Stranger Things Have Happened
Netflix fans fall in love with Little Egg Harbor teen
By Kate Morgan

At 14, Gaten Matarazzo is on his way to becoming a household name. The Little Egg Harbor teen stole America’s hearts this summer as the delightful Dustin in Netflix’s ’80s-inspired hit “Stranger Things.” In real life, Matarazzo and Dustin are sort of, well, the same. Matarazzo’s quick wit and upbeat attitude are outweighed only by his sheer sweetness. It’s why fans of his show have fallen in love with the young actor, and why he’s loving them right back.

You got into acting almost by accident – how did that happen?
My sister did a lot of community theater and other stuff around Jersey. She was looking for a manager, and she went to a showcase to perform. My brother and I went along, and this lady looked at us and said, “Do you guys want to act?” My brother was just like, “No.” I was 7, I didn’t even know what it was, and I was like, “Yeah, OK, sounds fun.”

You landed your first Broadway role in “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical” in 2011, and the next year you were cast as Gavroche in “Les Miserables.” What was it like to be a kid on Broadway?
I did Priscilla and then the Radio City Christmas Spectacular before Les Mis, but I’d actually auditioned for Gavroche first and didn’t get it. With other auditions and other roles I didn’t get, I just had to learn to forget about it, but Les Mis I was obsessed with getting. I needed to get my dream role.

I was on Broadway for a year, and then on the tour for six-and-a-half months. I’d go to school in the morning and then miss my last period of the day. I’d do my homework at the theater when I wasn’t onstage. We’d get out at 11. I’d get home about 1:30 am and then get up at 6:30 am to do it all over again. For a while I just had to give up normal kid stuff.

Do you consider acting your job, or is it still just a hobby?
I knew when I signed my first big contract I was signing up for work. It definitely is my job, which people don’t always understand. Whenever I say the theater is my workplace they kind of laugh at me, but it definitely is hard work.

Show Photos courtesy: Curtis Baker/Netflix

Show Photos courtesy: Curtis Baker/Netflix

Your character, Dustin, is a fan favorite. What’s it like to be part of something so huge?
When [show creators Matt and Ross Duffer] wrote Dustin, they knew he’d be the comic relief, but he was originally a cliché, blank slate type of character. When I first read for the show, Dustin had two lines in the script. I actually auditioned for Lucas [played by Caleb McLaughlin]. When we got the offer for Dustin, my manager was kind of ticked off, but [the Duffer brothers] knew they wanted me for Dustin.

When they met me 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. That whole scene with the backpack full of food was based on me. I’ve seen tons of quotes made into memes. People always say Dustin is one of their favorite characters. Sometimes they say it’s a toss-up between Dustin and Eleven [played by Millie Bobby Brown].

Dustin has cleidocranial dysplasia, a condition that affects the development of bones and teeth. You have CCD in real life. What has the response been to the mentions of it in the show?
I’ve been getting messages from people who have it and their families telling me how much they appreciate that I embrace it rather than try to hide it. I wanted to show my arm trick on camera, and explain how and why I could do it. I think it helped people come out of their shells. People tell me they’re more comfortable now, and they feel like they’re not alone. 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.

“Stranger Things” is set in 1983, long before you were born. Did you have to learn about the ’80s?
My dad was 16 in 1983. He taught me all about the ’80s, especially movies and music. “Stranger Things” was inspired by a bunch of ’80s movies, like “E.T.,” which came out in 1982, and things like “Jaws.” I watched all those movies. My dad showed me all the music he was into, like The Clash and The Smiths. Everything he liked was in the show, so that was really cool.

It was fun to use the ’80s toys and different props in the show. During the scene when we’re in the basement and trying to talk to Lucas over the walkie-talkie, the antenna was so long we kept accidentally hitting Millie in the face with it.

All of the lead actors in the show – besides Winona Ryder and David Harbour – are kids. Is it fun to work with other actors your age?
We all really like each other, which is great, but when we’re filming it can be hard because we make each other laugh. The worst giggly day was our first day of filming. We were shooting the Dungeons and Dragons scene. During his really intense lines before he puts the demogorgon on the table, Finn [Wolfhard, who plays Mike] sneezed. But then he looked up really quick and just kept going, and the way he did it was so funny. Caleb started laughing, but he was holding it in and tears were flowing down his face, which made Noah [Schnapp, who plays Will] laugh, which made me laugh. The Duffers were like, “Oh no, what did we get ourselves into?”

It’s tough to get together because we all live halfway around the world from each other. Millie’s in England, Noah and Caleb are in upstate New York, and Finn’s in Vancouver. We Facetime a lot, and when we do press we hang out as much as we can.

Your mom said you went to Acme for milk and were talking to fans for an hour. How are you handling the sudden recognition?
I love my fans. They do come up to me a lot and ask to take pictures with me, and I just started this thing where if they take a picture with me, I take a picture with them on my phone and I post it on my Instagram. The show wouldn’t be where it is now without them, so I want them all to know how much I appreciate them.

I’m getting to do really cool stuff, like Chelsea Handler’s show and “The Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon.

What will you be doing until filming starts for “Stranger Things” Season 2?
I really need to focus on school this year. I’m a freshman at Pinelands High School. I wasn’t there for most of September; I was traveling in Europe and then L.A. doing press, but I got all my schoolwork from the high school online and was able to do that with a tutor. The thing about my school that’s really great is they have a really awesome theater program. I was the lead in my eighth grade play last spring, and I had to drop out of the fall play because of my schedule but I’m hoping I can do some shows at school when I get back. I’m really just trying to be a normal kid.

You said Gavroche in “Les Mis” was one of your dream roles. What’s the next dream role you hope to land?
If anyone from Disney or the Star Wars movies is reading this: 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. 

October 2016
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