Success in Hollywood is fickle, even for stars of massive hit TV shows. The most surprising rises and falls often arise when child actors attempt to transition into more adult roles. For every Kristen Stewart or Zendaya, there are hundreds of forgotten faces and names who never work again. The few that manage to break free from their commercial beginnings seem to choose projects for artistic merit rather than mainstream appeal. That’s something that “Stranger Things” star Finn Wolfhard seems to understand innately.
Since winning hearts as affable leader Mike Wheeler in the smash hit Netflix series, Wolfhard has managed to maintain a robust movie career between seasons of “Stranger Things.” He starred in the wildly successful Stephen King adaptation “It” and “It: Chapter Two,” as well as in “The Addams Family” and “Ghostbusters: Afterlife.” This year, he’s going decidedly smaller with a big swing, taking his first major indie film role in Jesse Eisenberg’s unnerving family portrait “When You Finish Saving the World.”
“I’m not concerned at all with staying relevant,” Wolfhard told IndieWire during a recent video interview. “I’m not opposed to doing commercial stuff and that’s not me saying, ‘I’m only going to do indies.’ I’m not one of those people. But to me, it’s a script-by-script basis. If I get a script that I really like and find something to relate to in the story or the character, then I’ll do it.”
In the new film, Wolfhard plays Ziggy, an awkward and terminally online aspiring musician, impressively holding his own opposite Julianne Moore, who plays his equally narcissistic and demanding mother Evelyn. Written and directed by Eisenberg in his directorial debut, the film feels like a mash-up between “The Squid and The Whale” and “Eighth Grade,” marrying the acerbic intellectualism of the former with the cringe-worthy teen awkwardness of the latter. Neither Ziggy nor Evelyn are very likable characters in the traditional sense, and the film’s tension mostly arises from watching them careen painfully off of one another.
“The character strikes this weird balance between kind of wanting to hug him and slap him in the face,” Wolfhard said. “Someone could read that script and interpret it as just a super obnoxious, arrogant kid and that’s it. For me, my goal in playing this character was to humanize him and make him just seem more dumb and young than anything.”
The similarities to “The Squid and The Whale,” the Noah Baumbach film that gave Eisenberg his start, are striking. Moore’s Evelyn is a darkly feminist take on the Jeff Daniels role, bringing a refreshing interpretation to the distant parental figure with impossible expectations and an aversion to showing affection. It’s so easy to hear the dialogue in Eisenberg’s voice that the parallels feel intentional. As a fan of “The Squid and The Whale,” Wolfhard picked up on it, too.
“It’s one of my favorite movies,” he said. “I’ve asked him about that. I said, ‘Do you think if you wrote this at my age, would you have played it?’ And I don’t remember if he said yes, but I feel like he would’ve. This is a part that he would’ve played at that point.”
Moore and Wolfhard play wonderfully together, each mirroring the other’s least attractive qualities even as they struggle to connect. An avid film fan, Wolfhard was excited and nervous to work with such a legend.
“I was super obviously intimidated because she’s Julianne Moore, and so I was just excited to meet her. We went for lunch one day and it was so nice and normal and I stopped getting so stressed about it,” he said. “I was scared because she’s so… I would’ve done anything. If she would’ve told me to stand there, I would’ve been like, ‘Okay.’ And I wouldn’t have said anything. If she would’ve commanded me around, I would’ve. But instead, she set up this environment where she just made me comfortable enough to try stuff in front of her…and it made me feel good because I really felt that she trusted me.”
Wolfhard is no stranger to building trust on set, as he has grown up alongside his “Stranger Things” co-stars over their years on one of the most popular TV shows in the world. Recently, he happily supported Noah Schnapp when he came out publicly, following a powerful storyline about his character Will’s unrequited love for Mike in Season 4.
“I’m incredibly proud of Noah for coming out publicly like that. I think it was so incredible and brave,” he said. “As far as the Mike and Will relationship goes, I always found it kind of funny, especially last season of Mike just being so clueless. I would imagine Mike is going to be totally accepting of Will, and I really want Will to have a really happy ending. And I think he will. What’s going to be so awesome about season five is that the Duffers are sort of trying to thread this needle of trying to get every character to have their perfect ending. So I’m excited to see what ends up happening.”
He may be hoping for Mike’s happy ending, but the rest of Wolfhard’s career is just beginning. “Stranger Things” is set to wrap after its fifth season, which won’t be released until 2024. If Wolfhard’s recent performance is any indication, we will be seeing a lot more from this young talent.
“I’m just excited to be a free agent,” he said. “I had very good job security of being like, ‘I’m going to go back next year to Atlanta and do ‘Stranger Things.’ That isn’t going to be a thing anymore. And so I’ll have a lot more freedom to pick what I want to do or to work on what I want to work on. So I guess it’s going to be a time-will-tell sort of thing. But I like doing movies like this, small movies about characters that I care about.”
A24 will release “When You Finish Saving The World” in select theaters on January 20.