Finn Wolfhard Starts a New Chapter

The actor on working with Julianne Moore, the final season of Stranger Things and navigating the pressures of Hollywood.

by Max Gao

Finn Wolfhard
Photo by Getty, treatment by Ashley Peña

Finn Wolfhard is ready to close the chapter on his teenage years. After rising to fame as the beloved Mike Wheeler in Stranger Things and parlaying the smashing success of the Netflix series into more franchise work (It, The Addams Family, Ghostbusters: Afterlife), Wolfhard, who turned 20 last month, is well into the time-honored transition from child star to adult superstar. And during this process, the Canadian actor-turned-aspiring-filmmaker has gained a refreshing perspective on the fickle nature of the business.

“I’m not concerned with staying relevant in any way,” Wolfhard tells W on a recent Thursday afternoon in New York. “If a big franchise came along and I liked it, that’d be great, but it's not something making me stressed or anxious. I just want to be able to do stuff that I like, whether that’s a small movie or a big movie. I don’t really care about being as much in the public eye.”

Wolfhard’s latest outing, as a self-aggrandizing, aspiring teenage musician in Jesse Eisenberg’s discomforting feature directorial debut, When You Finish Saving the World, marks the start of a new path the actor is looking to chart for himself in Hollywood. Based on Eisenberg’s Audible drama of the same name, the A24-produced film follows Ziggy (Wolfhard), a wannabe Internet star struggling to connect with his demanding mother, Evelyn (Julianne Moore), who runs a shelter for survivors of domestic violence. Instead of bonding, though, they subconsciously seek out replacements for each other; Evelyn tries to parent Kyle (Billy Bryk), an unassuming teenager at her shelter, while Ziggy struggles to win over a politically active young woman at his school (played by Alisha Boe).

“Their will, stubbornness, and work ethic are so similar, but because of their outlooks on life—Ziggy is a capitalist and really cares about making money, and his mom runs a domestic violence center and doesn’t care about money whatsoever—they just keep crashing into each other,” explains Wolfhard, who calls Eisenberg’s “funny” screenplay one of his favorites that he’s read to date. “I think the quiet moments [between the characters] are mostly all coming from just sadness of two people that really love each other but don’t know how to … because they don’t understand each other. What I really like about the movie is that you see them throughout both [realizing] that they deserve each other.”

By the end of the film, there’s a brief moment of recognition between Evelyn and Ziggy where they realize they might be more alike than they’d be willing to admit. “I always think about what happens after the credits roll, and I’d like to think they both become a lot more accepting of each other and that Ziggy becomes less self-centered and more respectful,” Wolfhard says. “I think it’s entirely possible for people to make that change. You need to be humbled or see something in yourself that you’ve never been able to see [before] in order to make a change, and I think they both simultaneously have that moment together.”

Working with Moore and Eisenberg also proved to be an education for Wolfhard, who appeared in music videos for local bands and did guest spots in The 100 and Supernatural, which were shot in his hometown of Vancouver, before landing the role of a lifetime in Stranger Things more than seven years ago. With Moore, Wolfhard was struck by the Oscar and Emmy-winning actress’ ability to love her job and have a prolific career while still maintaining as much of a normal family life as she can. It’s an approach he hopes to emulate one day, although he concedes that actors often struggle to strike that balance because they can’t disconnect from their work and are used to “sitting by the phone, waiting for another job to come.”

Through the process of working together to create the character and the folk-rock music of Ziggy, Wolfhard also found a kindred spirit in Eisenberg, who gave him “a lot of advice” about navigating the perils of fame and the anxiety-inducing nature of the entertainment industry from an early age. “I love that Jesse says that if you’re anxious, it means you care about what you do, about other people, and you can be a weird, messy, stressed-out person and not be perfect all the time,” he says.

“I’m not really concerned with outward pressure, [but] I think there’s a lot of outward pressure and inward pressure that actors put on themselves to be a part of ‘the machine.’ There are these unspoken rules of what an actor or a filmmaker should do, [but] we’re all figuring out that every person has their own journey,” adds Wolfhard, who still travels between Vancouver and Los Angeles for work (and Atlanta for Stranger Things). “You don’t have to live in Hollywood anymore, really. If you’re passionate enough and you keep those relationships up, you can live wherever you want.”

Getting to that mentality, however, hasn’t always been easy. A self-described “very anxious and socially awkward” person who “worries all the time,” Wolfhard admits that he has occasionally used acting as a way to avoid and escape from reality. And like any other young adult in his position, he’s been forced to grapple with how to grow up in the spotlight; he’s dealt with his fair share of boundary crossers and mean-spirited comments on social media, particularly with the widespread success of Stranger Things.

What does he think is the biggest misconception about him? “I went to a bar with my friend in Vancouver who I hadn’t seen in years, and he wanted to know what was going on in my life when I was living in L.A., what kinds of gigantic Hollywood parties I was going to. I had to tell him that I was exactly the same,” Wolfhard says. “I feel like a lot of people get disappointed because, for whatever reason, they want that [fantasy], but I’ve just tried to have my values to be the same and be as normal and low-key as I can be.”

Wolfhard credits his parents with helping keep his feet planted firmly on the ground. But in retrospect, there was also a time during those early seasons of Stranger Things when the actor’s conflicting emotions—and hectic travel schedule—kept him from expressing how overwhelmed he was truly feeling to those around him. “There was probably a lot of anxiety that I pushed down because I felt like I didn’t deserve any of what I had, or felt, ‘This is such a crazy opportunity, so I have to be on all the time and be happy all the time,’” he reflects. “Not only is it hard to be a guy in general and share your feelings about stuff, but also as a really successful child actor, no one wants to hear you complain about your life. I always felt shitty for talking about my problems, but I think it’s important for people to have those conversations early on, because it helps them grow in a healthier way.”

That growth felt apparent on the set of Saving the World, a filming experience Wolfhard describes as his first real “adult job in the best way,” due to the amount of time and effort he put into preparing for the role, compared to past projects. Now, in addition to working on Hell of a Summer, a comedy slasher film that also marks Wolfhard’s feature directorial debut (alongside his Saving the World co-star, Bryk). Wolfhard is also preparing to set his sights on the fifth and final season of Stranger Things, which is scheduled to enter production in Atlanta this summer.

“I know [the Duffer brothers] are trying to make it the biggest season, but also trying to pay homage and capture some of the magic that we had in the first season,” says Wolfhard, while also insisting that the Duffers “don’t tell him shit” about the show’s secretive storylines.

“I’m interested to see what comes through after Stranger Things, and it’s gonna be crazy once the show is over, because it’s been such a gigantic part of my life and a lot of people’s lives,” he adds. “As far as adult acting goes, I just want to keep working on stories that interest me and characters that I identify with.”