Jamie Campbell Bower is no stranger to the fantasy genre. The British actor has starred in popular franchises like Twilight, Harry Potter, and The Mortal Instruments. In the newest season of Stranger Things, which just premiered on Netflix at the end of May, the actor takes on not one character, not two characters, but three characters in one. It’s a role that he had to keep tightly under wraps for more than two years, after landing the role before COVID. He spent an incredible amount of time and energy creating Henry Creel, One, and Vecna, turning what are some of the franchise’s most interesting characters into completely unforgettable beings. Bower sat down with EUPHORIA. to discuss the blessing of joining the Stranger Things family, why he’s so drawn to fantasy films, and what song would have saved him from Vecna.
To start, can you introduce me to the various characters you’re playing on this season of Stranger Things?
Yes, I am playing a character called Henry, One, or Vecna. Or if you’ve been around for some time Peter Ballard, but that’s not a real person. So I play Eleven’s sort-of brother. I am the first of all of any children in the Stranger Things universe to have abilities beyond the sort of physical world as it were. And I am her protector, biggest supporter, and arch nemesis. Later on as Vecna, definitely her arch nemesis.
How was it for you to play these various characters that are pretty different throughout the season?
It was a joy, it was a challenge but a challenge that I knew was possible to pull off because at the helm of this show are two incredibly talented, connected, intelligent human beings. And I never had any doubt that this was possible. I am quite an obsessive person. I think my mom would agree with this, the thing that came up in my brain as I’m saying this, but I’ll always push things as far as they can possibly go. And I knew that was an opportunity with this character, to really walk in, dig in, and go for it. And I love that as an artist, I absolutely adore that so it was fulfilling and eye-opening and spooky and life-affirming.
With Vecna, it’s so dark. How was it for you coming out of the scenes when you had to remove yourself from that? Was that difficult to leave on set?
I’m of the school of thought that is, give it all and leave it out there, not intellectually and emotionally to be like, “Well, when I close the door, it’s done,” but give every single ounce of who you are in that moment to that moment. There comes with that a great release. But in saying that, I would take 24 hours to 48 hours after shooting to speak to anybody outside the Stranger Things universe because I didn’t want any of that residual energy that I knew that I had inside of me to impact them in any way, shape, or form at all.
I would find myself being very exhausted, not only because of the amount of time that it took and the length of the working hours — which by the way, no complaints at all. I’m the kind of guy that would happily sleep on a film set. But there’s the draining feeling afterward of just being so wide open, so wide open. I remember the first time I shot, I came back to Los Angeles, and it was around November, and my friend Gabriel picked me up and I was just like jello. It was a great feeling. So yeah, there were some parts of it that stuck with me that I had to make sure weren’t impacting anyone, because of course, you have to step back into it, you have to go back, so you can’t forget.
Tell me a little bit about preparing for this role, both before filming started and then each day getting into character.
I was blessed to have this opportunity presented to me pre-pandemic. We had our read-through in early March before everything went to shit, as it were. And then, I had from March to November to really dig in and to really go for it. I filled my office space with sort of posters and dolls and Post-It notes and visual references of who this person was. And I would spend most of my days in there reading the script, writing notes down, figuring things out. Then I would stand up and start working out Vecna, and Vecna came first because obviously, we see him first in the script.
So as I’m going through [episodes] 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, I’m like, “OK, well, I’m going to just start at the beginning and then I’ll figure this out.” So I found Vecna first with voice recordings and various different methods of how I would approach that, both through just having a camera on and doing it for myself. I’m a musician so I have access to great recording equipment that I’ve acquired throughout the years, so I was also trying it with that, which actually was not helpful at all because then I became too conscious of the sound rather than the emotion.
Then, came Henry, and with Henry, I started both at the end and at the beginning at roughly the same time. A lot of this process was not conscious. I never went into this going, “This is what I’m going to do because I know this works.” I was like, “I’m just going to cut myself open and allow whatever comes to be and that’s going to be what it is and that’s fantastic.”
With Henry, I started with his childhood and the things that he saw to do with his parents. There’s things that we see in the story with the Creel household that aren’t what Henry’s saying as me playing Henry. I literally have to be doing detective work almost. So I’m doing my detective work on the backstory as well as kind of figuring out emotionally where he’s at, at the end. OK, great, these two things align, tracking backwards, tracking backwards, tracking backwards to the point where we meet my version of Henry where we encounter him with Eleven, with Millie [Bobby Brown]. Now I have to mask all this hatred that I have at the end and this belief system that I have about the world at the end and the belief system that I have at the beginning. I have to mask that with something that’s sweet and kind and beautiful, but I have to make sure that underneath the blanket and underneath the mask, is still that fire, is still that intention.
During the filming, particularly for Vecna, I would spend four days in prep, two days of cutting myself off from everyone, apart from people at work, and just letting go of life, letting go of experience. And then the other two days building whatever I needed to build inside of me with Vecna, obviously predominantly being vengeance and rage and malice.
It’s the same thing with Henry. I would sit outside in the dark, I would meditate, I would listen to a lot of very low-frequency sounds. I found a few musical artists that helped me get into that space, bands like Carpathian Forest, Darkthrone, Mayhem, a lot of black metal stuff, just because I think also there’s something really interesting in black metal particularly. I’m here for it. I listen to a lot of stuff like that. A lot of meditation, shouting to myself, walking around at night, just digging it up, really digging it up.
And then with Henry, one of the interesting things that happened with him is this idea of Papa (Matthew Modine) being quite brutal to him. Sometimes I would just burst into tears and I’d start saying, “Papa, please don’t do this. Papa, please don’t do this.” And that humanity to his belief system, that the world is toxic and the world is a lie, was really beautiful actually and really helped me. So yeah, that’s kind of the whole process in a sort of rough way. But again, it’s one of those things, it’s art, it’s in the moment, it is what it is and you just kind of go with it. Your job as an artist is to be open and receptive to whatever is being given to you by whatever else is out there.
So you’ve been with this character for a long time and you’ve had to keep all of this mostly to yourself, other than with the people you were working with. How hard was it to keep all of this, not just a secret in general in terms of Stranger Things casting, but all of the stuff you just talked about, completely to yourself?
I have no problem being on my own. [laughs]
The hardest thing is obviously that when one gets attached to huge projects like this, everyone’s very excited and they want to know everything and they want to know what you are doing. Keeping my friends at bay and toeing the party line was probably the hardest thing, but the character building was not difficult to keep inside. And I did allow myself opportunities to step outside of it because I was fortunate enough to be dedicated enough to want to do this. I had the moments where I was like, “OK, cool, man, your brain’s feeling pretty fucked right now, you need to go to the beach. You need to go for a surf. You need to just step outside and just chill for a few days. And then you can go back into it again.” I’m aware of the fragility of my own mental health so that was important.
Your résumé is quite long at this point, and you’ve done some of the most well-known fantasy franchises, now adding Stranger Things to the list. What is it that you like about the fantasy genre as an artist?
I’ve never really connected to the world as it’s being presented to me. I’ve always wanted something more or different, I think. And fantasy often allows artists, writers, everyone involved the opportunity to create a vision of something better than the world in which we’re living. And that also allows a level of truth to come through in the scripts and in the words, as well as inviting in more esoteric and otherworldly ideas and visions. And all of that combined is exactly the world in which I want to live, that’s where I want to be. There’s too much tragedy and too much injustice and it’s hard. Fantasy offers us the opportunity to present a possibility of something greater than what we have right now. It often tells a story, it often tells us what we are doing wrong. Avatar tells us exactly what we are doing wrong, we’re not fucking listening to it, but it tells us what we need to be doing and tells us where we’re fucking up. It’s gorgeous, it’s beautiful.
You mentioned this briefly with the Duffers, but obviously, there’s an extremely talented team, both in front of and behind the camera with Stranger Things. How was it working with all of them on this?
It was a blessing. It was an absolute blessing. Every single member of that crew and that cast is top of their game. Inspirational-level shit. I went home a few times in tears for just being so grateful for the opportunity to be able to work with people who are so talented. It’s a dream come true. It really, really is. And as an artist, it’s everything you could possibly want. It’s an open, trusting, warm, creatively fulfilling, gentle, funny sometimes, experience that is very unique.
I’m sure it could be intimidating to join a team that’s been together for so long, but it sounds like it went well for you.
Everyone is so warm and inviting, there was never a moment where I felt like the new kid. It just felt good.
I’m sure you’ve been asked a ton now, but I’ll ask anyway — if you were under Vecna’s curse, what would be the song to save you?
I’ve now backed myself into a corner so I have to say the same answer each time otherwise, what the fuck? I’m a huge Placebo fan and Placebo covered Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill.” Kate Bush, amazing. We love, we stan, but my love for Placebo is also ingrained in that too, so it would be the Placebo cover of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” if I’m being smart. And if I’m being very naughty, it would be Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA.”
On the topic of music, I actually want to talk a little bit about your music, because not only did you have just a giant show come out last week, you also dropped a new song called “Run On.” Tell me a bit about it.
It’s a cover of a song originally made most famous by Odetta and Johnny Cash respectively. The musical journey that I’m on at the moment, I’m sort of treading water in the space of both this Nick Cave piano, ballad-y kind of world blending in some more electronic elements and weird black metal kind of sensitivities, as well as this blues, dark gospel sort of thing. It fascinates me. I’m really into taking the idea of something that’s super religious and making it very dark. That really interests me, so this is the first step with the explosion of the song. It’s introducing this element of darkness into an otherwise very gospel-y song.
And then the B side is a song called “Devil in Me.” I always had the idea of trying to record where it just sounded like it could have been done at Sun Studios in the ’50s. We used really old mics from the ’50s and shit like that and just tried to make it sound as real as possible from within that world, and same thing with “Run On.”
And the story side of the video, I’d had this idea in my brain and it developed over time. I went to a lumberyard, bought two 9-foot bits of 2-by-4 and built this fucking crucifix and carried it around in this tiny little lovely, but shitty car.
I’m into it. I hope there’s more music to come.
There is. Yeah, no, there is. Like I said, we’re treading this line between sort of blues, beautiful, interesting kind of gospel-y songs in this more kind of dark, brooding, ominous world and it’s all sort of loosely based on the story of Dante’s Inferno. So, yeah. It’s coming.