Gaten Matarazzo stars as Dustin on Netflix’s hit series Stranger Things. And while the lovable, lisping 15-year-old shines on screen, his road to fame wasn’t simple. Indeed, Matarazzo has bravely opened up about a disability that nearly kept him away from an acting career.
Matarazzo’s career in acting had begun unexpectedly after he went to a talent showcase with his older sister and just happened to get an agent. “I didn’t know the first thing about acting but I was like, ‘Yeah!’ And my mom went, ‘Really?’ And I was like, ‘Uh-huh! Let’s just do it, it’s probably cool,’” he told The Daily Beast.
With that, Matarazzo made it into the touring company for two big shows: Les Misérables and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. He also had a small part on the NBC show The Blacklist on his resume. But he lost out on hundreds of other parts, he told BBC 5 Live in the U.K.
It wasn’t until he stood before the creators of Stranger Things, Matt and Ross Duffer, that everything would change for the young actor. The Duffers initially envisioned a “stereotypical nerd” in the role of Dustin, they told The Daily Beast.
But that vision went out of the window when Matarazzo came to his casting call. “I don’t think we really understood who that character was, and then we met Gaten and basically tailored the show to him,” Matt said.
In fact, Matarazzo was the first of the child actors to be cast on Stranger Things, and he’s perhaps the most important of them all. He’s the heart of the show, and that’s what he loves about the part.
“I like how he’s loyal to his friends, and he’s always there trying to get people to get along, even if it doesn’t work out all that well. He is courageous in his own way. And, he’s funny!” Matarazzo said of his character, Dustin.
According to The Daily Beast reporter Melissa Leon, Matarazzo, too, is “upbeat and often funny.” But not everything about the child star is as carefree as he seems. He has also talked openly about a disability that often prevented him from getting roles like the starring one he snagged on Stranger Things.
During a 2016 appearance on The Jonathan Ross Show in Britain, Matarazzo told the audience that he had had cleidocranial dysplasia since birth. The genetic condition affects the way teeth and bones grow.
As Matarazzo explained, “It’s a condition where you’re born without your collar bones – I don’t have any. It affects your facial growth, your skull growth… it affects your teeth… that’s why I don’t have any, these are fake right here.”
To die-hard fans of the show, this condition might sound familiar – that’s because it was written into the show as part of Dustin’s background, too. In one scene, bullies make fun of him for his teeth, and he explains that he has cleidocranial dysplasia.
Matarazzo admittedly has a mild version of the condition, though. For others, cleidocranial dysplasia can cause loss of hearing, regular sinus and ear infections and other bone-related abnormalities.
And that’s why Matarazzo’s openness with his condition has made such waves. When he appeared on The Jonathan Ross Show, he didn’t just reveal to TV audiences that he suffered from cleidocranial dysplasia, but he also explained why it was important for him to do so.
Matarazzo said, “A lot of people have it much worse than I do. And I feel like putting it into the show is really raising awareness for it. I just wanted to raise awareness and let people know that it’s not something that they should be afraid of showing.”
In an interview with The Daily Beast, he said that his transparency did, indeed, strike a chord with Stranger Things viewers, especially once it became part of the plot. “I started getting a lot of messages and emails from people who have the condition, saying that it really helps them come out of their shells a little bit,” he said.
“I’ve always liked to embrace the condition, but other people don’t feel the same way. They say that because this was in the show and that this is the first time that they’ve heard it outside of the doctor’s office, it made them feel really good and it inspired them,” Matarazzo went on.
The young actor could only thank the show’s creators for allowing Dustin’s character to take on the condition, too. “Those messages really inspired me and made me feel good and appreciate the Duffers even more. They inspired a lot of people to come out of their shells and embrace what they have,” Matarazzo said.
Plus, Matarazzo had been turned down in the past because of the very disability the Duffers had chosen to celebrate. “It was always because of my lisp, and me being shorter and having the teeth issue, that was always the reason that they wouldn’t cast me,” he told BBC 5 Live.
But it wasn’t just those with cleidocranial dysplasia who felt touched by Matarazzo’s actions. After his appearance on The Jonathan Ross Show, the internet at large lauded the teenager for his honesty and his quest to raise awareness for the condition. “Please protect this little piece of art, I love him so much,” wrote one Twitter user.
The Duffers’ efforts to include cleidocranial dysplasia got the same glowing reviews. “I love that they just wrote his condition into the show. Wish there was more creativity and flexibility like that,” one Facebook user wrote. The creators, the cast and the crew will likely have the next season of Stranger Things ready to watch on Netflix in 2019.