The Golden Age of Gaten Matarazzo

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Photo credit: Nathan Johnson
Photo credit: Nathan Johnson

Is it possible? Is it true? Have the Stranger Things kids really grown up?

I'm talking to Gaten Matarazzo, who, in the primordial era of July 2016, was once the babiest of all the baby Stranger Things kids—playing Dustin, the goofy one with the trucker hat—and he's telling me about moving into a new place with his girlfriend. Matarazzo is wearing a technicolored cardigan that's way cooler than anything in my closet, and probably yours, too. He still has that sweet-hearted grin, the one made of butterflies and confetti, and now, the slightest tinge of aged wisdom, the kind that only comes when you've lived a certain amount of life, and been through a certain amount of things. Sure, Matarazzo played Switch Sports until 1 a.m. the night before we met (he's a tennis guy!), but he's highly concerned about bathroom appliances, too. "The lightbulbs in my bathroom haven't been changed in a month and I'm completely fine peeing in the dark," he says. "I'm like, 'I should probably change those!'"

Well, fuck me. The Stranger Things kids have, in fact, grown up.


Seeing the likes of Matarazzo and his co-stars emerging from pubescent hibernation may very well prove to be the trendiest existential crisis of the summer, when Stranger Things returns this Friday for its fourth and penultimate season. For the record, Matarazzo was 14 years old when the show debuted, charming audiences with its '80s-hued horror mystery—which sees demons from an alternate dimension invade their tiny Indiana town. Now, Matarazzo is 19, with a handful of non-Stranger Things projects in the works, like starring in this summer's Honor Society alongside Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and the upcoming Broadway revival of Dear Evan Hansen. Outside of work, yes, he's uttering phrases that will make you feel deeply, ego-shatteringly old, like "working in the city" and "an apartment with three cats."

But there's still the main attraction, the Stranger Things of it all, one of Netflix's last true franchises, even if the past two seasons haven't quite matched up to the hype of the first. Clearly, Netflix is tossing every last one of its eggs into the Upside Down, splitting Stranger Things 4 into two gargantuan volumes—the first of which runs a whopping nine hours long across just seven episodes—released a month apart. It kind of needs to work. "Before [Season Three] I really didn't think much of it," Matarazzo says of whether or not he feels like a different dude after all these years. "I think people get a little bit more self-aware, self-conscious even when they get into their late teens, early '20s." Now, it feels like Matarazzo, a man who feels like he's on the edge of his Next Big Act, is suddenly equipped to bring Stranger Things to the beginning of the end.

Photo credit: Nathan Johnson
Photo credit: Nathan Johnson

First, though, we do need to know how Gaten Matarazzo is equipped to live in his own New Jersey apartment, with his girlfriend of four years, and the three cats, too, when most 19-year-olds are falling asleep in shitty dorm room bunk beds, sweating booze all over the bedbugs. "You know what's weird about it? Is that it doesn't feel weird," he says, like he's working this out in real time. Matarazzo only 20 minutes away from home, living with his best friend, free to play badminton or tennis or bowling (he's pretty stoked about rolling a 257 the night before) in Switch Sports whenever he damn well pleases. It's the dream, isn't it? Matarazzo oozes the vibes of a guy who's figured it all out—even if he'd argue that he absolutely hasn't—always smiling, laid back in his seat, game to talk for a solid 10 minutes about the New York Rangers's goalie situation.

That could, of course, change in a couple months. The arrival of Stranger Things 4 marks the start of the busiest summer for Matarazzo, since, well, the summer Stranger Things 3 dropped. On the big screen, we'll soon see Matarazzo in Honor Society, a dark comedy about an evil high school senior who tries to sabotage her peers for a shot at Harvard. (Matarazzo on his character: "Polar opposite of Dustin.") Later this summer, the teen will move across the river to a New York City apartment, when rehearsals for the newly-announced Broadway revival of Dear Evan Hansen fire up. He'll play the scattershot family friend of the Hansens, Jared Kleinman, in what'll mark Matarazzo's third Broadway credit. (After 2011's Priscilla Queen of the Desert and 2014's Les Misérables.) "I've been trying to get back on stage since I left when I was 12," he says, "It's the most fulfilling thing on planet Earth. You get to have the experience of starting a project and wrapping it up all at the same time, every single day."

As for what's next—after Dear Evan Hansen, Honor Society, and Stranger Things—Matarazzo's plans calls to mind Daniel Radcliffe, who escaped child stardom with barely a scratch, partially thanks to Broadway turns and delightfully bizarre independent film roles. "I think I'll just take some time to do weird projects, weird stuff that I probably wouldn't have had the balls to do before Stranger Things, Matarazzo says. "Just experiment a little bit, enjoy the work, learn. I really want to learn more from incredible people and take my time with it." Though he'd certainly head back into the blockbuster mainstream for one title: Star Wars. Nothing official, of course. He's just a fan. "I've been trying so hard that I might just show up to one of them," he says, joking, but would Jon Favreau really turn Gaten Matarazzo down at the door? "I should just walk in the background for one of them. That would be so great. I don't even care, man. I will do whatever."

Photo credit: Curtis Baker / Netflix
Photo credit: Curtis Baker / Netflix

If anyone's proved themselves virtuous enough of the Jedi mantle, it's this man and his beautiful cardigan. The actor has brought an unquantifiable amount of awareness to the genetic bone condition he was born with, called cleidocranial dysplasia (CCD). It affects the development of the jaw, skull, teeth, joints, and often clavicles—Matarazzo is missing his entirely. Since CCD often necessitates surgeries not covered by medical insurance (he's has had four so far), Matarazzo co-founded a nonprofit, called CCD Smiles, to raise funds to cover them. What's surely helped on the awareness end is that Stranger Things creators Matt and Ross Duffer wrote Matarazzo's condition into the script, so that Dustin not only has CCD, too, but often makes cracks about it. "The segues into it are so natural," he says. "It makes me emotional thinking about how weirdly accurate they bring it up every season. There's always a little reference in a weird little joking manner. It's the way I would joke about it with my friends."

Matarazzo received his diagnosis two days after birth, started seeing doctors at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia when he was eight, and had his first surgery at 14, to start extracting his baby teeth and pulling down the adult ones. (Another symptom of CCD: none of that happens on its own.) "There were days in which I would go to the orthodontist, it would hurt a lot. But I would look forward to it because it was one of the only environments in which I got to walk in and feel like an equal rather than feeling talked down to. It was one of the only times in which I felt genuinely, truly respected," he says. "I was in a hospital where there were kids dealing with conditions that were very much life-threatening in incredibly horrific ways. And I always saw how parents would always cover their kids' ears when talking about what they were going through. I understand the desire and need to do that, like to feel like they aren't scared. But kids are smart in ways that I don't think adults will ever be able to understand. They are able to understand energies and know what's going on."

So yes, Gaten Matrazzo, two years away from his first legal beer, always feels like the most carefree of the Stranger Things lot when they're all grouped together on pressers. It takes a certain amount of life, and going through a certain amount of things, to get there. "It kind of felt like this old thing that I used to do," he says of the whole press junket, premiere, and promotion train. "It's like we don't really do that much anymore. I just realized, No, we do. It's just we haven't been able to in so long." The rap on this batch of Stranger Things episodes? The show is honest-to-god spooky, now. Hawkins is once again home to another Big Bad, a telekinetic mess of flesh and bones by the name of Vecna, who looks like Freddy Kreuger if you took the sweater off. Volume One has serious Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire tones, where the kids don't look like kids anymore, sure, but they actually show signs of trauma from having the golden years of middle school mucked up by a sentient tentacle monster. "They're growing up, despite their kind of desire to cling onto a bit of lost childhood," Matarazzo says. "Because they definitely lost a lot of experiences they could have had early on because they needed to focus on saving the world. Which is always a bit of a dilemma, I think."

Photo credit: Nathan Johnson
Photo credit: Nathan Johnson

What's bewildering to even Gaten Matarazzo is that this season sees Dustin becomes the unofficial leader of the Hawkins gang. Even though he'll still break into the occasional high-pitched squeal when things go to shit, Matarazzo imbues Dustin with smartest-person-in-the-room energy, as the gang begins to understand the bizarre physics of the Upside Down. "I feel like I'm free to make choices in any way that I really want to and it'll still feel like Dustin, because I've been playing him for seven years," he adds. "It really is like a second nature." And if you were at all worried about whether or not Stranger Things's prized bromance—the friendship between Dusty Bun and Joe Keery's Steve Harrington—would get enough play this season... don't. Plenty of meme-deserving banter to go around. Matarazzo's greatest laughing fit of the day comes when I inform him that Keery, in an interview with Vulture, called him "the 60-year-old uncle that I never had." I ask if that makes Keery the nephew. "Yeah, that sounds about right," Matarazzo says. "I think it flip-flops. "I feel like there are certain days in which I'm just the giggly little brother, and then there are others where I feel like I'm the child wrangler."

Thanks to Tom Holland's original sin, any young actor who so much as utters a spoiler in their own head has committed a punishable thoughtcrime. So Matarazzo will genuinely be damed if he so much as teases Stranger Things's next and final season. But he does believe it needs to have a destination point. "Of course I'm going to be heartbroken to leave the show behind," he says, "but also I'm just glad that they have an end in sight. I think every single show needs that."

One last volley for Mr. Matarazzo in this proverbial game of Switch Sports tennis. Does he believe that David Harbour has long known how Stranger Things ends?

"No, he doesn't! No. He doesn't. If he knows, I'm so mad that he knows. They won't tell me anything," he says before pausing. Matarazzo goes quiet, and seems to reconsider his mortal existence before lighting up again.

"No, I call bullshit!"

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