These Kids Know ‘Stranger Things.’ But What’s Stranger Than Growing Up?

It must be strange to live in a Midwest town that is home to nefarious conspiracies, secret experiments and a portal to an alternate dimension populated by grotesque monsters. But coming of age is still stranger.

After an absence of almost two years, “Stranger Things” returns on July 4 for its third season on Netflix, and a lot has changed in that time. It’s still the 1980s, the era of New Coke, Jazzercise and George A. Romero’s “Day of the Dead.” But as we catch up with the kids we’ve followed on their adventures — Will (Noah Schnapp), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Max (Sadie Sink), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and the psychic Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) — we discover they’re not kids any longer.

Season 3 finds them in the summer between their middle school and high school years, and they are unmistakably teenagers now, teeming with all the passions and messy feelings that come with that phase of life. Their growing up is reflected in the ’80s-era touchstones that this series is famous for cribbing from, as the innocence of “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and “The Goonies” gives way to reference points intended for more grown-up audiences, like “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” (Fittingly, portions of this season take place in Hawkins’s new shopping mall.)

While the “Stranger Things” friends once again contend with hideous beasts of the human and nonhuman varieties, they are also finding their first loves, suffering their first breakups and discovering it’s not as easy as it used to be to keep their gang together.

The actors who play these characters have also grown up: Some were as young as 9 and 10 years old when they first auditioned for the Duffer Brothers, who created “Stranger Things,” and now they are between the ages of 14 and 17. They are poised and precocious, increasingly visible from their work on the show and in other projects. And they are supremely aware that they lead lives that are very different from a typical teenager’s, even as they strive to stay humble and normal.

In individual interviews, the young “Stranger Things” actors spoke about growing up, on camera and off, their appreciation for the sometimes inexplicable pop culture of the ’80s and what they’ve learned about themselves. These are edited excerpts from those conversations.

What are your characters up to in Season 3?

MILLIE BOBBY BROWN I don’t think El knows how to use her powers properly. That’s what she learns about this season. Obviously it’s led her to a different lifestyle, and she has a lot of PTSD. But she’s trying to become normal again. Just like any other teenager, El’s learning not to be what people tell her to be and to be herself. I relate to that a lot.

CALEB McLAUGHLIN It’s so different from the last two seasons. It’s tasty. There’s a friendship between Mike and Lucas this season. We think we know a lot about life, and we think we’re all grown up, but we’re really not. I’m trying to teach Mike how to live life. I’m like the master, and he’s the grasshopper.

FINN WOLFHARD Mike thinks he’s a man. He has a little bit of a God complex at the beginning. He’s a teenager and he has a girlfriend. He feels untouchable, he feels immortal, like any teenager that just turned 13. You’re like, “Whatever, I don’t care.”

NOAH SCHNAPP In Season 1, Will is more shy and reserved, and then in Season 2, after the monster attacks him and takes over his body, Will gained more courage and became braver. Throughout Season 3, you see how the monster’s still lingering inside him, and how he deals with that. Because he’s not fully better.

GATEN MATARAZZO It seems that the stakes for Dustin’s stories having been rising more and more. He’s always had his little side stories, but this year he’s got an entire shopping mall to contend with.

The new mall is a prominent setting, which makes sense given that your characters are now teenagers. One of the big themes this season is how their core group of friends is not only growing and changing, but also fraying and being pulled in different directions. Did that feel authentic to you?

McLAUGHLIN Things happen. Friends separate. When I left school, I would check in on a friend and be like, yeah, I don’t talk to that person anymore. It was just because of me not going to school. But I don’t really talk to them that much.

MATARAZZO Obviously, it’s sad. I always think about this one thing my history teacher told me this year. He’s sitting there on his desk, sipping coffee, talking about how this generation sucks, as he always does. And he’s not even that old, he’s like 40. [Laughs.] And in the middle of his lecture, he goes, “I was just thinking earlier this week, there was this one time I was hanging out with my friends, all of us together — and then it never happened again. Something happens or something changes, and then it never happened again.” And that’s how friendships work, especially when you’re a kid.

SADIE SINK Max makes friends with El this season. Me and Millie, on weekends, we’d have sleepovers and stuff — I think that’s why our onscreen relationship came across as very genuine, because of how close Millie and I are. Being the two girls on set, we had this automatic bond. It could have been a really bad situation or something, there could have been jealousy — “Oh, there’s a new girl.” But it wasn’t, because me and Millie just really get along.

The presence of the supernatural is still an important part of the show. Is it tricky to pretend to use psychic powers or react to monsters that aren’t really there?

SCHNAPP A lot of “Stranger Things” is having to be able to, in your mind, turn a little tennis ball into a huge monster. In Season 2, there was one scene where I was screaming at the monster and I was screaming at nothing. It was just the sky. So I really have a big imagination, I guess? In another scene, I had to collapse and have a seizure. I’ve never experienced one; I’ve never seen anyone have one. So I just researched it on the internet. I looked at videos of it. Winona [Ryder] helped me too — she talked me through one of the scenes.

BROWN I channel energy. I channel a lot of my memories. Especially when I’m angry — it becomes very raw and emotional and real and genuine. You’d think all that crying would make you feel better, but no, actually, you feel the opposite. Usually when I do those scenes, I go home. I take a bath, I listen to some sad music and cry it out myself. It lasts less than five minutes, but it’s something you need to do in order to get on with it. And then I’m good for the rest of the day.

What did you know about ’80s culture before “Stranger Things”?

WOLFHARD I had already seen all the classics. I’d seen all of John Hughes’s movies. All the Spielberg stuff. A bunch of ’80s horror, like “Evil Dead.” It was cool when the Duffers assigned a list of movies to watch. Gaten and I were just like, oh, we’ve already seen these. And they were like, all right, well, good.

MATARAZZO My parents were so keen on making sure I knew all that. I remember my dad showed me a Duran Duran album once, and I was obsessed with it. And so was my brother, but my brother was only obsessed with the song “Girls on Film,” and he played it about 14 million times in a day. And it drove me nuts. But now I have a connection with that album and that time.

SINK My mom always plays Madonna in the car, so I was kind of familiar with what she was into in the ’80s. I’m a huge “Back to the Future” fan. I rewatched it recently, and I see a lot of similarities between Max and Marty. They have the same skateboard, the same backpack.

What’s something from the ’80s that you hadn’t encountered until you worked on “Stranger Things”?

SINK Definitely the video games. I knew Pac-Man, but that was it. In Season 2, we had the arcade set and all the games were working, so in between takes you could go around and play whatever you wanted. I never actually played Dig Dug, though, because the machine they had didn’t work. [The show introduced Max in Season 2 as a Dig Dug ace.] The night before that scene, I was looking at how to play Dig Dug, making sure I was prepared. And then I got on set and they were like, O.K., it’s not working so you’re just going to press this button like you’re playing it. I was so ready.

SCHNAPP My parents always told me about VHS tapes. And the Walkman, everyone had those. I had never even seen one until I got onto “Stranger Things.”

Is there anything from 2019 that you think will still hold up in 30 years?

SINK I just saw “Booksmart,” and I felt like that really captured what it’s like to be a high schooler right now. That’s definitely a movie we’ll look back on, that captures the spirit of 2019.

McLAUGHLIN Beyoncé. Bruno Mars. Jay-Z. Migos.

WOLFHARD If you don’t realize that there are great rock bands out there, you should look for them. Pup, who’s like the most amazing, they’re keeping rock ’n’ roll and punk alive. A band called Whitney. And my friend Snail Mail. All those are so important.

SCHNAPP I always wonder if Apple iPhones and all these electronics that we use today are still going to be a thing in like 10, 20 years. It’s nice being on set, because it teaches you, oh, you don’t need your phone all the time. People lived like this.

How have you seen yourself change since you started working on “Stranger Things”?

SINK I’ve definitely grown up, but I’m the same Sadie now that I would have been, even if I wasn’t on “Stranger Things.” I’ve always been laid back, go with the flow. There’s that whole thing about how child actors all end up being crazy, but I don’t think that’s the case for any of us. We’re all just good kids, especially when you surround yourself with supportive, loving people.

McLAUGHLIN I have open ears, and I have a personality to hear out other people. I don’t really have a stubborn way about myself. I thought that I knew enough, but as I get older, I’ve realized that I don’t know a lot.

MATARAZZO I’ve just become more of a sarcastic [expletive]. Other than that, I really haven’t changed much at all. I look back at the old footage of me, and my sense of humor then, and I’m like, ugh, that’s the people I make fun of now. The reason I’m sarcastic is from this deep-down insecurity that I was totally unaware of. [Laughs.] That’s all humor, though.

BROWN I’ve learned to like new things and different things. Obviously, my lifestyle has changed quite drastically. Taking more safety precautions and my privacy, being more careful. But me, my love and passion for acting hasn’t changed at all.

But has it been strange to grow up in front of millions of viewers?

BROWN People think that we haven’t had a childhood. If you have a daughter, everything your daughter has gone through or is going to go through is exactly what I’ve been through. You still cry. You still get emotional at random things. It’s like any other kid: “Let me go be a kid, and let me do things.”

MATARAZZO There’s going to be so much footage of me from the past and it’s never going to leave me alone. When I’m like 30, all I’ve got to do is type in “Gaten Matarazzo when he was a kid,” and then a bunch of stuff is going to come up, and I’ll be like, “Oh, no.”

SCHNAPP I’m the youngest on set, and I’ve never felt like, oh, they’re so much older than me. But it’s crazy now — like, Caleb has a beard. Everyone’s tall. We’ve grown up so much. But it’s nice to be able to look back at Season 1 and see, like, wow, that’s what our voices sound like. We have that forever.

Dave Itzkoff is a culture reporter whose latest book, “Robin,” a biography of Robin Williams, was published in May. @ditzkoff

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