There’s water everywhere, and an illuminating tiff is unfolding between three of the stars of Stranger Things. We’ve just sat down in a central London hotel, and Caleb McLaughlin (Lucas) is pouring some San Pellegrino for the four of us – but he’s goofing around, spilling it everywhere and splashing his co-stars. “I’m drenched!” yells Noah Schnapp (Will). Gaten Matarazzo (Dustin) sighs, a fistful of napkins in hand; mopping up the spillage, he grasps his own glass and smiles to Caleb, “Thank you, I appreciate you making this terrible mess.”
I ask about the first day they met each other, and Gaten deadpans, “We’ve always hated each other.” The three of them act like brothers: the tight dynamic between them is as authentic in real life as it feels on screen. Noah is wide-eyed, eager; Gaten authoritative and wry; Caleb a fidgety joker. We’re here to talk the spooky nostalgia-trip of Stranger Things 2 – out today on Netflix – but it’s September, and spoilers are on lockdown. Even Caleb’s parents don’t know the details – though that’s more a sign of how much their lives have changed in the past year with the success of the show. “For season one they were more hands-on reading the script,” he says. “For season two they were too busy booking flights to different places.”
Mixing Stephen King scares and Spielberg wonder, Stranger Things’ magical debut season told the tale of an unknowable alien force appearing in a 1983 Indiana community and changing its future forever. With the show’s runaway success, life has imitated art for the ‘Stranger Things kids’, as they’re collectively known: fame has knocked their lives for six, making them the most globally recognisable group of child actors since Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone was released.
In the past year, they’ve rapped at the Golden Globes, sung ‘Uptown Funk’ at the Emmys, starred in a video by Katy Perry, and dabbed in the White House. Between them they’ve got 12 million Instagram followers – more than Madonna or Pharrell. A publicist informs me that the night before we speak, Caleb swapped shoes with London mayor Sadiq Khan at the GQ Awards, as part of a stunt called Strangers’ Things. “Who?” Caleb asks. Though clearly loving the ride, they’re equally wary of fame’s perils – not least Gaten. “We’re kids,” he says. “We can’t grow up too fast. We gotta remember how old we are and where we come from, so our heads don’t get bigger than our bodies.”
To that end, they go to ordinary schools outside of filming, where Caleb is accosted for Stranger Things 2 tidbits and Gaten gets grossed out by his very teenage classmates. “I find myself talking to the teachers more, because I just have better conversations with them,” he says. “At lunch with the kids, one kid would say something and I’d be like, ‘What is wrong with you? What is going on in your brain?’ Teenagers are gross.”
When they’re apart, the kids talk about “dumb stuff” on a group chat called Stranger Texts, and during filming they’re together constantly. Three teachers manage the six kids’ various school curricula between shoots, and filming itself is a blast, they say. It’s worth rewatching the first episode’s Dungeons & Dragons scene to see them struggling through their giggly first day on set. “We could not talk for anything,” Caleb recalls. “Literally every line was stifled laughter. You can see our faces were…” Noah finishes: “Tensing.” Kids-only scenes are the funniest, then? “All of us together is like a disaster,” says Caleb. Gaten corrects him: “A wonderful disaster.”
A particularly wonderful disaster – or disastrous wonder, perhaps – is one of the pranks executed by Noah and Millie Bobby Brown (Eleven) during season one’s filming. Noah tells a toe-curling story about the pair of them prank-calling a costume designer and saying her wedding venue had been double-booked. “She started freaking out,” he says. “Her face got all red and she was about to cry so we went up to her and told her.” Gaten is indignant: “It’s sadistic. Terrible. The worst thing you could ever do. Oh my goodness gracious.”
There’s not much practical joking on the set itself, though, says Caleb. “The set isn’t a pranking area, because it’s work.” He’s tired of the perception that their job is an unending Catherine wheel of zany distractions: “People see how much fun we have onscreen,” he says, “and we are having fun filming because we love to work. But they think we have, like, waterslides on set.” Reader: they don’t.
The discussion turns to Stranger Things 2 and, as expected, there’s plenty of secrecy. “It was more intense,” Noah offers. “Darker. Scarier. There’s more of a story with Will – you learn a lot more about how the Upside Down affected him, and how he’s dealing with his family and friends.” Poor Will, missing for most of the first season, just wants things to be the way they were – and they most definitely aren’t.
In an email, Millie highlights the surreal feel of their first day back: “It was a read-through: we were all together, and it was the craziest thing to think that our show is popular and people know who we are, compared to the first read-through for season one, when we didn’t know what the show would become.”
Down the line from Vancouver a couple of weeks later, Finn Wolfhard (Mike) agrees, but notes that season two felt immediately familiar, too. Shooting felt “like coming back to summer camp,” he says – though he’s quick to add that “the performances are so much better because everyone’s grown so much”.
Like the others, Finn’s glad to still be in school – “You get a sense of reality, which is great for your personality,” the 14-year-old jokes – and in his spare time he’s formed a band called Calpurnia. “It’s so much creative freedom,” he says, “the biggest creative outlet ever. It’s the best.” Elsewhere he’s directed a music video for Californian band Spendtime Palace, performed onstage with Mac DeMarco, and is preparing to produce his own mockumentary series about a wannabe YouTuber. Basically, his ambitions are sky-high. “I wanna do both music and acting,” he says, “and I also want to direct and write and stuff.” In addition to all that, Finn recently appeared in the horror smash ‘It’ – and he says it felt even bigger than Stranger Things. “There was already a set fanbase,” he says, “so… a lot more people to please.”
Sadie Sink would probably disagree with this last point. In a separate call from New York, the 15-year-old – a brand new addition to the Stranger Things cast – reveals fans on social media have given a decidedly cool reaction to her character, Max, without having seen her in a single scene. “Fans have got the wrong idea,” she says. “They think I’m going to be a bad guy or something, but they just need to chill and wait. I think she’s cool.”
Max is a suspicious redheaded skater who’s just moved to the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana, and who becomes drawn into the kids’ circle. For now, that’s all Sadie can say. “It’s excruciating,” she says. True, it’s not much to go on, but haters should take it from Millie: “It’s really nice to have another girl on set and in the group.”
Like Finn, Sadie compares the set to summer camp. “You’re with each other every day, you form these incredible bonds,” she says. “You can’t match that experience.” After joining the cast last October, Sadie has seen her co-stars’ intense rise to fame firsthand. She explains, “During filming, all the awards shows were going on. The kids were travelling everywhere. I was like, ‘Wow, I guess that’s what it’s going to be like.’ It’s prepared me for what’s to come. Maybe at Halloween I’ll see a few tacky red wigs and skateboards…”
As we touch on the topic of fame back in London with the others, Gaten says, “I don’t like the F-word.” Musing on the nature of celebrity itself, he continues, “You’re called a celebrity, but that’s just an unnecessary label for a bunch of completely different lines of work.” He’s right, but that doesn’t lessen their fame. At school, their celebrity has resulted in them regularly being asked for selfies, and in Gaten’s case, getting offered first place in the lunch line. “That made me want to go to the back of the line,” he says. “I don’t get why people think that we deserve more than them.”
Then there’s the overwhelming whirl of fan interaction at Comic-Cons globally, where people dress as their characters. “I see a lot of Dustins,” says Gaten – whose character inspired even comedian Amy Schumer’s Halloween costume last year. “I really appreciate it, but it’s weird talking to someone who’s dressed up as you, man.” Caleb’s experience has been different. “There’s always a rare Lucas. I’ve never said this, but it almost makes me want to cry sometimes, because it’s like, ‘Wow, people are really dressed up as my character.’”
In some ways the fame is great, Caleb thinks. “People that are the same colour as me say, ‘You give me inspiration,’ like there could be people like them onscreen. That’s how I used to feel. I never thought any African-American people or people of colour could be on TV. It’s cool to be here.” For Gaten, his celebrity gives him the opportunity to spread awareness about his condition, cleidocranial dysplasia, which is mentioned in the Stranger Things pilot, and affects development of teeth and collarbones in about one in a million people. He’s an ambassador for CCD Smiles, a charity that gives people with the condition access to medical help. “I respect the Duffer Brothers for letting me talk about it on the show,” he says.
For Noah – the youngest of the lot, at 13 – fame has provided huge pinch-yourself moments. Watching the cast’s acceptance of the Best Ensemble Award at the 2017 SAG Awards, it’s not hard to believe him when he calls it “the best night of my life”. He continues, “It didn’t feel real. I thought I was in a dream. I was speechless. You’re on the stage in front of these huge celebrities who have been acting their whole lives, and they’re world phenomena. I couldn’t fall asleep. I was so happy. It was like a smile you can’t get rid of.” Finn says the same: “We were in front of all of our heroes, and they were all applauding and cheering. It was nuts. That’s when I knew. I was like, ‘Oh man – this is big.’”
The enormity of the show makes the intimacy of its young cast truly remarkable – but one couldn’t really exist without the other. “We’re like a big family,” Caleb says, “like brothers and sisters. We argue, we give each other a hug, we make fun of each other. I think that’s the best part.” Gaten puts it differently. “My best friends are really the kids in the show right now. We understand each other. A lot.”
Depending on what Netflix decides, the kids think the show could run for up to five seasons. “I don’t want to start pulling for straws if we go on too long,” says Caleb, “but you never know – the Duffer Brothers are great writers.” However long it lasts, though, these kids will be in it together, having the time of their lives.
Stranger Things 2 is on Netflix now