On trip to Mystic, 'Stranger Things' star talks acting, fame

Gaten Matarazzo, who plays Dustin Henderson on the Netflix hit series 'Stranger Things,' poses for photos in the gazebo at Olde Mistick Village Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017. Matarazzo, 15, whose mother grew up in Waterford, was in town visiting relatives for the holiday and sat for an interview with The Day.  (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Gaten Matarazzo, who plays Dustin Henderson on the Netflix hit series "Stranger Things," poses for photos in the gazebo at Olde Mistick Village Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017. Matarazzo, 15, whose mother grew up in Waterford, was in town visiting relatives for the holiday and sat for an interview with The Day. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

"Stranger Things" star Gaten Matarazzo was in Mystic visiting family this past weekend. He had been having a normal enough time, making all the "necessary" stops at Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream and Mystical Toys. But it wasn't until he was strolling through Olde Mistick Village that his fame caught up with him.

"It's Dustin from 'Stranger Things!'" a man yelled before running over to snap a selfie next to the 15-year-old star — sparking a fan-free-for-all.

"The crowd just grew so big that we had to escape," Gaten says, recounting the experience which began in front of and weaved through the Grey Goose Cookery before ending in Franklin's General Store.

"I thought the windows in the back were an exit," he says. Instead, he was cornered in the shop's narrow walkways by a crowd of hysterical fans.

"It was one of the more overwhelming experiences I've had so far," he says. 

A day later, Gaten is seated with his mother for an interview with The Day in the Mystic Starbucks. He adds that the Mistick Village experience wasn't the first time he's been chased down in flash-mob fashion. It's happened at Six Flags (where, subsequently, he won't return) and also in Universal Orlando.

In fact, being tracked down by fans has become a near-constant reality for the teenager since "Stranger Things" became a hit on Netflix.

The show, which is about three boys who go on a "Goonies"-esque search for their missing companion, Will, is part science-fiction series and part ode to the 1980s. After the debut of its first season in the summer of 2016, "Stranger Things" became a global phenomenon which only grew when Season 2 became available on Oct. 27, catapulting its already-adoring following into a binge-watching frenzy.

Gaten's character, Dustin Henderson, is a favorite and contributes to much of the show's comic relief. But while his cute yet feisty personality certainly charmed audiences throughout the first season, it wasn't until Season 2, as his character took on a more central role in the plot, that the full range of his talent was showcased.

Born at New London's Lawrence and Memorial Hospital on Sept. 8, 2002, Gaten lived in Mystic throughout the first two months of his life until moving to Little Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey — where he still resides — to be closer to his father's family.

His mother, Heather Matarazzo, née Hendrickson, grew up in the Quaker Hill neighborhood of Waterford, graduating from Waterford High School in 1991.

During his two-hour interview inside Starbucks, Gaten immediately displays the personality that defines his charisma. He is at once hilarious and wise, he still has a bit of a childlike idealism untarnished by the sort of cynicism that most people develop as they grow older, and he exudes a tangible magnetism.

Since "Stranger Things" debuted, he's been quickly thrown into the limelight, appearing in commercials, on talk shows (Jimmy Fallon, Kelly Ripa, etc.), in music videos (Katy Perry's "Swish Swish"), and in several comedic short videos (most recently, Teen Vogue featured him driving a golf cart with Kelly Clarkson while singing "We are the Champions" and "We are Family.") As a result of this exposure, his fame has grown exponentially.

And while he says he is very thankful for all of his fans, he wants people to know he's is a regular person trying to lead a normal life. He still attends his public school in New Jersey, where he is a sophomore, and he still has to take out the trash.

"I'm still getting used to this," he says, while a starry-eyed barista asks for his order. "I don't think I ever will. I don't think there is a way to ever get used to this."

Sitting in public with Gaten is a peculiar experience. There's a keen sense that no matter where he is in the room, everyone's eyes are fixated on him. It's also evident that Gaten's presence in Mystic is rapidly spreading over social media as teenage girls, iPhones in hand, rush into the restaurant and cluster around the periphery as though ready to pounce.

Yet, despite whatever's happening in the background, Gaten seems to know how to focus. He's careful not to make eye contact with any of the girls so as to avoid another episode of Beatle mania-like frenzy. As he explains to one earnest teenage girl who asks for a photo, "If you're still here when I'm finished with my professional commitment, I'd be happy to take a photo then." He smiles at her and takes another sip of his black tea.

Throughout the interview, Gaten is calm and centered, charming and quick-witted, and he becomes visibly excited when asked about his passions — which include everything from Pokémon to singing.

"I love every Spiderman movie," he says enthusiastically, accidentally breaking a sugar packet in his hand and immediately licking the pile off his palm. "I'm not sorry," he says, looking up with a devious smile.

He also loves "Star Wars."

"The moment any 'Star Wars' music is played, I'm like, 'Oh, that's from 'Phantom Menace,' that's the music when he is fighting Darth Maul.' Or 'Oh, that's when he goes to Tatooine and meets Anakin.' I mean, I could probably recognize a spaceship just by the sound of it," he says.

And he adores Harry Potter, as evidenced by the gray and yellow Hufflepuff zip-up hoodie that he is wearing. When he makes a Harry Potter joke about liquid luck potions, his mother dissolves into laughter.

"Not to brag, but I feel like I make you laugh more than anybody else," he says to her with a sly smile.

"Oh, you absolutely do," she says.

"It's my goal to make her laugh," he explains. He turns back to his mom and says, "You're the one who has taught me to not be like other people."

"I let him make his own decisions," she says. "I've always said that if you hit a point where you are just done, and you don't want to do this anymore, you have to tell me. It hasn't gotten to that point though."

Heather says she was passionate about acting herself, dating back to her days in the Waterford High School drama club. She never pursued acting professionally but passed a love for the art down to her children, beginning with her oldest, Sabrina, who is now 19. Though Gaten's 14-year-old brother, Carmen, doesn't act, the two are in a band together called Work in Progress.

As Sabrina became more serious about acting, she started to look for a manager. Gaten, who was at that point 7 years old, accompanied his mother to one of Sabrina's interviews. While there, the prospective manager asked if he would be interested in singing or acting.

"Gaten sang a little something, and they then asked if he could read a couple of lines for them," Heather says. "After that, they started sending him on auditions."

He auditioned for two years, in fact, before landing his first gig, a small role in the Broadway show "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert."

But he didn't realize how much he loved acting until he played Gavroche, the young Parisian street boy in Broadway's "Les Miserables," when he was 12.

"I loved being on stage every night. It was definitely tiring, but I would do it again. I would," he says.

When "Les Mis" ended in March 2015, Gaten started trying out for television and film.

"His manager wasn't sure if he was suited for that line of work, though, because he had a bit of lisp," Heather says.

Two months later, however, he got a chance to audition for "Stranger Things."

"I hate to say it this way, but when I got the script for 'Stranger Things,' there was nothing where I thought that this was going to be great," Gaten says.

"People think when I got the call that I already knew how big it would be, but we had no idea. Even the directors were not aiming for the hit show of the summer; they were aiming for low key, small fan base, mini-series, that was it," he says. "That's not what happened at all."

Within two months of the show's debut, though, it was a hit.

"They were getting recognized walking in Paris, which was weird," Heather says. "We all kind of had a sense at that point at just what happened."

Having spent the near entirety of his freshman year on the set of "Stranger Things," Gaten admits that his closest friends, at the moment, are his co-stars of the show.

"We have a texting group," he says. "We just fool around and send each other pictures and stuff."

The cast and crew of the show, he describes, are warm and accepting.

"All of them are just wonderful people," he says, a fact that Gaten says contributed to his openness while on set, allowing him to pull aspects of himself into his character.

He relates some of his funnier memories, such as the time when Finn Wolfhard (Mike) sneezed on his face, or another time when Joe Keery (Steve) hid behind trees while pretending to be a spy.

"I literally thought the kids were going to wet themselves when Joe did that," Heather says.

He also talks about the personalities of his co-stars, all of whom he adores — a cast that includes Winona Ryder (Will's mother Joyce), Sean Astin (Bob), and Millie Bobby Brown, who exquisitely plays the character of Eleven.

Caleb McLaughlin (Lucas) is a "total germophobe," he says while imitating Caleb's hand sanitizing rituals. And Joe Keery is someone that he "looks up to."

"He is very smart. Very talented. Funny. Kind," he says. "We have serious conversations. We talk about work a lot and what we want to do when we are older ... He is considerate about your opinion. He never argues. If you're having a bad day, he listens."

Yet, throughout the whirlwind of the last year, Gaten says that his biggest concern is potentially getting caught up in the fame. For him, it is imperative that he continues to stay grounded.

"That's the one thing I'm scared of. I don't want it to ever go to my head," he says. "Ensuring that it doesn't is my own responsibility. I am the one who has to make sure."

At this point, his fans were growing more anxious waiting for his interview to end.

"You better go take photos with them now," his mom says. Gaten stands up and walks over to one group of girls. He smiles, politely offering to take photos, before literally vanishing into the crowd.

m.biekert@theday.com

Gaten Matarazzo, who plays Dustin Henderson on the Netflix hit series 'Stranger Things,' laughs with his mother, Heather, after tossing coins into the wishing well at Olde Mistick Village Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017. Matarazzo, 15, whose mother grew up in Waterford, was in town visiting relatives for the holiday and sat for an interview with The Day.  (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Gaten Matarazzo, who plays Dustin Henderson on the Netflix hit series "Stranger Things," laughs with his mother, Heather, after tossing coins into the wishing well at Olde Mistick Village Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017. Matarazzo, 15, whose mother grew up in Waterford, was in town visiting relatives for the holiday and sat for an interview with The Day. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Noah Schnapp, Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo and Caleb McLaughlin are seen in a scene from the second season of 'Stranger Things.' (Courtesy of Netflix)
Noah Schnapp, Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo and Caleb McLaughlin are seen in a scene from the second season of "Stranger Things." (Courtesy of Netflix)

Behind the scenes of "Stranger Things"

Warning: This contains spoilers

In the show, one of the most menacing forces featured are creatures called Demodogs. Early on, Dustin discovers what he thinks is a slug (in fact, it is a baby Demodog), and innocently adopts it as a pet, naming it Dart.

On where the idea of Dart came from:

Heather: When they wrapped the first season, the Duffer brothers took the kids aside to ask if they had any special requests for Season 2.

Gaten: I said, “I want Dustin to have a dog.” And they’re like “A dog?” And I was like “Yeah, I want him to have a slobbery English Bulldog. An English Bulldog would be Dustin’s dog.”

Heather: Well, he did end up with a pet ...

On acting out the heart-to-heart scene with Joe Keery (Steve) on the train tracks:

Gaten: That is my favorite scene of all time. Of course it is just like “Stand By Me.” I remember that it was just a good day. It was a really good day. Our biggest concern was how they would put it together.

They captured such a beautiful image and a sweet little moment. (Both Dustin and Steve) had been through so much in the past two hours alone. In that moment, they can just forget about it, even though they are dropping bait on the ground to get an interdimensional monster to come, so that they can kill it. That’s gotta be weird. So the fact that they were able to just talk, I think they were comforting each other.

It’s the fact that people have been through conversations like that before. Maybe it was with an older brother, or with your dad, or an older friend at school. People have had actual conversations like that. And I think that spoke to a lot of people. And their conversation wasn’t just about girls. It was about the fact that a character like Steve can get out of maintaining his reputation. You just don’t expect it. I will go back and watch that scene over and over again. I love it.

About director Shawn Levy setting up the mood of a scene:

Gaten: Shawn Levy was very good at making sure that we were in the moment and in character. And he would play music in the background to help set the mood of a scene. When Dustin discovers Dart eating his cat, Shawn played suspenseful scary music in the background so I could get into the feeling. I think he might have played the “Jaws” theme. In the scene where Dustin encounters Dart in the cave, he played the “Star Wars Dune Sea of Tatooine” song, which I think he did purposely because he knows I love “Star Wars” so much.

On Dustin’s signature sound effect “Grrrrr”:

Gaten: I’ve been doing the grrr forever. There is a guy on Vine who always does this in his videos. He is hilarious. I thought it was something everyone could do. But no, not everyone can. So I started doing it as much as possible.

I would do it on set and Caleb was like “Gaten you should do it.” So they had scripted Dustin talking about his “pearls” and I thought maybe I would add it there. Caleb was like “Dude, do the grrr.” I asked, and they said I could try it. And Caleb was totally geeking out when I did. Then everyone was like “That was genius.” And I started being able to do it more powerfully. I think it even has helped make my singing better. Grrrrrrr.

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