Pop Culture

‘Stranger Things’ Star Finn Wolfhard Is Ready to Get Out of Hawkins

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Coat, $10,000, by Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello. Hoodie, $348, from The Society Archive. Tank top, $290, by Peter Do. Necklace (top), $1650, by The One I Love. Necklace (bottom), $826, by Luis Morais. Ring, $5,000, Elli Halili.
The actor has played Mike Wheeler on the Netflix smash Stranger Things since he ​​was 13. Now, starring alongside Julianne Moore in Jesse Eisenberg’s directorial debut When You Finish Saving the World and gearing up to film the final season this spring, he’s in the midst of a prolonged graduation.  

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It’s a little past noon when Finn Wolfhard and I meet up at a tourist-favorite, all-day-brunch spot just off Central Park, a place where strollers pile up by the door, and inside things are moving at an off-peak pace. This is an odd and luxurious time to eat an omelet in Manhattan. When Wolfhard arrives, sporting a boxy jacket and a shaggy haircut, we acknowledge this feeling like a liminal space. Usually, when he visits the city, he hangs out with friends in Brooklyn. 

There’s lots to discuss—a couple new movies, ongoing musical side gigs, the anticipated end of a very popular Netflix show—but within half an hour, we’re talking about panic attacks. I’m reminded of the surrealness of our circumstances, when a man, very sweetly, comes up to our table to tell Finn: “My daughter’s in love with you.”

Wolfhard laughs and agrees to take a photo after our interview is over. He seems a little sheepish, if only because I’m observing the interaction; I am personally surprised it didn’t happen sooner. Glancing down at my recorder, I see we’d made it 32 minutes. “Not bad,” he says.

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The actor just turned 20 in December, and he started having routine panic attacks when he was 15 or 16—a few years into his adolescence-spanning role as Mike Wheeler on the smash streaming series Stranger Things, which premiered a lifetime ago (2016) when he was 13. In those early years, everything felt completely fine and thus Wolfhard “did not talk about anything, because I just was having this crazy whirlwind career, so there was no time, or at least we didn’t feel [there was] at the time.. Everyone was like, ‘Look at him, he’s fine. He’s having the best time,’” he explains. “But in reality, I was probably also developing and things were happening in my brain and anxieties were forming and things that I didn’t realize that I had to bury because of how I had to feel at work.”

Wolfhard recalled a panic attack he had on the set of his latest film, When You Finish Saving The World, the Jesse Eisenberg written-and-directed drama from A24 which released about a week ago. “I was so uptight and nervous about it, because I just was like, ‘This is the first movie [that I’m doing] as an adult,’” he tells me. In turn, Eisenberg—who, like Wolfhard, has been in the business since he was a teenager—told him about the time he had a panic attack mid-take while filming the 2009 movie Adventureland, and how director Greg Mottola pulled him aside to reassure him then that, ultimately, acting is a very weird thing to do.

Necklace, $1090, by Bernard James.

“‘You’re doing a job that’s very emotionally exposing and very publicly horrible. I would be surprised if you didn’t have that, and please never worry. This is a two-dimensional medium and we’re not seeing what’s inside your head,” Eisenberg recounts Mottola telling him. “It just changed my life because I was able to take my anxieties more seriously and realize that it’s okay to feel that stuff in a professional setting.” 

Eisenberg reckons he and Wolfhard have “a similar level of interest in fame, [which is] to say, we are protective of ourselves.”

Wolfhard, for example, isn’t too worried about the arc of his post-Stranger Things career. “For me, I’m not concerned with being relevant at all, ever. I’m just concerned with the people around me and the jobs that I’m doing day-to-day,” Wolfhard says. He worries about his peers who, at this strange junction, express a desire to stay busy: “When things feel really overwhelming and big, it can feel even more big to kid actors who just feel like it all can be gone in an instant.” Some of his colleagues lament whenever their agent suggests they take a break to get some real-life experience. 

“I’m like, ‘Yeah, you should. Actually, it’s necessary,’” he says. “It’ll keep you alive. It’ll keep you better at your job, too.”

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In When You Finish Saving the World, Wolfhard plays a teenager named Ziggy Katz, the only child of a dissatisfied academic (Jay O. Sanders) and an erstwhile hippie (Julianne Moore) who operates a local domestic abuse shelter and reserves all of her conditional empathy for her residents instead of her family; the movie spins around their agonizing mother-son dynamic. “[Finn is] so present, he’s incredibly intelligent, very observant, really curious,” Moore tells me. “Literally the minute we started working together, I looked at Jesse, and I was like, ‘Oh, my god. He’s amazing. He’s a star. I love him.’” (Quickly, before hopping off our phone call, Julianne Moore adds: “And he’s beautiful! That’s the other thing, too. It’s like, I could look at that face forever.” I reference Wolfhard’s gig as a face of the French luxury brand Saint Laurent, as memorialized in steely pop-up ads that follow me around the internet, and she laughs—a glorious Julianne Moore laugh.)

Ziggy, meanwhile, is mostly preoccupied with the adoring online following he’s garnered on a fictional Twitch-meets-TikTok platform called HiHat, where he live-streams his folky teenage guitar music to far-flung fans who reward him with endless heart emojis and, occasionally, cold-hard wired cash. Offline, he’s someone who struggles with self-awareness and social cues, and his crush on a politically savvy classmate named Lila (Alisha Boe) makes him want to appear worldly and aware of global issues. At one point, Lila performs a spoken-word poem about the colonial history of the Marshall Islands that blows Ziggy’s mind.

Playing a head-in-the-clouds kind of kid like Ziggy hit on something for Wolfhard, who, having just turned 20 in December, also grew up on the internet—which is also, incidentally, where his career began. Stranger Things was, in many ways, a catalytic phenomenon: when it landed on Netflix in 2016, it was the platform’s first original series to really hit with younger audiences. What began as its creators’ Matt and Ross Duffer high-octane love letter to the Spielbergian sci-fi coming-of-age blockbusters of the 1980s became a social media sensation, on par with E.T. or Goonies mania. Kids could watch—and, crucially, as Wolfhard points out, rewatch—the show on their phones, close the Netflix app, open up Instagram, and interact with all of the actors on their personal accounts. It was, and is, a 21st-century-fandom one-stop shop, maybe even the first of its kind. At least with Harry Potter, people had to go to the theater first.

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With all seasons considered, Stranger Things is the platform’s most-watched original series to date, accounting for billions of hours viewed. This spring, Wolfhard and the rest of the cast will return to Atlanta to film the final installment.

“I look back at that time when Stranger Things first came out, and I remember how otherworldly it felt, because it felt like nothing I’d ever done,” Wolfhard says. “I was [also] really scared, and I didn’t know that back then. I thought that it was just the coolest thing ever.” 

Suddenly, he was getting recognized all the time in public. He had all these new Instagram followers, who would frequently tag him in their own homespun video montages set to music—fancams or fan edits, as they’re called—that featured footage of him at press junkets or clips of his character, Mike: sped-up or slowed-down moments from the show and the press tour to create new and imagined narrative tension, transforming passing looks into loaded glances, shipping tween fanfic romances that do not exist in any actual storylines. “I remember seeing them and respecting that people were using this to be creative,” he says, “but also being so uncomfortable and being like, ‘Whoa, this is weird.’” If there’s one thing child stardom, much less adolescence, probably doesn’t need, it’s the metaverse.

Not long after season 1 premiered, Wolfhard was in Toronto shooting what would become another hit, the 2017 film adaptation of Stephen King’s It, when a woman came up to him in a sports bar: Are you the kid? His co-star, Jack Dylan Grazer, asked Wolfhard it was his first time being recognized. “He’s like, ‘You’re going to remember that forever,’” he says. “And I did! So far.”

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These days, Wolfhard is mostly concerned with figuring out how to live a “normal life.” That’s the thing now, as Stranger Things winds down. Just as their characters have all been off on their own side quests this past season, Wolfhard says, “everyone’s on their own quests in real life,” as they all figure out what life after a career-defining project that spanned all of their collective teen years looks like.

“We’re not on everyday-text vibes in any way, and not because… it’s like,” he searches for the right words. “Do you text your cousins every day? Probably not. They’re our family. We’ll talk on each other’s birthdays. We’ll talk once in a while. But in the same way that family works, if I ever needed anything, they’re there,” he says. His eyes soften when I mention his costar, Noah Schnapp, coming out on TikTok a few weeks ago: “When I saw it, I just had a big smile on my face. I was just really proud of him.”

Fortunately, there are mentors in their midst—namely, Winona Ryder, who plays single mom Joyce Byers on the show and, as a former child star of the 1990s, is also kind of a spiritual guardian to the group in real life. Ryder is also, Wolfhard notes, “one of the funniest texters ever, because she’ll text you and then you’ll text her back and then she won’t text you ever again.”

Being a bad texter: an undeniably cool trait. “She’ll text you whatever, say something like, ‘Oh, have you ever seen this movie?’ And I’ll be like, ‘No, I haven’t. How are you?’ And then just, nothing,” he cracks. Plus, “she dated Dave Grohl and MCA from Beastie Boys, and all these people. I could literally ask her what it was like knowing Kurt Cobain, and she just tells me everything. It’s insane.” The sheer course of Ryder’s career, and where she’s landed now, is something that Wolfhard admires.

“She is awesome too, because she just lives with her partner at her house. She doesn’t go out,” Wolfhard says. “She’s a homebody and doesn’t care about being relevant either. She just wants to be fulfilled.”

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As far as Stranger Things season 5 goes, Wolfhard says he doesn’t know what happens to Mike or the gang yet, though he imagines Ryder or David Harbour might. I ask: Are you guys ready to get the hell out of Hawkins, Indiana?

“I was stoked, actually, after I watched four,” he replies. “Like, ‘Oh hell yeah. Let’s finish this.’” He seems ready in the same way an antsy senior is ready to finish high school, lamenting, as with all things, that they’ll never get to be together in the same way again. All of this feels like a prolonged graduation: “It’s going to be nuts to finish it. It’s going to be amazing, but it’s going to be nuts.” 

These last few years, he’s tried to fill the rest of his time with regular stuff: living in a rented house in LA with friends, playing music in his two-man band called The Aubreys. Whenever he wasn’t working, he went back “to real high school” in Vancouver, which he still considers to be his homebase—and speaking of graduating, he did that during the pandemic, in a staggered ceremony held in a parking lot, without a prom or proper goodbyes. (Funnily enough, thanks to the number of projects Wolfhard has been in that revolve around trope-y 1980s IP—Stranger ThingsIt, Jason Reitman’s 2021 Ghostbusters reboot—he’s gotten to live out a few of those adolescent milestones on screen. Somehow, it seems, he’s always ending up at a roller-skating rink: “They love that shit, and they love me in it.”)

Coat, $10,000, by Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello. Hoodie, $348, from The Society Archive. Tank top, $290, by Peter Do. Pants, $265, by J Press. Necklace (top), $1650, by The One I Love. Necklace (bottom), $826, by Luis Morais.

Wolfhard knows he’s lucky, that Stranger Things has been a springboard to be able to choose what he works on next that most other kid actors don’t get. I’m moved by how readily he speaks about these things, though we agree that this sort of openness may also be a generally progressive trait of his generation. “I’ve always been what my mom calls a soft boy,” Wolfhard admits, slyly, when I bring this up. I mention this to Eisenberg, who says he agrees that “people in Finn’s generation are more articulate and aware of their emotional experiences.”

“That said,” adds Eisenberg, “I think he’s incredibly unusual.” 

There was one time Wolfhard called Eisenberg again at the beginning of this year. The young actor was feeling “really anxious and depressed,” and wanted to know if Eisenberg ever experienced something similar. “And [Eisenberg] was like, ‘Have you met me? I’m the most nervous guy in the entire world.’”

With this support system of esteemed Hollywood elders on his side, Wolfhard confides in his fellow kid-actor friends, peers from Stranger Things and It and elsewhere, about where this all may go from here. Proverbially speaking, they still may only have each other, when it comes time to face the monster.

There was one particularly rough panic attack that Wolfhard remembers from the set of  Stranger Things. (“Classic me,” he adds.) He was filming a scene with his co-stars Gaten Matarazzo and Caleb McLaughlin, who play Mike’s pals Dustin Henderson and Lucas Sinclair, respectively, on the show. As it happened, the Duffers stopped filming, and Matarazzo and McLaughlin sat there quietly and hugged him.

“Gaten and Caleb, we’re for life. Bonded for life,” says Wolfhard, grinning. “They were like, ‘Dude, we’re the only people that know what it’s really like.”

Coat, $10,000, by Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello. Hoodie, $348, from The Society Archive. Shirt, $590, by Ferragamo. Pants, $265, by J Press.  Tie, $225, by Kenneth Nicholson. Boots, $1295, by R13. Socks, $15, by Gold Toe. 

Eileen Cartter is a staff writer at GQ.

Photographs by Julius Frazer at Silver Tooth
Styled by Brandon Tan
Grooming by Kumi Craig using Sisley Paris at The Wall Group
Tailoring by Ksenia Golub

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