The following feature appears in the September 2017 issue of NYLON Guys.
Finn Wolfhard just couldn’t resist. Despite needing to be camera-ready for his NYLON photo shoot, the 14-year-old star of Stranger Things decided to suck on a blue Warhead anyway, and now he’s paying the price. “All these sets have candy on them, and I can’t help myself. It was a mistake,” he admits, sheepishly trying to scrub the cerulean stain from his tongue with a miniature toothbrush. To his right, Gaten Matarazzo wears a gray T-shirt that reads, uh oh! did my sarcasm hurt your feelings?, a slogan worthy of Dustin Henderson, the lovable wisecracker he plays opposite Wolfhard on the hit Netflix show. Matarazzo, also 14, is getting his trademark tangle of curls straightened, much to the delight of Noah Schnapp, who, at 12, is the youngest in this group of breakout stars that has helped make Stranger Things the most obsessed-over show in Netflix’s boundless roster of original series. Missing is Caleb McLaughlin, the energetic 15-year-old who plays Lucas Sinclair, but he’s on his way over in a black car, having just arrived from Los Angeles, fresh off an appearance at the BET Awards.
It’s the first time the boys have been together in several weeks, and none of them can pinpoint exactly when they were last in the same room. Ever since Stranger Things became a cultural phenomenon last summer, they’ve been swept up in a whirlwind of red carpets, talk shows, and fan conventions. And as the premiere of the sci-fi and horror fantasia’s top-secret second season nears, this summer has been overtaken by a flurry of promotional duties. Next week, while most kids their age are cooling off in pools or testing out the latest in roller coaster technology, Matarazzo and McLaughlin will be at Denver Comic Con, signing autographs and posing for selfies with wide-eyed fans. A few weeks after that, all four will find themselves inside the hallowed Hall H at San Diego Comic-Con, where they’ll premiere the thrilling trailer for Season 2 to rapturous applause.
But on this day, even though they’re technically at work, the boys still find time to goof off. They are, after all, best friends—like brothers, even, they say—and there’s a lot of catching up to do, memes to be shared, and jokes to be cracked. “We used to call Noah ‘Señor Biebs,’” Matarazzo offers at one point, due to Schnapp’s Season 1 bowl cut and its resemblance to the former haircut of a certain Canadian pop star. “He hates it!” he says, just before he sticks his finger into Schnapp’s ear (playfully, of course).
Inside the bright and breezy photo studio on Manhattan’s West Side, publicists abound, but because these budding stars are still minors, there are also parents. It’s an unusual sight, and a reminder that despite having very grown-up jobs, they’re still not old enough to drive. Wolfhard, the Vancouver native who plays Mike Wheeler, is here with his father, as is Matarazzo, who hails from Little Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey. Schnapp and his parents came in from Westchester County, north of the city. When McLaughlin, who grew up in Carmel, New York, finally arrives lugging a suitcase that’s almost as big as he is, he’s accompanied by his father, a burly man in an Atlanta Braves cap who goes around the room with his son hugging the other parents, a reminder of how tight the makeshift family has become since this odyssey began more than two years ago.
Stranger Things premiered as an underdog. Its creators, the twin brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, were unproven talents who had previously written for the Fox sci-fi series Wayward Pines. Except for Winona Ryder’s comeback as a grieving mother searching for her missing son, the cast was composed largely of unknowns and newcomers. But thanks to its double dose of supernatural intrigue and a nostalgic ’80s-tinged glow, along with a miraculous performance by a young British actress with a shaved head, Stranger Things quickly commandeered the pop-culture conversation in a way that few shows have done. In July, the show received a staggering 18 Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Drama Series.
Created by the Duffers in the spirit of the Amblin-era entertainments they were raised on, the eight-episode first season is set in 1983 in Hawkins, Indiana, and unravels the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Will Byers, played by Schnapp, who vanishes in the first episode after an encounter with the show’s resident boogeyman, the otherworldly creature known as the Demogorgon. As Will’s three misfit best friends—Mike, Lucas, and Dustin—embark on a quest to find him, they uncover an alternate dimension they dub The Upside Down, and a sinister government conspiracy that may be responsible for opening it. They also befriend Eleven, the feral girl with telekinetic powers embodied iconically by 13-year-old Millie Bobby Brown.
Stranger Things began filming its second season under very different circumstances than the first. What once felt like a scrappy production free of scrutiny from outside sources suddenly had the mood and atmosphere of a major Hollywood blockbuster. “Netflix knew it would be a good show,” McLaughlin says, “but they didn’t realize how big it would be and that the whole world was going to freak out about it.” Because of that intense interest from both the network and the public, the set suddenly had a noticeable security presence shielding it from nosy onlookers and paparazzi, while network executives showed up to make sure their prized racehorse was galloping along. Suddenly, there were expectations. “We raised the bar pretty high with the first season,” says Matarazzo. “There was a lot more tension on set, in that we really needed to make sure it was good.”
When Season 2 premieres on October 27, a year will have passed since Eleven sacrificed herself to defeat the faceless Demogorgon and save the boys, in the Season 1 finale. Trying to squeeze spoilers out of Wolfhard, McLaughlin, Schnapp, and Matarazzo is useless. Extensive media training, including detailed notes on what they can and can’t discuss, have transformed them into a rare breed: teenagers who can keep a secret. What they can say: Season 2 is bigger, darker, and scarier. There’s also a new character in town, played by Sadie Sink. (According to the Duffers, Millie Bobby Brown was “relieved” to have another girl on set.) “She’s a skater, sort of a punk girl, and she slowly becomes part of the group,” says Wolfhard, who also says his character will be depressed and “a loner” in the wake of Eleven’s disappearance. What they can’t say: pretty much everything else. But it’s not just scoop-hungry journalists who harass them for info. “Whenever you get recognized by fans, most of the time they ask you if you’ve got any spoilers for Season 2, and I’m like, ‘No, none, not at all,’” says Matarazzo. “It’s definitely kind of stressful.”
One of the biggest changes for the new season is the expansion of Schnapp’s screen time. Because his character spends much of the first season trapped in an alternate dimension, Schnapp spent a good deal of time at home in New York while everyone else filmed in Atlanta. “Last year I would drive up to the studio and everyone would be like, ‘Hey, Noah, we’ve missed you! How’ve you been?’” says Schnapp. “This year was a lot easier because last year, I’d have to go in and out of school, and that was hard. This year I could focus.”
Although he’s rescued from The Upside Down, we last saw Schnapp removing a slithery creature from his mouth, a telltale sign that not all is well with Will Byers. For Schnapp, whose character mostly communicated through Christmas lights in Season 1, the new episodes meant new challenges as an actor. “Shawn Levy, one of our directors, was telling me, ‘Noah, you have something really big this season. We have a lot in store for you, and you should get really excited,’” he says. Schnapp felt the added pressure, and would sometimes text his TV mom, Ryder, for extra help with particularly emotional scenes. “We knew we needed a strong actor in case the series moved forward into a second season, because we knew he was going to be a centerpiece,” says Matt Duffer. “We needed not just a good actor, but a really, really good actor.” Schnapp rose to the occasion, according to the Duffers. “Shawn [Levy] was like, ‘We’ve had a Ferrari sitting in the garage all of Season 1, and now the fucking garage doors are open.’”
The Duffers knew that casting child actors, who have a tendency to favor exaggerated performances over naturalistic ones, would make or break their show. “There’s really nothing worse than a bad child performance,” Ross Duffer says. “You couldn’t have any weaknesses, or the eight hours would be excruciating.” Along with their casting director, the Duffers saw what they estimate to be 900 kids, an undertaking they say was easier than it sounds because they could tell within the first few minutes if the actor had what they needed. “You’re looking for something authentic, and most kids don’t have it,” says Ross. “There are the ones that are obviously well-trained, but they feel too Disney, like they’re winking at the camera.” What the Duffers found with their four young male stars were kids who seemed like actual kids.
Matarazzo was the first one cast, his audition so impressive that he found out he got the part on the way back from the airport. “We didn’t really even know who the Dustin character was until we found Gaten,” says Matt Duffer. “He was sort of a generic nerd with glasses. He was a stereotype.” Matarazzo, whose sense of humor inspired the Duffers to transform Dustin into the show’s primary source of comic relief, has grown up with a condition known as cleidocranial dysplasia, which stunts the development of bones and teeth. “We wanted to make a show about outsiders, about kids who didn’t fit in and who were bullied and made fun of,” says Matt. “Gaten was really able to tap into all of that.”
McLaughlin and Matarazzo had known each other from their days as stars in two of Broadway’s biggest shows. Matarazzo portrayed Gavroche in Les Misérables, and McLaughlin played Simba in The Lion King. They’d often see each other in a park frequented by “Broadway kids,” as Matarazzo calls them. “When I found out Caleb had gotten Lucas I was like, ‘Caleb? Where do I know that name from?’” he recalls. Wolfhard and Schnapp established an early connection, too—sort of. “He doesn’t remember me, but I remember him,” Wolfhard says. “Because I asked him what other projects he had done, and he said, ‘I was the voice of Charlie Brown in The Peanuts Movie.’ I was like, ‘What?! You’re Charlie Brown?’ I was so pysched about that.”
Although they had all crossed paths during the audition process, usually around the hotel pool or at chemistry reads, it wasn’t until they arrived in Atlanta to begin production that all four boys, along with Millie Bobby Brown, found themselves together in the same room for the first time. If there was a first-day-of-school feel, it made sense: They met in a classroom, which is where the young cast of Stranger Things still spend most of their time when they’re not filming. That grueling schedule means the only opportunities they get to really mess around are between takes, and sometimes during them. “We have laughing problems,” says McLaughlin. Matt Duffer elaborates: “We definitely have an issue, where we can’t get through a take without someone busting up. They’re always making each other crack up—the number of takes ruined by laughter is in the hundreds.”
Schnapp was at summer camp when Stranger Things dropped on Netflix. He wasn’t allowed to have his phone, but shortly after the series premiered, one of his counselors happened to check his Instagram account—80,000 followers. The next day it was 85,000. “I was like, ‘Wait, what’s going on?’ I think I was at one follower before that,” Schnapp says. Wolfhard also remembers that odd rush of watching his followers skyrocket and realizing his life was changing right in front of his eyes. McLaughlin felt his anonymity evaporate the first time he was recognized. “In L.A., this kid came up to me and was like, ‘Hey, are you Caleb Reginald McLaughlin?’” he says. “And I’m like, ‘What? You know my middle name? That’s nuts.’”
The connection between the boys is strengthened by the surreal turn their lives have taken, circumstances that most kids their age can’t relate to. When Matarazzo, McLaughlin, and Wolfhard met Barack Obama last October, as guests of the White House’s South by South Lawn festival, the former president, who’s a fan of the show, told them he especially enjoyed their on-screen camaraderie. That bond exists offscreen, too, and has only gotten stronger with every award show and panel. “They really are my best friends,” Matarazzo says. “We can relate to each other a lot more than other people can. People try to understand everything that goes on, but they can’t unless they’ve been there.”
“I don’t think any of the kids would say that our friendship is similar to the friendships they have back home, because it’s not,” says Wolfhard. “No kid has ever really had an experience that I’m experiencing right now—it’s a unique sort of friendship.”
Wolfhard is careful not to bring his work home with him. “If you go home and all you talk about is acting, then you’re a douchebag,” he says. “Your friends don’t want to hear about your professional life, they just want to mess around.” Plus, when you’re 14 years old, talking about work is never cool, even if it involves facing off against a faceless interdimensional demon. The boys are also learning that with a great number of Instagram followers comes great responsibility. “We have to be more cautious with what we say on social media and in public,” says McLaughlin, who was shocked to lose followers after he openly rooted for the Golden State Warriors during the NBA playoffs.
While Netflix has yet to make an official announcement, a third season of Stranger Things is a given, meaning the boys are all but guaranteed to live out their teenage years on one of the most popular shows on television. The Duffers, then, will have to follow in the footsteps of long-running properties like Game of Thrones and the Harry Potter franchise in making sure their child actors don’t grow up faster than their characters. “It’s terrifying,” Matt Duffer says. “I shouldn’t even be highlighting this, but if you watch Season 2, they’ve grown from Episode 1 to Episode 9. I’m terrified one of them is going to have a major growth spurt basically in the middle of shooting. But as long as they’re growing outside of the course of our shooting, I’m not too worried about it, because we just have to build it into our story. As much as you would like to keep some of it more continuous, every time we take a break between seasons, we have to make a year time jump at least.”
All four actors say that they want to remain in show business into adulthood. Wolfhard, who obsessively studies the filmmaking process while on set—he’ll star in the remake of Stephen King’s It, in theaters this month—is eyeing a multihyphenate career as a director, actor, and musician. Back at the photo shoot, Matarazzo and Schnapp gather around his iPhone to watch a video Wolfhard co-directed for a friend’s band, Spendtime Palace. Earlier this year, McLaughlin, who is a trained dancer, played a young Ricky Bell on the BET miniseries The New Edition Story, an experience he describes as “historic.” Matarazzo wants to continue acting, but not forever, and is keeping an open mind about other aspects of the industry. Schnapp, who took his first acting class at the age of six, describes winning the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series as one of the greatest moments of his life, and is doing exactly what he wants. (The boys, who describe the awards as “very heavy,” keep them in their bedrooms, except for Matarazzo, who has been meaning to retrieve his from his grandparents’ house. )
“They all love what they’re doing,” says Matt Duffer. “They love coming to set, they love working, they love acting. In terms of the fame thing, it’s a side effect that I think some of them are more into than others. You’re worried about, ‘What if they realize this isn’t their true passion?’ They’re so young. But this year those fears went away. They’re all very committed to this. That’s the important thing, that they enjoy what they’re doing. And that they’re passionate about it.”
On the cover: Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb Mclaughlin, Noah Schnapp, and Finn Wolfhard, Photographed by Sacha Maric. Styled by J. Errico. Grooming by Ruth Fernandez. Stylist’s Assistants: Marissa Smith and Nicole Draga. On Wolfhard: vest by Levi’s, top by Hilfiger Denim, jeans by Abercrombie & Fitch, sneakers by Converse, necklace by A.P.C., socks by Uniqlo, stylist’s own bandanna; on Mclaughlin: top and flannel by Topman, jeans by DSquared2, sneakers by Converse, necklace by Gucci; on Matarazzo: jacket by Armani Exchange, top by Levi’s, jeans by H&M, sneakers by Converse, stylist’s own bandanna; on Schnapp: vest by DSquared2, top by Guess, jeans by MSGM, sneakers by Converse, belt by Gap, stylist’s own wallet chain.
Opening image: From left, on Wolfhard: jacket by Schott, jeans by H&M, boots by Red Wing, belt by Gap, socks by Uniqlo (worn throughout), stylist’s own t-shirt; on Matarazzo: vest by Levi’s, tank top by Alternative Apparel, jeans by American Eagle, sneakers by Converse, necklace by David Yurman (worn throughout), stylist’s own wallet chain; on Schnapp: jacket by Gap, t-shirt by A.P.C., jeans by Abercrombie & Fitch, sneakers by Converse, bracelet by Miansai, stylist’s own bandanna; on Mclaughlin: shirt by Topman, t-shirt by DSquared2, jeans by Levi’s, boots by Red Wing, socks by Uniqlo (worn throughout).
The September issue of NYLON Guys is on newsstands 8/22. Buy it now.