Stranger Things, Netflix’s buzziest binge hit of the summer, has a lot going for it: the cool-girl majesty of Winona Ryder, a Tumblr crushworthy turn from David Harbour, a terrific new talent in Millie Bobby Brown, and a palpable, nerdy enthusiasm for all things ’80s, sci-fi, and horror.
But the single best thing about Stranger Things, with all due respect to poor Barb, is Dustin, aka “Toothless.” He’s a curly-haired, lisping, cinnamon bun of a human brimming with spunk, vital X-Men references, and a passion for chocolate pudding. He is indisputably the best. You could argue against this but then you’d have to argue against this smile and then you’d lose.
Played by 13-year-old Gaten Matarazzo, Dustin is the show’s most quotable character—“Why are you keeping this curiosity door locked?”—and the glue that holds his friend group together when inter-tween politics get tough. He’s the voice of reason among his friends, Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) the skeptic, Mike (Finn Wolfhard) the leader, and Will (Noah Schnapp), whose disappearance into a monstrous netherworld sparks a wave of supernatural phenomena in the boys’ tiny Indiana hometown.
When a girl with deadly telekinetic powers named Eleven (Brown) takes up residence in Mike’s basement, it’s Dustin who realizes she’s basically Professor X and helps advocate for her as an invaluable ally and friend. He’s a diplomat, in other words, and also a man of science—or at least, he knows a lot about magnetic fields. And although he’s “not really all that brave,” Matarazzo says, “he is courageous in his own way.”
“I like how he’s loyal to his friends and he’s always there to keep trying to get people to get along, even if it doesn’t work out all that well. He’s always trying his best to keep everyone in line.”
“And,” he adds, importantly, “his character’s funny! I like the funny characters. Like in Harry Potter, I always loved Ron Weasley when I read the books.”
Matarazzo was the first child actor cast in Stranger Things, five years after he said “yes” on an optimistic whim to a talent rep at a showcase he’d tagged along to with his big sister. (“I didn’t know the first thing about acting but I was like, ‘Yeah!’ And my mom went, ‘Really?’ And I was like, ‘Uh-huh! Let’s just do it, it’s probably cool.’”) By 12, he’d toured with two Broadway shows, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Les Miserables. He took a bit part on an episode of The Blacklist—and then came the call for Stranger Things.
The show’s creators Matt and Ross Duffer admit that before casting Matarazzo, they had little idea how to write a character like Dustin. Initially, they’d envisioned him as a flatter, more “stereotypical nerd”—a far cry from the adorable Nilla wafer truther who made it to screen. “I don’t think we really understood who that character was,” says Matt, “and then we met Gaten and basically tailored the show to him.”
Indeed, like Dustin, Matarazzo is upbeat and often funny. More than once, our conversation turns to food. And his cleidocranial dysplasia, a condition that primarily affects the development of bones and teeth, was also written into the show for him, hence Dustin’s nickname, “Toothless,” and a scene in which he exasperatedly re-educates a pair of ignorant town bullies.
“It’s a very rare condition and not many people have it around the world,” he says. “When they wrote it into the show, I [started] getting a lot of messages and emails online from people who have the condition, saying that it really helps them come out of their shells a little bit. Because a lot of people have it much worse than I do and it affects them much worse than it does me.
“I’ve always liked to embrace the condition but other people don’t feel the same way,” he continues. “They say that because this was in the show and this is the first time they’ve heard of it outside the doctor’s office, it made them feel really good and it inspired them. Those messages really inspired me and made me feel good and appreciate the Duffers even more. I look up to them like they’re my older brothers. I mean, they’re just great guys. They inspired a lot of people to come out of their shells and embrace what they have.”
Matarazzo perks up whenever I mention the Duffers, and gushes delightedly about how “flattering” and “really cool” it is that they chose to model so much of Dustin on him—and his love of snacks.
“I would always say that lunchtime was like, yay, my favorite time of the day, and there you go, with the chocolate pudding and the vanilla wafers not long after that. And the whole bag of food right before the adventure. It was great,” recalls Matarazzo.
No actor in the history of television has bellowed so loudly over chocolate pudding, the way Matarazzo does in a pivotal school gym scene in “The Bathtub.” “I was enthusiastic,” he says. “I thought it was real pudding! But it was this odd meat product and I had no idea. It smelled like cat food.”
Matarazzo and the rest of the cast’s junior members—McLaughlin, Schnapp, Wolfhard, and Brown, America’s most adored child actors at the moment—became close friends over the course of production. All four were tutored on set together and still “get together like crazy,” though some warmed up to Matarazzo more quickly than others.
He met Wolfhard at a callback in Los Angeles, where they stayed at the same motel, hung out, and “had good chemistry from the start.” Schnapp, he says, is “super sweet” and McLaughlin, who also has a Broadway pedigree, had befriended Matarazzo years ago in New York. (Matarazzo’s a Jersey boy.)
“And I had met Millie also at the audition,” he continues, “but she was very shy there and I didn’t know why. It was weird because she’s not a shy person. But when I got to know her and we started shooting, she was much more energetic, which I was pretty happy about because I feel like I can be a pretty outgoing person.”
It took all of one scene on their first day for the actors to break the ice, accidentally bonding over a time-old epidemic plaguing kids their age: contagious, uncontrollable laughing fits.
“It’s not good, the first day, to have a big case of the giggles,” Matarazzo says solemnly, recounting the Duffers’ first attempt at shooting the show’s raucous Dungeons & Dragons opening scene. “All the kids had it. It was a very early day, we had to be there at dawn and, I don’t know why, but we would start cracking up over the littlest things.”
The memory, of course, makes him start giggling. “I remember Finn was really serious and doing his lines, and he did a sneeze that he tried to recover from. But the way he did it—he just sneezed and looked up really quickly and got right back into the scene. But for some reason, it made Caleb start laughing. And him trying to hold it in made Noah start laughing. And Noah’s laugh started making me laugh. So then we were all laughing. It was great.”
Trips to the local multiplex to watch Star Wars and a wave of impossibly cute group selfies soon followed. Even now, as they await word on a Season Two renewal, the kids keep in touch via FaceTime and a group chat called, appropriately, “The Coolest of Stranger Things.”
“We’re just like brothers and sisters, it’s just a great bond,” Matarazzo says. “We had so much fun on set together.”
For now, he’s busy keeping cool for the summer, hitting up Six Flags with his brothers’ friends, playing video games, and hanging out with his neighborhood pals. He’s a normal kid, after all—the quality that makes him and his young co-stars so believable as best friends onscreen.
Well, that and the glorious goofiness of this face.
Long live the Coolest of Stranger Things.