It takes all but three minutes into my convo with Shannon Purser for me to understand why it’s impossible for me to dislike the 21-year-old actor. She’s just got this young mid-80s, Winona Ryder thing going on—like a filmic trek down some character outcast road—the third wheel, unpopular, homely sweater wearing rebel.
Her 2016 role (and first ever role) as Barb from Stranger Things paved the way for that beloved road—always the spare part to uppity Nancy Wheeler. The castaway with a sense of self. The girl with a fanbase demanding for her justice. For an entire era of featured women rocking slim waists, popular veneers, and high status symbols, Shannon’s Barb along with Ethel Muggs from Riverdale and Annabelle from Rise are symbols of a growing yet marginalized kind of image that many audiences feel eager to rally around. That of course continues with her first feature lead in Netflix’s Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, premiering this Friday.
From the title alone, you wouldn’t know that it was a movie for the person that watched The Truth About Cats and Dogs one too many times. Much in the same way, this one goes for a social pariah in Sierra (Shannon Purser) falling for the dreamboat next door angle (Noah Centineo), only our current dreamboat mistakes Sierra for a more popular girl (Kristine Froseth) through a modern day game of catfishing. Some lies here, some deceit there, and people get hurt as our girl Sierra learns a thing or two about the insecurities hidden beneath her confident exterior as she maintains a lie.
I had an opportunity to speak with Purser about the responsibility she feels to represent a certain audience, and why she believes Barb is still due for some proper justice.
VICE: So one of the things I loved about Sierra was that she wasn’t actually a loser. Despite her non-traditional look, she was extremely confident, even compared to her bullies.
Shannon Purser: Right! That’s really what I find so interesting about her. She doesn’t fall into a typical stereotype of the super nerdy, boy obsessed outcast person. She’s actually more confident then you’d expect straight from the beginning and she walks around with her own life and her own opinions. Like all of us there’s always something that can throw us off of our balance and for her it’s the act of falling in love. It makes her confidence waver and I found that really interesting in how complex it made her seem.
How did you empathize with her though? Because the bulk of the story is largely about this character going through some lengths to maintain a lie.
I think most of us just relate to that journey of feeling insecure, not good enough, and wanting to fit in. At the same time, you’re also trying to be true to yourself. The hell of high school can be really kind of underrated (laughs). It’s a hard time and it’s a time of growth and finding out who you are and what you actually stand for. That’s what enjoy about a character like Sierra. She has this very vivid eternal life and I completely relate to that because I’m honestly a very heady person. I’m always in my head and I know exactly what it’s like to feel insecure and want to be someone else.
Yeah I can be heady to. And sometimes that can lead you to pass quick judgements about why people do what they do. Sorta like how our man Noah Centineo wasn’t the jock I thought he would be, and the popular girl had her own issues.
Absolutely! It’s so easy to just make snap judgements about other people and it’s this thing that we all so easily do. Life is just easier when you can just compartmentalize people into labels. The main character Sierra and her initial bully Veronica for example both seem very different but they’re extremely similar in a lot of ways. They both want to be liked and they both want to be validated and they both end up doing some pretty bad things to acquire that sort of validation by the end. But like most of us that grow into adulthood, they realize what they’ve been doing was wrong. I don’t know, I’m just very inspired by that kind of journey because it’s something we all went through, especially during our high school years.
When watching all this, it’s also hard not to notice the body positivity throughout, just in the way Sierra moves in the world. How important was it to see that?
I mean it’s not like we see a lot of bigger girls on screen even when they make up the vast majority of the population. The sort of people we see on screen means a lot. They’re meant to be representative to the lives we live. If you don’t have an accurate representative for any particular group, to not have that particular story told can feel very discouraging and totally demoralizing. I definitely found it to be a great responsibility to represent what it’s like to grow up in high school and not have this socially acceptable body, and to have to find an inner strength to love and accept yourself for who you are in a world that’s telling you to be someone else.
You seem to really adapt to characters like this who people just love and relate to because they aren’t stereotypical images of beauty. Is this something you consciously look out for?
You know, I don’t know it’s ever a conscious choice but I do tend to be drawn to these types of characters. It’s a responsibility with the audience, especially for the young people who view a character that I play and feel a sense that they can relate and hopefully look up to them. It may not be completely conscious in every role that I choose, but the goal for me to always do something that can make an impact through my work. I put a ton of pressure on myself with every role in general, even when it’s a small one. I always want to do the best and put my best foot forward so that I could bring something unique to a character. Definitely knowing that I was going to be the face of this movie was very intimidating at first but I really did have the best crew and cast around me just to help encourage me and build me up. I can honestly only see myself growing as an actor from here.
I ask this because there’s a continual conversation happening around characters needing to be represented by the people with lived experiences. Whether it be sexual orientation, race or body image. What’s your stance on all that?
It’s really a complicated issue. For the most part, the more we can of course showcase diversity on screen the better. Like I briefly mentioned, I didn’t see anybody on TV who looked like me and while that never completely controlled my view of myself, I think it would have been so much more encouraging and helpful if I had a role model to look up to who was doing the kind of work that I always wanted to do. I’m completely for casting directors that can be more willing and open to broaden their own minds about who can be a leading lady, man, or person in the middle. Or even be an action hero. There really isn’t a limit to this and this trend needs to continue in embracing more and more diversity.
People are obviously embracing the hell out of you. What is it like to still have fans that adore you off of a select few characters that you’ve played.
It’s really overwhelming (laughs). I didn’t anticipate any of the love I’ve gotten and it’s a bit surreal because I’m just so thankful. Everyone who follows me, says good things about me or my characters, or is just a general fan, they’ve all been extremely kind and extremely authentic people and I will always appreciate all of that. I really hope that I never let them down.
What are your hopes for Sierra Burgess Is a Loser ?
Honestly, I think this movie will be able to show several audiences about the ways we judge others and ourselves, even the people we believe to be bullies, and how important and life changing it is when we learn to be honest and love and accept ourselves for who we are. I really hope that people can view Sierra Burgess Is a Loser and feel a sense of encouragement and empowerment to be honest. We can all use a reminder of how great we can uniquely be.
I know people who have continued to watch Stranger Things just to see Barb receive the justice she deserved. I gotta ask, do you feel like she’s gotten it?
(laughs) I at least love that she got a funeral and that people actually started looking into what happened to her. But it’s kind of a bummer that her parents will never really know what happened to her. If you ask me, that’s what I really want to see. Justice for her parents. I’d be so happy if the secrets could finally be revealed but we’ll see.
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