"Stranger Things" star Noah Schnapp can be seen in the World War II drama "Waiting for Anya" in theaters and on video-on-demand platforms Friday. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo
Feb. 7 (UPI) -- Noah Schnapp is spending his downtime from Stranger Things playing characters who are completely different from 1980s-era monster magnet Will Byers.
In the World War II family drama Waiting for Anya, in theaters and available via video-on-demand Friday, the 15-year-old actor plays the lead role of Jo, a French shepherd who risks his life to help Jewish children escape from Nazi soldiers into Spain.
Abe, a contemporary comedy set for release April 17, casts Schnapp as the titular aspiring chef who uses his love of food to bring together the sparring Palestinian and Israeli members of his family.
"The TV show is more stable. I can always look forward to it and then, when I have time off, I get to do movies and school and all the other things I want to do. I love both sides of it," Schnapp told UPI in a phone interview Tuesday. "It's nice to have a normal life and then get to do the cool things that I love to do."
Writer-director Ben Cookson saw Schnapp in Stranger Things Season 1 and thought he was a "standout talent" who would be perfect to play Jo in his adaptation of War Horse author Michael Morpurgo's novel, Waiting for Anya -- a story that Cookson notes is relevant in 2020 as people still are fleeing conflict zones and risking their lives to find a safe place to live.
"We wanted to target an actor who was going to have this big fan-base, as well, because you want this film and this story to find that young audience," Cookson told UPI in a separate phone interview Thursday.
"Hopefully, that fan base that perhaps hasn't seen many World War II films and perhaps aren't very familiar with European history -- and this dark chapter within it -- are going to have their eyes opened to what took place within living memory. Noah's fantastic in the picture."
Schnapp said yes to playing Jo because it was a challenging role in an inspiring story set in a place and an historic era he hadn't explored professionally.
"Being Jewish, I guess I could really connect with him. and I talked with my parents before about this whole time period and learned about it. The character is the hero of the story and he is super brave," the actor said.
To prepare for the project, Schnapp worked on his French accent with a dialect coach and learned how to properly corral sheep.
"They told me certain words to say to get them all to listen," he said. "It was cool. I lived there also kind of like on a farm with a bunch of sheep everywhere. I was really immersed in it."
Filming in rural Lescun in the Pyrenees was another selling point when Schnapp considered the job.
"Location matters so much. Definitely, this was really appealing -- getting to film in this beautiful region of France. I really enjoyed it there. You really disconnect yourself from the world being in the middle of nowhere," he said.
The chance to work with Jean Reno, Gilles Marini, Thomas Kretschmann and Anjelica Huston checked another box for Schnapp.
"Anjelica Huston -- she's an amazing actor, Oscar-winning," he said. "I was kind of scared in the beginning because she is so important and intimidating, but she was very nice and I learned a lot from all of the actors.
"I love getting to work with amazing actors because it kind of makes you look better. When they are so good at what they do, they help you do well, too."
Having cast-mates he liked also made it easier to deal with the film's serious themes of war, poverty and the separation of children from their parents.
"Being comfortable with everyone on set really helps to do these intense scenes when you are not worried about everyone looking at you and what they think. You can just kind of let go and let the scene happen," he said.
Abe takes place in Brooklyn and is a coming-of-age story that is literally closer to home for the native New Yorker.
"It's about food. I learned knife-cutting skills," he said. "I've always been a foodie. I love food! Who doesn't? So, it was definitely really cool to always be eating."
Schnapp expects the people he plays will remain with him throughout his life.
"All of these movies and TV shows, everything I've done, has taught me something important, something new that I didn't know before and led to where I am now," he said.
While he is consciously looking for work outside of the sci-fi and horror realm to avoid repeating what he does on Stranger Things, he wouldn't turn down a great part that fell into those genres.
"I always want to be changing things up and expanding," Schnapp said. "It's really cool to me to get to do different things and not always the same thing, but if there is a really good opportunity that would be in that genre, then, of course, I'll take it."