Gaten Matarazzo is no stranger to the spotlight. As a child (which was not too long ago) the New Jersey native starred in Broadway’s Les Misérables and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert before snagging the role of Dustin in the hit Netflix series Stranger Things. The show, a Spielberg-esque mix of childhood nostalgia, sci-fi and 80s throwback, sees a ragtag group of kids nosing their way into government conspiracies when their friend Will goes missing. It’s back for a second season October 27.
What’s not commonly known is that the show was originally titled Montauk and set on Long Island’s East End. Rumor has it that the idea for the series was based on alleged government experiments conducted there including telepathy, clairvoyance and time travel—although the show’s creators, brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, haven’t confirmed the conspiracy theory.
Matarazzo said he might have preferred shooting on Long Island but logistics forced filming to take place in the warmer year-round locale of Atlanta, in turn changing the setting of the story to Indiana. In any case, the Duffer brothers brought Matarazzo’s charm and humor to the lovable Dustin, along with his real-life condition of cleidocranial dysplasia, which affects the development of the bones and teeth. The 15-year-old wrote this into his character, yet managed to keep his life normal as the show became a sensation.
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What was it like growing up as a child actor on Broadway?
I started when I was nine and spending so much time around adults made me grow up pretty quickly. I have tried really hard to remain a normal kid in spite of my very grown-up extracurricular job. One of my favorite things to do at the Palace Theater [where Priscilla was staged] was give my friends and family backstage tours and tell them about the Palace ghost stories. That was a lot of fun. I would love to return to Broadway in the future, there’s something magical about performing on stage in front of people. Knowing that you don’t have the safety net of being able to stop and start over if you make a mistake is exhilarating!
How have you adjusted to fame after the first season of Stranger Things was such a breakout hit?
It’s a big adjustment going from being an anonymous kid to being very recognizable. I call fame the F word. It’s not something I ever wanted for myself but I think we all try to make the best of it. My life at home is still pretty normal. I take out the garbage, play video games with my brother and hang out with my cousins.
How does your character develop this season? Also, Will’s back with the gang, will that change your dynamic?
In season two you’ll get to see a little bit of Dustin’s home life. You’ll see his room, meet his mom, stuff that we didn’t see in the first season. Now that Will is back, I think all the kids in the group are trying to help him get over what happened to him in season one. It’s obvious to us that he’s not the same kid he was before he went missing. And we’re all sort of dealing with that.
How has cleidocranial dysplasia (CCD) impacted your life and career?
I have a pretty mild case, the only things that were an issue were not losing my baby teeth on time and having to deal with looking younger than I am. I actually think having CCD helped me in my career. I was small for my age, which helped me land roles in theater. It was a pretty amazing thing that the Duffer Brothers wrote my condition into the show. There were very few people who had ever heard of cleidocranial dysplasia and my career has helped bring it to the forefront and get people talking about it. It has also helped us with raising awareness and starting CCD Smiles, a charity that’s going to help educate, advance research and provide financial assistance to kids who can’t afford the procedures necessary to give them awesome smiles.
Tell us about your relationship with your cast mates.
It’s pretty close. I already knew Caleb McLaughlin and Sadie Sink, who will be joining the cast in season two, because we were all performing in Broadway shows at the same time. At the beginning of season one when all of the kids met each other for the first time, we clicked immediately. We get together as often as we can and when we are together we have the best time! Even our siblings are part of the family.
Speaking of family, yours owns Matarazzo’s, a pizzeria in Egg Harbor City, New Jersey. Do you still work there?
Once in a while when my schedule permits. I like working in the ice cream parlor and sometimes Pop will let me help him make pizza. Almost every day people call the pizzeria asking if I am there or if I will be coming in. There are people who drive from all over to come and say hello. Sometimes they’ll send fan mail for me there or leave little gifts for my Pop to give me. It’s always a nice surprise.
Did you know Stranger Things was originally called Montauk and set on Long Island?
When I auditioned for Stranger Things the project was still called Montauk. I loved the idea of possibly shooting on Long Island because it’s pretty close to home in comparison to LA or Atlanta where we eventually ended up. I think it would have been difficult to shoot on Long Island in the winter, so my guess is that’s why we ended up moving the production to Atlanta.
Last December, I attended a charity event at Oheka Castle and I was so impressed by the beauty of the hotel and the grounds. I’d love to go back and visit the beaches on Long Island.