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Over the past few decades, most coming-of-age films have explored sexuality from the male point of view, but Natalia Dyer’s latest coming-of-age film, Yes, God, Yes, provides an all-too-rare look at sexuality from the female perspective. Dyer plays Alice, a teenage Catholic school student who participates in a risqué AOL chat and seeks redemption at a spiritual retreat. Once Dyer heard about filmmaker Karen Maine’s project, the actor immediately recognized that its female-driven narrative could fill a major void for young women, including her younger sister.
“I know for a fact that my sense of who I was or could or should be as a female — especially in relation to sex, pleasure and sensuality — was shaped by film. And I think that’s why film can be so powerful,” Dyer tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I think there have been so many iterations of the male gaze of females and their sexuality that, yeah, I think that it’s so important to have more female-driven voices, perspectives and narratives on girls in general, but also in regard to sex and how they do that and feel about that. I think there should be so many more. This is just one story, and I think it’s an important one. But yeah, I think there’s definitely a lack of female-driven female narratives in the film world.”
Dyer, who first rose to prominence as Nancy Wheeler in 2016 via Netflix’s global phenomenon Stranger Things, was already a few weeks into production on Stranger Things 4 when the novel Coronavirus pandemic shut the entire industry down. During the show’s downtime, the Stranger Things writers’ room, led by Matt and Ross Duffer, not only finished season four’s scripts, but they also seemed to have added a ninth episode. It was initially reported that season four would feature eight episodes, much like season one and season three.
“It appears to be,” Dyer says of the nine-episode season. “Normally, we get the first few scripts, and then they have to keep writing due to the schedule of it. And it takes a while to craft a script. So, normally, there’s a kind of ‘writing as we’re going,’ but it seems they’ve had enough time. I think it’s maybe been a blessing for the writers, in some way, because they had the time to just sit down, think and create.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Dyer also discusses the similarities between her and Alice from Yes, God, Yes, the valuable experience she had on Dan Gilory’s Velvet Buzzsaw and her excitement over Stranger Things 4.
The film captures the late ‘90s, early ‘2000s period rather well. Alice’s Dunkaroos snack and habit of playing Snake on her Nokia phone were perfect touches. Besides the obvious references like Titanic and AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), were you familiar with most of these references already?
Yeah, it’s funny because even though I was born in ‘95, I definitely had Dunkaroos and a Nokia phone. I didn’t do AOL, but I had that old setup with Windows. So, there definitely was some crossover. It wasn’t the ‘80s. (Laughs.) It was still kind of in my realm of familiarity.
Things were somewhat backwards on this movie as the Yes, God, Yes short was adapted from the feature script first as a proof of concept. What attracted you to the material in the first place?
I actually just got an email in my inbox one day from Karen Maine, and she said that she worked on Obvious Child. I was a huge fan of Obvious Child, and then, reading the script, it was very funny. The way Karen writes is funny, but also just the experience, you know? I think I’m a big advocate of putting any sort of female-forward narrative out there. And also, this one was kind of similar to my own upbringing, in a way. My story is not Alice’s story, but there’s definitely some similarities. And I just think I could tell from her writing that we were definitely going to get along. I had big respect for her vision, and it was just like, “Yeah, let’s go.”
Are you hinting that you went to Catholic school?
(Laughs.) Not exactly Catholic school, but I did go to a sort of private Christian school growing up. I’m from the South. So, I did have some experience with a similar sort of thing.
And once the short was released, who or what was the key to getting it made as a feature?
I think Karen and her producers really believed in this. Initially, the short got Vimeo video of the day. To be honest, I wasn’t so in the loop, but I definitely attached my name and said, “If this gets to be a feature, I’m in.” I’m not too well-versed on the business side of how they finally got it on its feet, but I think everybody who was a part of the short was pretty excited about the prospect of getting a feature made.
While there are plenty of high school-based films that explore sexuality from the male point of view, did you immediately recognize that young women don’t have too many coming-of-age movies like Yes, God, Yes that offer their perspective on the matter?
Yeah, definitely. As a female in my 20s, I’ve had some opportunities to think and look back on it; I also have a younger sister. And I know for a fact that my sense of who I was or could or should be as a female — especially in relation to sex, pleasure and sensuality — was shaped by film. And I think that’s why film can be so powerful. Because if that’s the narrative, if these certain tropes or ideas keep getting played in front of you, I think that shows you, like, “Oh, that’s how I’m supposed to be. That’s what I should be. That’s what it’s supposed to be. That’s how I’m supposed to feel or talk or act or look or think.” So, like you said, I think there have been so many iterations of the male gaze of females and their sexuality that, yeah, I think that it’s so important to have more female-driven voices, perspectives and narratives on girls in general, but also in regard to sex and how they do that and feel about that. I think there should be so many more. This is just one story, and I think it’s an important one. But yeah, I think there’s definitely a lack of female-driven female narratives in the film world.
Given the circumstances, Alice doesn’t reveal her true feelings or emotions a lot of the time. As far as your performance, is it more difficult to convey a specific message without speaking, as opposed to rattling off a bunch of dialogue?
Yes and no, in a way. There’s so many things that go into it. Of course, the director, the dialogue… If there is dialogue, how it’s written. I’ve done one other film that was kind of similar. It wasn’t so dialogue heavy, but it was a lot of internal dialogue and internal emotion. Yeah, I think it’s a challenge, but verbal and non-verbal are both part of the job, I guess. But yeah, I think there’s a question of, “Is it enough? Is it too much? Is my face too much? Is my natural reaction to what’s going on enough? Does it read?” When you have words, you can be like, “Oh, I’m saying it out in the open air, so people know how I feel.” But I do think there’s power in showing and not telling, even when it comes to emotion and thoughts. It was a lot of looking back at Karen and being like, “Does that work? Can you tell? Is that what you’re looking for? This face? These eyebrows? Is that okay?” (Laughs.)
Since this is a story about a young woman who’s coming of age, were there certain instances where you were glad to have a woman writer-director like Karen Maine guiding you and the story?
Yeah, absolutely. Not to say that it couldn’t be [a man], but I definitely think this was rightfully a female-oriented story. The nature of film that involves sexuality, masturbating or self-pleasure, in any way, kind of has this context of, like, “It’s sexy.” And I think the important thing about it, and also with the humor that Karen brings to it, is that it’s not sexy. It’s not supposed to be. That’s what I really appreciate about it. And I also think a lot of people who aren’t females might not understand what female pleasure is, how it works or what it looks like. I’m sure there are people who do, but not really, you know? And I think her story was very specific of what it’s like to be a woman in society, but also in a very strict doctrine sort of upbringing where you’re told that it’s a sin. Look at the Garden of Eden. Women have always been known as the big problem when it comes to indulging or any sort of thing. So I think it’s so important that it was a female story. And again, we’ve had so many stories, even if well intended to be a female perspective, where there’s a lot of men behind the camera. Of course, there were some men behind the camera on this, but to have the leaders be women and the storytellers be women, I think that’s so important and we need more of that.
On a completely different note, who’s the bigger goofball on set: Tim Simons (Yes, God, Yes) or Brett Gelman (Stranger Things)?
Ooooh. Wow. That’s a great question! (Laughs.) Oh man, they’re both big goofballs. I think Tim. The thing about Tim, his humor is just so unexpected in a way. I don’t know. They’re both hilarious and both so fun to work with, but I guess they’re a little bit different. Someone should put them together in something. Oh my god, that would be so hilarious. (Laughs.) Wow, yeah.
I quite liked Velvet Buzzsaw, and I still laugh when I think about Coco discovering Jake’s (Gyllenhaal) character at the storage facility. What takeaways come to mind when you reflect on that experience?
Honestly, for me and my character, she comes in and out here and there. I think the takeaway was mostly just having scenes with these great actors. It was days of just watching, learning, and listening for me. And of course, Dan Gilroy, I’m a big fan of his. He’s the nicest guy and so fun to work with. I haven’t done too many things where you work one day here and one day there. So, it was definitely a different filming style than what I’m used to. But just being surrounded by such a wonderful cast, and seeing how they all work individually, I felt very lucky to just sit and watch. I very much consider myself still learning — a lot. That’s the thing, even when you become a professional actor, you’re still honing it, learning, trying things out and practicing all the time. So, when you get to work with people who are veterans and really talented, it’s such a gift to witness and take note and see how they prepare or command a set, or even the way they ask questions. I think that’s one of my main takeaways from that experience.
Like Coco, Nancy Wheeler is another character of yours who’s struggling to find her place in the workforce. How deep into production were you when Stranger Things 4 was shut down?
Gosh, I think we were just maybe a few weeks into filming. I was still kind of getting used to it and finding the flow of it and getting my body used to waking up at whatever hour. Yeah, it was wild. At first, it was like, “Okay, we’re going to go on a two week hiatus,” and then, it was like, “Okay, we’re really going to go on a hiatus.” So, yeah, it’s kind of wild to think about because it’s something that you look forward to so much, and there’s so much preparation and excitement around it. And then, we start and stop. And now, it’s been quite a while. But I’m very, very excited for when we do go back. I’m excited by the scripts. I’m excited for everything that this season is going to be. But yeah, it’s an interesting time to be in this industry, for sure.
— stranger writers (@strangerwriters) June 18, 2020
Since the Stranger Things writers’ room posted a photo with nine scripts, is Stranger Things 4 officially nine episodes instead of eight as previously reported?
It appears to be. Normally, we get the first few scripts, and then they have to keep writing due to the schedule of it. And it takes a while to craft a script. So, normally, there’s a kind of “writing as we’re going,” but it seems they’ve had enough time. I think it’s maybe been a blessing for the writers, in some way, because they had the time to just sit down, think and create. So, yeah, it appears to be that they’ve got it all down.
When production is suspended or reshot later, I think I’d be rather paranoid about maintaining my look for the sake of continuity. Do you worry about that sort of thing at all?
(Laughs.) Maybe in some ways. On this show, you might think about tight-fitting pants, but I’m sure that there will probably be pre-fits and all of that. Yeah, I really haven’t been thinking about it. Maybe I should!
I hope I didn’t create a new concern for you.
(Laughs.) No, I don’t think it’s been too crazy. There’s subtle changes. I have thought about what if I get more tan just being out in the sun? I know some people are growing out their hair. What’s it going to look like when everybody comes back together? How much have people changed? And of course, the kids. They seem to be growing every single day. (Laughs.) So yeah, I’m sure they’ll figure it out whenever we reconvene.
Ooh. Thank you. They did have me practice. They did have somebody on set who showed me how to hold it, how to shoot it and how to load it. After the second time, I was really like, “Okay, I think Nancy really, really, really needs to know how to shoot a gun now.” So yeah, that was fun. I think it’s always fun when you get to learn something in your real life — not that I have a gun or am shooting guns. It’s an extra layer you can add to a character and the steps it would take. Like, “Okay, they would know how to do this.” Or, “They would have this. They would do that.” That’s homework that I need to do in order to fully realize this person.
Since you grew up in Nashville, do you have ties to the music scene like most people seem to have there?
Funnily enough, I do not. My biggest claim to music was four years of piano, which I did not particularly enjoy, but I grew up with friends who were in band. It’s funny. When people think about Nashville, it’s obviously “Music City,” but that’s not how I know it. I’ve got a lot of respect for it, and I’ve met people and made friends with people who are in that scene. But yeah, that was never my thing in Nashville.
Lastly, is there a certain type of role that you dream of playing someday?
Gosh, it’s hard to be specific, but I’ve been saying for the past little bit that I would love to do an action movie. Having done some indies and being on Stranger Things, I would love to do a big old silly action movie. I would train for that! That would definitely be fun! That would be a challenge.
Well, you’ve got the weapons part down already.
Right? I’m on my way. The determination is there.
Yes, God, Yes is now available on Digital HD and VOD from Vertical Entertainment.
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