Louis McCartney on making his West End debut in 'Stranger Things: The First Shadow'

Louis McCartney, who stars as Henry Creel in Stranger Things: The First Shadow in the West End, talks about stepping into Jamie Campbell Bower's shoes.

Olivia Rook
Olivia Rook

Louis McCartney had never set foot inside a West End theatre before he was cast in Stranger Things: The First Shadow.

“I didn’t even know what a West End show really was,” the 20-year-old says. “I knew it was high-end London theatre and Hamilton is the big West End show that everybody knows, but I’d never seen anything.”

The young star has wasted no time, however, in getting up to speed in this stage prequel to the hit Netflix series about supernatural occurrences in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana. He plays a young Henry Creel, the shy teenager who fans of the TV show will know later becomes the villainous monster Vecna.

London Theatre Magazine spoke with McCartney about his audition process and what it means to take on the role.

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How did you get into acting?

I grew up in a very close house. My dad's a screenwriter and my mum is a medium, who does all the talking to the dead stuff. It was a creative sort of household. My dad pushed me towards acting when I was 12 and he said: “I think you’d be good at it. Give it a shot in your school.” I went: “I don’t want to do acting, I don’t want to do any of that.” Cut to eight years later, I’m doing my first West End show. My dad has always been my absolute rock and pushed me up the mountain. We came up with this idea to start this YouTube channel, where I would act out the monologues and he would help me write them, and then we’d push them out anywhere. That’s how I got my agent, who ended up getting me this job. I explored when I was younger and I did lots of youth theatre. It’s always been a hobby and now it’s turned into something serious. I remember the opening night [of The First Shadow], being there with my dad and saying: “We did it, from the YouTube channel. We're here.”

Tell us about the casting process

My first audition would have been about a year and a half ago. And from there it was the tried and tested ‘audition, audition, recall, recall.’ I was flying back and forth from Belfast to London, staying in the Premier Inn and going to these rehearsal rooms, not knowing anything. It was like Fort Knox; we'd be given sides on the day and all these pages, and then they’d be stripped from us and locked away in a cabinet until the next day. You're biting your teeth because you're thinking about it, but you don't have the material. You're trying to do your best and just hoping and praying to God that it is all connecting. From that, we did six weeks of workshops where we all had no idea [about the casting]. They were making decisions later for some, earlier for others and it was a very fluid process – anything could have happened. Then it was into rehearsals and tech and I think we had one of the longest techs, if not the longest, in the West End. It’s been a journey, but it has gone by in a flash.

Were you a fan of the Netflix series before you were cast?

I absolutely loved it. My brother and I were huge fans. When I got this, a couple of weeks later, my grandpa called me and he said: “Louis, I've just met Henry Creel in season four. Is this you?” I said: “Yeah, that's me.” He said: “I’m watching it now, I'm seeing Vecna.” My family are all watching it now and getting really excited about it.

How have you approached the role of Henry Creel?

When I got the casting call, the role was undisclosed, so I didn't know the character. It was talking about this kid, who’s a natural loner, he’s desperate for connection, and he's got these two sides to him: the spirit of this boy, but also this deep dark thing that resides in him. The contrast of those two sides, especially when I learned it was Henry Creel, all clicked in the rehearsal room. In terms of taking the fabulous work of Jamie Campbell Bower [who plays Creel in the Netflix series] and trying to make it my own, that has been more exciting than scary. I haven't been scared to do it because the support has been there. In the TV show, he is this deeply unsettling, psychopathic killer, but in the play, maybe that's not the case. That's what made it really human to me – to play this psychopath on the inside and the sweet little boy on the outside.

When you put those costumes on, it feels like you're wearing Campbell Bower’s laundry – you can't help but get into it. It’s a real mixture of personalities and I’m trying to bring my own personality, because I remember not too long ago, I was Henry Creel’s age, and I was trying to do the right thing. I was loving a girl and I was hopelessly failing at getting her to like me back. The fun starts when the monster comes in and you throw yourself into this world. It's a roller coaster – you press start and it just goes.

Do you have any rituals before going on stage?

Boringly, I've been listening to classical music recently, but it changes. Justin Martin [The First Shadow co-director] said to me: “ You can suck one night, and then toss that in the trash man and you move on,” and I've taken that with me. It's one foot in front of the other and every night it changes. That is what's keeping it fresh and keeping it fun.

Do you get nervous on stage?

For the first 20 previews, I couldn't look out at the audience. I was completely struck by the bug eyes looking at me and it was so weird. Stranger Things and Netflix are huge brands and stepping into that was a bit frightening, but we have really nice creatives and Stephen [Daldry] and Justin are there for you. I don't get nervous and I don't like to enable that. When you’re focused on having fun in this crazy upside down world, it's impossible to fear the audience because everybody's there with you.

The Phoenix Theatre was made for Stranger Things and Stranger Things was made for the Phoenix. The first time I walked in with Stephen, he got his phone out and videoed our reactions because he knew how influential it was. The theatre changes the whole scope of what you think is going to happen. You get into this space and say: “Oh my God, there’s going to be a thousand people right there.” That was definitely one moment where I went: “Okay, get your boots on. Settle in Louis, this is serious, this is big boy time.”

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Photo credit: McCartney in Stranger Things: The First Shadow. (Photo courtesy of production)

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