Noah Schnapp’s Coming Out Journey: The ‘Stranger Things’ Star ‘Would Still Be Closeted’ if Not for Will Byers Being Gay

Photographs by Eric Ray Davidson

Noah Schnapp was stuck in his drafts. The 18-year-old actor, who’d become a household name on Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” kept putting off posting a video he’d shot on his phone — an announcement he’d been contemplating making for a few months. His closest friends kept texting him: When are you going to post it? I want to see the world’s reaction! Schnapp kept replying: No, I’m not ready. I’m not ready. I’m not ready.

But on Jan. 5, after his family dropped off his twin sister, Chloe, at college in Boston, he felt ready. As they started the hourslong drive back to their home in Westchester, N.Y., he posted the eight-second video to more than 31 million followers on TikTok.

At first glance, it looked like other clips he’s made messing around with friends (including “Stranger Things” BFF Millie Bobby Brown): Schnapp, his head on a pillow, lip-syncing to a popular audio clip of someone saying, “You know what it never was? That serious.” But this TikTok was different. In a text box above his head, Schnapp had written a message that, until very recently, he thought he’d never share, let alone broadcast across the internet: “When I finally told my friends and family I was gay after being scared in the closet for 18 years and all they said was ‘we know.’”

It was, to borrow a phrase from Schnapp’s generation, instantly iconic — a watershed moment for LGBTQ visibility executed with perfect nonchalance. Naturally, Schnapp’s phone exploded, with a stream of texts and calls pouring in after the video went up. But he didn’t look at any of them.

Eric Ray Davidson for Variety

“I didn’t want to sit there waiting nervously to see what people were going to say,” Schnapp explains six months later, tucked into a sofa after his photo shoot for Variety’s Power of Young Hollywood issue (and before the SAG-AFTRA strike). “I just wanted to put it away and be confident in who I am and know that I don’t have to care what people think anymore.”

His resolve lasted the duration of the trip. “When I opened my phone at the end of the car ride, it was, like, a thousand texts of hearts and congratulations and rainbow flags,” Schnapp says with an exuberant smile. “I was crying. I was like, ‘I made it. I’m done. I don’t have to worry.’”

Schnapp’s decision to come out was the culmination of a process that he says began in earnest when he confirmed in a July 2022 interview with Variety that his “Stranger Things” character Will Byers is gay. Since the show premiered in 2016, when Schnapp was 11, he had been fielding — and deflecting — questions about Will’s sexuality in the press and on social media. By the summer of 2022, however, “Stranger Things” had become one of Netflix’s biggest shows ever with Season 4, and its story had placed Will’s sexuality undeniably front and center.

The scope of Schnapp’s life, meanwhile, was starting to feel much bigger: He’d started his own business, TBH, a hazelnut spread alternative to Nutella, and he was due to start his freshman year at the Wharton business school at the University of Pennsylvania in the fall. But he’d still not breathed a word about his own sexuality to anyone, so he decided to let Willcome out (at least, to audiences, if not yet on the show itself). The result was nothing short of transformative.

“Once I did fully embrace that Will was gay, it was just an exponential speed towards accepting it for myself,” Schnapp says. “I would be in a completely different place if I didn’t have Will to portray, and to embrace and help me accept myself. I think if I never played that character, I probably would still be closeted.”

“I didn’t really think twice about it,” Schnapp says. “I was so young; I barely even knew what that word meant. And I don’t even think I knew myself that I was gay.” (For their part, the Duffers say they never thought about whether Schnapp’s orientation might mirror Will’s. “Honestly, no,” says Matt Duffer. “I actually didn’t know at all until he came out. I found out when everybody else found out on the internet.”)

But once “Stranger Things” debuted and became an immediate sensation, Schnapp — who reads “literally everything everyone says” online about the show — felt compelled after a few months to post a lengthy statement to Instagram addressing rampant fan speculation that Will was gay. “For me, Will being gay or not is besides the point. ‘Stranger Things’ is a show about a bunch of kids who are outsiders,” he wrote in the post (since deleted). “I’m only 12, but I do know we all relate to being different.”

In the caption for his coming-out video, Schnapp wrote, “I guess I’m more similar to Will than I thought.” Getting to that realization was often agonizing and alienating, and something Schnapp is processing in real time. At one point in the interview, he quietly says, “I feel like this is a therapy session; I’m learning about myself.” In many ways, he still seems so young: His voice cracks when he gets excited, and he carries his body in that tentative way of so many teenagers. But with “Stranger Things” soon heading into its final season, and his closet door obliterated by a single TikTok, Schnapp is poised to launch himself into a vast future of possibilities.

“I would not want to have done it any other way.”

Will Byers’ abduction into the phantasmagoric alternate dimension known as the Upside Down drives the entire first season of “Stranger Things,” but it happens just eight-and-a-half minutes into the series premiere. So whoever played Will “needed to make a huge impression very, very quickly,” says Matt Duffer, who created and runs the show with his twin brother, Ross. “The audience had to care about him deeply having only seen him in a few scenes.”

Schnapp first read for the role when he was 10 years old, and “there was just this innocence about him,” Matt Duffer says via Zoom, as Ross nods in agreement next to him. “It was hard not to care immediately about this kid in real life, and we thought the same would apply for the show.”

They’d also conceived Will from the start as a kid struggling with his sexual identity, based in part on a friend they’d had in middle school who was going through the same issues. In the series premiere, Will’s mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder), says that other kids call Will “queer,” and that his absent father had called him an anti-gay slur.

Eric Ray Davidson for Variety

It wasn’t long before Schnapp began to read comments saying that he might be gay as well, an idea he’d given the barest flicker of thought. “I think it made me hold it down deeper,” he says, pushing his hands down his chest. “Because it was kind of being poked and prodded out of me in such a public way.”

In his own life, Schnapp was surrounded by supportive friends and family; he realizes now that during that period, many of them said queer-positive things around him because they knew already that he was gay. “It was just, Ididn’t think it was a real thing,” he says, searching for the right words. “It was just the idea of being gay. I was like, ‘I’m straight.’ I just rejected that idea for so long.”

By Season 3 of “Stranger Things,” however, Schnapp couldn’t keep denying to himself that Will is gay, especially after his best friend Mike (Finn Wolfhard) says to him, “It’s not my fault that you don’t like girls.” But even as Will’s entire storyline in Season 4 revolved around his unrequited love for Mike — and he was actively playing him as a closeted gay teenager — Schnapp says he just refused to allow himself to connect to what Will was going through.

But once Schnapp decided to confirm publicly that Will is gay, that all began to change.

“It kind of blew up in the press, and everyone was like, ‘Oh, Will’s gay! Hooray!’” he says. “I saw all these comments on Instagram and TikTok. There was not one bad thing about him being gay. I was like, if he has all this support, then why should I worry about anything?”

With those thoughts bouncing around in his head, Schnapp started college at Penn just over a month later, and the mere act of meeting an onslaught of new people gave him the final push he needed. “All these new girls were starting to hit on me, and I was like, ‘I don’t like this. I don’t want this,’” he says. “I was like, ‘Holy shit. I know now.’”

The next weekend, Schnapp came home to see his sister, Chloe, off to college, and he decided she would be the first person he would come out to. “I can’t tell anyone else before I tell my own twin sister — she’ll kill me,” Schnapp remembers with a laugh. He wanted to tell her in the car alone, but, he says, “I was driving, and I just kept putting it off. Our house was right down the road, and she was like, ‘Why do you keep making these wrong turns?’ I was like, ‘I can’t do it, I can’t do it.’ Then we got home, and I was like, ‘Screw it.’”

Her reaction was peak sibling: “She was ecstatic,” he says. “She said that she would’ve hated the idea of me marrying another girl and having to compete with that girl for my attention. The fact that now it’ll be a guy, she was like, ‘Oh, he’ll be my best friend.’”

Then Schnapp went back to college — and, like a lot of LGBTQ kids still sorting themselves out, he slid back into the closet. “Being fully aware of it and just completely, blatantly hiding it, it was really hard,” Schnapp says. “It just made everything miserable for those months.” Schnapp’s mother became so worried about him that she visited him to see if he was OK.

“I couldn’t tell her how I was feeling without telling her what the problem was, so just one night at dinner, I was like, ‘This is it,’” he says. “She was like, ‘Finally, you told me!’ She said that she would talk to her friend when I was 12 and be like, ‘I know my son is gay. Do I have to ask him? How do I do it?’ The friend was like, ‘Oh, you just let him be and let him figure it out himself.’”

Schnapp visibly relaxes as he tells this story. “Just to know that I finally got it off my chest and she knew it was like, ugh!” He throws his head back. “The biggest breath of relief of my life!”

The dam broke. Soon after, Schnapp came out to his father, and his wider circle of friends. It was an exhilarating feeling, but he still hadn’t decided if he wanted to, in his words, “tell the world.”

“I remember being in the car with my mom and looking up out actors, because we wanted to make sure that I’ll be OK if I’m out, and they were all successful, super happy people,” he says. “In the end, I decided that if I was only out to my close circle, I would still feel like I’m hiding something. The only way to truly feel myself is to tell everyone.”

Noah Schnapp and Millie Bobby Brown at the Screen Actors Guild Awards on Jan. 29, 2017.Kevin Winter / Getty Images

Before he did it, however, Schnapp made a list on his Notes app of all the people that he needed to come out to first, like Millie Bobby Brown. “I kept trying to do it in person with her, and it was too hard,” he says. “So then I just FaceTimed her one day in the middle of a Party City and I was like, ‘Millie, I’m gay.’ And she was like” ­— here, he tries to approximate Brown’s English accent — “‘Oh, Schnapper! You told me finally!’”

Then there was the evening in early December when Schnapp flew into Los Angeles to see “Stranger Things” executive producer and director Shawn Levy and his family. He’d grown close with the Levys’ daughters, and their families had vacationed together; as they all ate late night room service in a hotel suite, Schnapp turned to them, took a deep breath, and said, “OK, guys, I have big news to tell you.”

“I can’t speak to what was churning inside him,” Levy says. “But it was such a lovely, comfortable, organic conversation. I was aware of how much cultural noise there was around Will Byers the character and his sexuality. I never spent a lot of energy thinking about whether that was true of Noah. I suppose that I wasn’t shocked by the revelation when Noah shared it, but I’d also be lying if I said I was expecting that day. I will say that the Noah I see post-coming out to the world is happier, freer and definitely more authentic than I’ve ever seen him before. And that makes me really happy for my young friend.”

A month later, Schnapp posted his coming out video to TikTok. “I love how he did it, which was like not making a deal out of it,” says Matt Duffer. “I mean, it was a powerful statement, but the simplicity of it — that is so Noah. We’re really proud of him.”

Now that he’s out, Schnapp says, “I think the way I act in Season 5, honestly, might be a little different. I will be fully aware of who I am. Knowing all of that about myself and being able to invest that in my character, I’m honestly just excited.”

When Levy is told about how much Will Byers ultimately helped Schnapp be able to come out, the call goes silent for a moment. “I think that’s incredible,” he says finally. “That a job helped actualize a person? How rarely does that happen for any of us? If this job helped Noah become his truer self — well, that may be one of the most beautiful outcomes of ‘Stranger Things’ that I’ve heard.”

Over the years, Schnapp has earned a reputation (similar to a certain web-slinging Marvel star) for playing loose with spoilers for “Stranger Things” on social media. “We sent him the first three scripts for Season 5,” Matt Duffer says. “I texted him and said, ‘Just don’t be a Tom Holland here.’ He laughed about it and said, ‘Of course not.’ And then he immediately put something on TikTok about them. But you can never be mad at Noah. He’s a sweet kid. He can’t help himself.”

The Duffers took that risk because they wanted to prepare Schnapp for what lies ahead for his character in the fifth season. “Will really takes center stage again in 5,” says Ross Duffer. “This emotional arc for him is what we feel is going to hopefully tie the whole series together. Will is used to being the young one, the introverted one, the one that’s being protected. So part of his journey, it’s not just sexuality — it’s Will coming into his own as a young man.”

Schnapp was supposed to be filming Season 5 over the summer until the writers strike suspended production, so he expects he’ll be taking a gap year at Penn whenever contract talks conclude. But he’s got plenty to keep him busy in the meantime. TBH, the snack company he launched in 2021, is set to bring its hazelnut spread to Kroger supermarkets by the end of August, and Schnapp says he’s keen to branch out into other foods soon.

(Left to right) Charlie Heaton, Winona Ryder, Millie Bobby Brown, Noah Schnapp, David Harbour, Natalia Dyer and Finn Wolfhard in “Stranger Things.”Courtesy of Netflix

To be clear, Schnapp isn’t managing day-to-day operations. “They send me these spreadsheets and stuff that I like to look at,” he says. “It’s really interesting to learn about for me.” But he is intimately involved.

“I was super surprised by just how quick he was to make decisions and how much of a strong opinion he had,” says Elena Guberman, TBH’s co-CEO. “He frequently scrolls our reviews, and when there is an opportunity for improvement — like someone received something broken in the mail — he always screenshots it and sends it over to us and is like, ‘Hey, can you explain this to me? How did this happen?’ He’s just been very engaged.”

Schnapp’s business ventures have expanded — he’s partnered with IHOP on TenderFix, a chicken sandwich delivery brand, and with Amazon on an ad for dorm room essentials — and he’s interested in developing a clothing line or alcohol brand in the future. His focus, though, remains on entertainment.

“From a financial perspective, the business stuff is definitely not where I make my money,” he says. “It’s just a passion project to keep me busy outside of the acting world.” He’s developing a series to star in following the end of “Stranger Things,” and he expects to keep acting “for the rest of my life.”

“He has too much fun doing it,” Ross Duffer says. “He just puts so much effort in rehearsal and comes with so many ideas. I think he loves it.”

With so much professional work on his plate, Schnapp says he hasn’t put “really any thought” into dating. “I’m just enjoying life, and if someone comes by, then sure — but I’m not actively trying to find a match,” he says. He’s not lacking suitors: After he came out, “all of a sudden, there was this influx of all these people in my DMs. And definitely some, like, big names that I didn’t know about.” He smiles, declining to elaborate further. “I just take it as a compliment and move on.”

Still, Schnapp isn’t afraid to put himself out there. In June, he went with his family to his first Pride in New York City, posting a photo of himself in the Washington Square Park fountain wearing a “Straight Outta the Closet” shirt. At the parade, he even jumped the fence and joined it.

“It was truly such a liberating feeling, just seeing my parents cheer me on,” he says, beaming. “I’ve never felt so supported and loved.”

Written by: Q1075

Rate it