There’s a lot to love about South Jersey’s Gaten Matarazzo: his wide grin, that easy giggle, the unruly mop of curls and an undeniably sweet disposition. There’s also a lot to respect: a singing voice that’s landed him roles in 3 major Broadway productions, and acting skills that made him a breakout star on the Netflix hit “Stranger Things.”

Matarazzo is a star on the rise, especially after this summer’s release of Stranger Things Season 4, which featured his character – Dustin Henderson – in an expanded role. But he’s still, in so many ways, just a kid from SJ.

Caleb McLaughlin, Noah Schnapp, Millie Bobby Brown and Gaten Matarazzo at the “Stranger Things” Season 1 premier in 2016, Stranger Things premier photo: Charley Gallay

Matarazzo, now 19, was raised in Little Egg Harbor Township and graduated in 2020 from Pinelands High School. He stumbled into a career in entertainment; he was at a showcase to cheer on his older sister, also a performer, when a manager spotted him. “I didn’t even know what it was, and I was like, ‘Yeah, ok, sounds fun,’” he says. Matarazzo was only 7, and that chance encounter led to his first role in the Broadway musical “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” Soon after, he was cast as Gavroche in “Les Miserables.”

His first foray into television (if you don’t count one 2015 episode of “The Blacklist”) was meant to be something of a bit part. “When I first read for the show, Dustin had 2 lines in the script,” Matarazzo says. That’d be Dustin Henderson, the nerdy, sometimes-shrill, big-hearted comic relief of “Stranger Things,” the Netflix show created in 2016 by Matt and Ross Duffer – aka The Duffer Brothers – that would turn into an utter smash.

“When the Duffers wrote Dustin, they knew he’d be the comic relief, but he was originally a cliché, blank slate type of character,” Matarazzo says. That’s part of why, believe it or not, he didn’t want the part.

“I actually auditioned for Lucas [played by Caleb McLaughlin],” he says. “When we got the offer for Dustin, my manager was kind of ticked off.”

But Dustin didn’t stay a blank slate for long. Instead, Matarazzo imbued the character with all his own goofiness and amiability.

“I basically showed them how funny I could be, and they would write things into the show. A lot of Dustin’s lines were based on stuff I’d say off-camera. Like Dustin, I love food, so I’d always joke about that, and they wrote it in,” he says. “I’ve seen tons of quotes made into memes. People always say Dustin is one of their favorite characters.”

And over the show’s 4 seasons, the character has developed into something much deeper than comic relief. When the season’s final episodes began streaming in July, a review on one popular entertainment site demanded, “Give Gaten Matarazzo an Emmy now!”

Matarazzo’s portrayal of Dustin has done more than just entertain. He’s also been able to raise awareness around cleidocranial dysplasia (CCD), a condition both Matarazzo and his character share. It stunts or prevents bone development, affecting the skull, jaw, teeth and other bones. Matarazzo, for instance, was born without a collarbone. It’s what resulted in his diagnosis at just 2 days old, and led to years of treatment at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The year after “Stranger Things” premiered, Matarazzo was back at CHOP for surgery to start pulling down his adult teeth.

I hope I can raise awareness, because there are so many people who have that and other rare diseases, and it never gets the attention it deserves.”

Matarazzo has had 4 surgeries so far. That’s pretty typical of CCD, but insurance companies don’t always cover those procedures. To help other kids with the condition, Matarazzo supports a nonprofit called CCD Smiles, which works to raise awareness and funds to cover surgeries.

“People tell me they’re more comfortable now, and they feel like they’re not alone,” he says. “Because someone showed they have CCD on TV, they can embrace it. I feel honored to be a person who can do that. The Duffers made me feel better about it, and I’m glad I can pass that on. I hope I can raise awareness, because there are so many people who have that and other rare diseases, and it never gets the attention it deserves.”

The last decade has been a bit of a whirlwind for Matarazzo, who was acting professionally since before his 10th birthday. “For a while I just had to give up normal kid stuff,” he says.

Since 2019, he’s hosted “Prank Encounters,” a Netflix hidden-camera show. He’s a repeat guest on late-night talk shows and has been interviewed by everyone from WIRED to Esquire. But even as his fame has grown, Matarazzo has managed to keep his teen years shockingly normal. He continued attending his public high school in Little Egg Harbor Township, where he was a member of the Pinelands Thespians theater troupe. Between 2016 and 2020, he had roles in Monty Python’s “Spamalot,” Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Cinderella,” “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” But those musicals weren’t on Broadway – they were Pinelands Regional High School productions.

In July, he did return to the Broadway stage, stepping into the role of Jared Kleinman, the sarcastic family friend of the title character in “Dear Evan Hansen.” When asked by Jimmy Fallon if going back to Broadway was “like riding a bike,”

Matarazzo said it was “more like getting on a motorcycle.” Matarazzo’s also flexing his acting muscles as the romantic lead in the new Paramount original film “Honor Society.” It’s next in what promises to be a long list of successes for a talent like Matarazzo’s.

“I’ve waxed lyrically about that boy in various interviews and I never get bored of it really,” says fellow Stranger Things cast member Joseph Quinn, 29 – who plays Eddie Munson in Season 4 – in a recent Radio Times interview. “He is an extraordinarily talented young man. His playfulness, his timing… He’s just extraordinary. And being near that, especially in someone so young, is a really thrilling thing. I’m so excited to see what he’s going to do with his career.”

Of course, there’s one thing Matarazzo still has as his #1 goal: “If anyone from Disney or the Star Wars movies is reading this,” he told SJ Magazine back in 2016, “please, please, let me be a padawan. Or a rebel soldier. Or something. I’ll stand in the background, anything. Just let me hold a light saber.”

But a galaxy far, far away will have to wait for the Upside Down to be resolved. The Duffer Brothers recently confirmed that season 5 will be the last for the Netflix series, or at least the stories involving the Hawkins gang of kids. They’ve hinted sequels and prequels could keep things strange, or stranger.

Matarazzo says it’s bittersweet knowing the next filming will wrap up what has been the defining role of his career, but notes it needs to end while he and his fellow actors can still get away with playing teens chasing monsters.

Meanwhile Matarazzo’s role as Evan Hanson’s wise-cracking sidekick will keep him busy until the show ends its Broadway run on Sept. 18. The young star told reporters he’s a little terrified about heading back to the stage.

“I’m also stoked to be back, especially in a show I love so much,” he said. “I quite hope getting back on reminds me how much I need this experience and why I love it so much.”

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