Finn Wolfhard: No Strings Attached

When Facetiming with Finn Wolfhard, don’t expect to make much eye contact. It’s not that the 19 year-old is the sort of diva who can’t stand to be looked at directly, just that he’s developed the traditional teenage habit of watching his shoes while he talks. His long black fringe dangles over his brow. As he fidgets with his phone in the gentle heat of a Los Angeles afternoon he could almost be your awkwardly hormonal nephew — that is if your nephew also happened to be one of the most recognisable stars on the planet, a bona fide Gen Z heartthrob with the 26 million Instagram followers to prove it.

Wolfhard earned this teen idol status — and the rabid following that comes with it — playing gawky, lovable leader-of-the-pack Mike Wheeler in Netflix’s monster hit Stranger Things. He was just 12, a child actor from Vancouver with a couple of credits to his name, when he auditioned for a mysterious project described as: “an ‘80s love letter tribute to John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg films.” Seven years later, the show’s fourth season became Netflix’s biggest ever English-language series, racking up over 7 billion minutes streamed in its first week alone. If Wolfhard thought too long about how many eyeballs that represents, he might never act again. “I’m a pretty anxious person,” he says, without looking up, “I think I have to compartmentalise or I would actually have a nervous breakdown.”

Soon, though, he’ll be saying farewell for good to Eleven, Will, Dustin and the trouble-ridden town of Hawkins, Indiana. Stranger Things’ fifth and final season begins filming next year, and will likely air in 2024. “It’s kind of been my college, or my university,” says Wolfhard. “The question is what do you do after that? It’s like Daniel Radcliffe after Harry Potter. You do Swiss Army Man.”

Ah yes, the 2016 absurdist adventure from Everything Everywhere All At Once directors the Daniels that saw the former boy wizard cast as a flatulent corpse. That’s the sort of role Wolfhard sees in his future: the stranger, the better. “I’m interested to see what kind of performances I’ll end up doing,” he says with a knowing grin, pushing that drooping fringe away from his eyes. For all his endearing awkwardness, Wolfhard has an unbridled enthusiasm about making movies that’s defies cynicism. He knows how lucky he is to be in his position. He’s not going to waste it making boring films.

Thus far, Wolfhard’s choice of roles have made him the reigning boy prince of horror at a time when the genre is in rude health. For his generation, coming of age in an anxiety-ridden era, shocks and jump-scares can represent a rare form of catharsis. “I’m a giant fan of horror movies,” says Wolfhard, who went from Stranger Things to playing the bespectacled, foul-mouthed Richie Tozier in the 2017 Stephen King adaptation IT and its 2019 sequel. He was then offered a part in Gothic horror The Turning in 2020, a thrilling career moment as it marked the first time he hadn’t had to audition. “I think horror is so vital,” he says. “It’s a genre I can never really get tired of. You can do so much with it, and it’s an incredibly creative way to make a film.”

His love of all things spine-chilling dates back to when he was “seven or eight” and saw a documentary about Hollywood special effects legend Greg Nicotero, whose credits include Day of the Dead, Army of Darkness and The Walking Dead. “I remember watching him talk about making movies with his friends and making fake blood and being excited by that,” says Wolfhard. “I started messing around with zombie makeup and all that stuff, so I think it was in the cards for me to get into horror.”

Those early attempts at creating a DIY army of the dead have matured into more serious, better financed filmmaking efforts. In 2020 Wolfhard wrote and directed Night Shifts, a witty, twisty short about a convenience store robbery gone wrong. After we finish talking, he’ll get back to work cutting his first feature film, Hell of a Summer, which he co-wrote and is co-directing with his Ghostbusters: Afterlife castmate Billy Bryk. He calls it a “wacky, character-driven comedy in the world of a slasher movie” so it’s safe to assume there’ll be a fair bit of fake blood splashing around. After all, it is set during a killing spree at a summer camp. “I started writing it when I was 16 and made it when I was 19,” says Wolfhard. “The movie kind of grew with me. I injected more personal experience into the movie, even though” – thankfully – “it’s not autobiographical.”

He spent those teen years as an aspiring director with an insider’s view of some the biggest productions on earth. One of his favourite memories of making Ghostbusters: Afterlife, director Jason Reitman’s big-hearted update of the world his father Ivan created in the 80s comedy classics, was being asked for his input. “That was the first time a director was asking me what I thought about a scene,” says Wolfhard. “It wasn’t ‘should I rewrite this scene?’ in an insecure way. It was, I respect you as another individual and let’s work together. I remember being so over the moon. I was 16 and all I wanted in the world was to do that.”

As much as he loves horror, what Wolfhard really wants to do is make you laugh. “There’s always comedy within anything I do,” he says. “Life is really sad, but life is also funny as hell.” It’s a trait he noticed in the work of Guillermo del Toro while working with the Pan’s Labyrinth director on his new stop-motion version of Pinocchio. Wolfhard voices Candlewick, a boy who bullies Pinocchio before befriending him. “It’s a Pinocchio you’ve never ever seen before, and it’s really funny,” he says. “Ewan McGregor, who plays a very self-absorbed version of Cricket, is very, very funny in this movie.”

There’s comedy too in the gangly heroism of Mike Wheeler. Wolfhard doesn’t yet know how Stranger Things will conclude. “[Creators] The Duffer Brothers haven’t told anyone yet, which is really funny,” he says. “I think David Harbour [who plays Jim Hopper] might know the ending of the show, but I have no idea. It was my whole life for a long time, and so definitely it’s melancholic that it’s ending but I think it’s also necessary. It’d be bad for the integrity of the show if we kept going beyond five years.”

When it’s done, Wolfhard claims he’ll take a break. If Stranger Things was his university, it might be time for a gap year. “I probably won’t spring into directing another movie,” he says. “I’m 19 and I’d love to travel for a bit, just see the world and go backpacking.” He knows spending his teen years saving the world deprived him of a few carefree life experiences, but he doesn’t think he’d have been too wild in any case. “Even if I wasn’t acting or famous, I’m not a big partier or a big drinker,” he says. “Now I’m old enough to drink in Canada I’ll go to a bar and be like, ‘So this is what I was missing out on?’”

It’s as hard to imagine Wolfhard getting sloppily drunk as is it to believe even the lure of exotic youth hostels will convince him to take too much time off work. For all his adolescent mannerisms he’s a man on a mission, living out his dream of making fake blood and movies with his friends.

Published in Vera, December 2022.