all over again — watching Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) and Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo) chase a demo-dog through the forest, watching Max (Sadie Sink) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) forge a strong new bond, watching as Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) met Kali (Linnea Berthelsen) for the first time.
At the same time, Montgomery's loved ones were digging into the new season of the Duffer Brothers drama on their own, meeting for the very first time the menacing force of nature looming over Hawkins like a terrible shadow in the sky — no, not the Mind Flayer.
"Everybody loves it," the actor tells The Hollywood Reporter about how his friends and family have responded to his work as Billy. "It's become a good laughing point for my group of mates back here in Australia. We had a big dinner when I got back a couple of nights ago, out in the city. Everyone had already watched it over the weekend. That's the great thing about this show. All of my mates watched the first season anyway, and watching the second one, it's a strange thing for a lot of them — breaking the fourth wall, having a friend on the show. They're all loving it."
Without missing a beat, Montgomery adds: "As unbiasedly as I can, I really enjoyed it too."
Montgomery, who earlier this year starred in the big screen Power Rangers remake, lords over Stranger Things season two as the face of human antagonism, lending fire and fury to every single scene featuring the heavy-smoking and heavy-haired Billy. Even without encountering a single Upside Down entity all season long, Billy brings with him a darkness of his own design, carefully curated by Montgomery himself.
Speaking with THR, the actor reveals more about what it takes to bring Billy to life, and why he feels the new bully at Hawkins High will see more darkness before he ever sees the light.
What are the main notes you're hearing from fans about this character?
It's crazy, mate. To be honest with you, I'm sitting here this morning, and I've been up since five o'clock. I got 5,000 messages from girls yesterday. It's insane. It's been extremely positive! Obviously, there are [memes] going around on Facebook right now about how Zac Efron is Billy's child, or something or other. (Laughs) I've been reading all of these fan theories. There's a lot of really good stuff. People are saying, "Look, we love how much heart you brought to the antagonist, and how much humanity you brought to the villain." That's what I set out to do, so I'm very happy about that. I'm trying not to get too into all of it with, "Oh, Billy's really good looking!" Not so much. More on the other side of the really positive fan response, of how much people liked the depth to the character, and the scenes with Billy's dad and the scenes with Mrs. Wheeler. It's overwhelmingly positive. I was sitting having coffee with my mom this morning, and I couldn't believe how positive it's been. It's amazing. I'm feeling very fortunate and very happy with that.
Was there a version of Billy that existed within you before this character? He arrives so fully formed.
I don't think so, mate. I've mentioned in previous interviews that I was bullied in high school. I always thought the bullies in school were these higher beings or these unstoppable forces of nature, but coming from their side of the lens in approaching this character? I came to realize they were probably just as insecure as I was in school. Just in a different way. I don't think this character lurked within me. It was someone I was able to conjure up with the help of the Duffers. But there are insecure qualities that lurk within all of us, I think, and how does that come out? Does it come out through anger and aggression? Does it come out as a mask for that anger and aggression? What is it? Really delving into the human psyche, and the trickle-down effect with his father and how that affects him, and his fear of emasculation with the other males in his life — like Steve Harrington and Lucas. My mom's a psychologist, and so is my grandfather. I chatted with them a lot. And I also looked at a lot of really fun portrayals [of similar character types], like Jack Nicholson in The Shining — his unpredictable kind of nature. Where does that stem from? That's what I dug into.
Whenever Billy enters a scene, it's almost like he's vibrating, oil-soaked, where one match would set the man on fire. What are you feeling when you're on set as Billy, tapping into that explosive energy?
It's that adrenaline that exists in all of us. It's like when you have too many shots of coffee and you walk into the gym and you're ready to destroy the weights or swim 100 laps. You feel like you can do anything. Or you're in love: You're head over heels over a girl, or whatever. It's that unequivocal, unstoppable nature that exists in all of us. Every time I'm on set, that's what I'm feeling. I want to put everything into this one moment and exist completely in the present in that space. As soon as you adrenalize that situation, that's Billy. He's the adrenalized version of that. An unequivocal tension onto the human or the person or the moment that's happening — and then just wiring it like it's a bomb, about to go off. That's sort of what I'm visualizing.
There are a few characters who get too close to the bomb, first and foremost being Max. What is it about her that sets Billy off?
I do think he loves his little sister. He's extremely fond of her. I have a sister who's the same age difference between Sadie and myself. I think this dynamic that the stepmother and his biological father have from uprooting him from California and taking him to this town in the middle of nowhere…I don't know. I think it's a thing like, "I love my sister, but I hate where I am." That's what I'm talking about, how that insecurity comes out in anger toward his sister, and lack of patience. I think the anger toward his sister is because he actually cares. That love and controlling behavior can actually come from caring, I think. It's also about being threatened. Going back to the fear of emasculation, there's his anger toward Lucas. I don't think it's about race. It's the fact that this kid, who he sees in the background with Max...what's going on there? What's their dynamic? How does their dynamic affect Billy and Max's relationship? I think he feels constantly threatened.
I also think Billy looks at Max as his constant. So, to give you an example, in my life, my sister is my half sister. I have an 11-year-old sister and she's my only sibling. I know that in 2060, she and I will be alive. We will be the remaining members of our family. We may have children or grandchildren by that point. I don't know if my parents will be alive and around at that point. For Billy, it's the same with Max. He knows that Max is always going to be that one constant. At the end of the day, he wants to protect her. I think it comes out in the wrong way. The lack of patience, the aggression, for all of the aforementioned reasons.
Billy's anger is clarified when we meet his father, late in the season. How important was that scene to your understanding of Billy?
It's crucial. I was shooting episode six, and I hadn't read what was in episodes eight and nine yet, and I said to Matt and Ross Duffer, "Boys, the audience needs something to care about in Billy, to humanize Billy, to see why he is the way he is, so he's not just angry all the way through." When they were shooting episode seven, I had gotten episodes eight and nine and they had written me this scene. I thought it was amazing. It gives the audience a chance to really see Billy. That's the biggest response I've had. People messaging me going, "I have this relationship with my dad. This humanized Billy. It made me see him in a light where he's not just an angry bully." The actor who plays my dad, Will Chase, was the most incredible actor I've ever worked with. Broadway background, sort of making his first debut here on screen…he was just amazing. He captivated the whole room we were shooting in. I think he captivates the screen. It's executed perfectly. That's the dynamic within Billy: the monster, and the even bigger monster that lurks at home in his father.
In the first season, Steve Harrington occupied the role of the bully, and he eventually redeemed himself to the point that everybody now loves his unlikely friendship with Dustin. Do you see a similar arc in Billy's future? Can you envision the point where we're into season three and there's a turnaround to how we view Billy? Do you think there are heroic shades of this character we haven't seen yet?
I definitely do. But I think one side of this is that something far more sinister is going to happen. There's far more lurking beneath the surface that goes beyond what I'm talking about right now. I don't know what that is. I'm not going to speculate on what that is. But on the other side of that, I would love to see Billy have a love interest in the third season. Sitting under a bed of stars on a football field with a girl…I think that would humanize him completely, which would make the sinister side even more scary. You're giving the love and passion an outlet in a girl, and in a forum like that, could be very beautiful — and then play on the juxtaposition of that, against far more sinister things going on in the background.
You think there's something even more sinister swirling around Billy, that we haven't even gotten to the depths of that yet?
Totally. Totally. My feeling is that way because I think the Duffers set out to make Steve that character, and everyone loved him so much. So they hired a real dickhead like me to really stir things up. (Laughs) I don't think they're going to renege on that deal. My character was put in place to be that force of nature, that is controversial. In order to go into season three, you need to raise the stakes in that space and continue to play down that sinister road. We've only had a taste of Billy.
Billy hasn't even had a taste of the Upside Down yet. What will that look like?
Mate, I have no clue. (Laughs) I have no idea how that goes. David Harbour seems to manage it! He's a big guy, even though he gets caught up in all the vines. But I don't know. I haven't speculated too much on that one yet. I've just been thinking about the human side of Billy — and also this romantic interest, which I think would be an interesting dynamic in play.
What are the odds it's Mrs. Wheeler? People love your scene together — and people loved Barb, and look how big of a story that was in season two. Any chance we'll see something between Billy and Mrs. Wheeler in the future?
I don't know, but knowing the Duffers, I think they might go against the grain. They've given audiences a taste of that, and it could now go somewhere else. Cara Buono is a lovely, lovely lady. We had so much fun shooting that scene. I don't know where it's going to go. It's interesting now that that's in play. But I don't think so. I think it'll be something else.
Follow THR.com/StrangerThings for our continuing season two coverage, including more interviews, theories and deep dives.