Following the world premiere of Stranger Things: The First Shadow, actor Oscar Lloyd is ready to take over Hawkins as fan-favourite Hopper.
There is something equally daunting and thrilling about stepping into a character that is dearly well-loved and held in high regard. For some, the latter may scare them — opting to hide away from the potential pressure of living up to a beloved character. For Oscar Lloyd, who plays Jim Hopper in the West End play Stranger Things: The First Shadow, it was a role he grabbed with both hands and approached with a deft yet defined touch.
To put it simply: Stranger Things: The First Shadow is one for the ages. Set in 1959, the original story serves as a prequel to the events of the TV series Stranger Things by the iconic Duffer Brothers and esteemed Jack Thorne. The play, written by Stranger Things writer Kate Trefry, follows younger characters that we only know as adults — like Joyce, Bob, Hopper, and countless others — while also diving into season 4 villain Henry Creel’s origin story. Much like the TV show itself, it is truly all-encompassing — bringing together aspects of the TV show to create a theatre-going experience that feels like you’ve stepped into Hawkins High School itself.
Part of that is helped by the cast, including 26-year-old rising British actor Oscar Lloyd who brings a levity to both the role and (sometimes terrifying) play. The role, which is originally played in the show by past 1883 cover star David Harbour, is a true fan-favourite, and will only grow to be loved even more after audiences see Lloyd’s portrayal of the reluctant hero. And, like Harbour before him, Lloyd dances between Hopper’s many states of mind with ease. Lloyd’s performance is a breakout one that will inevitably set the standard for future shows and franchises that will be turned into stage productions.
Following the opening night of Stranger Things: The First Shadow, Oscar Lloyd chats with 1883 Magazine’s Kelsey Barnes about getting into the mind of Hopper, preparing to undertake such a big role, and more.
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Oscar, when you think back to your earlier roles, how would you personally describe the way you’ve grown between then and now?
Oh wow, straight into it! [Laughs] I think the difference is mainly now there’s more of a process involved. Thinking back to when I started, it was all based on first instinct. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, I think often your first instincts are quite a good thing to go on as an actor. Then I think the thing I’ve developed through drama school and different jobs is developing an actual process that helps you when your instinct fails or when you’re working on a character and you don’t naturally have that character in you. Now, there is more of a technique and process that I apply to roles that are more challenging or feel a bit further away from myself.
Did you feel like you needed to go to drama school to get the fundamentals of acting?
Yeah, I think that’s the thing with drama school. The big question is why are you going? If it’s just because you want to get an agent and be an actor, you don’t need to do that. There are lots of fantastic actors who don’t need it. For me, it was I wanted to use it from being a “child” actor to wanting to do this as a career. I looked at drama school as me cutting my teeth and having established training. It taught me method and technique, not just me doing it as a kid and falling into it. I wanted to take it seriously as a career, so going to drama school was me being honest with myself and choosing to train and learn. I’m just a bit of a nerd and I love learning, so when you get to go to school and learn from incredible teachers, it’s a privilege.
I feel like a big word for you is intentional. The choices you make are quite intentional.
Definitely. I think it’s important to be particularly in this industry where so much of it is out of your hands, whether you’re going to book the job or not. I think as much control as you can have over it gives you a sense of autonomy and makes you feel like you can control something.
While growing up, can you think of a specific fairytale or childhood movie that resonated with you as a kid that made you want to step into a career in make-believe?
Yeah, definitely. I can tell you exactly the two films and it has one thing in common. One was Hook and the other was Mrs. Doubtfire, which are my two favourite films.
So good! Robin Williams!
Yes, Robin Williams was the one thing in common. With both of them, I just remember watching them as a small child and being blown away that someone could make you laugh and make you so, so happy and also make you cry. He was just the very best. I don’t really remember this, but my mum has told me that when I was six years old I watched Mrs. Doubtfire and turned around to my mum and said, “That’s what I want to do.”
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Now, you’re playing Hopper in the new play Stranger Things: The First Shadow. I read you started workshopping for the show and you were asked to take on the full run. Can you walk me through what the process was like first joining in the workshop to now performing around 8 shows a week?
Yeah, it’s a slightly unusual process. It doesn’t always happen with a larger-scale production, particularly if it’s a new piece of writing. I started workshopping in May of this year. A workshop is essentially when they get a bunch of people together — actors, the writer, the directors, a lot of the crew in the room — and it’s figuring out what’s possible in sections of the script. It’s the first translation from page to stage and see what exactly can be done. Kate Trefry, who writes for Stranger Things, wrote the script and it almost reads like a TV script. Without giving too much away, you read the script and wonder how the hell are they going to do that on stage.
The other part of the process is what we know as chemistry tests where you put two actors together and test out different combinations, like Joyce and Bob or Henry and Patty. Some are there for a week, some are there for six or seven. It’s not an audition but, in a way, you’re still auditioning to see who you work well with. Thankfully I got the offer after my third or fourth week of workshops, so I knew that I was going to be playing Hopper.
And you were always reading for Hopper?
Yeah, except then I think he was called Johnny. [Laughs]
It’s probably for the best that they did that so you weren’t just imitating David Harbour’s version of Hopper!
Yeah, I think so. Again, this goes back to your best instincts and how you should follow them, particularly in an audition. I don’t think in an audition they want to see a polished performance — they want to get to know you and see what you can bring that is different to the role. I’m not David Harbour, I’m very different. If they wanted to find someone who is like David, that is a very different process because it’s not about making an impression of him. They wanted people who were going to bring a slightly different version of these characters. Hopper is an 18-year-old in the play and he’s in his 40s or so in the show. There’s been a big period there where he’s changed a lot. I think part of the exciting thing is seeing the similarities, but also seeing how he is different from the one we know. For the fans of the show, I hope that is quite an exciting thing to see.
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It has been the most exciting part to see. In the play, Hopper has a bit more zest for life than he did when audiences first met him — he longs to get out of Hawkins and break free from his father. How did you approach the character knowing he gets quite hardened as he gets older?
Yeah, I think one of the first things for me was taking it back to my youth thing. I’m 26, but even the difference between where I am now to 18 is huge. When you’re 18, you have that zest for life as you say and that naive ambition. It’s almost that feeling that you can do anything. It is a real driving force. You see this almost youthful optimism and exuberance that gets beaten out of him throughout his life and he doesn’t have so much of it anymore when we meet him in season one. That was the big way to connect with him.
Another way was the period of resistance in the late 50s era of rock ‘n’ roll, so I’d listen to a lot of music of that time to get a sense of what it was like. It wasn’t an era where people were going home every night to be on their phones. They were meeting up with their friends at dive bars or going to the drive-in. It was a different world and different habits. It was a time of great social change in America and a time of optimism after the Second World War. Things were kind of on the up in a lot of places and in a lot of ways.
I was going to ask if there was a specific playlist that you made to prepare for Hopper!
There is a song in a season of Stranger Things and it’s “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” by Jim Croce. David Harbour is dancing to it as it plays, so before I go on stage I like to listen to it.
I love that scene! What were some of the movies you watched to prep?
Stand By Me was a big one because I think it came out in the year the play is set which is 1959. Rebel Without a Cause, too. A lot of James Dean and Marlon Brando’s early stuff helped to inform the character.
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Touching on the trio — Hopper, Joyce and Bob — who are played by you, Isabella Papas, and Christopher Buckley, respectively. Can you tell me a little about working with them and fleshing out the relationships that those three characters share?
Yeah, it’s been incredible. They are both just joys to work with and such brilliant actors. And because of that, a lot of the work is done for you. Our dynamic offstage is great and we really like each other which helps [Laughs]. It’s a really fun and playful dynamic. They are three very unlikely friends. It serves a similar purpose or function to Dustin and Steve or Robin, which you get in the series of these unlikely pals who constantly bicker and are at each other’s throats but really love each other. They just can’t express it. It’s that thing of friendship being something that can kind of transcend barriers of social status. Hopper might be deemed cooler than Bob, for example, but they have an unlikely friendship that forms and blossoms despite Hop being someone who probably would’ve bullied Bob at one point.
Yeah, and I just love being able to get more context to those relationships later on. We see Bob in season 2 of Stranger Things and we don’t really know the full extent of his crush on Joyce until this play. I do love the different context we get with Hopper’s story, so I want to touch on his relationship with his dad, played by Shane Attwooll, who is the chief of police. How do you view their relationship in the play?
What I think is a big, big driving force for Jim in this play is his relationship with his father. It’s about the cyclical nature of this small town of Hawkins — everyone stays there, they get married to the girl they went to high school with, they have kids, and they keep the same job forever. Jim sees that in his dad and he desperately doesn’t want to be like that. His dad is kind of this emblem of everything wrong with Hawkins and therefore wrong with the world. But, at the same time, there is a contradiction there because he is a man who desperately wants to impress his father and for him to be proud of him and tell him he did a good job. I think that’s quite a common thing with fathers and parents in general — kids don’t want their approval but they secretly do. Jim desperately tries not to become him which kind of gives this sad poetic irony when we know that he does become the chief of police and becomes similar to his father. Jim’s dad whom we see in the play probably is more reminiscent of Jim Hopper in the series than my character. We see who he becomes through seeing my dad, which Shane plays. It’s a tempestuous and tumultuous relationship, but there’s a lot of love there. I think they’ve got that stereotypical toxic masculine thing of not being able to communicate well so they just fight.
Even Hopper’s desire to fight evil is clearly running through his family.
I think that one of the main things about Hopper is he has a strong moral code. It’s very black and white for him, he will always fight for good. It’s not necessarily something he has to sit down and think about— it’s just innate in him, this desire to do the right thing.
Exactly, even the way he parents Eleven in the series is unorthodox but —
It’s from a good place, he means well.
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Even Hopper’s desire to fight evil is running through his family.
I think that’s one of the main things about Hopper is he has a strong moral code. It’s very black and white for him, he will always fight for good. It’s not necessarily something he has to sit down and think about— it’s just innate in him, this desire to do the right thing.
I like to ask actors what advice they’d give to their characters, but the beauty of playing 18-year-old Hopper is you have an idea of how his life turns out. What would you try to tell him anyway?
I think I would say to 18-year-old Hopper that even though it feels like you’re against the world so much, you have a very good heart. I’d tell him to trust that and not get so angry with the world because it is going to treat you like shit as we see [laughs].
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At the shoot, we talked about how much the show changes in previews — you can be handed a script at 4 pm that has adjustments and you need to make them for showtime at 7:30. How has it been to flex those different muscles?
It’s similar to being on a TV set where you’ll often be handed new sides on the day of filming. With this, we’re handed new lines midday when we get notes and we’re doing them that night in front of an audience. It’s terrifying to test it out for the first time in front of 1000 people, but it’s also the most useful barometer for whether the line is good or not. You get instant feedback. Sometimes with TV, they’ll write a line and you question whether it works or not and it isn’t until three months later when you’re in editing that it wasn’t quite right. We try it out that night and the audience will tell you it’s not the right. If it’s meant to be a joke and the joke doesn’t land, or if it’s meant to be a hard-hitting scene and you can sense the audience not getting it. It’s a weird kind of feedback response loop that you tune into as an actor on stage. They don’t necessarily need to be laughing or clapping or making any audible reaction, but you get a sense you can kind of feel the energy in the room.
So you can immediately tell when a joke doesn’t land? I bet you’re thinking, “Okay, that’s getting cut.” [Laughs]
[Laughs] Oh, yeah, that’s getting cut. Sometimes it’s about the way it’s delivered too so it’s good to get a sense of that, too. From the first previews to now we’ve been able to change things like line delivery because each line is informed on whatever is happening, but there needs to be certain beats so the audience knows what’s going on. If you skip over something, they won’t understand the next point. So sometimes it’s just based on how it’s delivered, like slowing down certain things to make it really clear. It’s a very complicated plot and we are asking the audience to follow along with it.
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You posted that you saw your first West End show 15 years ago, what was it like stepping on that stage for the first time? Yeah, it was for Blood Brothers and I was about 11. My mum and I were up in London and we saw it on a whim after seeing one of those half-price booths. We got tickets for 20 quid and we were in the back of the stalls. It was the first play I’ve ever seen in London and it was just amazing, I loved it. So, to stand on that stage kind of 15 years later the first day of tech… It’s a dream come true. It’s what I’ve wanted to do for a long time so to actually be there doing it is a very kind of surreal pinch-me moment.
Now that the premiere has happened, what are you hoping audiences — new fans and old fans of the franchise — take away from the show?
One thing I think the show can do is something I’m excited about which is bring in a new audience to theatre. I think, for a long time, theatre has been the kind of thing that people feel doesn’t speak to them. People feel like theatres are for old, rich people who kind of go and listen to Shakespeare and it’s a bit boring and it’s stuff. Some bits are like that, but I’d say a lot of theatre is for everyone. It can be an incredibly exciting, thrilling, inspiring place to be. I hope that this play will bring in a lot of people who maybe it’s the first show they’ve ever seen and maybe they’ll have a similar experience to me going to see their first ever play. I hope they are blown away by the magic of it all. It will give people a sense of spectacle and magical wonder and I’m happy to transport them to a different world for a bit through theatre. It can be so much better than what TV can do because you’re there — it’s really happening in front of your eyes.
The play truly is so encompassing. Without spoilers, when certain parts of the visuals and tech happen… Things coming out of jars… I turned to my friend and asked, “How are they doing that?!”
That is exactly what we want. It’s very visceral. I have friends of mine who have come to see it who afterwards said they feel uncomfortable but excited, like it really impacted them. It’s great, that’s exactly what we want to do.
Lastly, if you could manifest something for yourself in 2024 What would it be?
Honestly, just happiness for all my friends and family and loved ones, I would like that in 2024.
Thank you so much, Oscar. It’s been a pleasure. I’m seeing the play again later so I’m excited to see what’s changed between the first time I saw it and now.
I’m heading off there now so we’ll see what scripts I get handed today! [laughs]
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Stranger Things: The First Shadow is on the West End now. Check out Stranger Things On Stage for tickets.