Finn Wolfhard: A child actor caught in our cultural Upside Down

With ‘Stranger Things’ and ‘It’, the Vancouver teen exemplifies a modern child actor’s odd bargain: conjuring others’ childhoods, while he lives out his own

Vancouver actor Finn Wolfhard, star of the Netflix series "Stranger Things" is photographed in Toronto on Tuesday, July 17, 2016. (Chris Young/CP)

Vancouver actor Finn Wolfhard, star of the Netflix series “Stranger Things” is photographed in Toronto on Tuesday, July 17, 2016. (Chris Young/CP)

Early in the first episode of Stranger Things 2—which debuts on Netflix on Oct. 27—Middle-American any-kid Mike Wheeler, played by 14-year-old Vancouver native Finn Wolfhard, is sternly lectured by his mom to assemble two boxes of toys for a family yard sale.

Glum and hangdog, a pint-sized brick of gloomy adolescent rebellion, Mike heads to his suburban bedroom. He gathers a stuffed monkey, a toy dinosaur, and a few other figurines, before lingering on a large scale-model of the Millennium Falcon, the tatty spaceship belonging to interstellar smuggler Han Solo in Star Wars. He caresses it with affection, unable to part with it. For Mike, teetering on the cusp of adulthood—as well as the viewers identifying with him—the lesson is obvious: the time has come to put away childish things.

Well, almost. When it premiered on Netflix in July 2016, Stranger Things quickly became one of the streaming media service’s most watched and most acclaimed original series, doing so precisely by tapping into the sort of wistful sentimentality for a bygone heyday of geeky or supernatural pop culture that has been supplanted by spandex superhero blockbusters—for the halcyon days of childhood innocence itself. It evoked—or really, demanded—comparisons to Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, as well as other mid-1980s genre masters like John Carpenter. It was a concentrated shot of nostalgia jacked straight into the temporal lobes of a generation of Millennium Falcon-nuzzlers.

For Wolfhard, evoking other people’s childhood nostalgia has became something of specialty. Small, even for his age, with a shaggy mane of dark hair and wide, curious eyes, he has emerged in the past few years as a familiar face in affectionately nostalgic coming-of-age narratives. In addition to playing Mike, the reluctant leader of a group of middle-school inter-dimensional monster hunters in Stranger Things, he also starred as Richie Tozier in this year’s smash-hit movie adaptation of King’s It. Both properties are steeped in the bric-a-brac of 1980s American culture, with on-screen nods to Star WarsGhostbustersAlien, and A Nightmare on Elm Street, among many others. (Speaking to the density and inter-textuality of these winks and nods, Stranger Things 2 even contains a reference to It itself.)

The way both It and Stranger Things deploy their pop culture references and their shared “You Know You’re An ‘80s Kid If…” milieus proves revealing. They throw back to a world where a love of comic books, horror flicks and space operas might have actually marked someone as an outcast, a world where Star Wars or the child-murder epic It were not yet massively popular preoccupations. The result, for Wolfhard, is a lot of 30- and 40-somethings approaching him and raving about his role in reawakening memories of their bygone youth. “It’s definitely weird,” he admits over the phone from Los Angeles, where he’s filming a movie opposite Eva Longoria and Vanessa Hudgens. “Adults come up to me and are like, ‘You ride bikes like we did!’ And I’m like, ‘Uh….coooooool?’ ”

These days, Wolfhard is playing catch-up. He’s taken a keener interest in horror films. He’s going back through those old Carpenter movies and King adaptations, versing himself in all the references that strangers now throw at him. But his interest in film and television goes back a few years, since around the age of 8. “I was very interested in movies in general,” Wolfhard explains. “I wanted to do something in film. I wanted to make my own movies. Something clicked in my brain, like, ‘Oh, I can physically act! I can go on open casting calls and audition for something.’ ”

He landed roles in a few indie films, before one of those open casting calls led him to “Guilt Trip,” a music video by Toronto pop-punk outfit PUP. He got the job, playing a younger version of the band’s guitarist-frontman, Stefan Babcock. Wolfhard would go on to use the video as part of an acting reel he submitted in his audition for Stranger Things. “I really would not be where I am today if I hadn’t done those PUP videos,” Wolfhard says. “It just showed me so much. It taught me so much about music and acting and being your own boss.”

Stranger Things. (Netflix/Everett Collection)

Stranger Things. (Netflix/Everett Collection)

This sense of defining one’s own destiny also gives shape to Wolfhard’s most famous on-screen character. Of Stranger Things’ expanding cast of heroes, Wolfhard’s Mike Wheeler feels the most accessible. Among the series’ core kids, Mike’s more levelheaded than Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), more open-hearted than Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and more grounded than Will (Noah Schnapp), the four of whom spent the bulk of the show’s first season adrift in a monochromatic nether-realm called the Upside Down. As Mike, Wolfhard is eminently believable as a kid yanked out of the innocence of childhood by a spooky conspiracy and the arrival of his new friend and possible first crush, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), herself a psychokinetic escapee from a government research facility.

Wolfhard describes Mike as “kind of a loner” who is “not as happy” as the other kids. Yet, despite his woes and the gurgling presentiment of teenage angst as Mike, Wolfhard radiates confusion and confidence as a kid adrift in his own life, looking to exert some control as situations spiral all around him.

He is, perhaps, even better as Richie, the wiseacre in the “Losers’ Club” in It, whose compensatory obnoxiousness rings even truer of certain kind of adolescent experience. “Mike would think that Richie is super annoying,” Wolfhard laughs, when asked how his two characters might get along. “Richie doesn’t really have a filter. He’s very motor-mouthed. He is super self-conscious and very neglected. He makes up for that by constantly making jokes. Mike is kind of the same way, but instead of making jokes, he becomes a leader. He feels alone and is self-conscious, but he makes up for it by trying to be a big hero.”

Whether the fast-talking jokester or the half-enthusiastic leader, Wolfhard is good at inhabiting that chasm of adolescence, the place where childhood and adulthood seem like equally distant shores, the place from which mature identities emerge. He is, in short, extremely adept at playing a regular, relatable kid. But for a teen straining through his own awkward adolescence, and who is emerging as a recognizable young star, the question naturally presents itself: Is Finn Wolfhard actually a relatable, regular kid, or does he just play one?

“My whole thing is having the perfect balance,” Wolfhard explains. “Let’s say I go to school. I have a day at school. That’s the perfect amount of reality. Then I go and play music with my band. Then I go home and hang out with my family and my pets. I think that’s the perfect amount of reality time.” He likes playing video games and skateboarding, and writing and directing his own movies.

Yet even this “reality time” feels elevated from that of an average Canadian teenager. When Wolfhard plays music with his friends, he’s not just messing around as part of a garage band—or, in a more contemporary and likely scenario, on the music app GarageBand. He plays rhythm guitar in Calpurnia, a band that has secured gigs opening for name indie-rock acts and will release its first album on Toronto’s Royal Mountain Records next year. While filming a follow-up video for the song “Sleep in Heat,” Wolfhard recruited Malcolm Greg, a fellow actor-musician who appeared in the video, for his own project. “Apparently they hit it off and found that they both actually wanted to be in a band,” explains PUP guitarist Steve Sladkowski. “Of course, he’s much more popular now than we’ll ever be but I guess that’s how it goes, eh?”

That popularity, for child actors, can be more a curse than a blessing. With few exceptions—Jodie Foster and Natalie Portman come to mind—child actors are rarely able to parlay their success into career later in life. The pressures of the industry, and of hovering parents—Wolfhard’s dad looms in the background during our call, clarifying a few minor points—can take their tolls. Up-and-coming talents like Wolfhard risk ending up in a tabloid or a BuzzFeed “Where Are They Now?” listicle alongside the kid from Jerry Maguire and Stuart Little. The wages of puberty also has a way of corrupting the cuteness so essential to a young actor’s on-screen appeal, like that urban legend about people buying cute pet alligators, then flushing them when they get scaly and unmanageable; it’s almost a cliche that being an adolescent in Hollywood means your prospects are always circling the drain.

In her pulpy 1990 autobiography Little Girl Lost, Drew Barrymore, the original kewpie-doll child star of the ‘80s supernatural horror/sci-fi cycle, describes smoking cigarettes at nine and a half, club hopping at 10, and getting heavily into drugs by her mid-teens. “No one I worked with had a clue as to the double life I was leading,” she writes. “If I seemed glum and depressed, which I often did, they chalked it up to adolescence and tried cheering me up. Little did anyone realize I was just trying to get through the days as best I could.” Barrymore offers a more extreme example of the decadence that lures even Hollywood’s youngest talents.

For others, the stresses are more quotidian, but no less real. “Everybody thinks being a child star is glamorous,” former teen sitcom star Tia Mowry told USA Today in 2013. “You miss out on a lot of things. I had to miss my prom.”

Wolfhard, for his part, seems hell-bent on not missing out. His may seem like a strange bargain for an emerging actor—sacrificing the integrity of your own formative adolescence in order to remind strangers of their own—but those nerdy tropes and pastimes appear to be helping Wolfhard stay grounded. He still plays video games—getting more and more interested in the vintage arcade boxes found on the Stranger Things set—and hangs out with his family pets. He’s even trying to set up a large-scale tabletop roleplaying game campaign with his Stranger Things co-stars, in true, throwback, ‘80s kid fashion. “We haven’t played a Dungeons & Dragons game yet!” he exclaims, his disappointment palpable. “We want to.”

And instead of succumbing to the glamour of his young fame, he’s exploiting it. He started a band with fellow child-actors. He uses his social media platforms—he has nearly 650,000 Twitter followers—to showcase dopey, homemade comedy videos.

Viewed cynically, this is the portrait of the modern teenage star as an ever-expanding “brand.” But in all likelihood, given Wolfhard’s intelligence, his easy-going nature, and his tendency to call everything either “weird” or “cool” like any regular 14-year-old kid, it shows a young star relishing his newfound fame and just having fun, with the knowledge that it could fizzle out at any second.

Actor/musician Finn Wolfhard (right) performs onstage with his band Calpurnia during the "Strange 80's" benefit at The Fonda Theatre on May 14, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)

Actor/musician Finn Wolfhard (right) performs onstage with his band Calpurnia during the “Strange 80’s” benefit at The Fonda Theatre on May 14, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)

But beyond the longstanding tribulations of being a child actor, Wolfhard’s also learning that being young, visible and talented in 2017 carries a whole new set of pressures and challenges.

Between the timeframe of Maclean’s interview with Wolfhard and the publication of this article, the actor has fired his agent, Tyler Grasham at APA, according to the Hollywood Reporter, amid accusations that Grasham sexually assaulted two former underage actors. The move comes in the wake of numerous allegations of harassment against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, and the #MeToo social media campaign, which saw people sharing stories of assault and harassment, especially in the entertainment industry. (When Maclean’s reached out to Wolfhard’s PR reps after the news broke, they said they “have no comment.”

It was a bold move for Wolfhard, who was considered one of Grasham’s top clients. And it’s proof of just how quickly circumstance can force a young star to mature and put away childish things—whether the sculpted plastic curios of boyhood or the infinitely corruptible idealism of youth. The announcement has led to many on social media praising him; CNN anchor Bill Weir even praised the teen as “America’s moral compass.”

In real life, Wolfhard seems to be learning that heroism doesn’t demand the theatrics of defeating a flower-headed extra-dimensional monster, or banishing a child-eating clown back into a dank well. But it requires something even more difficult: the courage and principles to take a stand. Being precocious and multi-talented isn’t enough anymore. Now, even being a 14-year-old in Hollywood means grappling with morals and ethics and high-publicity career decisions. It’s small wonder people want to return to a simpler time, when monsters lived in movies and TV and lurked in inky alternative dimensions, where the plasticky bevels of a Millennium Falcon toy offered the rarest, strangest thing of all—the gentle, comfortable belief that somehow, everything was going to be OK.

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