Choosing to watch the new Netflix original series Stranger Things starring Winona Ryder is like willingly entering the monster-inhabited parallel dimension that the characters in the show are tormented by. Viewers have lost evenings and weekends binge-watching this sensational, sci-fi/horror, coming-of-age drama with jokes. The teenage kids who star in the series make it magical, but one character in particular has seemed to win the hearts of fans. Dustin is a curly-haired goof who fearlessly saddles up alongside his crew to crush the monster that has stolen one of their friends.
As he and the other kids are fighting for their lives and their world, Dustin brings levity to their dire straits by exalting the beauty of chocolate pudding or charming viewers with his lisp. Played by 13-year-old Gaten Matarazzo, Dustin appeals to viewers early on in the show when he is confronted by school bullies who mock him for the fact his adult teeth have yet to grow in. The boy, unphased, shouts that he has a condition, cleidocranial dysplasia, that causes the delayed development of cranial bones, as they should know well by now—his teeth will grown in soon enough! (Matarazzo has this condition in his real life, too.) In the show, Dustin's friends come to his aid, and so their story begins: They're an inseparable team at the heart of a quickly iconic series.
Matarazzo's status as a fan favorite has led to a small media fascination; there have been articles covering his fine karaoke skills and gushing over the false teeth he proudly wears on red carpets. We spoke with Matarazzo about his time on Stranger Things, his desperate search for the Dungeons & Dragons board game, and how he balances the demands of being both an actor and a Pokémon Go trainer.
BROADLY: How has life been since Stranger Things released?
Gaten Matarazzo: It's been crazy! I watched the show and it was great—I really like the way it turned out. A lot of times I'll just be walking into, like, 7-11, and I'll hear, "Are you Dustin from Stranger Things?"
What do you think about that?
It's really cool. I got stopped in the park one time playing Pokémon; a group of like 19- and 20-year-olds came up to me. I love all the fans of the show.
What Pokémon team have you joined? Everyone needs to know.
Team Valor, the red team. Go red team.
I heard that you were on the verge of quitting acting because you'd auditioned a lot without getting any roles, but then you got a gig and stuck with it. What role was that?
That was in 2011. I was just get about out of auditioning before I got into Priscilla, Queen of the Desert [on Broadway]. When I got the part, I was 8; when I started doing it, I was 9. It was such a fun show. I was really too young to be seeing it because it is a show for 16-year-olds and up, but it was definitely a really fun show.
Do you like performing in the theater?
I do—it's really fun. I get to just be in front of the people that are watching me. You get to hear when they're clapping. You don't know what's going to happen sometimes; sometimes you don't know if something is going to go wrong with the set. Theater is really unpredictable, and it's really fun.
Are you much of a sci-fi fan?
Yeah, I love sci-fi. Star Wars are my favorite movies of all time. When I heard I was going to be part of [Stranger Things], and when I read the script, I was like, oh, yeah. This is right up my alley.
The paranormal drama of the show sort of spirals out of a game of Dungeons & Dragons that you're playing with the other kids. Had you ever played D&D before?
Me and the kids were trying to find it at, like, so many places. We would go to different shops and say, "OK, we're going to get this, this, and this—but keep your eye out for Dungeons & Dragons." We could never find it. I think next year, we're going to buy it on eBay or something. I haven't played, but I really want to.
Do you feel like Dustin is similar to you?
Definitely. In the beginning, when we were first auditioning for the project, the character was a really one-dimensional, stereotypical nerd. He didn't really have a personality. Then, once I auditioned for it and got the part, they kind of like morphed, molded, the character around me. It was great. I felt really comfortable playing the role—it was a lot of fun playing a character that a lot of people will come up to me [and ask about] and say, "You're a really good actor." It's like, no, Dustin's just a great character. He's easy to play, and he's really similar to me. Going on set, I was just reading lines like myself, and it was Dustin.
I read that you have the condition that your character has, cleidocranial dysplasia (CCD). Is that true?
Yeah, that's right. I do have that condition.
How do you feel about that being part of your character? How did that come about?
It felt great, because it's really noticeable, especially with my teeth, that I do have some condition. I told them during the auditions that I had the condition, and I showed them the arm trick. Remember [in Stranger Things] when Dustin takes his shoulders and spread them across his chest? I showed them that, and they put that into the TV show. It was great. A lot of people have the condition, and a lot of people have it much worse than I do. [They] have been coming out of their shells and messaging me, saying that I really inspired them and they really appreciate how I embrace it in the show and didn't shy away from it.
I don't really wear hats in real life.
What do you want the world to know about cleidocranial dysplasia?
It's a condition that's different for everybody. You're born without your collarbones. Your facial structure and skull structure [develop] a lot slower. A lot of times it affects your joint areas in your legs, like your knees and your ankles. Often times, it's hard to walk; [people with CCD] have flat arches in their feet. It can be very hard for a lot of people. Not only is it hard to live life with the condition, but it's definitely expensive for the procedures—a lot of people have to go through surgeries.
What else about Dustin parallels your real life? Do you, too, wear a trucker hat?
No, I do not. I don't really wear hats in real life.
How interesting. Dustin certainly loves chocolate pudding. How do you feel about pudding?
I love pudding. Pudding is amazing! Pudding is delicious and I love chocolate pudding—especially chocolate. Chocolate pudding is the best.
Have you and the other kids stayed in touch since the show ended?
Yeah, we do stay in touch. We have this big group chat called "the coolest of Stranger Things." It would be kind of sad if we didn't keep in touch because we got along really well.
What are you working on now?
I'm not really working on anything right now. I'm just enjoying my summer and relaxing.
You must be doing a lot of press for this show.
Yes. I went to LA just recently for this press junket and I was interviewed by people from all over the country and all over the world. The press has been great.
One last question: Who is your favorite character on Stranger Things?
I know it's weird, but it's got to be… [whispers] Dustin.