Before her turn as goody-two-shoes ‘Barb Holland’ on hit eighties sci-fi homage, Stranger Things, 20-year-old Georgia native, Shannon Purser, was just a high school teen with a dream. Now, she’s starred in two cult favorite TV shows, (CW’s megahit series Riverdale, and is about to premiere her first lead film role with the Netflix hit Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, proving she’s one of the streaming giant’s MVPs.
[AUTHOR’S NOTE: I refer to Barb from Stranger Things in this piece without quotation marks, as though she’s a real person and not a fictional character in a TV show. I apologize in advance for any confusion it causes.]
The first question I ask Shannon Purser is about Barb. It’s an off-the-record question, more for me than for the interview, and I instantly regret it. Questions about Barb are questions I know Purser’s probably heard a million times before. After all, despite the fact Barb, Purser’s breakaway fan-favorite character in Stranger Things, only appeared in a handful of episodes that first season, she became a veritable cause célèbre among the devoted fan base when she unceremoniously fell victim to the show’s insidious threat, the Demogorgon.
Barb’s fate would not officially be sealed until season two, way after “Save Barb!” became a lasting pop cultural war cry in an era known for attention spans suited predominantly to Snapchat, and precipitated a boom in ‘Barb-Mania,’ that included Barb-based merchandise, Barb-centered mainstream think pieces, and discussion board tête-à-têtes focused on Barb.
So when I ask Purser if Barb is, indeed, gone for good, I wouldn’t have been offended if she’d rebuffed the question and requested something, perhaps, more timely. But that doesn’t seem to be part of her nature, and she kindly humors me with a knowing chuckle. “Yeah,” she says. “She’s really gone. I’m sorry.”
Of course, I’m devastated, but also delighted at Purser’s willingness to play along.
“I honestly thought that people would forget about [Barb],” she tells me later. “I thought they’d say ‘Oh, yeah. That girl that dies at the beginning. OK.’”
When Purser speaks, she speaks plainly, with a clarity of intent that might invite comparisons to actresses twice her age and experience. But, she also carries herself with a brand of uninhibited graciousness that’s instantly interpretable as genuine hospitality. I mean, she is southern. This quality has obviously helped her in embodying many of the characters she’s often called upon to portray. Both Barb, and ‘Ethel Muggs,’ who Purser plays on CW’s bubblegum noir, Riverdale, are nothing if not bona fide true blues, only to varying degrees. In Barb’s case, for example, to a degree that she’s a little bit of a buzzkill.
“My big thing is just being honest,” Purser says of her process approaching a role. She often reminds herself that she doesn’t need to be the best actress in the world, she just needs to play the characters honestly. For her, this method of working has made getting a handle on some of the characters she’s played, as she puts it, “not too much of a stretch.”
This sophisticated manner of self-interpretation underscores Purser’s very humble nature, and is most evident in her transformation from ‘on screen’ to ‘off,’ in anything from a press photo to an event on the red carpet. Purser’s a classic beauty, no doubt, with airbrushed good looks that are framed by cascading coils of her signature red hair, and this air of esteem that she gives off seems consistently conveyed by a confident turn in her head, and the slightest hint of an urbane smirk. Almost a wink, really, to indicate that, although just on the older side of her teenage years, she’s already hip to the game.
This keen depth of awareness one can only imagine must have contributed prominently to her decision to seriously pursue acting when she was 15 years old.
“When I was 16, I signed with a local agency,” she recalls. She’d attracted attention at a local acting showcase. “After that,” she says, “I was just doing the thing, you know? Taping auditions and sending them in. Very occasionally getting a callback.” However, as she’s deliberate to note, nothing really came through until she encountered Stranger Things.
“The rest,” Purser jokes, “is history.”
Let’s not put the cart before the horse, here, though, because it’s worth mentioning that Purser’s success never came without a struggle. While she was determined to put any time and energy necessary into her fresh hustle, she was also still juggling all of the demands of high school. Alongside the newfound pursuit of keeping meetings and getting herself to auditions on time, she was also attending classes and keeping up with studies. “I did it all on my own,” she says, proudly. Although, in fairness, she says her tight-knit family – parents and three sisters – were always willing to help out. “They knew how important it was to me,” she says. “But the industry is weird, and I think they thought it was just a nice dream for a kid to have.”
Well, that dream became a reality. After a callback from a taped audition, Purser landed in a meeting with Stranger Things’ creators, Matt and Ross Duffer. By that very evening, she’d already landed the job.
OK, so. Now the rest can be history.
Like most of the projects Purser’s undertaken thus far, the aspects of Stranger Things that attracted her the most was story. “I was always a reader,” she says. “The school librarian, like, knew me.” Purser says she didn’t have a lot of friends growing up – even insisting, “Like, at all,” – but always found solace devouring fantasy novels, immersing herself into each of the stories as one of the characters. This habit made for a natural transition to acting when she discovered school plays and, eventually, community theater, where she could finally, and actively, embody characters in the story for real. It’s a sentiment that continues to motivate her as she looks forward at her career in TV and film.
“I’d just like to keep working,” she says, sensibly, regarding the future. “A working actor is a lucky actor.”
Now, this doesn’t mean Purser isn’t going to be following dreams again. I mean, look where it got her the first time. “I want to try a little bit of everything. It’d be fun to whip my butt into shape and be an action hero.” We brainstorm that maybe she could take top-billing in an upcoming installment of the Alien series.
“Oh my God yes,” Purser replies. “Ripley 2.0.”
Why not? A girl can dream. Can’t she?
Yup. And she can do it, too.
Photographer: Alexander Fenyves
Stylist: Gabriel Langenbrunner
@Exclusive Artists using MAC
@Exclusive Artists using Seven Haircare
Writer: Joe Tower
Location: Apex Studios