Stranger Things comes back after a three-year sabbatical with season 4, a considerably darker version of the franchise that will be released on Netflix in two parts, with the first seven episodes streaming on May 27 and the final two on July 1. The cast discussed playing more mature characters and embarking on a perilous trip that takes them to Hawkins, Indiana, the Upside Down, and beyond.

The new episodes will pick up six months after the events of season 3, which culminated in an epic clash at the Starcourt mall, and will follow the main group of friends as they struggle in the aftermath. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), Will (Noah Schnapp), and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) are not only separated, but they’re also growing up and dealing with unanticipated changes as they negotiate the challenges of high school.

According to Heaton, Jonathan is questioning “a lot about who he is and which road he should take.” “There’s a great deal of trepidation about what he should do.” Meanwhile, Will and Eleven are “struggling to [adjust] into high school,” according to Schnapp, who also worries about losing connection with Mike, who “may not feel like his best friend anymore.”

Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Max (Sadie Sink), Steve (Joe Keery), Robin (Maya Hawke), and Nancy (Natalia Dyer) are all learning that things haven’t gotten any easier in Hawkins, Indiana.

Will, like everyone else at home, is “certainly in an uncomfortable situation,” according to Schnapp, who adds that they are no longer “little pals in the basement.” They’re getting older and coping with more mature challenges.

Lucas, for example, is “going through a phase that a lot of kids go through when they’re teenagers, especially in high school,” according to McLaughlin. “[It’s] a really fragile stage of life… And I have the impression that Lucas is still trying to figure out who he is.”

On top of that, Max is suffering from his estrangement from Lucas, which is taking its toll on him. “He’s looking for a replacement,” the actor explains. “As a result, he goes out and ventures outside of the box,” says the author.

All of this is complicated by the fact that a new, much more terrifying supernatural menace is emerging from the Upside Down, while Eleven’s past, as seen in the first eight minutes, returns to haunt her.

And the more dangerous the threat becomes, the more fierce the battle to eliminate it becomes. “This season, we’re battling with firearms and swords and things that aren’t what I’m used to,” Schnapp says, describing the “crazy” nature of the situation.

Hawke explains, “There are a lot of supernatural, strange elements going on.” None of this, however, diminishes “their relationships, actual lives, experiences, and emotions.” Everything they’re going through is rooted or tied to reality.

The supersized season, which is five hours longer than the previous three and includes some episodes that are over 90 minutes long, is unquestionably the most ambitious yet for the series. “By far the biggest [season] we’ve ever had,” Matarazzo says, as he marvels at “how vast it is.”

“Just having these very varied settings to follow throughout the season, it’s never been done before,” Sink says, pointing to storylines set in California, Indiana, and Russia, where Jim Hopper (David Harbour) has been shown to still be alive.

“Like, ‘We’re not in Hawkins anymore,'” Harbour jokes, and Brett Gelman, who reprises his role as conspiracy theorist Murray Bauman, adds, “Spreading that flavor throughout the world was very much the purpose of this season.”

“I believe that the expansion and location is also an extension of emotional and relationship expansion,” he adds. “In Season 4, everything grows in every manner.”

Sink agrees, saying that the early episodes would undoubtedly seem different due to “the space between everyone,” as she puts it. “I believe it adds to the excitement.”

There are a few new faces to go along with the new locales. The star of Nightmare on Elm Street, Robert Englund, is the most well-known of them all.

With the series referencing not only that popular slasher trilogy, but also films like Hellraiser and The Silence of the Lambs, his appearance serves as a clear reminder of how much of a nightmare Stranger Things is this time around.

As a result, “there are folks who are in genuine, real danger,” Dyer says, remarking on how surprising it was to witness everyone go through their own set of twists and turns. “Like, we’ve never been in a situation with such high stakes or potential risk before.” That was both shocking and terrifying.”

“And [that] applies to every plot,” adds newcomer Joseph Quinn, who plays Eddie Munson, an older high school student. “It’s not just that one tale is a major thoroughfare. Every single plotline is teeming with risk and peril.”