One could argue that Stranger Things might not have been quite the same pop culture phenomenon it was in 2016 without Gaten Matarazzo. Sure, there were no shortage of compelling and instantly lovable characters in The Duffer Brothers’ immediately resonant ’80s throwback series for Netflix, but none can approach Matarazzo’s Dustin Henderson in terms of sheer ebullience. Dustin was “the glue” of the gang of kids in Stranger Things Season One—the “straw that stirs the drink,” to quote the great Reggie Jackson.
Imagine, then, how different the show might have been if Matarazzo wasn’t playing Dustin at all. Believe it or not, the curly-haired, multitalented 14-year-old actor wasn’t initially auditioning for that role when he first joined the group—instead, he was auditioning for the role of Mike Wheeler, which eventually went to Finn Wolfhard. At the time, “Dustin” wasn’t even what one would call a “major character” on the show, but as you’ve probably guessed, Matarazzo’s unique charms soon changed that.
This is just one of the intriguing little tidbits that came up during Paste’s recent interview with the Stranger Things star, as the show puts the finishing touches on Season Two. Taking advantage of Paste’s Atlanta locale, where Stranger Things is filmed, we met up with Matarazzo and his father—also named Gaten, coincidentally—on a weekend afternoon. Over chicken wings and quinoa burgers (Matarazzo is an avowed vegetarian), we discussed the nitty gritty of the cultural touchstone that Stranger Things has become.
Here are some of the biggest takeaways, straight from Matarazzo’s mouth.
On his earliest mindset toward acting and musical theater
Matarazzo: When was younger, I definitely thought musical theater was sort of more pure than film. I used to say I’d never go to film because we had to get it right the first time in musical theater. But then, of course, I started doing film and realized I loved it. Keep in mind that I was 8 years old when I said that. Now I know that the musical theater industry has little idea of what goes on in film, and the film industry has little idea of what goes on in musical theater. So I’m happy to have experience in both.
On his initial Stranger Things audition, and the role of Dustin
Matarazzo: Well, on Stranger Things I was one of about 900 boys auditioning, and it was for the role of Mike. They really didn’t have any idea of what Dustin was going to be like when I auditioned for it, so they only had parts written for Lucas and Mike. Dustin was sort of underwritten. I think he was going to be sort of a recurring character and not as prominent as he actually was on the show. Of course, after I ended up getting the role they changed the character to give him cleidocranial dysplasia, which is the condition I have, which I think really personalized the character and made him relatable.
On the challenges of scheduling and Stranger Things production
Matarazzo: There’s very little routine with what we do. You can go in at 6 a.m. and be done by the early afternoon, or you can go in the afternoon and be there until 2 a.m.
Gaten Matarazzo Sr.: Next week alone we have a 6 a.m. start on Monday, then Wednesday we go in at 3 p.m. until midnight, and then Friday we work until 5 a.m. on Saturday morning. Sometimes you don’t even know what day it is, exactly. And you never know when you’re going to get a call from the [assistant directors].
Matarazzo: I just do it because I love it. I actually like doing the night shoots more, I feel more energized during them. All the kids love doing them.
I ask if he still feels like “a kid.”
Matarazzo: Well, at least until I’m 18. But in my family, you’ll be a kid when you’re 50.
On the pop culture phenomenon of Stranger Things, and why it resonated with people
Matarazzo: It was shocking. I think it’s not only that it had a big cast of kids, but teenagers, adults—a whole, wide range of ages, so it appealed to a lot of different people. Of course it takes place in the ’80s, so it has the nostalgia for that era that is very popular now. But it also has a unique mix of genres, and they all complement each other. Mike and Eleven have their romance blossoming story, which appeals to a lot of young teenagers. Dustin and Lucas bring a comedy element to the show. Joyce has an intense drama being a mother. Hopper has his mysterious backstory that we don’t know much about. And that’s not easy to do; you can’t just smash a bunch of genres together and hope it works, they have to actually complement each other. Even the characters who are funny, such as Dustin, go through traumatic experiences.
On how the boys will be looking at Will in Season Two, after his return from the Upside Down
Matarazzo: I don’t know if “suspicious” is the right word, but they’re definitely worried about his well-being and keeping an eye on him. He’s definitely different than he was before he went to the Upside Down—not only is he stressed out, but he’s obviously coughing up slugs into sinks! He seems sicker than he was before he went there. But at the same time, I think the kids are sort of trying to pretend it didn’t happen and get back to normal, but it’s in the back of all our minds. Our friend was taken to another dimension and nearly killed. The audience does get to know Will better this time.
On further details about Season Two
Matarazzo: There are certainly a lot of questions to answer—not just “what” but “why.” Why was Will taken? What is the Upside Down, really, and what effect will it have on Hawkins? I can’t say much, but I can say that the rift is still there. It was never closed, so it’s probably only been getting bigger.
Matt and Ross [Duffer] have said they actually wanted it to be less of a season 2 and more of a sequel, a Stranger Things 2, if that makes sense.
One thing that is different is the level of attention from Netflix, obviously. They’re definitely a lot more focused on the show than they were last year. Last time we shot, there weren’t a lot of executives around. This time, they’re definitely around.
On the “Justice for Barb” movement that sprang up after season 1
Matarazzo: That kind of thing was so unexpected; it shocks you in a lot of ways because these are relatively small parts of Season One, but people are paying such close attention and care so deeply. I mean, Barb disappears in episode two. I think the reason it spoke to so many people is that she was ultimately the character a lot of people identified with—she was the good friend who got a bad deal. She’s looking out for her friend, who tells her to leave because she wants to hang out with the cool kids. And she doesn’t get a chance to get redeemed; she gets taken by the monster. It’s a sad story, but still, no one thought she would become the center of a movement. There are people who want to bring her back, but I don’t see how you can do that, given that the last time we see her… she’s really not looking too much alive. But I can at least say that we will be going deeper into the impact of her disappearance.
On the wild world of fan fiction
Matarazzo: Oh man. I’ve seen a TON of it. There was this one person on Reddit who wrote an entire outline of Season Two; I couldn’t believe the amount of detail that they put into it. I was like “Wow! This is really cool.” I was very impressed. Of course, some of it is just really, really weird. None of the fans can agree on where the focus should be. Some people think it should have focused more on Joyce; some think it should be been more about Mike and Eleven; some thought it should focus more on the teenagers.
On his colleagues
Matarazzo: Charlie [Heaton] is funny. If you can count on anyone to laugh during a take, it’s Charlie. And especially Finn, wow. You can really count on him to laugh during a take; we love that about Finn.
On how his life has changed since Stranger Things became a sensation
Oh it’s changed, definitely. We’ve been a lot busier, not just with filming the show but with publicity and media. It can definitely be a difficult thing when you’re trying to do school and work at the same time. I have that thought a lot, “How did I end up here?” But I just take it and embrace it and roll with it as much as I can. I don’t do it for photo shoots or fame; I just do it because I love acting.
The most surreal moment might have been meeting President Obama. It was really cool actually, they like announced us into the room. There was a man in a uniform who announced all our names in a booming voice, and we walk in and there’s the president. He was very cool, he wanted to talk details about the show. He had seriously watched Stranger Things; I remember he said “I love your show, the camaraderie between the boys, and you did a great job performing at the Emmys.”
On how many seasons Stranger Things could possibly run
Matarazzo: Well, the Duffers definitely have a good idea of how long they want it to go. The problem with a lot of shows is that they start out really strong and then decline as they run out of ideas. I know they don’t want it to go that way, so I think their max might be—this isn’t confirmed or anything—but four or five seasons at the most?
On his nonprofit, CCD Smiles Foundation, which helps kids with Cleidocranial Dysplasia
Matarazzo: It really is just to raise money for families that can’t afford to get proper dental care for kids who have it. I’ve seen a lot of confusion from people on social media who don’t seem to understand that we take care of our teeth—probably better than a lot of people take care of their teeth—but this is a condition that involves a lot of dental surgery and also back surgery for people. I have a very mild case of it, so I’m lucky.
On the choices open to him, such as college, Hollywood or a return to Broadway
Matarazzo: My dad and I were just talking about this yesterday. They’re tough decisions. College is something I’ve always said I wanted to do, but you’re going there to get a piece of paper that says you can get a job, but if I’m already working steadily and doing good work it makes you question your priorities. Right now I’m in my own film college, filming a TV show. Finn and Caleb were just talking about moving to L.A., and I was also thinking that might be a good call—we can all get a big apartment and split rent [he laughs]. A lot of times you can’t control what comes your way, so you just have to take advantage.
On what his “dream role” would be
Matarazzo: In the Broadway world, I’ve always wanted to play Valjean in Les Mis, since I’ve already played Gavroche. I’d also like to play the Phantom of the Opera, but I haven’t really thought about any film characters. You’ve got to have a whole lot of training for the Phantom role, vocally.
At the end of our lunch, Matarazzos Sr. and Jr. plan to head back to their nearby apartment and enjoy a rare break from the breakneck pace of Season Two filming. But when we leave the Brookhaven sports bar, only seconds pass before Gaten is spotted by a group of girls his own age, who immediately recognize him. Their faces drop into blank expressions of shock before erupting in joy, and they approach tentatively to request a selfie. Gaten good-naturedly chats with each of the girls and their parents while I take my leave.
It’s just another day in a post-Stranger Things universe.
Jim Vorel is a Paste Magazine staff writer. You can follow him on Twitter.