Dacre Montgomery (‘Stranger Things’) on how playing Billy ‘changed my life’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

Dacre Montgomery has played Billy Hargrove on two seasons of Netflix’s “Stranger Things.” The actor was nominated alongside the rest of the show’s cast at the Screen Actors Guild Awards these past two years.

Montgomery recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Kevin Jacobsen about how much he knew of where his arc would go in Season 3, what makes the Duffer Brothers such amazing collaborators and what he’s hoping to do next in his career. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: First off, I think with every season of “Stranger Things” it really does feel like a movie with a very concrete beginning, middle and end and I’m curious how much you knew about where Billy would end up at the end of Season 3 right when you were getting started and whether any of that informed your performance at the beginning of the season?

Dacre Montgomery: Yeah, there’s quite a lot of conversation for a start between the Duffers and I and any of the cast and crew about how the season’s going to look, but unlike a movie where the narrative is fully realized — I guess when you start you have something tangible like 100 pages of script — this style of television isn’t. So as we’re shooting our first block, which is Episodes 1 and 2, I have no idea what’s going to happen in 3 and 4, but the Duffers and I have had a conversation prior to shooting Season 2 or Season 3, for example, about where do I want my character to go and I’ve talked a lot about that being a testament to their collaborative nature as creatives, which is really exciting as an actor to work with them. You get to really engage with them on a heartwarming level, but I didn’t know how Season 3 was going to end for me in the sense of just how big of a season it was going to be for my character, so I feel very fortunate for that in the first instance, and then just having the ability to explore creatively this amazing story arc for my character with quite a redemptive end, which we had discussed a lot. But yeah, it’s kind of unnerving in a sense to start a season and not know where it’s going. I find that quite hard, but there’s so much discussion between myself and the Duffers and the other creatives about what is going to happen that you do feel included enough in the full spectrum of your character or story arc of your character.

GD: And Season 3 begins with Billy becoming a lifeguard at the local community pool and he’s getting a lot of attention from women, especially the older women, it’s a really fun introduction to Billy that we get in the premiere that is very focused on your looks and it’s very unlike any other scene you filmed in Season 3 or I guess really in your whole time on the show. Can you just tell us about the experience of filming a scene like that with a little more of a comedic bent to it than usual?

DM: I think it was good. I was obviously initially like, “I don’t want to focus necessarily on the aesthetic of Billy and his body.” I appreciate this idea of introducing perceived masculinity in that time period but I was very focused on where does this go to. But to the testament of that scene, we had 150, 200 extras at that pool in Atlanta, Georgia and it was fun. It’s one continuous shot and I come out of the change rooms and I was smoking a cigarette and I wanted to put it out on the wall. I can’t remember whether it was Shawn Levy or the Duffer Brothers who were directing that episode, but basically they were like, “What song do you want to play when you come out? This is your introduction into the season,” and all this sort of stuff. There was quite a lot of hype around it. I was extremely nervous. I have a really strange nervous tendency when working with that many extras. I feel really self-conscious and I’m naturally quite self-conscious about my body, so it was mixed. I feel like I had a sense of what it was going to become but I didn’t know enough to not make me nervous, in a sense, through the actual filming.

GD: And as the season progresses, Billy becomes possessed by the Mind Flayer and that just turns him into something else entirely, almost a monster. How did you prepare to play Billy in that mode?

DM: A lot of preparation around humanizing the villain, I think, which is a lot of how did I characterize or what were the idiosyncrasies of Billy. I’ve talked a lot about humanizing the villain and actors that have done it well in the past like Jack Nicholson in “The Shining.” So that was a big thought in my mind. If I’m honest, we had this whole discussion with the Duffers around what is the story arc of Billy’s biological mother, and I brought them a story three months before shooting that my mother had brought to me. She works in mental health, especially with women and babies, and it was a really fascinating story about this complicated dynamic between a woman and her son, and as I say, a testament to them, they took a portion of that and the whole time that Billy’s possessed, it’s all leading towards this redemptive arc of delving into his backstory, which, in turn, humanizes him. Because you have this person that’s possessed by this unknown, mostly supernatural force, but it’s all leading to diving into my character’s journey, emotional journey, physical journey, why is he there and how does he snap out of it and ultimately save El, which was just amazing. But between episodes, the tail end of Episode 1 and then the final episode when that scene takes place, I just wanted to play a character that was fighting with this internal struggle that wasn’t supernatural-based at all, that was a struggle of identity fundamentally. So, from a psychological standpoint rather than dealing with, “Oh god, there’s this monster inside of me and how do I fight it and what does it make me do?” I treated it more like a split personality disorder, something that you cannot control that’s rooted in reality as opposed to a fictional kind of supernatural sci-fi concept. I think ultimately that held me at least throughout the shooting process in a really grounded, organic place to come from as an actor, as opposed to thinking about it as a supernatural thing, if that makes sense.

GD: Speaking to that, there is that moment in the finale where Billy does snaps out of the haze when Eleven says this phrase from his childhood that triggers him, “Seven feet,” which unlocks this memory of his mother and he then proceeds to sacrifice himself in this really emotional way. What do you think is motivating Billy to do that in that moment?

DM: I think he’s trying to salvage some sort of portion or element of a childhood wrought with a lot disturbing things. I think he’s trying to salvage something out of that and also pay respect to this distant memory or experience of his mother, which ultimately is, as you say, strong enough to break him out of that haze, or that feeling of being trapped, whether it be by a supernatural force or something else. I did read a lot about split personality disorder. In the lead-up, there’s a character called Billy Milligan, I believe, who has 24 different personalities. There’s a film that I think Appian Way still has the rights to about this character who just essentially suppresses his core personality when he’s roughly the same age as Billy is when this memory’s happening with his mother and his other personalities run rampant in his life until his early 20s, until he’s put on trial, and his core personality returns. To me, I was just treating this final point in Season 3 like that trial, not of Billy Hargrove but of Billy Milligan in some ways.

GD: Interesting. I think going into this season we knew that he was more than just a two-dimensional villain because we saw in Season 2 how his father was abusive and it really affected him in his behavior as he got older. As you look back on this character now, how much have you thought about what Billy’s life would’ve been like if he had grown up in a different home, in a safer home?

DM: It’s interesting to think about that, again, from a psychological standpoint ‘cause that’s kind of where I approach all of my acting. What is humanity? What is written into our nature or our genetic code? I think you can say with some level of certainty that he would’ve been a completely different person had he not had this father which was so fundamental insecure but then again, at the same time, I had a completely different upbringing and I’m completely insecure about different things. You can attest to probably playing the antithetical to his characteristics but then at the same time, it’s kind of uncertain, which I like, because you can play with it. That was the best thing about this character for me is that there was so much room to move. Although it only came in tiny pieces, his backstory was really fleshed out in a different way to the other characters in the show, which was just a breath of fresh air for me and honestly one of the best experiences I have had as an actor.

GD: And working with the Duffer Brothers, who write and direct the first two and the last two episodes of the season, they created the show, what were they able to give you as an actor, working with them?

DM: Just support, as I said at the start, this collaborative nature where it’s this unimpeded kind of advice but then willingness to listen back to the other creative, so it becomes this snowball that I think grows over time but in the first instance, you have so much respect already garnered for each other. That snowball just picks up its pace and you just bounce off each other and they give you so much to work with. I think that’s why they are such incredible creatives, leaving the whole universe that is “Stranger Things” and Hawkins to the side, on their own, they stand as amazing creatives. So I think just the support system that they have.

GD: Also, you were introduced to the series alongside Sadie Sink, who plays Max. You got to spend a lot of time with her onscreen. What was it like working with her over these past two seasons?

DM: She’s amazing. Even since we started working together in Season 2, she sort of has an old soul. She has a lot of weight to her personality. I know it’s a cliche to say but age beyond her years, especially when she was younger in Season 2. So I found it extremely rewarding then and then in Season 3, there was a divide, not in real life but of our characters because we have this tumultuous ending to Season 2 and then Season 3 became largely about Billy’s hunt for El. I was written into that storyline but constantly providing a lot of grief to Max in her storyline, Billy was.

GD: You were nominated alongside your cast at the Screen Actors Guild Awards for Season 2 and Season 3 of “Stranger Things.” Since we’re an awards website I have to mention it. Can you tell us about getting to share that honor with this cast?

DM: Yeah, SAG’s amazing. I think in the first instance, to be recognized as a cast or an ensemble is truly lovely, as is any award ceremony to be recognized is amazing, but the point I would love to make about that actually while I have the opportunity, it’s just such an amazing award ceremony. Not to take anything away from the others, which are lovely, but I feel like actors in that award ceremony speak very candidly about their experience and humanize themselves in a really beautiful way. As a young actor — I’ve been doing this for four years or however long — it’s really inspiring to hear what the other actors have to say in that particular ceremony. So it’s always a delight to be invited back.

GD: Yeah, I have a soft spot for the SAG Awards, too, for that very reason. So what kind of response have you gotten from playing Billy these past few years whether it’s online or in your own life, or are you someone who doesn’t pay too much attention to that kind of stuff?

DM: I think it’d be remiss of me not to mention that it has changed my life in a lot of ways. I think there was such a huge response to that character and maybe what that character represented for a lot of people who were that age in that time period. So I’m vicariously living through their experience of this antagonist in their life, or maybe a lover or whoever it would’ve been to them at that time. I feel like it’s such a huge show, especially when Season 3 came out. It became hard to move around in some respects. Online, you’re right, I don’t really pay a huge amount of attention, purely because I’m focused on the next role. Perhaps I find it hard to live in the present so I’m always trying to think about the next step, the next creative evolution of Dacre, as a spinoff of Billy, Billy being part of that catalog. But it has endowed me with a certain sense of confidence in myself and my craft, which I’d never had before, not in drama school or roles that I had played before, which I will take forever with me. But yeah, it’s been a wild ride but I’m very excited to explore what the future holds on the back of that.

GD: As we wrap up here, you kind of mentioned it there, but what kind of roles are you hoping to play in the future after this experience?

DM: It’s so hard to say. I’m constantly reading scripts. I, actually, until three-and-a-half weeks ago, had been working on a project in the Gold Coast here in Australia with my dream creative team. Obviously that came all to an end because of all of this corona stuff, but for the moment, we’ll be back in production soon, hopefully. So for me, it’s just also a longing-ness as well as roles to work with creatives that I respect and I admire. So I’m spending time in isolation to do a lot of reflection, a lot of writing, a lot of reading. I’ve never been one to read autobiographies but I’ve been reading a lot of those and examining in detail, or as much detail as I’m given in the book, other actors or directors’ experiences of their time in the entertainment industry between the 1940s and now, and how did they reflect on their careers at the end… not at the end, but later in life, which has been really nice. And in terms of roles, I think just finding whatever is next after Billy. What is the evolution of that? What am I craving? I find myself talking to myself a lot at the moment in different voices and finding myself feeling quite caged, ready to fight another role and find another world and live in it. So I’m yearning for that but I don’t necessarily have a pinpoint on what it is. I just feel like everything in my life I trust my gut, and when the script comes through, even if it’s not mine, I’ll fight to the death to engage with that creative or that role. I yearn for that. Every day I wake up and I say, “Give me the fight. I will fight for it,” if I find something that I fall in love with. Because of that, I really haven’t engaged in more than two or three projects in the last three years because I just am waiting. I’m waiting to wake up and look at my email and fight for it.

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