By Maxmillian Robinson
Gaten Matarazzo, star of “Stranger Things,” got a standing ovation on April 4 in the Performing Arts Center (PAC) when he graced the stage in front of over 400 fans. Matarazzo, who plays the role of Dustin in the hit Netflix series, was on campus as part of Adelphi’s “evening and weekend programming series,” conducted by Adelphi’s Center for Student and Community Engagement (SCE). The occasion, arranged by Tiffany Martino, SCE’s assistant director, had Matarazzo sitting front and center, answering questions about his life, career and accomplishments. Adelphi senior Saira Amar, vice president of the Levermore Global Scholars Student Leadership Council, was the moderator of the event.
The actor spoke about how despite all his accomplishments, he’s dealt with a personal battle in his life. He said he lives with cleidocranial dysplasia (CCD), a bone condition that affects his teeth, skull, face, spine, collarbones and legs. He said this trait is usually hereditary, but he was the first in his family diagnosed with the condition. As a result, he’s had surgery to remove 14 extra pairs of teeth, a characteristic of the diagnosis, plus adapted to a unique sense of flexibility due to not being born with collarbones.
However, Matarazzo said this has not discouraged him in the slightest. He is a daily advocate, being a part of the CCD Smiles organization (founded in 2015), which helps to raise more awareness about the condition, in efforts to one day find a cure. He said they have worked with John Hopkins University, which has helped with research through DNA, questionnaires and social media promotion.
Matarazzo ended this portion of the talk by saying he’d love to be a positive image for CCD, with the organization hosting a sponsored event in Salt Lake City, Utah in June.
The conversation then shifted into his acting career. Though he’s primarily known as Dustin, he started acting at the age of nine. Now at 19 he recalls moments from the very beginning to provide insight on his career genesis.
“My first [theater] acting performance was called `Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,’” Matarazzo said. “[As far as TV] I kinda forgot, but I was in season two of ‘The Blacklist’ and played Finn, a dude who was about to blow up a bridge.”
He explained that actors can do a lot more on stage than in television due to the performance being live and that there is lots of space to perform on. For many production sets, filming is usually done in a smaller area, leaving you to exaggerate a scene more.
However, for Dustin, Matarazzo doesn’t feel the need to exaggerate performances due to the directors creating the characters holding almost “identical” characteristics.
After a stint with the Broadway show “Les Miserables,” he picked up the role of Dustin, which cultivated his rise to fame.
“[It] meant so much more than anything else,” he said. “We started filming it [two weeks] after my thirteenth birthday, but that was all I was focused on. It defined my teenage life.”
According to Matarazzo, many actors dislike the idea of being defined by who they are on screen, but he embraces it. He’s watched the first two seasons of his Netflix series, labeling the pilot episode his favorite to film and be a part of, but the entire season three as his favorite to watch.
“[It] gave us a driving force to be motivated to act and continue with the show,” he said. “We had so much fun.”
Unfortunately, things took a turn when the Covid-19 pandemic began.
“We started filming [season four] in March 2020,” he said. “Being [Joe] Quinn’s first day, the director told everyone there would be a two-week break, then turning to six months. I was trapped in my parents' [New Jersey] basement, while finishing my senior year of high school.”
There was a long haul that prevented Matarazzo from completing his scenes from the beginning of the pandemic until six months later. Moreover, from April 2021 to July 2021 there were still staggered breaks in production. Matarazzo even picked up a job working as a food runner in a restaurant where avid fans of his show were able to notice the star, asking, “Gaten, is that you?”
He said it wasn’t enough to take the joy away from him coming back after the long hiatus to finish season three of the show.
In opposition to the glitz and glamor, Matarazzo is a Mario kart fan alongside his brother Carmen, playing against their friends in competition. Though receiving praise among his peers for his exceptional play, he does not intend to turn professional at the game, he said. “I prefer single player due to the storylines and plot,” he said.
Matarazzo said that despite his successes in acting, he’s on a mission to exceed more. In addition to his prominent role on “Stranger Things,” he will now be starring in a new movie, “Honor Society,” set to be released at the end of the year, featuring Angourie Rice and Christopher Mintz-Plasse.
“Who knows what happens after [Stranger Things]?” Matarazzo said. “What I can say is season four will be twice as long compared to the previous seasons, but it will pay off.”
Matarazzo knows what it’s like to start off unknown. He mentioned that there were times of peril, uncertainty and anguish, but in the end, he fought his way to the primetime role, making friends with all his cast members, including close friend Caleb McLaughlin who plays Lucas on the Netflix show.
Matarazzo took a moment to address the acting students in the audience. “You’re in a great market already,” he said. “Get an agent, say yes to everything, even if it sucks. There’s growing pains. It took two years for me to land an acting job, but if you pursue it, everything will work out.”