How Millie Bobby Brown used her superpowers

The Stranger Things star is still in her teens, but has moved beyond new kid on the block to be a Hollywood power broker

It was clearly a moment designed to perplex. Fans of the hit Netflix show Stranger Things were left speculating at the end of season three as to how and why Eleven, played by Millie Bobby Brown, had suddenly lost her supernatural power to move things around with her mind.

Theories have ricocheted across social media during the long wait for the return of the show. But Brown, an English actress who is only 17, has already made such an impact with her Stranger Things role that this spring the question seems something of a side issue, even among her many devotees.

Her soaring film career has by now supplied Brown with such an array of other fictional gifts and odd abilities that mislaying her telekinetic powers doesn’t seem quite so bad.

Brown is about to reappear in Godzilla vs Kong as Madison Russell, the world’s best chance for handling a big rampaging lizard. The special-effects dominated adventure, delayed from November but released this month, is being billed as a “double sequel” because it follows up on not just 2014’s Godzilla and 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters, in which Brown also starred, but also on the Kong: Skull Island franchise.

In the past year, Brown has also slipped back through the decades and into petticoats to play Sherlock Holmes’s mystery-busting younger sister in Enola Holmes, co-starring Sam Claflin and Helena Bonham Carter, which has clocked up 70 million views on Netflix.

Impressive. But so far, so new girl on the Hollywood block. Yet this really is more than the story of the latest teenager to captivate younger audiences and that is because Brown has smashed through into the power-broking levels of showbusiness. As a result she qualifies as a phenomenon rather than just a popular crush.

Millie Bobby Brown made her name on Stranger Things on Netflix.
Millie Bobby Brown made her name on Stranger Things on Netflix. Photograph: Supplied by LMK

The actress, who grew up in Dorset and Florida, already has film producer credits to her name, and in 2018 was the youngest person to appear on Time magazine’s list of 100 Most Influential People. She is also the youngest person to be asked to work as a Unicef goodwill ambassador. Add to that all the chat show appearances, the “scandalous” public gaffes, the deep fake memes, the inevitable make-up brand, and an ever-lengthening list of screen projects, and it is worth wondering just how all this happened so fast. Forget telekinesis: exactly what powers Millie Bobby Brown?

Born in Spain, the third of four children to parents Kelly and Robert Brown, the actress retains a largely English accent despite having spent most of her youth in America. She began acting on screen before she was 10 and earned good notices for appearances in the ABC sitcom Modern Family and in the medical drama Grey’s Anatomy.

That outdated word “personality” seems to be key to her success. Brown emits a kind of energy that draws the eye. She is also happy to chat, something that has caused her occasional problems. “I am very outspoken. I will ask a silly question, but I really am deadly serious. I want to know the answer,” she once said.

Her celebrity now ensures that everything she says is mined for controversy. A rash internet post about being a “flat earther” caused a flurry of disdain, although it is not clear how literally Brown actually meant it. A friendship judged “inappropriate” with older singing star Drake also earned her opprobrium, as has a perceived gaffe when she mimicked putting on make-up rather than using the real stuff in a promotional video for her vegan make-up Florence by Mills. If this was a gaffe, it has not hurt. Before Christmas, Brown and her family announced they had secured a majority stake in a brand that is now truly coining it.

Brown’s relationship with social media has become predictably troubled. The ebullient star has been the target both of the snide celebrity trolling of vloggers and also of a semi-ironic #TakeDownMillieBobbyBrown campaign that attempted to associate her squeaky clean image with racism and/or homophobia.

She remains, though, a determined funster according to Godzilla vs Kong director Adam Wingard, who has spoken of enjoying watching Brown and her co-star Julian Dennison interact on set: “They were unbelievably funny – when the cameras were rolling and when they weren’t. It was so fun to watch.”

Dennison has also talked about the teasing side of his screen partner: “Millie’s such a cool person and was so great to work with,” he said, adding: “She did scare me a lot. I mean, literally, she would just sneak up and scare me. But luckily I’m a pretty tough dude.”

In the last few weeks, enthusiasm for Brown has prompted an unusual drive to see her supplant Emma Watson, the campaigning English actress who grew up playing Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter films, not just in audience affections but also in the original role. A deepfake video doing the rounds convincingly replaces Watson’s face with Brown’s in clips from all the films.

There is a tacit androgyny that also works in Brown’s favour today. It is there not just in the shaved head of her Stranger Things character but in Enola Holmes too. She may have worn her hair long for this Edwardian role but she emphatically did not do embroidery.

Millie Bobby Brown in Enola Holmes.
Millie Bobby Brown in Enola Holmes. Photograph: AP

Brown’s acting has been recognised in a string of nominations and awards, and viewers of Jimmy Fallon’s chat show also know she can sing. Her party-piece impression of Amy Winehouse is all the more accomplished for an actor who copes with total deafness in one ear.

Netflix is now handling Brown rather as the old Hollywood studios once used to shape and steer their starlets; lining up a succession of major projects. Or is Brown perhaps handling Netflix?

The actress and her sister Paige, who appeared alongside her in Enola Holmes, are now to partner the streaming giant on production of a new film, A Time Lost, in which both teenagers will star. Brown is also about to play a lead in the Netflix thriller The Girls I’ve Been, which she will produce together with Jason Bateman’s Aggregate Films.

Additionally, Brown is to star and executive produce the fantasy film Damsel for Netflix. This time she has to face down not Godzilla but a fairytale dragon.

The core of Brown’s success might in fact be an apparent ordinariness; always an important factor for a child star. “I’ve always felt Madison is a really relatable teenager who just goes through things that are obviously quite extraordinary,” Brown has observed. She clearly gets it.


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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