Meet the Kids from ‘Stranger Things’: Finn Wolfhard and Gaten Matarazzo on ’80s Inspirations & Hollywood Dreams

The kids who play Mikey and Dustin spilled the beans on their first "full" acting experience from the very basement where "Stranger Things" began.
Kurt Russell in John Carpenter's The Thing
Tom Cruise and Lea Thompson in All the Right Things
Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Kurt Russell in John Carpenter's The Thing
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Young actors Finn Wolfhard and Gaten Matarazzo didn’t have a lot of experience coming into Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” but that ended up working to their advantage.

The ’80s-set thriller is just the fourth role for Wolfhard and the second gig for Matarazzo. Kept from working in Hollywood too long, that means both of them remain untarnished — and better for it. Wolfhard and Matarazzo have the natural screen presence of children who are just being kids.

Wolfhard plays Mikey, the leader of the group searching for their missing friend. “He can be really precocious at times, really funny, and then really serious — solemnly serious about finding his best friend, Will,” Wolfhard said. “And I think that’s why I like him, because he can be so relatable to people who grew up in the ’80s. They can be like, ‘Hey, I was kind of like that,’ or ‘I had a friend like that.'”

Matarazzo’s character, Dustin, “is a gregarious, foul-mouthed 12-year-old boy,” the young actor said. “He’s really outgoing, and he’s smart. He’s not really brave. He’s a coward at first, but he really wants to be brave when he needs to go find his friend. Everyone has their own part in the group: Mike is the leader; Lucas is like the strong person. He’s realistic; Will is the one we protect, and Dustin is the glue that keeps everybody from separating. He keeps everyone together.”

IndieWire talked to the child stars on the set of “Stranger Things” (along with a few other reporters), pulling up a chair at the very table the characters gather around on the show to play Dungeons and Dragons. The two discussed their audition process, their favorite episode and where their love of ’80s movies came from. A lightly edited transcript follows.

READ MORE: Meet ‘Stranger Things’ Breakout Millie Bobby Brown, aka Lucky Number Eleven

What was your audition process like?

WOLFHARD: My agent e-mailed me and said, “This part is perfect for you,” because I’m obsessed with retro ’80s movies. “The Goonies” is one of my favorite movies, and “Sixteen Candles,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” — all those movies. So I read the script and I immediately fell in love with it. Then I auditioned for it, and they apparently really liked it, so we Skyped. We talked about movies that we liked, and we just talked like we were best friends, and they were like, “Oh, by the way, do you want to come to L.A. to do a screen test?” And then I did the screen test, and they asked me back again, and that was it.

Caleb McLaughlin, Noah Schnapp, Millie Brown, Gaten Matarazzo seen at the red carpet premiere in support of the launch of the Netflix original series "Stranger Things" at Mack Sennett Studios on Monday, July 11, 2016, in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Netflix/AP Images)

MATARAZZO: Mine was a little different. I’m from New Jersey, so I went straight to New York and they had me read for someone. I originally auditioned for Mike, and they said I didn’t look demanding enough. So they said, “Come in for the more quirky, funny [character]. He’s the comedic relief.” But they had me read Lucas’ lines. So I originally auditioned for Mike, then I went in for Dustin reading Lucas’ lines. So it was really complicated. [laughs] It was like, “Am I reading for Dustin, or Lucas, or Mike? I don’t really know.”

Then that’s when they had me Skype with the Duffer brothers, and they told me I would be going in for Dustin, Before that, they were talking about what kind of ’80s movies I like, and I said I like “Jaws” and “Stand By Me” and all the classics. So I flew to LA for the final audition, and I was there with Finn — that’s where I met him. And I actually met Millie [Bobby Brown] there, too, very briefly. But I read with Finn, and after that, I was the first of the kids to be cast.

What’s been your favorite episode to film so far?

MATARAZZO: Probably the coolest scenes to film were in Episode 8. That’s when all the action happens.

WOLFHARD: Yeah, 7 and 8 have been fun to film. I really liked shooting 1 and 2… 3 and 4 were really fun to shoot with Shawn Levy, who took over for two episodes.

What do you think your favorite memory from the production will be?

WOLFHARD: Learning things. I learn a new thing every single day about acting, about directing, about producing.

MATARAZZO: Yeah, when I was at home I would do little movies, and we wouldn’t know how to change different shots or any of that stuff. We know the things you do with cameras now. I’ve learned so much. We just did a little movie thing for school earlier, and now we know what shoulder shots are, two shots–

WOLFHARD: –three-shot, racking shot… I knew stuff from before — because I really want to be a director or a screenwriter when I grow up — and this is like a total boost up for my future career. The more I read scripts, the more I learn about scripts, basically.

MATARAZZO: Yeah, it’s great to have a good relationship with the directors and learn about things you do with cameras, and how you direct. We really pick stuff up from Matt and Ross. They’ve really helped us in the past six months.

Stranger Things Season 1

When you guys are on set, are you asking those questions between scenes? Are you talking to people all the time?

WOLFHARD: We don’t really bring it up. We just start talking. Matt and Ross just start goofing around. Sometimes we all goof around between takes. If it’s a long camera setup, we all just start talking and goofing around, and it just progresses.

MATARAZZO: You can be talking about one thing, and it can become a totally different story five minutes later. And we’ll just pick up on things. A lot of times we’re not even talking to them when we pick up on it. We’ll be just listening to what’s going on.

WOLFHARD: Matt and Ross, I love their directing because they’re straight to the point. Because some directors are like, “Oh, um… Do it like…” — like super slow and super philosophized. And they’re like, “That sucked! Do it again, but better!”

MATARAZZO: [laughs] But they’re still nice, they’re nice guys.

WOLFHARD: Oh, yeah! They’re just totally straight to the point, and that’s why we progress so much in the show. That’s why we’ve gotten eight episodes done in five months.

MATARAZZO: And for such young people, they’re really great directors.

WOLFHARD: And they’re incredible people in general.

You guys mentioned liking a lot of ’80s movies. Was there anything in particular that you drew upon when you were making this, or that they told you to think about for your characters?

WOLFHARD: “E.T.,” “The Goonies”…

MATARAZZO: Yeah, a lot of movies that really relate to the relationship with children: “The Goonies,” “Stand By Me,” “E.T.” And there are a lot of movies that all go into [“Stranger Things.”]

WOLFHARD: They all go into this. Like a tribute.

MATARAZZO: This is all about friendship, and there are so many ’80s movies we can watch to pick up on it. “Okay, so that’s the tone, that’s what’s going on, that’s how you should act.”

WOLFHARD: There’s a “The Thing” poster back there. That just kind of shows– Whoa, my voice cracked. [laughs]

How did you guys get started on those movies? Was it just your parents showing you classics, or did you find them on your own?

WOLFHARD: A combination, maybe.

MATARAZZO: I started doing theater, musical theater, because of my sister. She’s a singer, she’s an actress too. And the reason I started doing this — thank you Sabrina — was, “I want to be like my sister.” And so I just started acting from there. But I was like, “I’m only going to do musical theater for the rest of my life. I’m never going to do TV.” And whenever I’d get auditions for TV, I’d be like, “Okay, whatever. I’ve got a lisp, so they’re not going to take me.” And then I started doing this, and I guess it was my sister that got me into the acting thing.

WOLFHARD: It’s a dual combination for me. My dad, who is a screenwriter, showed me all these great movies. He showed me “E.T.” when I was 2-years-old, and I just kind of progressed from there. It was also my brother. We’d always watch movies together, and he’d do these voices and he’d always want to do skits and he’d come up with stuff with me. And I don’t think I’d be where I am now if it wasn’t for my dad and my mom and my brother, because they all combined and formed my love for filmmaking, because they all encouraged filmmaking in the house.

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