Caleb McLaughlin Has So Much More Ahead

This story appears in Justsmile Issue 4,
There's Still So Much More.

Photography Alexander R. Morgan

Styling Jermaine Daley
Text Kemi Alemoru

Caleb wears shirt, shorts, ring and weekender bag in gravity leather DIOR MEN.

“I forget I’m famous sometimes,” says 22-year-old Caleb McLaughlin. “I’m chilling and then I have these moments walking around where someone asks: ‘Are you the kid from Stranger Things?’ Then I feel like a child. It’s very awkward and weird. They’re like, ‘yo you grew up’ and I’m like ‘bro you’re 18!’”

One of the biggest challenges for child actors who turn into global superstars after a mega-hit is maturing in a way that means you’re not permanently typecast and don’t have to resort to drastic measures to escape being infantilized (think Daniel Radcliffe flashing his privates in a play about a horse lover to shake his Harry Potter image). “The transition is happening,” McLaughlin explains over the phone. He’s prohibited from turning his camera on lest it lead to a leak of an unapproved first look of the fifth and final season of Stranger Things. He’s in character as Lucas Sinclair on set in his costume and wig. Throughout our conversation, he excitedly talks through how he’s preparing for upcoming projects like The Deliverance, a horror about demon possession directed by Lee Daniels. “I’m working on films and doing my own thing in fashion,” he says, name-checking his budding relationship with Dior (last year he became a Dior beauty ambassador and face of its La Collection Privée fragrance).

Caleb wears pull-over shirt, shirt, shorts, ring and necklace DIOR MEN.

This follows an intriguing run of roles across TV, film and even music videos. He played 21 Savage in a spoof trailer for a biopic of the rapper’s life alongside Donald Glover and Natasha Lyonne in the visuals for american dream: the 21 savage story. Elsewhere, he’s appeared in real biopics, namely, The New Edition Story (2017), the nostalgic retelling of R&B boy band New Edition and LeBron James’ rise to fame. There are some wild card additions to his resume too like the biblical stoner comedy and drama produced by Jeymes Samuel and Jay-Z, The Book of Clarence (2023), with an all-star cast that included LaKeith Stanfield, Michael Ward and Teyana Taylor.

McLaughlin’s mind is playful yet deeply philosophical. At times he slips into voices and accents that are not his own; at others, he makes hilarious off-the-cuff statements like, “if city kids don’t learn to drive then how will they survive a zombie apocalypse?” which contrasts with wise assertions like “we are earth, humans are just walking earth”. He possesses such a kinetic mind that one can assume his transition into the next phase of his career will be a joy to watch as he pursues roles that flex his dramaturgical dexterity but also allow him to retain his sense of whimsy. When he’s not reading scripts, on set or doing promo for his existing projects, he’s blocking out the noise of the entertainment industry to focus on finding moments to frolic with his “bare feet on the ground in the middle of nowhere” or socialize at “parties in the city” – just like all famous early 20-somethings should.

Caleb wears shirt, shorts, rings and weekender bag in gravity leather DIOR MEN.

Entertaining is in McLaughlin's blood. He was born in the Bronx into a musical family led by his father, a trained opera singer, and his mother a performing arts major. Meanwhile, his brother can also dance and sing, his younger sister is a film major and singer, and his older sister raised them all on a healthy diet of music videos. “Weirdly it wasn’t a loud house,” he says. He eventually studied opera, ballet, tap and jazz at Harlem School of the Arts before performing on Broadway as Young Simba in The Lion King (2012-2014). It was then that the family noticed he had a gift and moved around together when other acting and music opportunities arose. “There were some sacrifices,” he says, “but they’ve been incredibly supportive.”

By the time the dark Netflix sci-fi dropped in 2016 – in which he captivated audiences as Lucas Sinclair – McLaughlin was just 15 years old. Reviving cult actress Winona Ryder’s acting career for a new generation, the plot starts with a mother whose son has been pulled into an alternate dimension. An ensemble of charming kids investigate the freakish occurrences in town that are linked to the ‘Upside Down’ world full of frightening monsters, they uncover the murky secrets of MKUltra mind experiments and Soviet meddling. It quickly became one of the most successful original series in the streaming juggernaut’s history (season four is the second most viewed in Netflix history with an audience of 141 million). The cast won a SAG Award in 2017 and the series has elsewhere received Emmy, Golden Globe and even Grammy nominations. Fans run to stock up on merch to immerse themselves in the new ‘Upside Down’ via comics, books, video games and there have since been theater adaptations of the show as well as immersive Stranger Things experiences from London to Cape Town. In a fragmented era of television where there’s so much to watch and the traditional schedule has given way to individual binge habits, being a part of a show that seemingly captures everyone’s attention is an incredible achievement in itself.

Caleb wears jacket, sweater and necklace DIOR MEN.

“Looking back on it now I didn't realize how young I was. I was definitely living in my own amazing fantasy world in my head. Traveling around the world, going to London, Paris, Japan and Korea,” explains McLaughlin. “I was homeschooled so I wasn’t around other kids that weren’t doing what I was doing. I felt normal. It’s only as I’ve gotten older, that I guess my frontal lobe is almost developed. Now I'm like, ‘wait this is different.’” This has helped forge a deep bond between the cast as he says only they understand what the journey was like and even though the insular experience led to fallouts (“You’d have to sign an NDA for me to tell you about them,” he quips) most of them happened because they were “literally just children”.

He adds: “We all fought demogorgons together. We all blew up together. We all experienced this ride in the same way so we can truly relate to what each other's going through.”

In Stranger Things, Lucas in particular is brave, freakishly determined and fiercely loyal. Each season sees the cast navigate demogorgons, Vecna and creepy scientists, but though the adversaries shift one theme remains consistent across all four chapter endings: characters are challenged to sacrifice themselves for their friends in the face of danger. Has McLaughlin taken that on board? “No,” he laughs. “TV definitely has a way of over-exaggerating. I don't think many friends would die for each other. I’m like Captain America when people are in trouble but there’s a limit. Maybe I would save my family from drowning or run into a burning building – but also they can swim and they can stop, drop and roll.”

Caleb wears sweater, shorts and rings DIOR MEN.

Even if the glare of the public eye has been scary, he says he and the cast will still fare better than their on screen counterparts. “Oh they’re done,” he says bluntly. “They're mentally screwed, I don’t think there’s any therapy that can heal these kids. They should have been in therapy season one. I believe everyone should try to get healed but yeah, it's been too long.”

Their success has come with its own set of challenges. In recent interviews he’s been frank about experiencing racism from the show’s fans saying that being seen as the least favorite in the ensemble took a “toll” on him. He elaborates on how he’s only recently starting to reflect on the intense scrutiny of the spotlight. “I didn’t realize how much pressure I was under,” he says. Luckily, McLaughlin has developed thick skin. “I can't base my opinion off of other people's opinion because people are crazy,” he laughs. “You have to rely on your own self-worth.”

His tenacity yields results. Having watched Jeymes Samuel’s The Harder They Fall “10 times”, McLaughlin was in awe. “It dropped around the same time as Concrete Cowboy (2020) so I lowkey was a hater because it was pushed more than my film but I get it the film was amazing.” The opportunity came up for him to star in his off-kilter follow up The Book of Clarence but the director was initially hesitant. “He said to my team ‘this is a man’s film’. He wasn’t convinced I could play him until he saw me in costume. I did the accent and then he was like ‘yo! You’re Zeke. You’re not a boy any more, you are a man!’” Samuel’s reaction was similar to the fan response to his recent racy shirtless shoots on the beach or in the pages of Cosmopolitan. “Little Caleb would’ve dreamt of being shirtless in a girls magazine. I always wanted to be a bodybuilder and I always wanted to be an underwear model,” he says. “It’s awesome.”

Caleb wears sweater and t-shirt DIOR MEN.

Obviously, he doesn’t let outside noise stop him from remaining laser-focused on what’s going to bring him joy: “I just have to continue to do me and do different films and different characters so they can see that this is my calling.” I ask if he learned any lessons from the film which follows a protagonist who develops a messiah complex and courts attention for money. “Well, I don’t have to look in the mirror and remind myself I’m not God. I’ve always believed I could fly but from a humble and innocent perspective that I can do anything,” he says.

A side effect of racking up such an impressive resume before he could legally drink a beer means his barometer for success is continuously shifting. “Heck yeah, I’m always coming up with new goals. I'm never satisfied. I'm never going to be comfortable. I have so much more ahead of me,” he says. This is due to what he describes as “main character syndrome”. He continues: “There's a lot of NPCs. Not everything has to be about you, but just you have the mindset of just kind of making your world your own.” His speech is more frenzied as he tries to communicate more of how he sees the world as being a constant struggle to retain that hopeful innocence we experience before we become hyper-aware of ourselves and of the harshness of human existence. “Life is like a video game, we have different challenges we have to face but we have to be playful and optimistic. I use a lot of video game references or basketball analogies because it's relatable, it’s engaging and it’s funny. We can’t take life too seriously.”

Caleb wears blazer, shorts, shirt, t-shirt, boots, socks and rings DIOR MEN.

That’s one of the reasons McLaughlin loves the entertainment industry. “It’s exciting and inspirational to put a smile on people’s faces. I’m not a role model who’s going to be like ‘hey, eat your vegetables’ but I want people to know there’s a beauty in being yourself,” he adds.

McLaughlin likes to immerse himself in his characters and their realities to contrast all the hardship and anxiety of the real world. But how much does he take home with him? After Concrete Cowboy he wants to channel Idris Elba’s stamina. “He would kill it on set, fly to Spain to DJ, come back Monday, literally no sleep, say those lines and you would never know,” he says. “That made me step up my game.” He also continued riding horses after the film’s production with his cousin. “I actually am a cowboy now.”

“It's awesome just being able to hop on the horse and remove yourself from the world, going through the woods and living in tranquility, honestly. The horses are almost a part of you. It's like one of the most therapeutic experiences.”

Searching for a fantastic tale’s ending is seldom easy (ask the Game of Thrones writers). Still, audiences wait with bated breath to find out what will become of the existential threat to Hawkins from the nightmare world the lab has opened – it’s predicted to drop in late 2025. Then there’s the fact that McLaughlin now has to decide how he moves forward from this opportunity. Though he’s stepping into adulthood, he promises to retain the childlike wonder that cultivated his talent.

Caleb wears jacket, sweater and shorts DIOR MEN.

“I'm not here for the money,” he says. “This is my career and I need to get paid to live and eat food but I'm not here because of that. I love TV, I love film, I like telling stories,” McLaughlin adds. When he’s finally convinced he’s achieved all he can across TV, film, music and perhaps his other dreams like underwear modeling, he’s toying with leaning into either extreme sports like parachuting out of a plane or going completely off-grid. “Maybe I will go and find myself in the world, meditate for a year and not speak.”

Whatever comes next for McLaughlin is likely to be colored by the fact that most of his childhood dreams have already come true so he has a unique fearlessness around manifesting his fantasies. “When you get older, you lose that imagination,” he reflects. “And I don't want to lose why I'm doing this.”

Justsmile Issue 4 is out now, click here to purchase.

Photography Alexander R. Morgan

Styling Jermaine Daley

Text Kemi Alemoru

Groomer Marcos “Reggae” Smith at Tomlinson Management Group using Dior Sauvage Mencare

Makeup Jenny Sauce using Dior Sauvage at The Wall Group using Dior Makeup

Set design and Props Catherine Pearson

Photography assistance Alex Johnstone, Chase Elliott and Astin Ferreras 

Styling assistance Kaia Carioli 

Production assistance Ismail Jallaq


PUBLISHED: May 30th 2024