As the star of Stranger Things he has the world at his feet – but as the actor reveals, he’s as happy hanging out and playing guitar as he is fighting Demogorgons and meeting Obama
“I got out of the car and I just heard men – like, full-grown men – screaming, ‘Finn, Finn, Finn!’”
Finn Wolfhard eats french fries at a picnic table behind a ramshackle Brooklyn house rented for a photoshoot. It’s early October, and we’re enjoying the remnants of summer over lunch while chatting about his life – as of late, a surreal daydream. With occasional encounters of the bizarre kind.
“I realised, it’s cool if it’s a 13-year-old.” he says, mulling over the scene he’s just described. “If they actually watch the show and they respect it – that’s cool. But when it’s grown men in a line, spending their day screaming at children... that’s really scary for me.”
Wolfhard, himself a 13-year-old, plays 80s-everykid protagonist Mike Wheeler in Stranger Things. Alongside his castmates, he has become one of the most famous middle-schoolers in the world right now. Sure, they all just performed at the Emmys and met Obama, but Wolfhard doesn’t wear the afterglow on his sleeve. He’s just enjoying New York while he’s here – seeing The Book of Mormon and visiting the Nintendo store – before heading back home to Vancouver in time for school on Monday.
Child star – it’s a worn-and-torn expression that deserves a new lease of life. TV hosts utter it like a sad punchline because of its ‘cursed’ affiliation with the formerly famous and troubled. Certain names (that shall remain nameless) come to mind. But, like most Hollywood stereotypes, it’s also pretty obsolete. Thanks to Stranger Things, we have a new reason – or, five, really – to rally around a new group of talented kids who not only teem with intelligence, wit, creative charm and energy, but seem like great friends who bonded through the best after-school project ever. And at the heart of it all is Wolfhard, a boy whose floppy hair, big brown eyes, and love of indie music makes him the arty Instagram crush du jour of the pre-teen set.
Bring up film – not fans and fame – with Wolfhard, and he becomes a chatterbox. His words tumble out, unscripted, with goofy excitement. He sometimes repeats himself for emphasis. He’s grown up fascinated by this world, but from a distance, with his screenwriter dad sharing his passion with him as far back as he can remember. “I just used to be interested in filmmaking in general,” he says. “I think growing up in Vancouver is a different lifestyle than growing up in most other places. People make different choices, obviously. Finally, I just got into acting. I got my first gig on Craigslist.”
Wow, I say, that’s pretty brave.
“Yeah,” he says. “It can be sketchy. But that’s how I got my first shot. Then I did an acting class for the summer, but it didn’t really help.”
Like many of the kids from Stranger Things, Wolfhard auditioned via video after seeing an open casting call. “I did it sick from bed,” he remembers. “Just on my phone, then I emailed it. Matt and Ross (Duffer, the show’s creators) loved it, and they made me do it again. Finally, I came to LA and met them.” He also remembers that the show’s premise stood out to him. “The synopsis called it a love-letter to 80s teen drama, horror and sci-fi. I was like, ‘I’m in.’”
“The synopsis called it a love-letter to 80s teen drama, horror and sci-fi. I was like, ‘I’m in’” – Finn Wolfhard
Wolfhard has always been interested in all things 80s, thanks to his dad. “I love retro culture,” he says. “I love retro games; I love retro music. And so I was sort of in that boat from the beginning. I didn’t really need any proper training.” He says a sleepover with castmate Gaten Matarazzo (who plays the lovable Dustin) led to a marathon of old-school Winona Ryder flicks, with Beetlejuice and Heathers deemed the best – hard to argue with that.
Wolfhard’s passion for music also drives his retro-guru tastes. He shares Instagram videos of himself playing guitar and bass, with his Nirvana and Mac DeMarco covers headlining the likes of Pitchfork. “I love 80s and 90s music,” he says. “I love Nirvana, Joy Division and New Order – older alternative, I guess. There’s a scene where they use ‘Atmosphere’ by Joy Division. Charlie Heaton’s character is crying. It’s perfect.”
“And, yeah,” he laughs, glancing over at Brown, eating her food a table over. “I still don’t believe that Millie didn’t recognise a record player. I have no idea how that’s possible!”
“Hey, Finn, is it true you swallow 100 spiders in your lifetime?” a publicist on set suddenly shouts over to us. She’s been chatting with Brown (about National Geographic trivia?) and they suddenly require input from Wolfhard.
“NO?!” Wolfhard fires back, amused, and Brown laughs. After the show’s premiere – and that final, nervous kiss – Mike and Eleven instantly went on to become a ‘ship-worthy’ fictional couple, fawned over by media outlets and Tumblr users alike. The whole cast had been granted TV royalty status overnight, but Wolfhard and Brown were king and queen. “Yeah, I know,” Wolfhard says, acknowledging the ongoing obsession. “But we’ve done so much that (the show) is just another thing by now. We’re just people doing our jobs.”
And the jobs keep rolling in. Wolfhard is already setting himself up for future sci-fi ‘it-boy’ status – he is set to play troublemaker Richie Tozier in a remake of Stephen King’s It. “He’s the motormouth of the group,” he says of his character. “He’s the one who cracks the jokes – he never shuts up. It’s another horror film, but it’s also about these kids growing with each other and getting to know what they can do.” As in Stranger Things, It sees evil seep through the facade of a small town, manifesting as Pennywise the Clown – eerily good timing, given 2016’s crop of clown-related terrors in the USA. The story also explores the collision of youth and mortality, in a way that only King can, but that many, including the Duffer Brothers, are emulating right now.
“If you really love me, write a song about me! I don’t want you to be stuck on me. Because I’m just a person” – Finn Wolfhard
Wolfhard will soon film season two of Stranger Things. He can’t say much about what’s ahead, but has some hopes for how things play out for Mike. “I’d love to see myself a little heartbroken. You know, because Elle’s been gone for a year, so I’d love to see him (have to) conquer being a little sad, a little depressed.”
Though he readily posts to social media as @FinnSkata, it’s clear he’s still adjusting to how many people he reaches. “It’s weird and new and scary – I guess I need to get used to it,” he says. “Some things just aren’t cool. Like, a person came up to me on a train just because she’d seen someone take a picture of me.” The screaming adult fans were a tipping point. “It’s awesome that you’re showing support, but I’d love you to do something more creative. If you really love me, write a song about me! I don’t want you to be stuck on me. Because I’m just a person.”
To stay sane, Wolfhard has an unlikely oasis in the place so many long to escape from: his hometown middle school. The first day back, he was swarmed. But the novelty soon wore off, and fame fell into normalcy. He was thrilled. “Those are the people who save me,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Shut up, let’s go to class. Stop talking about yourself!’ They’re that little dose of reality for me. It’s awesome.”
Wolfhard seems impressively aware of his potential. While at home in horror, he’s keen to expand his horizons. “I’ve just had luck with horror. I’d actually love to do more comedy, but what I really wanna do is an indie drama – an intense indie road-trip movie,” he says, citing James Steven Sadwith’s recent Coming Through the Rye as inspiration.
“Playing Mike, I accessed feelings I’d never accessed before. I emerged a better actor. I want to give myself credit for that, more than I did at the time” – Finn Wolfhard
But he’s itching to explore other media, too. There’s his passion for music to think about (“I want to somehow get an album or EP out,” he notes), and his interest in working behind the camera, masterminding the whole show. “I mean, I love acting, but I really wanna direct. And to write.” Luckily, he’s already in the best position to learn. “A lot of people say, and I definitely agree with this, that a film set is the best film school,” he quips. He contemplates alternate lives as he finishes his meal, munching thoughtfully before finally landing on another possible fate: “I’m good at reading people. If I wasn’t an actor, I would be a psychologist.”
That playing Mike Wheeler has forever altered the course of Wolfhard’s life and career is obvious, but he speaks of it all humbly, like it was an interesting experiment. “Playing Mike, I accessed feelings I’d never accessed before. I emerged a better actor. I want to give myself credit for that, more than I did at the time. I mean, obviously, there is no perfect person; there’s always work to do. But that’s what I love about acting. You’re never perfect.”
Hair Holli Smith at LGA Management using Bumble and bumble., make-up Kanako Takase at Tim Howard Management using M.A.C, set design Kadu Lennox at Frank Reps, photographic assistants PJ Spaniol, Max Dworkin, styling assistants Louise Ford, Victor Cordero, Gabe Guttierrez, Claire Tang, Nicole Chan, digital operator Matt Kanbergs, production Mary-Clancey Pace, production assistant Thibault Henriet