Like most 17 year olds, Gaten Matarazzo has a major case of senioritis. Just a few hours ago, he was at a downtown museum on a field trip in New York City. He loves school, but these days he spends most of his time in the music room of his New Jersey public high school practicing piano and learning to read sheet music. (“I thought I was really bad at it, but apparently I’m pretty good at it,” he says.) He just wrapped his school’s production of the musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee; Matarazzo played Leaf Coneybear, which he calls his “dream role.” And on Monday nights he has a standing appointment with his immediate family (“of 23 people,” he jokes) for their weekly dinner.
“Because my grandfather is off work on Monday nights,” he tells MTV News. “He owns a pizzeria. It’s the most cliche thing on the planet.”
These kinds of traditions are important to Matarazzo. It’s a reminder that no matter how strange life gets as a globally known teen that he has his family to help bring him back to reality — even if that reality can be just as chaotic sometimes. “With my family, there’s no such thing as a slower pace,” he says. “We’re Italian.”
But things have been different these last few months. Not stranger, just different. Matarazzo wrapped Stranger Things Season 3 in November, followed by Netflix’s Prank Encounters in January. Since then, he’s been hanging at home in Jersey living life as a normal teen. Or as normal as he can be when every Starbucks run turns into an impromptu fan meet.
“I was at Starbucks today and someone was sneaking a photo through the window and videotaping me. It almost feels like that Black Mirror episode,” he says. “I get why people do it. But I’d much rather people come up and talk to me. It feels creepy when I look around and people are taking pictures [of me]. I feel uncomfortable doing what I want and being myself.”
Such is the life for Matarazzo and his instantly recognizable curls. The actor landed the role of Dustin Henderson on Netflix’s 80s-set sci-fi drama Stranger Things when he was 12. A year later and “Dusty” would be a household name across the globe, catapulting Matarazzo and the rest of the young cast into a level of fame that you can’t really make sense of at 13. By the age of 16, he had successfully negotiated for his first executive producer credit on Netflix’s scary prank show, Prank Encounters. For Matarazzo, the opportunity to not only host but also produce was appealing because it was so new to him.
“I want to experience as much as I can before I get a set goal,” he says. “I think a lot of times people are like, ‘I’m going to do this forever,’ and they go into it and realize that there’s so much more they want to do. I want to make sure that I do everything I possibly can. So this is something that came along that was so different, so I had to try it.”
With a premise of playing “terrifying and hilarious pranks” on unsuspecting job seekers, the series faced early backlash online. After watching all eight episodes, however, these fears have been quelled. The “jobs” in question are one-off assignments, like babysitting a child being haunted by a teddy bear (that’s a real prank), and all participants were paid for their time. And according to Matarazzo, who observed all the pranks from the safety of a control room stationed in the back of a van, all of the situations were “so positive,” adding, “A lot of times you’ve got to loosen up and not be afraid to laugh because everybody who was involved, after everything was said and done, everyone was laughing, which is great.”
Matarazzo doesn’t see himself in the prank-pulling business forever. Acting in his passion, and he feels the most at home on the stage, specifically Broadway. After all, it’s where he started his career at the age of 11. “My heart is theater,” he says. He recently saw the reimagined revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! and his face lights up when he talks about it. “Holy shit. It was one of the most innovative and refreshing productions I’ve ever seen,” he says. He loves revivals — to clarify, innovative revivals — and credits shows like Dear Evan Hansen and Hadestown for bringing fresh styles, new music, and younger audiences to the Great White Way. “If I could get back into a musical in any way,” he says, “I would love to.”
First, he has to graduate high school. Before that, there’s prom. Not to mention, the coveted senior class trip. Oh, and Stranger Things Season 4, which will start production early next year. He knows he’s going to miss a majority of his senior year as a result, and the comforting chaos of Monday night dinners. “It’s always very stressful,” he says. But he’s quick to add that the life of a Stranger teen isn’t as unusual as you may think. Sure, he can’t go anywhere without being recognized. “There are so many people from different countries who have recognized me,” he says. Even members of EXO, one of South Korea’s most popular boy groups, were starstruck by the actor on a recent visit to Seoul. (“They’re great guys,” he smiles.) At the end of the day, however, “everybody who’s involved in the entertainment industry is just doing their jobs,” Matarazzo says.
Part of his job is communicating to his 13.1 million followers on Instagram. “I didn’t even know I had that many,” he adds. “Social media feels like a chore. I never really liked social media before I started acting. Now it’s part of the job, which is weird. I don’t like that.”
Promoting Stranger Things on his social channels is a “requirement,” the actor says, but promoting himself is a different challenge entirely.
“Social media is being encouraged as a way to show everyone who you are,” he says. “But you don’t need to show everyone who you are. You can keep a lot of stuff to yourself and still pursue what you love. Why is your business everyone else’s business?” These are anxieties that most teens Matarazzo’s age can relate to, the feeling of adopting an online persona and not always knowing when or how to be yourself — online and off. It goes to show that growing up is strange enough, famous or not.
“It feels like I’m playing myself sometimes. I don’t want to play myself, I’m trying to be myself.”