“Are We Peers?”: Joseph Quinn, in Conversation With Lupita Nyong’o

Joseph Quinn

Joseph Quinn wears clothing and accessories (worn throughout) by Calvin Klein.

Joseph Quinn doesn’t mind being uncomfortable for a living. The 30-year old actor has a wealth of experience acclimating himself to the strange circumstances of his characters, from Eddie Munson, his breakout role in the cult hit Stranger Things, to his more recent turn in Gladiator II, in which he’ll star alongside Paul Mescal, Denzel Washington, and Pedro Pascal. Nowadays, he’s on the trail promoting A Quiet Place: Day One, the apocalyptic horror film—and third installment in the series—that finds him and Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o escaping relentlessly bloodthirsty alien creatures in New York City. Earlier this month, the co-stars got on a call to discuss their respective career arcs, working with big egos, and learning to advocate for yourself in the audition process.


LUPITA NYONG’O: Are you feeling relaxed?


NYONG’O: You’re in a suit?


NYONG’O: It’s hard to be relaxed in a suit.

QUINN: It’s a relaxed fit. You look relaxed. Are you relaxed?

NYONG’O: I’m a little nervous because I’m interviewing you. It’s not my usual position.

QUINN: It’s a weird line of questioning, isn’t it?

NYONG’O: I know. Have you done this before?

QUINN: Been interviewed?

NYONG’O: By a peer?

QUINN: Never. Are we peers?

NYONG’O: I feel like we are, don’t you think so?

QUINN: I would say so.

NYONG’O: What, you think I’m your auntie? No…

QUINN: Never. Never auntie.


QUINN: I’ve looked up to you for so long, so it’s weird to think of you as a peer.

NYONG’O: Well, I’m looking at your resume and you’ve done quite a bit of work, man. When did you start?

QUINN: Professionally?

NYONG’O: Yeah.

QUINN: I started at 21. I graduated when I was 21 from drama school. I was one of those jamming ones that got a job early. 

NYONG’O: Oh, look at you. You graduated and went straight to a job.

Joseph Quinn

QUINN: Yeah. Can you relate?

NYONG’O: I can relate. So you’ve been at this for 10 years?

QUINN: For 10 years now.

NYONG’O: How does it feel? Do you feel seasoned?

QUINN: At this point, I’d say I’ve learned some stuff. I’ve learned that alarm bells go off at certain places. Surrendering to that idea of, “I don’t know what’s going to happen when I go into this thing,” that lack of control is a little daunting. We like to feel like we have power over a situation. I do, anyway. But that’s what this business does—it requires you to be uncomfortable.

NYONG’O: Yes. I agree with that.

QUINN: Which is a useful skill in life. But it’s a peculiar thing, you go into a situation where you don’t know anyone and you try and make something, and there’s no rule book for that. But you do get better at it. If I use words like “cope,” it does make it seem far more perilous than it is, but—

NYONG’O: Well, I think that’s fair.

QUINN: You think?

NYONG’O: Yeah.

QUINN: See, I find it laughable when I find myself complaining about it, ever.

NYONG’O: It doesn’t sound like you’re complaining. It sounds like an observation.

QUINN: Maybe it’s more of an observation. But I just feel so lucky. I feel so fortunate to have this opportunity. It is a gift.

NYONG’O: It is a gift. And we’ve talked about this idea that acting, how you can get kind of self-involved and precious, right? We’re playing pretend for a living. But acting is unique in the sense that I don’t know how many jobs ask you not to be yourself. 

QUINN: Mm-hmm.

NYONG’O: And there’s a comfort in executing things when you are yourself, that we, as actors, take away. We’re taking away how we navigate the world and survive it, and we’re trying to occupy how someone else navigates the world. That is a very vulnerable thing.

QUINN: It’s vulnerable. And outside of the character aspect of it, it’s also the context. You go into a different job, and the context of your role in that job somehow bleeds into the reality of it, I find. I’m doing this war film at the moment. I have never been to war. I doubt and I hope I never go to war. That arena of conflict is so far away from my experience. But going into the context of it, you tap into different parts of yourself that are maybe dormant in other experiences, in different contexts. Which is so thrilling, but also it’s unsettling, and it’s supposed to be.

NYONG’O: Yes. What would you say has been the most unsettling job for you?

QUINN: Good question. Some aren’t unsettling.

NYONG’O: Okay. Such as?

QUINN: I found this job with you not unsettling.

NYONG’O: Yeah?

QUINN: It was daunting at the beginning, but everyday I had such trust in you and in Michael [Sarnoski, the director] and it felt like a big stage to be on. But there was also something kind of intimate about it. The fact that it’s just us for the majority of the film made it feel kind of small in a comforting way.

NYONG’O: Despite the scope of it, right?

QUINN: Totally. That felt comforting. Gladiator was challenging.

Joseph Quinn

NYONG’O: Yeah.

QUINN: We were so aware of the legacy of the first one and going anywhere near it felt a little arrogant, or just dangerous. But we had some wonderful company members and it was one of those “pinch me” scenarios where you find yourself in ancient Rome and wonder how you got there.

NYONG’O: Tell me about it. How did you get there? Where did the journey of that begin?

QUINN: It was very funny. I remember having an audition and hearing whispers of the fact that it was going to happen and I was so excited that they were making the film. And then Paul [Mescal] was attached and I thought, “Perfect.” And Denzel [Washington] then signed up, and there were a few other people involved, and it all felt like they were doing it right. So when I got the opportunity to throw my hat in the ring… I don’t know if you get this, but when you audition for something, do you relinquish the possibility of getting it after? Or do you imagine doing it when you are up for it? 

NYONG’O: Well, the audition process is hard because you have to manage your expectations, right?

QUINN: Of course.

NYONG’O: What I remind myself is that I had the role for the day. And doing my damnedest with that day, and trying to forget it as I can and move on, because it hurts when you don’t get it. What about you? 

QUINN: Well, I think there’s this myth of, “You don’t want to want it too much. They can smell if you want it.” And I think it’s the opposite. On productions, people have so many problems, and your job is to solve one of their problems. You’ve got to commit to it mentally before you’ve got the job. And nine times out of 10, you don’t get it and that’s difficult. But if you don’t invest in the character before you’ve been given the job, then you haven’t presented an argument. And you can bet there will be however many people that are making a very strong case. I mean, it’s not helpful to get into competitive narratives in this thing. You can’t be worrying about what anyone else is doing in the audition room. 

NYONG’O: Yeah. And that’s a very healthy way of doing it, to not be afraid of wanting something.

QUINN: Yes. Otherwise, you are kind of apathetic. We have such little control in this thing, but you can control your commitment.

NYONG’O: Yes. I remember when we were shooting, you whispered to me that you were up for this thing. I loved how honest you were about wanting it. And then you got it!

QUINN: Yes. Well, it was a very quick process. I was up for it for a week, and then within two weeks I had it. But that’s the thing, sometimes you’re wanting to be a part of an experience, and there’s something about it that you just want to–I hate using the word “explore,” but explore.

NYONG’O: Why do you hate using the word?

QUINN: I think it’s a little pompous. 

NYONG’O: Interesting. You’re allergic to grandiosity.

QUINN: Can’t do it. Well, because with acting, the medium is insular. With music, you’re playing an instrument. With art, you’re painting or you are sculpting something. The thing you’re being creative with when you’re acting is yourself, so it’s inherently self-indulgent. You must indulge yourself to express yourself. But if you’re kind of shining a light on it and saying, “Look at all the work I’ve done,” that just distracts me. I find it very hard to talk about it myself.

NYONG’O: I feel the same way with talking about my process. In fact, I’ve made some mistakes and talked about it more than I should have, and I’ve regretted it. It takes away the magic. Do you feel that way about your process?

QUINN: I don’t have one.

NYONG’O: What do you mean? You don’t have a process? Liar.

QUINN: I don’t have one.

NYONG’O: Are you serious?

QUINN: I don’t have a thing that I do, no.

Joseph Quinn

NYONG’O: What are you talking about?

QUINN: What am I talking about? I don’t have a list of things that I have to do to access a character. It’s just consideration. It’s reading it a few times. Every role requires a different route in, but I don’t have a process.

NYONG’O: You don’t have some touch points that you find yourself getting to?

QUINN: There are stages, definitely. I suppose that is a good way of referring to it. It feels like it’s cooking, like it’s in a place where I can present it and not feel overwhelmed by insecurity. But I don’t have a process or a way of approaching characters.

NYONG’O: I am fascinated by this response.


NYONG’O: Because you are such a detail-oriented actor. My process is mainly questions. I start with questions like, “What don’t I know about this character?” And then I try to answer them. It’s a chaotic process, but I still feel like I go through something before I show up on set.

QUINN: Of course. There’s a difference between preparation and process, I think. I don’t want to go in there and just see what happens. You’ve got to go in with something that will help tell the story and reveal things about the character in that scene. If you don’t mind me asking, what was your process for 12 Years a Slave?

NYONG’O: Look at us, two people who hate talking about process talking about process. But it is fascinating between actors, I have to say. Luckily, I was just coming from school. I remember panicking every day, just crying about it. And one of my best friends sat me down one day and said, “You don’t know how to act with Michael Fassbender, but you know how to act with Master Epps.” You have to just play your character and you know how to do that, so don’t worry about the egos of these people and what they’ve done before. That really did settle me. At that point, I’d been doing it for three years. I’d been investigating characters and trying things on.

QUINN: I suppose it de-mythologizes the situation you’re in because the myth isn’t true. Michael Fassbender is Michael Fassbender, but he’s a person. If you find yourself in a situation where you are working with someone that you’ve admired, more often than not, they’re just as nervous as you. That was a pretty profound realization in my case. 

NYONG’O: Yes. Where do you feel you got these wisdoms?

QUINN: Well, I suppose working with you was very pivotal for me.

NYONG’O: Really?

QUINN: Yes, massively. I wouldn’t have had access to a role like that if it wasn’t for the fourth season of Stranger Things, and that changed my life in certain respects. In other respects, it’s stayed much the same. But one thing is for sure: I wouldn’t have been able to do that film if it wasn’t for that. You are a generational talent, and a wonderful person. Charlie Bucket got the golden ticket for a reason, you are who you are for many, many reasons.

NYONG’O: Wow. I wasn’t expecting that to turn to me, but thank you. Thank you so much. Do you remember our first meeting?

QUINN: I do. I remember the camera test. You were very kind. You were very calm. I remember saying to you, “I’m nervous,” and you looked at me like, “So am I.” And I remember thinking, “Okay.” And you said some nice things. I think I said some nice things back. Do you remember that?

NYONG’O: I hadn’t remembered that, I have to admit. I remembered our first rehearsal. We had a rehearsal with Michael in his office. You walked in and you had a face of business.

QUINN: Did I? What did my business face look like?

NYONG’O: You were serious. You were ready to get into it, I remember that. And I remember being surprised by how different your energy was from Eddie Munson. Because obviously, I just watched you as Eddie Munson. Then I remember during the rehearsal, you were really invested. I remember just thinking, “I love this guy’s work ethic.” And now you’ve reminded me about that camera test. Yes, I was terribly nervous. So it was really nice to hear you say that.

QUINN: Yeah.

NYONG’O: That’s the thing, all of us are trying it out for the first time.

QUINN: Exactly. Thank you for saying that. Also, you don’t want to ever cross anyone else’s line, you know what I mean? Sometimes, those spaces can become one space, and that’s when it’s the best. Sometimes you’re a little bit at loggerheads with other people and you’ve got to give people space. What’s bad is when someone’s hand is on the emotional thermometer of the whole room and kind of dictates how it’s going to go down. I think I’d struggle being around that. And I’ve heard stories, but I don’t think I could–

NYONG’O: Stomach that.

QUINN: Yeah.

NYONG’O: What fascinates me about what we do is that, as actors, we don’t get to sit down and say, “Hey, this is how I like to do things.” Do you have a way you figure out what the negotiation of space is? Do you have any tricks, perhaps?

QUINN: I don’t think so. Acting is intimate. You are trying to figure something out. And in order to do that, you have to be able to make a fool of yourself in front of this stranger and everyone else. In my experience, all you can do is allow that person not to feel judged, I think. I definitely don’t want to feel judged. I want to kind of make a big mistake early on and see what that feels like around that person and in that environment.


QUINN: Also, what struck me when I first met you was your commitment to hydration. It was pretty extraordinary. I was like, “She’s not messing around.”

NYONG’O: I am not. Has it influenced you?

QUINN: Yeah, it’s compulsive now. But it’s good.

NYONG’O: On a totally different subject, you like to cook.

QUINN: Yes. I go through phases. I’m starting to develop a bit of a green thumb now. I’ve been in the garden a bit.

NYONG’O: Are you serious? What are you growing?

QUINN: I’ve got a pear tree, a plum tree. I’ve got my pansies going. I need to start my herb garden. I’m a total novice, so this shouldn’t be impressing you.

NYONG’O: Well, it is. What brought that about?

QUINN: Well, it’s spring now. I’ve been spending a lot of time in the kitchen, which is nice. I’ve got this nice balcony and it felt like the right time to make that part of the flat occupied. We can learn so much from people’s different cultures, cuisines. It’s something ceremonial. It breaks through any cultural difference. When you’re at a table and you eat something together, there’s that universal human experience, which is the need to be nourished. It’s the kindest thing you can do.

NYONG’O: I like that. So I very much look forward to you nourishing me. And you have nourished me in many other ways, so thank you for your friendship.

QUINN: Likewise, thank you.