‘Jesus would beat Simba in a fight’ – the Stranger Things kids tackle the big issues

The retro sci-fi thriller has been the water-cooler hit of the summer. Two of its young stars, Gaten Matarazzo and Caleb McLaughlin, discuss which character they think is a Russian spy and the odd gifts they’ve received since the Netflix show premiered

One of the summer’s TV hits was The Night Of – the compelling story of one man’s footcare regime, let down, sadly, by a distracting murder subplot. But the true binge-friendly smash of the summer was Stranger Things, an idiosyncratic, 80s-homage-heavy eight-parter set in the fictitious town of Hawkins, Indiana.

Producers may have been wary of casting seven young actors in a programme’s lead roles, but Netflix struck gold both with the show itself and those actors’ off-screen energy, which, it’s fair to say, hasn’t exactly been confined to a spooksome netherworld. There they are performing Uptown Funk at the Emmys! Here they are chatting with Nick Grimshaw, and spraying silly string at Jimmy Fallon! Guess what – they’re trying out British snacks in some video content on one website or another!

And now here, at Guardian HQ, sit two of them: Gaten Matarazzo (who plays the show’s bombastic nerd Dustin) and Caleb McLaughlin (Lucas, the main voice of reason after Barb gets binned off). It’s 8.30am and the two 14-year-olds have already appeared on breakfast radio and spent half an hour singing karaoke, but now the fun really starts.

Stranger Things karaoke: Dustin and Lucas sing 80s movie classics

So …
Both: [Burst into apropos-of-nothing rendition of New Edition’s Candy Girl.]
Gaten: OK, let’s start the interview.

Stranger Things debuted on 15 July. What were you doing on 14 July?
C: Waiting for the premiere! I was talking about it the whole day. My friend asked me: “Do you wanna ride bikes today?” And I was like, “Bud, uh, I don’t know. I think I’ll wait until Stranger Things has been on.” I was so excited.
G: I had a party. They said it was going to air at midnight, but we forgot to take into account that Netflix is an LA-based company, and I live on the east coast, so really it didn’t air until 3am. But everyone stayed. I was the only lasting survivor who made it through the entire eight episodes without falling asleep.

You binge-watched your own show?
G: I did! I mean, even I was starting to fall asleep – and it was my show.

Between you, your previous roles have included Jesus and Simba from The Lion King (1). Who, out of Simba and Jesus, would win in a fight?
C: Well, Simba is a lion.
G: A lion cub, I might add. I’m going to say Jesus. I mean, a lion? He probably hugged a lion before, didn’t he?
C: I think Simba would see Jesus and just hug him anyway, and they’d go off into the sunset. Then go and lay on the beach together.
G: They’d go out for ice-cream. Jesus is not a fighter.
C: But if he has to, he will.
G: We’re going for Jesus.

Stranger Things stillsCaleb McLaughlin (far left) and Gaten Matarazzo (far right) with Finn Wolfhard and Millie Bobby Brown in Stranger Things.
Caleb McLaughlin (far left) and Gaten Matarazzo (far right) with Finn Wolfhard and Millie Bobby Brown in Stranger Things. Photograph: Photoshot

Is the whole show just an elaborate attempt to get the world interested in string theory (2)?
G: They were just trying to make a story, and make an original show that has a background of when the people who watch it were kids themselves. They wanted to make a good show that wasn’t just [rolls eyes] “based on a true story” or “based on a film”. Their goal was not, I think, to get people interested in string theory.
C: Although, when I see other movies with, like, school, and physics, and sciences and stuff, it gives me the confidence to think: “I want to learn more, I want to be a scientist.” I felt like we gave that to some kids.
G: Yeah, and now kids are saying, “I want to go on an adventure. I want to go and ride my bike outside.”

If an entire generation had its phones taken away for a year, and could only play Dungeons & Dragons, how would that change society?
C: Oh, God. Society would be harmed.
G: Kids are so accustomed to technology that it’s upsetting to watch them without their phones. They don’t know what to do. Sometimes I feel like I’m like that, too – if I get my phone taken away because I’m grounded, I don’t know what to do. So I just have to sit in my room and stare blankly at the ceiling.

Well, that’s an opportunity to think about what you’ve done.
G: Yep. It’s just stuff like, er, my mom catching me playing video games at 2am.
C: But when you play games such as Call of Duty, things like your thinking process and your rea—
G: Reaction time?
C: Shut up!

To be fair, Caleb, that was a quick reaction to the point you were about to make, so it does prove your point.
G: Exactly.
C: Yes. Basically you can react quicker if someone hits you.

The Americans (3) is also set in the 80s, and takes place a nine-hour drive from the setting of Stranger Things. Could there be a crossover, and is there a spy in your midst?
C: No.

Winona Ryder as Joyce.
Winona Ryder as Joyce. Photograph: Netflix/Everett/REX/Shutterstock

Is Winona Ryder’s character a Russian spy?
C: No.

Because she did help put the kibosh on an anti-cold war weapon …
C: No.
G: If anybody were maybe – maybe – working for the Russians, the only possible option would be Sheriff Hopper (played by David Harbour). Not Winona. Not Joyce! Maybe it’s my character? Maybe Dustin is the spy? Because he didn’t move there until fourth grade. Maybe he’s a spy!
C: This is a good theory.
G: It is. You get a fist-bump for that. [Awkward three-way fist-bump takes place.]

Were you surprised by the huge response to the character of Barb?
G: Nobody predicted that. It was definitely one of those “why do bad things happen to good people” moments – Barb definitely deserves justice for what happened. Barb is the show’s most realistic depiction of a teenage girl, I think. We’re all a little bit Barb. We all have some Barb in us.

Barb (Shannon Purser) comes to a sticky end in the programme.
Barb (Shannon Purser) comes to a sticky end in the programme. Photograph: Netflix

What have been your best and worst purchases since Stranger Things aired?
C: Well, my dad got me this gold bike, this BMX. It’s super cool. But it wasn’t because I’m famous.
G: I’ve been given something. I got a call from my grandfather the other day and someone from Italy – and I don’t know how this person got my grandfather’s address, that’s a bit weird – had sent him The Neverending Story in Italian, having assumed that, because my name is Gaten John Matarazzo III, I speak Italian. [Whispers] I don’t speak Italian. I only know “ciao”. And “sí”.

If your characters had to meet a sticky end in season two (4), how would you like to see them go?
C: I haven’t ever thought of that.
G: Oh, I have! If Dustin were to go, I’d like it to be a situation where one person has to stay behind, or one person has to distract something, and I’d like Dustin to volunteer to do that. A noble act. I don’t think I’d like to see someone just die out of nowhere. It’s hard to think about.
Caleb: You know, I’m actually trying to build up my career before I die off the show ...

Something for season three, then?
C: Let’s say season 20.

Is being famous as difficult as some celebrities make it look?
C: I’m not even famous. Famous is when you’re iconic and a legend, I’m just known. But it’s been pretty cool, and I love that people take the time out of their day to come up to me.
G: It’s very flattering. I’m a kid who grew up in a small town and started acting when he was seven for no reason, and got lucky. Sometimes it can be a little overwhelming. I feel like some people, especially child stars, act out because they don’t know how to handle the pressure. Unless people are in the shoes of a child actor they don’t realise how difficult it can be at times. I definitely enjoy what I’m doing, though.

Performing Uptown Funk at the Emmys is definitely the kind of thing famous people get to do (5).
C: We only had one day to figure it all out – and only one rehearsal.
G: We were offered Happy, Can’t Stop the Feeling, Uptown Funk, and Shake it Off. We said: “We’ll do Uptown Funk,” and they went: “Great, do the choreography and we’ll see you at rehearsals.”

Would you like to make a cast album of original songs?
C: Yes! It would be super cool, for sure. I always used to say, when I was younger, that I wanted to dance with Chris Brown, but I’d need to step up my game. I listen to a lot of John Legend and Sam Smith.
G: I like country music. Caleb’s not a fan.
C: Well, I never listen to it, so I can’t say I’m not a fan.

Are you concerned that if next year’s second season picks up the story immediately after the first, and also takes place over the space of a fortnight, then by the end of season seven you’ll be 19-year-olds still playing 12-year-olds?
G: It might be set immediately afterwards, it might skip a few months – it might skip a year, or a few years. We don’t even know if they’re doing that thing they were thinking about of skipping a few decades!
C: At first they said they wanted us to just do one season, then the show would skip to when we were, like, 47.

Which decade in history would you most like to have been teenagers in?
C: This one. It’s a better time for people.
G: Definitely not the 60s; back then there were so many bad things, so much segregation and so much hate. People talk about it like it was the happy days, but really it wasn’t for a lot of people.

•Stranger Things is available on Netflix now.


(1) Caleb played young Simba in a Broadway production of The Lion King, while Gaten took the role of Jesus in a 2011 version of Godspell. They were both on Broadway at the same time, and made friends in a nearby park.

(2) A teacher’s attempt to explain LOL-free alternate world “the upside down” draws on elements of the equally boring scientific thing string theory.

(3) The existence of The Americans is unknown to most UK viewers thanks to it being broadcast at stupid o’clock on something like ITV 8.

(4) A trailer for season two was released just six weeks after the first season appeared, but it’s not coming until 2017 and hasn’t started shooting.

(5) Gaten and Caleb performed Uptown Funk with Millie Bobby Brown, who pays Eleven. Caleb had the best moves.


Peter Robinson

The GuardianTramp

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