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The untold truth of Gaten Matarazzo

Stranger Things has become a bigger phenomenon than anyone could've guessed, considering that it's a genre television series that banks on a combined love of nostalgia and the supernatural. But the assumed niche audience turned out to be not so niche after all. This sci-fi show has found insane levels of popularity and created major stars. And of course, one of the best parts of Stranger Things is Gaten Matarazzo's stellar performance as the lovable Dustin Henderson. (Plus, we totally adore his cute on-and-off-screen bromance with Joe Keery's Steve Harrington). Who among us didn't immediately want to adopt Dustin upon his first on-screen appearance? But there's more to Matarazzo than his charm, though we're willing to bet he gets a lot of mileage out of that. While he's still quite young, there are some lesser-known facts about him that are worth exploring to get a bigger picture of what makes Matarazzo such a well-liked celebrity.

Matarazzo's Broadway beginnings

Before Matarazzo was warming all our hearts as Dustin, he was belting out ballads on Broadway. At the tender age of eight, he played Benji in the 2011 run of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, based on the 1994 film starring Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, and Terence Stamp. From the glitz and glam of Priscilla, Matarazzo went on to his more well-known Broadway role of Gavroche in the 2014 run of Les Misérables, a very different sort of show in almost every way. Matarazzo is never far from his Broadway roots, continuing to sing on various television shows and regularly going to see stage performances. He's also set to play Jack in an upcoming Hollywood Bowl production of Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim's subversive take on classic fairy tales. Many actors who start out on stage end up leaving it behind completely for television and film, but it seems that Matarazzo is content to continue performing anywhere he can land a role. And besides, it's a pure delight to hear him sing.

A family of performers

Young Matarazzo is not the only performer in his family. (Though his mother, Heather, is not the Heather Matarazzo of Welcome to the Dollhouse and The Princess Diaries fame.) The young actor cites his older sister, Sabrina Matarazzo, as part of his inspiration to wander down the path of a performer. Sabrina started out in community theater and has since had roles in a couple of short films, as well as one episode of The Americans. But she's not the only talented Matarazzo sibling. In 2015, Matarazzo congratulated his younger brother, Carmen, on his first show, a community theater production of Into the Woods Jr., a slightly tamer version of the Stephen Sondheim classic. It seems that all the Matarazzo kids have a deep affinity for acting, and we only have to wait and see if Sabrina and Carmen rise to fame in the same way their brother did. 

Jersey living

The Matarazzo connection to the theater might be due, in part, to the family's close proximity to New York City. Born in Little Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey, Matarazzo was only a couple hours away from the bright lights of Broadway. And despite his rapid rise to fame and his ever-increasing paycheck from Netflix, currently clocking in at $250,000 per episode for season three, Matarazzo has not relocated to Hollywood. His life off the Stranger Things set—when he's not doing the circuit of awards shows, guest appearances, or foreign press releases—seems to be fairly typical of any 16-year-old American boy. He goes to school, and this year he even went to prom with his girlfriend, Lizzy Yu, who he's been dating for a year already. It must be daunting, as a young person, to have his entire life on display for millions of people to see, but Matarazzo seems to be taking it in stride, living his life as normally as he can, given the circumstances. It's refreshing to see a teen star allowed to lead a typically teenage life.

Matarazzo's band is a Work in Progress

Like many typical teenagers (including Stranger Things co-star Finn Wolfhard), Gaten Matarazzo is part of a rock band. The curly-headed actor is the lead singer for a group called Work in Progress, and Matarazzo's band is a seven-person ensemble which includes both of the other Matarazzo siblings, Sabrina and Carmen, along with a few friends. The group, which started out doing mostly covers, has very diverse taste in music, with many of their favorite bands being older than the members themselves, such as Led Zeppelin and The Black Keys. Speaking with The Aquarian, Matarazzo has said that his two favorite bands to cover are Pearl Jam and Green Day, as he's a big fan of both Eddie Vedder and Billie Joe Armstrong. According to Matarazzo, his dad introduced him to Pearl Jam's music, and he's seen the grunge band play multiple times. Of course, Work in Progress does a lot more than just cover other people's music. In fact, they're recording their own original songs now, with catchy titles like "Dream Eater," which kind of sounds like something might come crawling out of the Upside Down.

Matarazzo is a champion of cleidocranial dysplasia awareness

As many dedicated fans know, Gaten Matarazzo was born with a genetic condition called cleidocranial dysplasia (CCD). This condition affects the development of the bones and teeth, and though Matarazzo seems to have milder symptoms than many others with the same disorder, he was born without collar bones and is missing his front teeth, which is pretty noticeable in Stranger Things. He's had to undergo several surgeries over the course of his young life to mitigate his symptoms, but all in all, his CCD does not seem to be preventing him from living a full and exciting life—though it did prevent him from getting acting work early on. To this end, Matarazzo has chosen to raise awareness of this rare disorder among his fan base, and he works to gather funds to help those diagnosed who might not have access to the full breadth of necessary care and treatment. He is working closely with the group CCD Smiles as a spokesperson, as well as collaborating with the organization on Dustin-themed merchandise to raise funds for those in need.

Matarazzo is busy doing good works

Gaten Matarazzo's passion for good deeds does not end with CCD awareness and fundraising. His Twitter and Instagram feeds are a constant string of causes he is bringing to his fans' attention. Most recently, he teamed up with Verizon to help raise funds for first responders through the Gary Sinise Foundation. Matarazzo is also doing good deeds to help those a little less fortunate, by showing up to support a nonprofit restaurant called Soul Kitchen whose donated proceeds go toward helping individuals struggling with food insecurity. (On top of all that, he also helped rescue his best friend from a Demogorgon.) Truly, it seems that Matarazzo is using his platform to do his best for those in vulnerable situations. Perhaps having a genetic disorder has given him a certain amount of perspective about struggling with uncontrollable circumstances, or perhaps it's just in his personality to pay all his good fortune forward.

Matarazzo's music videos

Combining his talents for film and music, Gaten Matarazzo appeared in a few music videos back in 2017. The most well-known of these would probably be Katy Perry's "Swish Swish" featuring Nicki Minaj. In this incredibly popular video, Matarazzo plays Perry's teammate on the Tigers basketball team—a team which has a reputation for being big-time losers. Matarazzo's nickname in the video is "Tragic Johnson," and he's one among a lineup of lousy ball players. 

However, his performance in Computer Games' "Lost Boys Life" video is a much better use of Matarazzo's talents. Here, Matarazzo plays the role of an adult who is "living a lost boy's life," probably a reference to the Lost Boys from J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan. In the video, Matarazzo wakes up, goes to his terrible job, argues with his boss, and gets fired. But when everything seems bleak, he picks up a guitar and starts leading a more personally fulfilling life through playing music. It might not be an original concept, but the video is well-made and satisfying to watch. It's incredible to think that Matarazzo was only about 14 years old when it debuted.

Matarazzo's controversial prank show

Gaten Matarazzo has been in the news quite a bit lately since his new Netflix reality show, Prank Encounters, was announced. The show, which Matarazzo is both hosting and producing, is set to air later in 2019. The premise is that individuals who come to their first day of a new job find themselves beset on all sides by a bunch of weird pranks. The show's announcement originally met with quite a bit of criticism, as Matarazzo's fans were concerned that vulnerable job seekers were being fooled into taking fake jobs and wasting precious time when they could be seeking out real employment. Tricking the desperate doesn't seem like Matarazzo's usual modus operandi, and both he and Netflix cleared up the misunderstanding as soon as they were able. It seems that participants on the show were under the impression they were coming in for a paid, one-time hourly gig, and they all received their payment and had fun with the "spooky and supernatural" pranks. And hey, they get to be on a Netflix show, too. Sounds like a win-win situation to us.

Matarazzo's quiet entry into TV

Though Matarazzo is best known for his work on Stranger Things, the supernatural science fiction series was not his first foray into television. In 2015, he played in NBC's crime drama The Blacklist. Titled "The Kenyon Family (No. 71)," the episode features a freaky polygamous cult leader harboring some dangerous goods. As for Matarazzo, he's playing a small but significant role as a kid named Finn, a poor boy who's been brainwashed into becoming a suicide bomber. What's truly astounding is that about a year after his appearance on The Blacklist, he'd be starring in one of Netflix's most successful original series.

Along with his young co-stars, Matarazzo is now one of the most recognizable teens in television. Once Stranger Things ends, he will have his pick of television roles. It will be interesting to see if he sticks with serious fare, like The Blacklist, for instance, or branch out into different genres. Even within the confines of Stranger Things, he's shown a great diversity in ability. While his character usually has a goofy, let's-all-get-along outlook, Matarazzo is also really skilled at playing horror, especially when there are monsters running around that want to eat his cat.

Dromedary voice acting

After doing a lot of live-action work, it seems as though Gaten Matarazzo is looking to get into the animated game. The young actor is set to star as Rami, a young camel crossing the desert in search of his human friend in the 2020 film Hump. There's not a ton of information about this movie as of right now, but we know that he'll be working alongside Simon Pegg and Ramy Youssef. Pegg will be playing the villain, while Youssef takes on the role of Omar, Rami's best friend. Rami the camel is also joined by two other animal characters, a goat and a desert fox, but we'll all have to wait to hear more about their casting and their involvement with the plot. Rob Gibbs, an animator on everything from Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest to Toy Story 2 and Inside Out, is directing, and he'll surely be lending his practiced animator's eye to the production. Once upon a time, Matarazzo's lisp prevented him from getting any roles at all, and now he'll be acting with only his voice as the star of an animated film.