Over the summer of 2017, Charlie Heaton filmed a movie in the Boston suburbs; a staggering two and a half years later, two days before we met in a lofty studio in downtown Manhattan, he saw that film for the first time. The film is The New Mutants, the 13th and supposedly final instalment of the X-Men film franchise, which follows a group of teenagers struggling to escape a mental institution while mastering their emerging superpowers.
As it languished in cinematic purgatory due to an ever-shifting release date and a corporate merger, the woes of The New Mutants became a regular fixture in Hollywood trade publications, with many doubting that the film would ever achieve a theatrical release. Heaton, the 26-year-old, Leeds-born star of Netflix’s Stranger Things, who rounds out The New Mutants ensemble as Sam Guthrie, found himself sucked into the interminable vortex of this singularly stressful experience. Sitting on a weathered chesterfield sofa with his knees hugged to his chest, clothed in an oversized T-shirt and scuffed sneakers, Heaton is somehow remarkably good-humoured about the once-in-a-lifetime ordeal.
“I watched it two days ago, which is pretty funny,” Heaton says. “Generally, you finish a project and have an expected release date. But in this case, because of the merger, we were very much in the dark. As actors, you’re often in the dark about everything, and that does make you nervous, when a project keeps getting pushed back. You think, what’s wrong with it? In this case, two and a half years passed. They froze everything, and I think The New Mutants was affected the most. Dark Phoenix still came out, but we were totally locked down until they finished that merger. Then Disney passed the movie back for edits. All these years later, it was cool to see the film because you forget all the things you did. When I was watching it, there was definitely a little 13-year-old inside of me thinking, oh man, this is cool.”
If you saw the eerie, startling trailer for The New Mutants way back when it debuted in October 2017, you may be scratching your head over the film’s improbable April 2020 release date. The New Mutants suffered a long, tortured path to see the light of day, owing in large part to the merger of The Walt Disney Company and 20th Century Fox, which gave the latter control over Disney-owned Marvel’s X-Men characters.
The film’s original April 2018 release date was pushed back twice to avoid going head to head with other comic book films (Deadpool 2 and Dark Phoenix); then, when Disney acquired Fox in spring 2019, The New Mutants hung in studio limbo as the release date was moved twice more. If you’re a Marvel fan hoping to see the X-Men suit up alongside the Avengers, the merger may seem like welcome news, but don’t get your hopes up. Disney has stated categorically that the X-Men characters will not be folded into the sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe.
All these years later, it was cool to see the film because you forget all the things you did. When I was watching it, there was definitely a little 13-year-old inside of me thinking, oh man, this is cool.
For Heaton and the rest of the cast, which includes Maisie Williams, Anya Taylor-Joy, Blu Hunt and Henry Zaga, among others, the long wait for The New Mutants to reach audiences was discomfiting, to say the least, yet it strengthened the bond that developed among the already tightly bound cast. Heaton speaks fondly about the intense, absorbing summer spent making the movie, which brought the group of young actors together in more ways than one.
“When you get to work with people your own age, you’re all coming into it from different places,” Heaton says. “Maisie had obviously been doing this since she was a kid and I knew Anya coming into it. For Henry and Blu, this is their first big film. You’re dealing with different people, all the same age, but all trying to do the same thing. Every time you work with different people, you learn that they have a different way of working. We became very close. In this project, we were contained and trapped in a mental institution, and outside the filming, we were stuck in a hotel. The days and nights paralleled each other. We only had each other to keep us sane. You create really close bonds because you’re doing something for just three months. They’re the only people you hang out with for those three months. It’s like going to summer camp.”
In 20 years and 12 films, the X-Men franchise has netted over USD6 billion at the global box office, with the characters counted among the world’s most recognisable and beloved superheroes. Yet in this new standalone film, the world of the X-Men expands beyond the three previous cinematic arcs: the popular early noughts films starring Hugh Jackman as the superhuman Wolverine, the recent Deadpool spin-offs, and the series of prequels starring James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as a young Professor X and Magneto, the frenemies whose ideological tension exists at the heart of the series.
Though The New Mutants enters into the same legendarium, it exists in a world apart from the familiar territory of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, with the go- to characters of X-Men films past absent from this story (though rumours abound that Professor X will make a cameo). However, some things remain the same, namely the deeply human themes of self-knowledge and self-acceptance undergirding the action.
“Our story is much like the X-Men mutants, but in a rehabilitation facility for damaged mutants,” Heaton says. “They’ve all had trauma or past experiences that have put them in this facility, and they’re all suffering with an inner complex or inner problem that they need to work through. When you first meet my character, Sam Guthrie, he’s very damaged and very guilt- ridden about what his mutation has made him become. It’s a cool concept. If you take away the superpower element, there’s a really human story there—the story of emotion and how you perceive yourself. As the movie goes on, you see these teenagers learning to deal with inner problems—harnessing their powers, learning how they can make their powers grow, how they can adapt them and use them for good. It feels like an indie film, in a weird sense.”
To prepare for the role of Sam (alter ego: Cannonball), Heaton dove into the comics—namely the Demon Bear Saga, from which New Mutants writer and director Josh Boone has said he adapted much of the film’s source material. The Demon Bear, a super- powered villain who can teleport, shape-shift and corrupt human souls by drawing strength from negative emotions, is said to be among the antagonists in The New Mutants. Heaton studied the comics as a springboard, but looked beyond them to create a rich interior life for Sam.
“You don’t get much of an inner person from a 2D comic, so you’ve got to create your inner life,” Heaton says. “My preparation started there, and it was talking about who we wanted to make Sam. It’s difficult because you’ve got a fan base who are very attached to these people, so you’re trying to work with making it like the comic, but also making your own character out of it. The smaller scope of this project was part of the attraction for me because you get to hone in on the human story. It’s five teenagers struggling with who they are as mutants and trying to work together, to work out their differences, to figure out how they can help one another. It was never about saving humanity—it was just about saving ourselves. I enjoyed getting to build a more human character as opposed to Superman.”
As Heaton shaped Sam, he looked to the character’s origin story in Cumberland, Kentucky, where a young Sam grew up contributing to the family business in a coal mine. When Sam and a fellow miner found themselves trapped in a mining shaft, Sam’s mutant abilities of jet propulsion and protective force fields manifested for the first time, allowing him to save their lives. For Heaton, Sam’s humble roots were invaluable in formulating the character, though they were only the beginning of the transformation.
“We always knew we wanted Sam to be the salt of the earth, good-natured kid,” Heaton says. “He comes from a blue-collar background so we envisioned him as a sweet kid who’s quite sensitive, but with a damaged quality to him. Then you take the story from there and watch him grow. We had to do personal training for six weeks for the stunt work. I enjoy boxing and I enjoy running so I wasn’t totally out of my depth. There was a bit of work for me on wires so I had to be able to hold myself and learn how to do that. In the end, you take all these little components and just throw it at the wall.”
Heaton’s body wasn’t the only thing he had to train in order to craft this performance—he also had to train his voice. For a British actor best-known for playing an all-American teenager on Stranger Things, this wasn’t his first experience with vocal training, though putting on a new accent remained as impactful to his creative process as ever.
Filming in a real mental hospital added character. I met the caretaker and I heard stories about the place—to learn the history of it wowed me. When you’re making a project like this one, although there’s a heaviness to the story, there tends to be a lightheartedness on set because there’s excitement about what you’re making.
“Sam’s from Kentucky, so initially, I had to change my voice to a Kentucky accent, which involved vocal training and finding a voice. I do a lot of accents in my work so I think when you find a voice, it’s a good start to finding a character. It gives you a degree of separation.”
A degree of separation was undoubtedly necessary for a project not just set in a mental institution, but filmed in one. The New Mutants filmed at Medfield State Hospital, a former asylum located in a Boston suburb, which housed thousands of patients for over a century beginning in the late 1800s. Originally named Medfield Insane Asylum, the 58-building complex closed its doors in 2003, after which it became a nationally recognised historic location and served as a set for films like Shutter Island and The Box. Working day and night in a former asylum would be enough to drive any person out of their right mind, but Heaton was able to compartmentalise.
“At the end of the day, I shrugged it off,” Heaton says. “Filming in a real mental hospital added character. I met the caretaker and I heard stories about the place—to learn the history of it wowed me. When you’re making a project like this one, although there’s a heaviness to the story, there tends to be a lightheartedness on set because there’s excitement about what you’re making. Also, it’s a comic book movie—it’s dark, but it’s dark for a comic book movie. At the end of the day, you shrug it off and go home, though I could never shrug off my accent. I would go home and still talk Kentucky—that took a long time to ditch.”
The heaviness to the story that Heaton mentions is not unique to The New Mutants—in fact, it’s part and parcel of the X-Men’s DNA. In 2000, the late Marvel Comics mastermind Stan Lee commented that the X-Men, which he created in 1963, were a direct metaphor for the civil rights struggles of the ’60s. In 1968, Lee wrote: “Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today… Sooner or later, we must learn to judge each other on our own merits. Sooner or later, if a man is ever to be worthy of his own destiny, we must fill our hearts with tolerance.”
Marvel fans have long lauded the X-Men as the most political of Marvel’s comics, with the stories seen as allegories for the struggle of marginalised individuals to be accepted and celebrated for their true selves as well as imbued with equal rights and protections under the law. Fans of X-Men uphold these stories as reflective of the systemic persecution suffered by individuals villainised as ‘different’, with the comics tackling such issues as racism, homophobia, classism and ableism. For Heaton, it was deeply meaningful to translate these themes to a new generation of heroes.
“I think there’s a great theme in the X-Men universe, which started in the ’60s as a concept about diversity and outsiders,” Heaton says. “I liked The New Mutants because the characters are teenagers—you never feel like they’re out-of-the-box superheroes. They’re just teenagers trying to do the best they can. Speaking to Josh Boone, he’s a comic book nerd and a fan of these comics so it was rewarding to make a movie with a director who is genuinely a fan. He really cared about keeping it as close to the comic’s content as possible.”
The New Mutants marks a number of firsts even for a franchise long considered inclusive, with the film making history as the first comic book movie to star a Native American woman as well as the first comic book movie to feature a lesbian romance. Heaton sees this film’s achievements as another chapter in X-Men’s long history of nudging the comic book world forward to a more progressive place.
“The X-Men franchise is an inclusive place full of diverse stories,” Heaton says. “Our movie doesn’t relate to the civil rights movement, but I think that’s the interesting bit—they’ve always had that parallel to political statements. Our movie is inclusive— two of our cast members are from Brazil. We also have a lesbian romance, which is a first for a comic book film. We have an indigenous woman leading the film, which is another first. We’re definitely making progress with this film.”
To access the headspace required for a film as dark and psychological as The New Mutants, Heaton turned to music as a tool for inhabiting certain emotions. Heaton, a musical talent himself who has played in a number of British bands, describes music as a “point of access” to characters and feelings.
“I like creating character playlists and using music to get into a scene before a scene,” Heaton says. “There will be certain songs that I might be listening to for certain scenes. Josh Boone created a New Mutants playlist for all of us to share that tonally matched the film. Music is very expressive—you listen to it and get a feeling. What you enjoy influences you.”
The X-Men franchise is an inclusive place full of diverse stories, our movie doesn’t relate to the civil rights movement, but I think that’s the interesting bit—they’ve always had that parallel to political statements.
Though Heaton won’t divulge the contents of Boone’s top- secret playlist, he’s descriptive about the ways in which he employs music to cue emotions or maintain focus, particularly in the hectic snatches of time between takes.
“I listen to music when I’m doing something that involves bringing up a lot of internal emotion,” Heaton says. “Sometimes you’ve got just two minutes between takes—often there’s a lot of noise on set, people are running around, people are talking, they’re setting the frame and it’s just a lot of energy around you. I like to zone out—just sit and quietly get myself in a place. It’s mainly to lock myself out from everybody else, but it’s not something I do for every scene. I do it when I need a bit more internal space.”
As Heaton stares down the global release of his first blockbuster motion picture, he’s reflective about the uniquely long road from auditioning for the role many years ago to finally screening the film in theatres. Though The New Mutants will debut with as much pomp and circumstance as any comic book film, it lacks some of the big budget machinery characteristic of other Marvel films, making the experience uniquely low pressure for Heaton.
“The initial pressure is in the decision to do the project,” Heaton says. “First there was the audition, then the audition led to meeting Josh, then a longer conversation and then you get the role. Then the question is: is this something I want to get into? Will a big fan base be happy with the choice of me playing this role? But then, like any project, once you’re on the project, there’s a lot of trust working with the crew and director. You zone into that little workspace and the pressure switches off. Josh Boone comes from an indie background. This movie is not Avengers—we didn’t have that kind of budget or scale. It’s a very contained story so it did feel like there was more room for character development and more room to have intimate moments. It felt very contained, even though it’s quite a large scale, in terms of production.”
Heaton’s anxieties about a large, opinionated fan base are well-founded. Marvel fans have come under fire on multiple occasions for ‘toxic’ behaviour, as when misogynist trolls bombed Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel with fake negative reviews ahead of its release to hamstring the film. On another occasion, one anonymous fan released a ‘defeminised’ cut of Avengers: Endgame, which ridded the film of all scenes he deemed feminist or gay. Any performer would be forgiven for experiencing trepidation when wading into this fractious fandom, yet for Heaton, criticism levied in good faith is part of the job.
“Criticism is part of it,” Heaton says. “It’s part of doing, creating, being in film or art or music. People are going to really like it—that’s a good feeling, when people respond to it. Other people will not like it and it’s hard not to listen to the negative. You’re always going to get that. Sometimes you’ll do something and 10 people might like it, or like with Stranger Things, you’ll get a diverse fan base of adults and kids. I don’t think you can take it too personally because everyone has the right to like what they want to like. If they like it, great; if they don’t, it’s not for them. It’s for someone else.”
As for how a large studio film will raise his profile, Heaton isn’t expecting to skyrocket to a new level of stardom. For a man who stars in a show as widely beloved as Stranger Things, the third season of which was streamed by over 40 million households in its first weekend on Netflix, little else can compare.
“Coming from Stranger Things, I can’t imagine that The New Mutants will be more notoriety,” Heaton says. “It opens you up into a cinematic universe, but the thing about Stranger Things is that it’s watched around the world. I’ve been to so many different countries in the last few years and people seem to know our cast everywhere we go. I don’t know how much this will affect my life, but I’m excited to have people see me in a different style of work and in a different universe.”
After The New Mutants press tour winds down, Heaton will return to the wildly popular Stranger Things for a fourth season— though he won’t be back in fictional Hawkins, Indiana. At the end of the third season, the beleaguered Byers family loaded their belongings into a U-Haul and set out for parts unknown. Heaton isn’t sure what co-creators Matt and Ross Duffer have in store for the fourth season, but he has faith in their ability to create satisfying surprises for viewers.
“We’ve been in Hawkins for three seasons so I can imagine that going somewhere else will affect characters differently,” Heaton says. “What the Duffers do really cleverly is make good pairings—they’ll switch it around a lot to see what they get. Gathering different characters together may change things.”
As a Netflix star, one might think Heaton has some unique insight into the impending content singularity over at the streaming Goliath—however, he’s just as behind on his queue as anyone else.
“There’s just so much content,” Heaton says. “With social media and with streaming content, you get everything and it’s overwhelming. I have an Instagram page, but I don’t have any social media on my phone because I find it overwhelming. As for streaming, there’s a lot of good stuff, which creates opportunities. Young actors are getting a lot of chances to work because Netflix is putting out a lot of shows for young actors, so they’re finding a lot of new talent, which is great. People generally don’t have to be actors who fill out a cinema. You used to see the same faces because they were people who drew crowds to the cinema, but now you can have fresh-faced actors who will fit into these stories and draw audiences. That’s where the positive is. It can also be very difficult to choose what to watch because it’s just too much. I go to the Emmys and the SAG Awards—they’ll be talking about all these shows that are out. I’m like, ‘I haven’t seen most of these shows’.”
As Heaton looks ahead to life after Stranger Things, he’s eager to break free of the mould in which he’s unexpectedly found himself—namely, playing brooding, tortured characters in dark projects. After spending months filming in a mental institution, it will likely come as no surprise that Heaton is ready to lighten up.
“I’m not seeking out dark stories,” Heaton says. “It’s just what people keep putting me in. I want to try variations of things that scare me. I did three films this year and got to play three different characters—there was no comedy in there, but I personally love comedy. I love watching it and I have a lot of respect for people who do comedy because I think it’s some of the hardest acting there is. It would be terrifying to be in a comedy, but also a lot of fun, so I would love to do one, if someone wants to put me in one, whether it’s a romantic comedy or something lighter.”
What the Duffers do really cleverly is make good pairings—they’ll switch it around a lot to see what they get. Gathering different characters together may change things.
Although he’s itching to stretch his skills by cracking some jokes, Heaton feels that the responsibility of storytellers to weigh the impact of their words is no laughing matter. As he considers roles, he assesses his initial response to the script, then evaluates a myriad of artistic and ethical considerations.
“I get sent a lot of scripts to read and that’s where it starts for me—do I respond to the script?” Heaton says. “There could be many reasons why I respond—I like the writing or the character, I like something about it, or I think, ‘That could be fun to do’. What I like to watch and what I like to get involved with are stories that have a human aspect. Storytelling should teach us something new or reflect how we feel. When I look at stories, I ask: how do I relate to this, does it have a good message, does it make me think? Can it help people? Does this story need to be told? Sometimes you read stuff and you think, ‘I don’t understand why they’re making it’.”
At just 26 years old, Heaton has reached some remarkable heights for an early-career actor, including starring in a groundbreaking comic book film as well as rounding out the ensemble of one of Netflix’s first streaming phenomenons. Don’t expect him to rest on those laurels, though, as Heaton is a uniquely studied, thoughtful performer—one constantly seeking to surprise not just audiences, but himself. Heaton has a long and fruitful career ahead of him—and he’s only just getting started.
“If you’re going to have longevity, that’s great,” Heaton says. “There’s so much I haven’t done that I’d love to do and have the opportunity to do. That’s a question you look at every year. I’m excited to work with different directors and tell different stories. Every job I’ve been on so far has been a different experience and I’ve learnt something every time. I didn’t train in acting, so my schooling has been from working, and you learn something by working with different people. It’s also nice when you feel like you’re doing something worthwhile—you’re telling an important story and contributing. If I’m lucky enough to keep doing this and keep working, I want to see where it leads me.”