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Shannon Things: an interview with Shannon Purser

Aug. 14, 2017
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A couple of days ago, Shannon Purser and I video chatted. For a while now, I had been writing back and forth with her publicist, figuring out when she was available and how the whole interview would work. It all felt very professional, way more than anything else I have ever done. So, for obvious reasons, I was nervous about the interview. I built it up in my head as something to stress about, no matter how excited I truly was.   

But I try to remind myself how normal celebrities actually are once you start a conversation with them. They want to be seen as a normal person, even if you have known about them for months or years and they are just learning of you for the first time.

So when I actually started the video chat with Shannon, my nerves instantly went away. We are so close in age, myself being 18 and Shannon being 19, turning 20; she reminded me of my friends at home. Through laughs and heartfelt dialogue, I learned things about her that I wouldn’t have known from Instagram or Twitter or even her on-screen work. I had no idea how knowledgeable she is in science facts or how she just discovered her infatuation with bubble tea, and this was just the beginning of what I learned.  

Shannon Purser is definitely one of my favorite young actresses, not just for her lovable and relatable portrayal of Barb in Stranger Things and her work in Riverdale but because of how genuine and sweet she is. She’s incredibly hardworking and humble—something many people struggle to accomplish. Shannon is definitely someone to look out for, because she’s not going anywhere.

REMI RIORDAN: How did you get into acting?

SHANNON PURSER: When I was little, I used to read a lot—just my nose in a book all the time—and I really fell in love with stories and storytelling, and that kind of evolved as I got older. I would watch old movies with my parents and I really just loved that and thought it was the coolest thing. I was thinking about how there are people who get to do this for a living, and that’s insane to me. That’s the coolest job in the world, to get to act and get paid for it. So I did little musical theater stuff when I was in school and really loved it and thought it was so much fun. It wasn’t until I was 14 or 15 that I kind of realized I really want to do this. You know, there is nothing I love as much as I love this. I sort of got discovered with this theater group that I was in when I was maybe 15 by some industry people in Atlanta. I auditioned for their agency and I have been auditioning and doing that whole thing since then.

RR: How did you get the job for Stranger Things?

SP: It was kind of the typical thing that I had been doing for a couple years. I hadn’t gotten a job yet, but I had been auditioning for maybe four or five years. So I remember I got an email for this new show, and it was called Montauk originally before it was called Stranger Things. It was supposed to take place in New York, and, well, obviously they changed that. I remember reading the script. They didn’t send me the whole script, so I didn’t really have any idea what the show was about, just that a boy goes missing. That was really all that I knew. I remember inviting my best friend over, and she brought her camera and we taped the audition and I emailed it back. You know, just fingers crossed, hope for the best. And then they emailed me and they were like, “Hey, we want you to come in and meet the directors and audition for them.” Of course, I was totally terrified and so excited. I’d gotten kind of close before, but I knew this was so huge for me. So I went and met the brothers, who are the coolest guys in the world, the Duffer brothers. I auditioned, and I remember I did the scene where I am in the pool in the Upside Down. I’m in this room alone with these two directors, and I’m screaming at the top of my lungs because I might as well go all out. It was crazy, but they emailed me that same night telling me I got the part.

RR: Do you see yourself in Barb? And do you ever see yourself in the characters you play?

SP: Oh, for sure. It’s so important to me to be able to connect with the characters that I play, even people I feel are different from me. I think the core of acting is to really tap into your own personal experiences and find where you and that character collide on certain points. But Barb for sure. Maybe I am a little more fun than she was, but I really am kind of a grandma. I like to be alone at home and watch TV and read books. But, no, I love her. She is super cool and tells it like it is. There was something really kind of empowering playing someone who was not here for your crap. I think she’s really cool; we had a lot of fun.

RR: Since Stranger Things has come out, how has your life changed?

SP: I mean, a lot. It’s crazy because I was so excited just to be there. To have the opportunity to work on a Netflix show, I mean, that’s so cool! I didn’t expect anybody to really care about Barb. I figured it would just be a really cool thing to have on my resume. Hopefully I would get another job someday! But no, then a couple weeks later all these tweets and posts started flooding in. They were like “Oh no! What happened to Barb?” It was so unexpected. But I can’t thank those people enough because so many of the amazing opportunities I’ve gotten since then have been because of that. People getting to see my work—I’ve gotten consistent work, which is something I feel so lucky to say. Especially in this industry, it’s difficult: you are doing very well if you work at all. I’ve gotten to do some really amazing things. It has changed, but I’m literally doing my dream and it’s incredible.

RR: In Stranger Things you play a high school girl. What was your actual high school experience like? Did you go to a normal high school?

SP: My high school experience was really weird. I didn’t go to a normal public school, so it was kind of weird being there on set. It was a normal high school experience for once in my life. I was homeschooled, but not in my home with my parents teaching me. I went to a co-op, so there were a bunch of other kids who went together. It was very science-oriented, so I can probably tell you a bunch of facts about science if you wanted to know them, but I’m sure you don’t. It was really interesting. There were probably 200 kids total—it was pretty small.

RR: That’s actually way bigger than I would have expected it to be.

SP: Yeah, for sure. There is a bigger group of people doing it and most people don’t know about it. You think “homeschooling” and you think it’s you and your siblings alone with your mom. But it was a whole thing. We went on field trips together, and I made a lot of really good friends. Even though it was very weird, a lot of good things came out of it.

RR: So recently, on Instagram, you posted a photo where you said that fashion is for everyone, no matter your body. And you recently came out as bisexual. Do you see yourself as an activist for body positivity and the LGBTQA+ community? Do you think it is important to be one when you have a platform like your own? 

SP: I don’t know—that’s a really heavy responsibility. It is a bit scary because I’m almost 20, but I’m pretty young and new to all of this. So, yeah, it’s always been very important to me, and I’m very lucky to be in the position I am in. I must be here for some reason, there must be something good that I can do with the position that I have. I don’t think I would be happy with myself if I looked back and saw I used all this attention to make more money. I have lots of causes and issues that are important to me, like mental health and body positivity. It’s weird, because I know so many more intelligent and braver people have gone before me. But if being an activist means I can do anything to help other people, that’s what I want to do.

RR: Were you nervous about coming out as bisexual? What were your feelings on the announcement?

SP: It was weird. I didn’t plan on it. At the time, I was getting accused of being homophobic and not caring about the LGBT community. That really hurt because obviously I am personally connected—not just because of myself, but because lots of people that I am very close to are part of the community. It wasn’t planned; it was kind of a spur of the moment. It was a little terrifying to be that open. But I think it was something that needed to be said because there are still so many people who feel they can’t talk about their sexuality or that they can’t be accepted for who they are. You know, I’m just another voice, but hopefully me speaking out has encouraged somebody to do the same or to be more comfortable with themselves. 

RR: What are your favorite TV shows?

SP: Ugh, that’s really hard. I just finished the new documentary on Netflix called The Keepers which was really good. Oh my gosh, it was crazy. I saw Making A Murderer, which was incredible, and this one is in a similar style. But in terms of fictional shows, I really love Daredevil, and Charlie Cox is really cute which is great. I like The OA, which was super beautiful and spiritual, just really well done. I’m just getting into Twin Peaks. I know I am way late on the train, but I am really into it so far. Now that they are making the whole reboot, new edition to the series, I thought I should catch up. It’s really weird because I hear from everybody that it seems normal and then it just dissolves into absolute madness.

RR: Do you have any favorite movies?

SP: That’s like asking me to pick my children. There’s so many! I think you can’t go wrong with The Princess Bride. It’s just classic and the dialogue is so witty and perfect. I love it. I think I’m going to stick with that one, but really anything John Hughes.

RR: Is there anyone you want to work with in the future? Directors, actors, actresses, anyone really?

SP: I love Wes Anderson, I think he’s so cute and quirky. I love the way he views the world. Obviously, Martin Scorsese. Even Quentin Tarantino would be interesting. I don’t know how well I would do in that universe, but it would be fun. In terms of actors, Viola Davis, and you have to say Meryl Streep if you are an actor. She’s just perfect in everything. Also Jake Gyllenhaal, who I think is super talented. Tilda Swinton, who is so weird and alien, and I absolutely love her, so that would be so cool. I want work with everybody—hit me up if you ever want to make a movie sometime!

RR: Do you think it is important to have more female directors and diverse representation of women in film and television?

SP: 100 percent. I think it’s really instrumental. A huge percentage of the population is being represented by men who haven’t lived the female experience. And that’s not to say that great art hasn’t been made, but I think there is something really beautiful about women being able to tell their own stories. Also, we have just seen so many examples of female directors and female creators who have made incredible work, and I really do think it’s something that needs to be changed, because I know personally there have been times where you can see the difference between a character written by a woman and a character written by a man—how authentic it is to the female experience. I think it is just ridiculous that we would limit art based on gender. 

Photography for this story was shot by Valheria Rocha.

Adolescent is psyched to be able to bring this and other articles from the pages of Crybaby Zine to our readers. This piece was originally written for their Fame Issue—if you like it, check out their store to buy this or other issues!