Finn Wolfhard doesn’t subscribe to the fractious thinking that leads to gripes about massive generational divides. The star of numerous retro-themed projects (Stranger Things, Ghostbusters, IT) and possessor of multi-era-spanning music tastes is more interested in the universality of experiences and timeless things, telling us that there is “something that every teenager of the last 80 years has in common.” But that doesn’t mean everyone can identify those commonalities or deliver them in a way that feels authentic. It’s why Wolfhard is working on co-writing and directing his first full-length film and why he’s singing the praises of writer-director Jesse Eisenberg (himself working on his first full-length film) for their collaboration on When You Finish Saving The World, a festival fave turned VOD release about a mother (Julianne Moore) and a son (Woflhard) who have trouble seeing outside their separate bubbles.
The film satirizes social media celebrity, performative politics, and suffocating parents who struggle with the evolution of their children (in this case, the Woflhard character’s obsession with his monetized live-streaming music career and follower count). But it’s Eisenberg’s ability to craft a story for a teenage protagonist that most stands out and it’s something Wolfhard praises, identifying this script as the rare piece that doesn’t feel like it’s pandering. This is something achievable when you stop treating a younger audience like something you have to figure out and simply try to tell a story about the kinds of things we’ve all felt: isolation, awkwardness, and a search for self and to be seen.
Uproxx spoke with Wolfhard about the film, its music, why he has empathy for his character, traveling the world in search of connection, why millennials and Gen Xers should stop freaking out about the supposed generational divide, and getting ready to say goodbye to Stranger Things.
What’s closest to you with Ziggy and what’s furthest from you?
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I think closest to me, is the urgency to perform for people and the quest for human connection, I guess. I really enjoy that and find it pretty relatable. The stuff that’s furthest away is, I think, his sort of defensiveness and arrogance and sort of social isolation that he’s set up for himself because of his skewed persona on his social media. I would hope that I’m not as much like that. But I completely sympathize and empathize with it and his whole personal struggle with acceptance and support from people.
Is that something you’ve grown away from? Have you ever had that kind of feeling about fame and your approach to it?
Definitely. When I was first kinda famous and Stranger Things 1 came out. I would hope I was never as pompous as Ziggy, but I definitely did have this idea of this persona that I had online. When you have all these followers and you have all these people saying all this great support and love and all these numbers on the screen are so overwhelming, when you’re in real life, it’s almost like, “Oh, where’s all that in real life?” It gives a sort of unhealthy view of what the world is and how people perceive you. So, I’ve definitely gone through that sort of thing before.
How have you balanced that out?
I like traveling a lot. I like meeting people from so many different places and talking to people from all walks of life. I just like being curious and getting advice from a hundred different people. Also, just not being on social media as much. I really don’t use it. There’s obviously promotion stuff that I do for movies or whatever that I understand I have to do, but I never spend time on it. I don’t even have the app on my phone, so that’s helped a lot.
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Always a good decision. Obviously, the fame that’s come from the show and some of the movies that you’ve made, does it make it harder to be able to make those connections with people when you travel? Because obviously, the show is everywhere.
Yes, and no. I think I usually know when it’s not the interaction that I was looking for or that they don’t understand me or whatever. I just try to be as open as possible and as much of myself as I can be. And if people can’t really get past the sort of fame part of it, which a lot of people can’t… I completely understand why, it’s such a crazy otherworldly thing that a lot of people can’t grasp. I’m still figuring out how to grasp it, but usually, the relationships that I make when I’m traveling have been incredibly fulfilling and let me hold a mirror back to myself and to other people. And I think meeting people, no matter what, even if they know that I’m famous, I think it gives me more information about the world.
Jesse is 38 or 39. He’s writing dialogue for someone who is 17, 18? Is there a lot of collaboration to get it to a place where you feel like it’s authentic or was it like that out of the box? And is it a challenge for you to find material that feels authentic to that experience that you’re so familiar with because you’re right around that age group?
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There’s something that’s kind of timeless about Jesse’s writing. Jesse really knows what it’s like because it almost wasn’t even about age. I think he probably would’ve played this role if he was my age, so I think he really understands. But yeah, I think it has always been, I think, for every generation, a problem with movies and pandering. I think, to me, my least favorite thing in a film is when they’re trying to pander to an age group, and I find it incredibly alienating and insulting. That’s why I think Jesse and Emile (Mosseri, the film’s composer) had the idea to get me to help with the music to try to make it a little more authentic. It’s a very rare case (when older people write young people) that it’s not cringey in any way. I mean, this is cringey in a different way. It’s cringe comedy.
That’s why me and my friend, Billy (Bryk), who also is in this movie as Kyle… we wrote and directed a movie (Hell Of A Summer) that’s a coming-of-age comedy slasher film. We were so sick of getting scripts that were so dumb that were just like these older people telling us what it’s like to be a young person. We were just like, “Who’s going to make a movie about teenagers that’s coming from the perspective of two teenagers?” You know what I mean? I think that all the time. I think that’s something that I’ve been kind of grappling with as a young actor for a long time.
My pet peeve is when older people really think that there’s such a gigantic generational divide. I think older people make it like that. If millennials or baby boomers just didn’t care as much and just did their thing… I think people make much more of a big deal about a generational divide than there actually is. There’s an equivalency to everything. There’s something that every teenager of the last 80 years has in common. That’s what people should be focusing on, rather than all the differences that we have.
I’m proud to be a part of a movie that portrays social media in a really authentic way. That’s also why I really enjoyed the script because I was like, “Oh, my God, it doesn’t feel like I’m being spoon-fed.” It just feels like something. This is what life is.
I agree with you one hundred percent. One thing that really struck me with the movie was trying to figure, is this a generational divide or is it just an interest divide in two people that are just seeing right through each other?
I think it’s two people that are actually exactly the same, but they have such different interests that exactly, they see right through each other. And I think by the end of the film, they both realize that they’re sort of the same and it’s not about them anymore. It’s like Ziggy realizes that he deeply wants to be political but isn’t, and that’s just who he is, and he’s grappling with that. And he also realizes that his mother is really helping so many people, saving their lives.
Vice versa, for Evelyn, his mother. She has been trying to force him to be this kind of guy who is into social justice, and because of that, she’s completely driven him away. So, they both have this kind of mutual connection at the end where they both realize that they’ve been so misguided in thinking about themselves for so long that they’ve been not thinking about the people that are right in front of them, which is usually the case I think for a lot of parent-son-or-daughter relationships. I think that they’re all very complicated, and it all comes down to acceptance and mutual respect, I think.
The music, you said you had a role in crafting that. What are some of the inspirations you pulled from for that?
I think the conversation was like, “What would Ziggy actually have in his bedroom, and would he have a bunch of equipment, or would he just try to make as much stuff as he could on the equipment that he already owned?” How grand is his stuff? So, it’s mostly folky and indie rock with most of the score, and a lot of the songs had this sort of little Casio keyboard that he just makes everything on, and the if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it kind of way. But the inspirations were Wilco, The Flaming Lips, and sort of also bedroom pop artists as well that are kind of coming out of TikTok nowadays and stuff. But mostly kind of classic rock stuff that we’re kind of pulling from as well.
I felt like I heard some early Weezer, but that may just be my bias.
Yeah. Yeah. I think that sort of alternative ’90s stuff as well. I think it’s sort of a mix between the ’90s indie rock, and also the Bob Dylan folk stuff.
You’ve been in so many projects that have had that kind of nostalgia-fueled thing, with Ghostbusters and Stranger Things. And your musical tastes are very broad. With the generational thing in mind, how has that kind of come to be? Is it stuff you’ve found on your own, have people put these things in front of you?
My parents showed me The Beatles, obviously, and a lot of older classic rock. And then from there, I sort of found stuff on my own, but I’ve also always been a fan of older movies. Even before Stranger Things, I was a gigantic fan of ’80s films and the feeling that they all had. I think it’s weird. I obviously wasn’t around in the ’80s, but I even feel a certain kind of nostalgia to the ’80s, even though I didn’t grow up in that era. There’s something that is just so, I don’t know. I like this.
Are you ready for Stranger Things to be done?
Not ready but I’m just really excited to start working on it because after I finished watching season four, I just was like, “Damn, let’s just go back and film now.” I just want to help finish it off, but not in a way of I want to be done with it. It’s just like I want to know what happens. I’m definitely sad about it, but also, I know that it’s the next kind of chapter of everyone’s life that needs to happen.
Also, to me, if Stranger Things went on any longer than five, I would say it would be ridiculous. I think the Duffer brothers figured out, I would imagine, a perfect ending in five. We didn’t even know if we’d do two. So, we’re happy that people still are around and want to watch it. But yeah, I’m excited. Four was huge in scale, but I think I’d like to see the fifth season draw back on more of the dynamics of season one, and sort of be a little more contained, but also still be gigantic. I hope we kind of get an ending for each character that’s pretty satisfying for fans.
Projecting out five or 10 years from now, do you want to be more of an actor, more of a filmmaker, or a mix?
I think, I don’t know, I’ve always loved acting. I really love being on set and directing. I love that. I think in five, or 10 years, I mean, hopefully people will still even want me around. So, I’m just going to take it one day at a time, but I’d love to keep directing and hopefully people will still want to put me in movies too.