In Stranger Things, Mike, one of the middle-schooler protagonists in this tale of supernaturally spiked '80s horror show, has a lot to deal with, including the disappearance of one of his best friends, his increasingly dangerous attempt to solve the mystery of that disappearance, and his decision to take in a girl named Eleven and allow her to live in his basement without his parents finding out.
The 13-year-old boy who plays Mike, Finn Wolfhard, is dealing with a lot, too, but it’s mostly all good stuff, like getting noticed for his first starring role in a Netflix series and co-starring in his first major motion picture, the forthcoming theatrical adaptation of Stephen King’s It. (He’ll play Richie Tozier, one of the members of the Losers’ Club.)
Wolfhard, calling in from Toronto, took a break from his work on that film to chat about how it felt to do his first romantic scenes in Stranger Things, his love of '80s music, and his fear of seeing horror movies in actual movie theaters.
The first thing I have to ask about is your name, because your name is amazing. Is it your given name, or is that a professional name?
It's my given, full name. Finn's not short for anything; it's just Finn Wolfhard. And then Wolfhard means, I think, heart of the wolf in German. What's funny is I'm German, but then I'm like French — I’m French and German and then Jewish. It's really weird. I have really weird blood. And then I go to Catholic school, which is really weird.
What made you decide you wanted to go into acting?
My dad is a screenwriter, so he always used to watch movies for inspiration when I was a baby. I would watch movies with him, I guess, in the background. Probably movies that I definitely should not have watched. That's probably more thanks to my brother. I just wound up getting inspired by all these movies I grew up watching. I just wanted to get into show business. I didn't really care what it was, I just wanted to get into it.
You said your dad's a screenwriter — has he written anything I would know?
No, he has like four scripts that he's been trying to make. He's had deals that have gone through and then they've dropped out. It's insanely hard for my dad — my dad's over there laughing. A lot of the reason why I also got into this was to sell his scripts. Hey, if I was in show business, I can promote: “Hey, check it out — you're in the film business? That's cool. My dad's in the film business.”
Has it helped so far?
It's helping so far. We've got connections now. I have connections — my dad just yelled at me.
Finn's dad, briefly interjecting: I'm honestly not riding his coattails. This is his own little, altruistic thing. I do research on aboriginal land claims. That's what I do. But thanks, Finn, for trying to help out.
Finn, now back on the call: Bye, Dad!
I spoke to the Duffer brothers about the challenges they had casting the kids. How many auditions did you have to go through?
I had gotten this audition from my agent. I read the log line from it, which was “An '80s love letter tribute to John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg films.” And I was like: “I'm in!” So I read the dummy sides, and I did an audition where I was sick in bed. Matt and Ross really liked it, and they invited me for a Skype call. We didn't even talk about work; it wasn't even about the part or anything. We were talking about movies the entire time, which was a good sign for me from the beginning. Then on the side they were like, “Oh yeah, by the way: Come to L.A.” So I came to L.A., and I did one audition before I met Millie [Bobby Brown], Caleb [McLaughlin], and Gaten [Matarazzo]. Then they asked me again to come back, about a month later. Then I waited for about a month. I didn't know if I got it or not. I was really on hold for it, and then finally I got the call from Matt — he was in the Atlanta airport and he was trying to track me down, because I was asleep upstairs. It was summer, it was 12 0'clock p.m. He was telling me to get out of bed — you're going to be in a Netflix show.
I think they were calling kids from Australia and all over the place. It was just a long, extensive casting process. Gaten got cast first because he had been at the auditions very early on, for Lucas and Mike. Then they were like, "We want you as Dustin," and they asked him to do a read-through with all the other people who hadn't been cast. That's when I met Gaten. Now we're best friends!
You said earlier that the log line described this as a love letter to the films of Spielberg and Carpenter. You were not alive when some of the movies being referenced were released. But that still resonated with you?
I grew up watching '80s and '90s movies. I watched The Goonies, which is one of the movie this pays inspiration to. And E.T. obviously, and Stand by Me. It definitely resonated with me right when I read the script. Also, a lot of the reason was — this is a cheat, but it's awesome — me, Matt, and Ross have so many similarities. I'm very similar to Matt and Ross, and they kind of wanted to sculpt their past “them” into an actor, if that makes sense at all. We had this running joke on set that I'm basically them as a kid.
You also mentioned that Gaten has become your best friend. There's a nice chemistry between all of the boys and Millie. Did you guys immediately get along? Did you hang out with each other off set?
Gaten and Caleb knew each other prior. Gaten was on Broadway. They're both from greater New York/New Jersey, and they both did musical theater. Caleb did The Lion King; he was on it for two years. Gaten did Les Miz, on tour and on Broadway, for about a year. So they knew each other from acting and playing at the park. They were good friends. But all of us immediately clicked. Me and Caleb immediately clicked. When he came in, he was all confident. He's got that Caleb smile on — if you ever interview him, he's got this smile. It's awesome. Gaten came in and — so he has this thing in the show related to his collarbone. Matt and Ross wrote that in because he has a condition called cleidocranial dysplasia, where he's been born without a collarbone and it messes up his growth in his teeth. So he came in and did this all for Matt and Ross, and Matt and Ross were like, we've got to put this into the show.
I don't know, I was a weird kid. He was a weird kid. We kind of clicked. Millie came in, and obviously she's so nice. I'm Canadian, and she's English, and those are the two combinations of nice people, which is immediately a good chemistry.
There are a couple of romantic scenes between Mike and Eleven. Was that the first time you had to play something like that? How was that for you?
Yeah, that was my first time doing romantic scenes. Because we got along so well and we were friends prior, we were more comfortable with it because we knew what was going to happen. Matt and Ross are basically kids, so they would always tease us about it: “Hey, Finn, you ready for the kiss?” [Makes kissing noises.] That kind of eased the tension. Once it happened, it was just, whatever. Millie's reaction was the funniest thing I've ever seen on set. We didn't kiss until the first take, and we did it. It was a really good take. They yelled cut. Millie got up and just looked, like, disappointed. Then she yelled out, “Kissing sucks. That sucked.” That's what she said. It was the funniest reaction I've ever seen on a person, because I was her first kiss. I don't know, it was really, really funny. We were more comfortable with it than anyone else would be, which, I was really glad that happened.
Millie was telling me that there was a scene you did where Shawn Levy was directing, and he was playing music to get you pumped up. She couldn’t remember all of the details, though.
Yeah, Shawn was playing '80s songs. He was playing Cyndi Lauper, and he had this one tape where he started playing “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” I immediately burst out in laughter because I'm like, I can't do a scene with this song playing in the background. I'm like, “Come on. Is it possible to do a scene with a straight face while listening to Cyndi Lauper's ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’?” So we were listening to awesome '80s tunes and he started playing Guns N' Roses. That was pretty awesome. We were all like jamming to it, me, Millie, and Shawn.
Millie tells me that you are an expert on '80s music. Is this true?
Yes. I mean, no. I'm going to say no. I can't really say I'm an expert because, again, I didn't really live through it. But I know a lot of it.
What are some of the bands that you like?
From the '80s? Okay, I like the Clash. I like Tears for Fears. I like A-ha. Well, Guns N' Roses, but that’s more of like an early '90s thing — all those great bands.
Did you get introduced to that music by your parents?
My dad and my mom used to play that kind of music in the car when I was a baby. And then my mom introduced me to the Beatles, and I got obsessed with the Beatles, and then I just went from there. I would also search the web: You know how one video leads to another leads to another? It was kind of like that, but with songs. A Beatles song led to a Led Zeppelin song, and then a Led Zeppelin song led to the Rolling Stones, you know.
As you mentioned before, you're now working on It. Do you feel like working on Stranger Things prepared you for this movie, since it’s based on a Stephen King book that came out in the '80s?
It definitely did. It was like training for a period piece. It is not going to be set in the '50s, how it's set in the book; it's going to be set in the '80s. It's going to be set in 1989. I'm glad it's not so in your face about it, both these things, It and Stranger Things.
Obviously there are some scary things that happen in Stranger Things, and It is scary as well. Clowns, in particular, really freak me out. Are you finding it easier to play those moments of horror having done it in Stranger Things before?
I think yeah. I went one day to go see the monster shooting, when Shawn was directing. I sat there and it was really eerie. It was really incredible. At first I was intimidated. But then Shawn was like, “Mark can you turn your head to the left?” It's a [guy in a] giant monster suit; it's like eight feet tall, and he's on stilts. And he turns his head, and then his voice comes out and he's like, “What's up?” Like, out of this giant monster mouth, you hear this tiny, little voice. That immediately eased my mind. Oh, right! That's a guy in a suit!
So they really did that the old-fashioned way.
Oh yeah, they wanted to go as old-school as possible. There's some CG for the green screens and stuff, but when you see cuts happening and shots being fired and people getting blood on each other, that's all practical. All the stuff getting cut off, that's all practical.
We were talking a second ago about Pennywise, the clown from It. Do clowns freak you out, too? What is the thing that freaks you out in scary movies?
Scary movies, for me, I used to be insanely scared of. But now I know when I'm watching a movie, there's a guy right there and there's a guy holding up a light right there. It's anticipatory anxiety, when you're anticipating it to be scary when it's really not. That's my problem. My fear is going to a horror movie in a movie theater. Because the lights go down, everyone's sitting … I was talking to my friend Jack — Jack Grazer, who's also going to be in It — and he was like, “Let's go see Conjuring 2!” I was like, “Man, I can't be in a movie theater with 20 other people, that dark, weird human movie theater, and watch this.” He's like, “Why? You're with all your friends, and it's fine.” I just can't do it. I don't know why that's my fear, but it is. I can watch it at home, but it's a completely different story if I watch it in a theater.
I remember going to see the reboot, not the last one, the one before Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. I saw that and I was really young, and I got so freaked out by it because I was in the theater and it was super-loud. It was almost like I was there, which really freaked me out. So I ran out — I went out of the theater, I sat in the corner, and I sat there for about an hour and a half waiting for the movie to get out. I was about 8. It was an independent theater, so a lot of the staff came up to me and gave me free popcorn and stuff. That was one of the most traumatic movie experiences that I've had so far.
I can watch horror movies at home, but I find it hard to go see them in the theater, too. Part of it is because it feels more immersive. At home you're surrounded by things that are familiar to you, so it helps you establish that what you're watching isn't real. Also, so many horror movies have those jump scares in them, and in the theater they are so much louder.
Oh my gosh, yeah. It's anticipatory, right? It's expecting that jump scare that happens, and when it happens it's like, BOOM! It just gets you. You jump out of the seat. I would love to see another horror movie where you can go in the theater — I want to see a movie where it's not all jump scares and it's all supernatural and everything.
I think you should go see It in the theater. It's one of those things that's taking a lot of the pages from '80s horror, so it's not all jump scares. I mean, I'm not going to say too much about it, but it's very eerie. I think a lot of people will like it.