Chester Rushing is walking through the doors right as the little green men with ray guns begin to disintegrate the U.S. House of Representatives on the TV. It’s just past noon and the star from Netflix’s Stranger Things doesn’t draw much attention away from the meat-filled hoagies that people are scarfing down at Fred’s Philly Cheesesteaks in Plano.
He’s not as tall as he appears on screen and the freckles that canvas his face appear much more prominent in person. But waiting in line to give his order, Rushing stands with the same confident posture as the character he’s best known for, Tommy H.
The dichotomy between Rushing and his notoriously jerkish character is apparent from the moment he begins to speak. He isn’t full of himself when he talks about the success of Stranger Things or the months of filming he’s done in Georgia and Louisiana. Neither is he shy when he talks of his growing celebrity status or the roles that have started coming his way.
Rushing can be boisterous, and he approaches almost every topic of conversation with a nervous excitement, but he can quickly turn serious when talking about something especially meaningful to him. “Stranger Things was like I was walking in a dream,” Rushing says. “It’s opened the doors for so many things.”
Like many actors who play young adults, his age is a closely guarded secret; it allows him to play a wider range of characters. A mention of his age receives a cryptic smirk, and he’s careful not to share too many details that might give it away. He’s lived in the Dallas area for about a decade though, and somewhere in that time he graduated from Northwest High School near his family’s home in Roanoke.
The past year has been especially good for Rushing. His acting career has begun to take off and that means a lot of travel to sets in Louisiana and Georgia for weeks or months at a time. His biggest success has been his role in Stranger Things as Tommy H., a character so unlikeable that there have been articles dedicated to breaking down all the ways in which he's an asshole. Because Rushing himself is actually quite pleasant, that may be the best evidence of his acting talent.
Rushing and his father, Chip, were recently in the local news when they partnered with a local theater to provide sensory films for children with autism. In sensory film screenings, the theater lights are only partially dimmed and the volume is reduced to create a more comfortable environment for the kids.
His interest in working with children with learning differences began while he was at Northwest. Rushing was an aide to the department head for children with special needs and would spend time playing music for them. “Working with these kids every day was the start of this passion for me,” Rushing says. “It’s an amazing feeling.”
His high school sweetheart, Ava, founded Brilliant Futures in 2012, a center for children to young adults with autism and other developmental disorders. Her sister is autistic and after working with the children at Northwest, Rushing discovered that he had a cousin on the spectrum as well. He still does music therapy with the kids at Brilliant Futures and teaches them to play instruments when he’s not out of town working on projects.
The line between the twisted characters and the actor who plays them is obvious, but Rushing had what he describes as his own Heath Ledger moment when the line started to blur. He says he went to a dark place to portray a character in the revenge flick My Father, Die, which will be released next month. “Through that film it got harder and harder for me,” Rushing says. “Thinking all these thoughts and doing all these things; it kind of gets to you.”
It took the company of loved ones such as Ava and a few months away from acting for Rushing to clear his head and to find himself again. Rushing had to re-establish the boundary between his character and himself. “There’s a certain time and place to go far,” Rushing says. “Then there’s also a limit to what you should go to.”
When he was ready, Rushing began to audition again. The first audition was for Stranger Things. For two to three weeks at a time over the course of five months, Rushing worked in Atlanta on the nostalgic Netflix thriller set in the early '80s. The lot where they worked was next to filming locations for The Walking Dead and Clint Eastwood’s Sully. “I’m working in the same vicinity as these legends,” Rushing says. “This is at a different level.”
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Rushing has lived in nine countries for varying stretches, but he was born in Houston. When he was 2, his family moved to the Middle East where his dad worked in the oil business, which gave his family the opportunity to travel to other countries like Egypt, Romania and France. Part of that experience was witnessing the hate toward Americans in countries such as Saudi Arabia. “I was a victim of bullying,” Rushing says. “I’ve lived in places that were not so nice toward Americans.”
In addition to Rushing's other charity work, he says he’s spoken at schools and met with victims of bullying. He says that one of the things about his growing success that he looks forward to is doing more with his anti-bullying efforts. “I play one of the biggest bullies on TV,” Rushing says. “I’m one of the biggest advocates against bullying.”
Rushing is also a musician, and earlier this year his eponymous band played at Deep Ellum Arts Festival. His music even has a following in Europe, where one of his tracks, "Paint the World," was sampled in an EDM song by Enzo Darren. He's planning another album and a regional college tour with his band for the near future.
For Rushing, acting and music play off of each other like stepping stones, or feet climbing up a set of stairs, as Rushing is apt to say in interviews. Whatever Rushing does next, he plans to bring the charitable work along for the trip. “I’m glad that I have recognition for my work,” Rushing says. “But if I don’t use what I have to help other people, what’s the point?”