Joseph Quinn of Stranger Things: ‘My wig is objectively ridiculous’

The British actor on getting texts from Winona Ryder, researching his character Eddie Munson through the medium of thrash metal and the show’s ‘monster’ final episode

“This year is my year. I can feel it.” This line was said by the character Eddie Munson in the first episode of season four of Netflix’s monster-hit show Stranger Things, but it could easily have been uttered by actor Joseph Quinn.

It takes talent to join a much-loved TV cast in their fourth season and become a fan favourite. This series of Stranger Things has set Netflix records by hitting No 1 in 83 countries and is more watched than Bridgerton. But as the charismatic but vulnerable Munson, 28-year-old Quinn has made a splash. He only joined Instagram in May and already has more than 1.6 million followers.

His character is the voluminously haired metalhead who runs the Hellfire Club, Hawkins high’s Dungeons & Dragons society – with sidelines in drug-dealing and a band called Corroded Coffin. He soon finds himself at the centre of the sci-fi saga’s latest adventure. Prime suspect for a gruesome murder and accused of satanic worship, Munson becomes the Indiana town’s most wanted man.

Quinn manages to steal even his first scene though: jumping on the table in the school cafeteria, dancing, waggling his tongue, flipping the bird and flicking food in diners’ faces. It is quite the entrance.

“That was so weird,” says Quinn with a laugh. “I auditioned by doing a self-tape of that speech, but it was one of the last scenes I ended up shooting. So I waited from November 2019 to June 2021.”

Born in south London, Quinn trained at Lamda and, until now, was best known for homegrown period dramas. He played Arthur Havisham in Dickensian, Leonard Bast in Howards End and Enjolras in Les Misérables. He played the queen’s son, Tsarevich Paul, in Catherine the Great, which starred Helen Mirren as the empress of Russia. His stage roles include Wish List at the Royal Court and Mosquitoes at the National.

Quinn as Eddie Munson in season four of Stranger Things.
Quinn as Eddie Munson in season four of Stranger Things. Photograph: Courtesy of Netflix

So Stranger Things represents a departure, but the show has been lit up by Munson’s arrival. Quinn himself, though, couldn’t be more self-effacing.

You’re getting rave reviews for Stranger Things. Are you proud?
I’m relieved, really, that’s the overriding feeling. The show represents my pandemic. At the end of my first day’s filming in Atlanta, we went into lockdown. I went home and lost my mind like everyone else. When I went back, it was a completely different experience because I couldn’t come home [to the UK], so I became very close to the cast. That’s the best thing about this business. You go to a strange place and meet a bunch of strangers. You leave with a fondness for the place and some dear friends.

You were cast after just two self-taped auditions, weren’t you?
No meetings, no chemistry reads, no protracted process. It was pretty unusual and very disarming. It meant I was waiting for [creators] the Duffer brothers to realise they’d made a mistake.

The show has overtaken Bridgerton to become the most-watched English-language series in Netflix history. Are such figures hard to get your head around?
You get past a certain number and it’s kind of boggling. I’m thrilled that people are watching it because I can’t tell you how hard everyone worked.

What brought home to you how big it had become?
Mainly its influence on the zeitgeist. Kate Bush is now back in the charts, which is so cool. I was in LA last week and two cars drove past playing Running Up That Hill. I’ve seen people walking down the street wearing Hellfire Club T-shirts, which was spooky.

The Duffer brothers have acknowledged that Eddie is loosely modelled on Damien Echols of the West Memphis Three. Did you research him?
Little bits, but I’m not going to pretend I did a huge amount. I tried grappling with Dungeons & Dragons, but accepted that wasn’t going to happen. Music was my main way in. I listened to a lot of heavy metal – Black Sabbath, Metallica, Dio – and I worked with a brilliant vocal coach called Mary Howland. But 99.7% of the work is that wig.

Oh, you can take slightly more credit than that…
OK, maybe only 99.6% is the wig. It’s objectively ridiculous. When I take it off, that helps me go unrecognised, so it’s been a blessing in that respect.

Quinn, far right, with Rory Kinnear and Helen Mirren in Catherine the Great.
Quinn, far right, with Rory Kinnear and Helen Mirren in Catherine the Great. Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy

Did you know much about the satanic panic of the 80s?
Not before landing the role, but it’s testament to the Duffer brothers how they reference it in this sensitive, finely executed way. They don’t crowbar in the nostalgia or real-life nods, they just let them live in this world they’ve created. That makes it feel authentic – well, as authentic as a show with a tentacled lizard-man can be.

With you, Charlie Heaton, Millie Bobby Brown and Jamie Campbell Bower, there’s a sizeable British contingent in Stranger Things
It’s a testament to the heritage of British acting and the grounding we get over here. It’s an invaluable thing. I owe a lot to my training, what little I have.

What did you learn from older cast members such as Winona Ryder and David Harbour, who play Joyce Byers and Jim Hopper?
Unfortunately, I didn’t have many scenes with them but I went for dinner with David and his wife [Lily Allen]. He was gracious and lovely. I was coming back from a party at 2am recently when I got a text which started: “Hey it’s Winona!” I thought, “I can’t sit on this”, so I showed my flatmate. I know I’m in a show with her but I’m still a fan. Winona’s wonderful – a real example of someone who hasn’t been corrupted by Hollywood. She made all us new guys feel welcome.

A Hellfire Club meeting in Stranger Things season four.
A Hellfire Club meeting in Stranger Things season four. Photograph: Netflix/Avalon

The climactic two episodes of the series are shrouded in secrecy. Can you tell us about them?
The thing is, they’ve got my family tied up somewhere and if I spoil anything, I’ll never see them again. No, I can say there’s a guitar scene and that the scale and ambition are astonishing. All the seeds that have been planted bear fruit and it’s just carnage. You know the finale is two-and-a-half hours, right? Ending with this monster, feature-length episode is so bold.

Will you be back for the fifth and final season?
I’ll be furious if they don’t bring me back [laughs]. I’d love to, if they’ll have me.

When did you first realise you enjoyed performing?
It was painfully stereotypical. I was an only child of separated parents, which breeds a pathological need for attention. I was never a stage kid being taken to auditions from an early age, but I’d always been curious. At primary school, I became a bit of a showoff. I got a drama scholarship to Emanuel school at Clapham Junction and it was the only thing I had any natural aptitude for. The fact that it’s my bread and butter now is mental.

You’ve worked alongside both Helen Mirren and Olivia Colman. How was that?
The two dames. I’ve been spoilt. Mosquitoes was a crazy experience. Working at the National with a Lucy Kirkwood script, Olivia Colman attached to it and Rufus Norris directing was a real “pinch me” moment. Like everyone else in this country, I’m in love with Olivia Colman, so forming this weird family and working with her every night was a career highlight. She’s a force of nature. Phenomenal. And Helen Mirren was… well, she’s Helen fucking Mirren. She was very kind, had great advice and a filthy sense of humour, which is always great fun.

Watch a trailer for Stranger Things season 4, volume two.

Next up, you’re in a film called Hoard. What can you tell us?
It’s directed by this extraordinary young woman called Luna Carmoon, who grew up in south-east London obsessed with film. It’s an independent British film made on a half-a-Mars-bar budget but Luna has written something feral and different. I’m excited for people to see it because there’s definitely something about her.

What do you do when you’re not working?
In a desperate attempt to reconnect with my youth, I started skateboarding again this year. I’ve still got some tricks in my bag but it’s much scarier now. Otherwise, I cook, I exercise and I worry.

I heard that you take your work seriously but don’t take yourself seriously?
Other way around. No, it’s hard to take yourself seriously in a three-ton wig. Anthony Hopkins, who’s a hero of mine, was once asked why he wanted to act for a living. He replied: “Beats work.” This is a fascinating job and, without wishing to sound like a Hallmark card, that’s kind of what I want out of life: an adventure.

  • Stranger Things season 4, volume 2 will stream on Netflix from Friday 1 July


Michael Hogan

The GuardianTramp

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