When my generation was growing up, the heroes we saw on TV and between the pages of comic books all fit the same mold: men who overpower foes through sheer force. This is what heroism meant for generations before me. But it won’t be the same for our kids.
Gaten Matarazzo is living the evolution of heroism. (Reader discretion is sometimes advised for celebrity interviews, but you’ll want to read this one with your kids). As dorky Dustin Henderson on the Netflix megahit Stranger Things, Gaten and his gang are outsiders—a little nerdy, a bit awkward—but certainly brave when saving their hometown of Hawkins from cross-dimensional creatures. The 16-year-old is an off-screen hero, too. Born with Cleidocranial Dysplasia (CCD), which affects the bones and teeth, Gaten has used his public platform to raise awareness for the condition. Today, our heroes are taking on the challenge to use their public voice for good.
With season three of Stranger Things dropping July 4, Gaten sat down to talk stardom, heroism and his plans for the future.
What do you think it means to be a hero?
Gaten Matarazzo: I think that people need to understand that anybody can be a hero, depending on their actions. People are finally starting to understand that you don’t have to be a stereotype or an architype from a comic book. Everyone has the decision to be a hero at some point in their lives.
We hear so much about the negative effects of fame on child stars. Do you think that having a cause you care about helps with that?
GM: When you’re still growing up and you’re introduced to the public eye, it can be pretty frightening. But I think that having an organization keeps me grounded. It gives me an objective, and it gives me a purpose to be in the limelight. Without it I think a part of me would feel lost and scared.
Tell me about CCD Smiles.
GM: CCD Smiles helps raise money for people with CCD—the surgeries that are needed with the condition can be very expensive. It goes back and forth between doctors and insurance, saying it’s medical, it’s dental. We’re fighting to make sure that CCD is recognized as a medical condition and that all surgeries and medical procedures are covered through medical insurance. But for the time being, we are raising money for people who can’t afford it or whose insurance won’t cover it.
How have your fans responded to CCD Smiles?
GM: The fans have been great. Thanks to them we’ve raised a lot of money and we are spreading the word, which is exciting. Social media has brought a lot of people with CCD together. There was a conference recently, and about 125 people with the condition were there. The oldest was 86, and he’d never met anybody with the condition. Before that, the biggest gathering of people with CCD was nine people.
Where do you see yourself in the future?
GM: I’ve never been in a film before, which is something I’d like to do eventually. I also definitely want to get back into theatre. That’s where I started and that’s where I intend to finish. But I’m definitely going to continue acting.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Craig Kielburger is co-founder of the WE Movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.