“Everyone is worthy of love, but not everyone is worthy of mine,” Heather Matarazzo says calmly into the microphone, like a self-help coach offering a hypnotic mantra of positive reinforcement to her followers. “Everyone is worthy of time, but not everyone is worthy of mine.”
Matarazzo is an actor, not a therapist, and the guest she’s speaking to on this particular episode of her new podcast, Shut Up and Listen With Heather Matarazzo, is Barbara Gray, a comedian, not a patient. But on a show where comedians and entertainers often end up delving into their darkest moments, sharing their most vulnerable experiences and talking matter-of-factly about suicide, cancer, depression, drugs and violence, you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise.
“I’m the worst dinner guest,” Matarazzo tells me, repeating the sort of self-aware assessment she frequently offers on her podcast. “I want to talk about death, I want to talk about life, I want to talk about fear. What is your biggest passion? Are you following your desire? Why or why not? How is it that you’re living your life? Are you satisfied?”
Existential questions like these nag at Matarazzo, a 34-year-old actor whose breakout role was as the painfully awkward Dawn Wiener in the 1995 cult classic Welcome to the Dollhouse. They’re also the kind of inquiries that lay the groundwork for Shut Up and Listen, which has a meandering interview format that offers as many revealing insights into Matarazzo’s life as it does the lives of the guests she invites into her Los Angeles home for conversation (director Lexi Alexander, actress Clea DuVall and writer-producer Liz Feldman, to name just a few). The process of curating guests is intuitive. Rather than seek out high-profile Hollywood types, Matarazzo looks for people who will be willing to have a conversation that goes beneath the surface. The show always wraps up with her asking some form of this question: “When was the last time you shut up and listened to your intuition and what was your experience with that?” The more she asks it, she says, “The more evidence I get to gather that supports what I truly know to be true, which is that we’re really all spiritual energetic beings having a human experience.”
That might sound like esoteric new-age babble, but Matarazzo, a self-described cynical New Yorker, has experienced too many life-changing phenomena to chalk it up to coincidence. For starters, it’s a wonder that “a girl found in a fucking locked closet eating peanut butter off the wall” ever found a career in Hollywood at all. Placed in foster care when she was 2 and adopted when she was 5 by strict Catholic parents in Nassau County, New York, Matarazzo is now convinced that everything in her life has happened for a reason.
On Sept. 11, 2001, for example, she was supposed to be on the 15th floor of 1 World Trade Center, but she overslept because her alarm didn’t go off. More than a decade later, she’d been battling severe depression and sex trauma–related PTSD when her therapist suggested she try ayahuasca, she recalled recently on the podcast. At that point, she said, her dog was the only thing keeping her from killing herself. When she finally decided she was willing to give the psychedelic a try in 2015, she received an email hours later: There was one last spot available for an ayahuasca retreat abroad. Her instinct was to say no, but she’d been reading Shonda Rhimes’ book Year of Yes and decided she ought to do the same: Say yes. Exactly a month after she returned home with a newfound sense of optimism, her dog died. She believes some force in the universe helped keep him alive until she was ready to handle his death.
Matarazzo, who devoted nearly an entire episode of her podcast to discussing psychedelic experiences with comedian Shane Mauss, credits ayahuasca partly with helping her move past the physical and mental trauma that made her feel disconnected from her own body for so long. But she admits the powerful hallucinogen is not a cure-all and it’s not for everyone: Her journey toward healing was a combination of years spent in therapy and her own willingness to get out of her comfort zone.
“I could see and really feel just how dead I was on the inside, and that scared me. I had no other choice. It was grow or die,” she says. “But I couldn’t stay in the comfortability and the safety of the depression and the sadness anymore because it had become unbearable to me.”
A former child actor who’s been supporting herself since she was 7 years old, Matarazzo spent most of her career being typecast as nerdy oddballs such as Dawn Wiener and Lily Moscovitz, the big-mouthed best friend to Anne Hathaway’s character in 2001’s The Princess Diaries. By the time she was in her mid-20s, Matarazzo was still getting hired to play virginal, comedic sidekicks in teen movies like Saved!, Scream 3 and Sorority Boys.
“I went for the experience of trying to — quote, unquote — 'play the game' in my late teens and early 20s,” she says, adding that the film industry conditioned her and other young women to stay quiet, well-behaved and grateful for any role they could get, no matter how small or embarrassing. “Every opportunity I was given, I was filled with such terror. The whole entire fucking façade of, like, you need to maintain a certain image, you need to do this, do that, to get to where it is that you want to be.”
If Matarazzo’s youth was consumed by attempts to please producers, casting directors and other authority figures who rarely had her best interests in mind, she’s been making up for lost time by finding alternative ways to do exactly what she’s always wanted: tell stories, make movies and share experiences that move people. Late last year, she created a Patreon account to crowdfund her living expenses — currently, she receives about $700 a month from 70 donors — so she could focus on creative projects such as writing a memoir, finishing two feature film scripts, editing a short and launching Shut Up and Listen. Her five-year goal? Founding her own female-friendly production company that “raises the voices of those who have felt they haven’t been seen or heard,” she wrote on her Patreon page.
Unlike the neurotic nerds she’s best known for portraying onscreen, Matarazzo today is confident, determined and unconcerned with anyone else’s opinion of her. True to her mantra that everything happens for a reason, she hasn’t forgotten about the “soul-crushing” Hollywood experiences that made her the person she is today. Case in point: The name of her podcast is cleverly reclaimed from her Princess Diaries character’s cable TV show, Shut Up and Listen, and select donors to her Patreon account get access to the “special people’s club,” a nod to a cruel joke from Welcome to the Dollhouse.
“For me personally, I believe that every single experience that I’ve had is a stepping stone,” Matarazzo says. “Sometimes, in order to find out who you are, you have to find out who you’re not.”