Interview: Caleb McLaughlin on 'Stranger Things' and embracing your face.
Caleb McLaughlin is, in the words of Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé, feelin’ himself. He’s dressed in a matching floral shirt and shorts combo, dancing alone on a dock, whilst posing for his Coup De Main cover shoot. He might be missing Coachella this weekend, instead opting to spend it with us on a flower nursery just outside of Atlanta, but there’s no way he’s gonna let it get him down, later posting on his Instagram: “I get it everyone’s at Coachella and I’m not! So I had to create my own Coachella vibe over here.” I remind him that there’s always next year, and McLaughlin grins from ear to ear, already mentally planning his Coachella 2020 trip.
On July 15, 2016, the global Netflix-watching world was turned upside down with the release of ‘Stranger Things’, an eight-episode season which captured 1980s nostalgia and science-fiction, plus an otherworldly monster called a Demogorgon, in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana. The story was mostly told through the eyes of three nerdy ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ playing twelve-year-olds that you couldn’t help but feel an affinity for, with their close-knit friendship and portrayal of childhood universally relatable - and McLaughlin’s Lucas Sinclair was one of those kids; the wrist rocket-wielding logical friend of the group, whose slingshotting of rocks at the Demogorgon was a true highlight of the season.
Click here to order a CDM x Caleb McLaughlin zine (i.e. a mini-magazine featuring photos + quotes from this cover-story).
This wasn’t McLaughlin’s first taste of the acting world though. After starring as a Young Simba on Broadway for two years, he went on to appear briefly in ‘Law and Order: Special Victims Unit’ and other crime shows ‘Unforgettable’ and ‘Forever’ - but nothing could have prepared him for what would come from ‘Stranger Things’. It thrust him into a totally unexpected spotlight alongside other newcomers Millie Bobby Brown, Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo and Noah Schnapp, who made up the show's core friendship group, dubbed The Party (aside from Schnapp, whose character was missing for the majority of the first season). The young castmates were all of a similar age when starting out on the show (their birth years vary between McLaughlin as the eldest, born in 2001, to the two youngest, Brown and Schnapp, born in 2004), but despite their portrayal of twelve-year-olds on-screen, their relatable (and often comedic) performances have earned themselves and the show fans of all ages.
The show’s casting director Carmen Cuba explained this portrayal of the human experience in an interview with Backstage, saying, “We needed every single actor to have a subtlety and an inner life that didn’t necessarily need words to define them, and we held the kids and teens to the same standard. We didn’t discuss it at the time, but it’s clear that we weren’t thinking of them as kid or teen actors in the process - the Duffer Brothers were really expecting them to be able to deliver a very rich human experience despite what age body they were in.”
[Empathy Sweatshirt Port by Checks. Jeans, Caleb’s own. Palace Guard in White/Black High Risk by PUMA.]
Co-creator Ross Duffer also sings his praises of the casting of McLaughlin and his fellow cast-mates, adding that: "There weren’t any other kids who could do these roles. These are the kids. We searched all over the world and auditioned thousands of young actors. Once we found our four main kids, they really inspired our writing and the characters." And McLaughlin agrees, saying about his character Lucas that "he’s just become a part of me, and he is me now". According to a Netflix fact sheet from the first season, McLaughlin himself requested the camouflage bandana that he wears in the final three episodes - something that has become integral to Lucas’ character.
After the second season debuted on Halloween in 2017, the cast’s spotlight only grew brighter with another nine episodes - the first of which drew in over 15 million viewers in just three days. The new season saw Noah Schnapp’s Will Byers back in town, but with an evil lingering inside him, and the town having to face a whole new evil in the form of The Mind Flayer. Outside of the classic ‘Big Bad’, the continuation of the story also saw Lucas explore his own character further, with a developing love interest in Sadie Sink’s new character Max showcasing another side to his character - and reviews for the season called his subplot richer and named him (alongside Matarazzo) the “most unfailingly entertaining characters on the show”.
[Park Bivouac Sherpa by Hallenstein Brothers. Jeans, Caleb’s own.]
Much isn’t know about ‘Stranger Things' Season 3 thus far, with the cast remaining tight-lipped about what to expect ahead of its premiere on Netflix next week. What we do know is as follows: It’s set during the summer of 1985. Much of the action takes place at Starcourt Mall (a real mall in Atlanta, which was still partially open to shoppers during filming), and the final episode of the season is suitably called ‘Battle Of Starcourt’. McLaughlin has called the season “gory”. Other cast-members, Wolfhard, Sink, Schnapp, and Matarazzo have described the season as "classic," "fun," "sad" and "bigger”. McLaughlin's character Lucas branches off with Mike and Will for a bit - and as always, the town is under threat, according to the synopsis, “by enemies old and new.” The closing line of the blurb for the season reminds us: “Now they’ll have to band together to survive, and remember that friendship is always stronger than fear,” casting back to one of Lucas’ pivotal lines about friendship in Season Two, “We have a lot of rules in our party, but the most important is, 'Friends don't lie.' Never ever. No matter what.”
Ross Duffer has also revealed about the tone of the new season: "We would say that this is our most unapologetically fun season. Yet at the same time, it is also our most horrifying and intense season. It's this wild mix of tones that we think really sets this season apart.”
As his character Lucas is coming into his own on the show, so too is McLaughlin, who is fully aware of the responsibility he has with a platform of his size - 5.7 million people currently follow his updates on Instagram.
A few years ago a trip to a Publix supermarket with his mother inspired the impromptu creation of two phrases, 'Embrace Your Face' and 'Be Your Biggest Fan', which have turned into campaigns of positivity and self-love, led wholeheartedly by McLaughlin. They’re messages he hopes to instil in his fans, encouraging them to share photos of themselves with the hashtag #EmbraceYourFace. In an Instagram Live, McLaughlin shared the following: “As you guys can see, I have this stuff on my face and it is pimple remover. I just want to let you guys know to just embrace your face, because people grow pimples, it happens, it’s life - especially when you’re a teenager, it happens. You have to embrace it because you can’t do anything about it, you’re just going to have to put pimple remover on it and call it a day. I want you guys to take a picture, post it on Instagram and tag me, and make a collage with my face and your face and send it to me, and I’ll post it on my Instagram. All right guys, embrace your face! Be your biggest fan! Don’t care about what anyone thinks, all right? Peace.”
Co-star Millie Bobby Brown has also spoken out in support of McLaughlin’s campaign, sharing the following message of self-love on her own social media: “I’m human. I am a teenager. I make mistakes. I get pimples. I get irritated by small things. I get hurt, I have emotions, I have feelings. So I’m all of those things I just stated - something I represent, something that happens to me. I do get the occasional pimple, and that’s okay to be like that. The thing that’s so admirable about all of you guys is that you stand out, you’re beautiful, you accept others, and you’re kind - and if you continue to be yourself, then not only will you feel happy in your own skin, [but] if you are happy in your own skin and if you truly love yourself, then you will love other people and be kind to other people, and that’s what’s important, and that’s what’s going to get rid of hate, and that’s what I stand for.”
And McLaughlin practices what he preaches, with his social media dedicated to sharing messages like, “Take time out of your day to appreciate yourself,” and, “Be yourself, it feels good!” In an age where social media can often feel like a version of reality detached from truth, McLaughlin cultivates an environment of optimism and confidence, with an undeniably infectious energy that his fans know and love.
[Poppy Venom Hawaiian Shirt by Stolen Girlfriends Club. Fishing Vest in Sky Blue by Checks. Dance Of Death Shorts Poppy Venom by Stolen Girlfriends Club. Bucket Hat in Yellow by Checks. Chuck Taylor All Star 70 High Top Black by Converse.]
Outside of filming the third season of ‘Stranger Things’ and recently graduating high school, McLaughlin has been exploring other creative outlets, sharing photos of himself in a music studio earlier this year. He describes his recent musical endeavours as a mixture of “soul, R&B, old-school,” and he’s inspired by old soul artists - Stevie Wonder is one of his all-time favourites, and he lists Leon Bridges as another creative catalyst in his life. On-site at our shoot, he’s thrilled to be given control of the music via a Bluetooth speaker and is enthused to jam out to Anderson .Paak’s latest album, ‘Ventura’, between outfit changes and posing for photos.
More recently, McLaughlin showcased his musical talents to an even larger audience on the latest ‘Stranger Things’ press tour, during a television appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. He recounted the origins of a song he invented to annoy his cast-mates Matarazzo and Sink called ‘Chicken Noodle Soup’, with Brown asking, “Do you want to hear it?” Of course, a sing-along led by McLaughlin ensued, much to the delight of everyone.
[Moth Bite Hood in Red/White by Stolen Girlfriends Club. Jeans, Caleb’s own.]
Fallon also learned of McLaughlin’s antics on set, which included using the escalators in the mall as slides (“The people that were in charge of us would say it was a bad idea,” he revealed). Wolfhard chimed in, “I distinctly remember someone going, 'Caleb, please do not slide down it'," with McLaughlin standing up to re-enact his moment of rebellion; a sly grin on his face.
Towards the end of our photoshoot with McLaughlin, that same grin returns as I inform him that we’ve ordered a pizza for him to eat after we finish shooting for the day. For some people, it’s business time, and for others, it’s hammer-time, but for McLaughlin, clearly, nothing trumps pizza time. Even when upon opening the box, the pizza is disappointingly revealed to be covered in onions (one of McLaughlin’s only requests throughout the day was no onions), but McLaughlin isn’t phased at all and proceeds to devour the whole thing with no complaints.
On a hayfever-inducing spring day in April, Coup De Main met up with Caleb McLaughlin in Atlanta, and caught up with him again via e-mail just prior to the young actor flying out for a press tour of South Korea. What follows below is a truncated combination of both conversations for ease of reading...
[Yummy T-Shirt in White by Checks. Happy Flower Cardigan by Lazy Oaf. Park Charles Check Pant by Hallenstein Brothers. Tropics Emerald sunglasses by Karen Walker.]
COUP DE MAIN: What does an average day in your life look like at the moment?
CALEB MCLAUGHLIN: Right now, I’m waking up early and taking out my dogs.
CDM: How many dogs do you have?
CALEB: Two dogs! They’re Rottweilers. And getting my day ready, taking a shower, meditating before the day starts, and doing some school work. Working on my craft, creating new ideas, I'll practice my music, hang out with my family, and watch some TV.
CDM: You’ve been working on your own music, right? How have you been enjoying that process?
CALEB: The process has been crazy - it’s been great-crazy though! It’s very interesting. I’m having a good time.
CDM: How long have you been working on music for?
CALEB: I’ve never had that bug before, until about two years ago, I was just chilling with my manager and he was just playing beats that he had. He had this beat, and I was like, ‘Man, I want to do something with that!’ I didn’t want to be a singing artist at any point in my life, but I think that day inspired me to be. I realised how much I love music, and I love the art of music - I want to do it.
CDM: What does the music you’re making sound like?
CALEB: Probably soul, R&B, old-school.
CDM: Do you like Leon Bridges?
CALEB: Yeah! He has an amazing voice - I discovered him on a commercial, I forget which car commercial it was. He was singing and I was like, ‘This dude can sing! Who is this guy?’ I did some deep research and I was like, ‘This guy has an amazing voice.’
CDM: What type of music do you like to listen to yourself?
CALEB: I listen to Stevie Wonder all the time and a lot of 90s R&B. I listen to a lot of Anderson .Paak as well.
CDM: It’s so cool to see you and your fellow 'Stranger Things' cast-members - like Finn with Calpurnia - exploring other creative fields outside of acting. How do you enjoy music compared to acting?
CALEB: It’s totally different - I can’t even really explain it, it’s a very different arena. Music is music and acting is acting. I feel like as a singer, you have to really be in that mood to create. When your vibe is thrown off, it’s kind of hard to create and sing what you mean.
CDM: I feel like music comes from your soul.
CALEB: It really does. So if something throws you off-- I was recording one time, and I saw a dog get hit by a car, it was late at night, and it just ruined everything. I couldn’t focus after that. So everything has to be the right vibe.
CDM: Are there any other creative fields you’d like to explore further in your career?
CALEB: Yeah! I want to write more - stories and scripts. I thought about directing - probably an executive director, not a hands-on director, but I see angles in my head sometimes. If I watch a movie, I’ll be like, ‘I like how this looks!’ But that would be cool. Producing my own stuff, definitely that.
CDM: Having played your character Lucas on ‘Stranger Things’ now for three seasons, you must be really familiar with him, right? Do you think that you’ve grown with Lucas over that time?
CALEB: Yeah! We’ve grown up together. In the first season, I was still kind of learning Lucas and learning his emotions in certain scenarios. ‘How is Lucas when he’s angry? How is Lucas when he’s sad? Does he show his emotions, or is he very quiet about it?’ But as the show went on, he’s just become a part of me, and he is me now. I’m glad that I was able to create Lucas instead of learning it from someone else. I get to bring myself into it. I’m the original Lucas! I’m glad the Duffer Brothers, the directors, gave me the freedom to do that.
CDM: How do you think Lucas has changed as a character since Season 1?
CALEB: Lucas is growing up, he's more mature and relaxed. He's not as intense as Season 1 - mostly because he has all of his friends together.
CDM: What were your experiences like while filming the third season?
CALEB: It was great to be back. We were filming in the summer; I was super excited to see what we had for Season 3. I’m excited for everyone to see it.
CDM: If you could give your character Lucas one piece of advice going into Season 3, what would it be?
CALEB: Continue being yourself and supporting your friends. Be your biggest fan!
CDM: Are there any storylines that you’d like to explore with Lucas?
CALEB: I would maybe just want to explore Lucas’ relationship with Max and see where that goes. Maybe his relationship with his family.
CDM: I would like to see more of his sister!
CALEB: Definitely. His parents as well. A lot of people don’t see the relationships with children’s parents - because you see a character and you’re like, ‘Where did he get all that?’ In Season 1, I was like, ‘Why is Lucas this way? What is he taught?’ I would want to go into depth about what he’s taught in his home.
CDM: The storyline of Lucas and Max in Season 2 sees Lucas exploring friendship in a new way, learning to trust someone new - which is something he had to do with Eleven in the first season. Do you think that Lucas is learning to become more open to new friendships as he grows up a bit more?
CALEB: Lucas was always open to friendships. He was hesitant with Eleven because she came out of nowhere at the same time his friend Will disappeared.
CDM: It’s so positive to see your ‘Embrace Your Face’ and ‘Be Your Biggest Fan’ campaigns on social media - especially in a world where so much of what we see on Instagram is filtered through a lens. What first inspired you to start those campaigns?
CALEB: I was coming home from the set on Season 2 and I had a bad acne day. My mom and I pulled up at Publix to go get some groceries, and I had pimple remover on my face. She was like, ‘Are you sure you want to go inside with pimple remover on your face?’ I was like, ‘Yes, it’s the process! This is what I gotta do, I have to have pimple remover to get rid of it. It’s not a bad thing.’ She was like, ‘All right.’ I was like, ‘Wow, mom, people really struggle with loving who they are, and really care what people think about how they look, and it’s not their fault!’
CDM: We’re conditioned in society to feel self-conscious.
CALEB: That’s very true. So I was like, "I’m gonna go on Instagram Live and be like, 'Hey guys, me and my mom are heading to Publix and she asked me if I was okay with having pimple remover on my face.' I was like, 'Yes I am okay with it,' because I’m taking care of myself. I’m being my biggest fan and embracing my face, so I need you guys to do it too."
CDM: Did those phrases just come about totally naturally?
CALEB: Yes, they just came up like that. <clicks fingers> I feel like it was meant to be. It wasn’t like, ‘All right, let’s think of something to engage people to love you more Caleb,’ it was a genuine moment. It wasn’t for more engagement on my page; it was for everyone, and it happened organically.
CDM: Why do you think it’s so important for people to feel positive about themselves? Do you think positivity is infectious, i.e. when you surround yourself with other positive people?
CALEB: Yeah, definitely. Feeling good about yourself means you give off good vibes. One sore thumb in the room can throw off the whole energy of a room. Feeling good about yourself is healthy. It always starts with you first, before it goes to anyone else. A lot of people love other people more than they love themselves. I feel like people need to take time and learn who they are and appreciate who they are. It’s healthy, it’s good, that’s how you go about your day. I’m not trying to confuse it with narcissism, because there is a line. You can tell yourself, ‘You’re beautiful.’ If someone asks, ‘Do you think you’re beautiful?’ You can say, ‘Yes I’m beautiful! I’m a sexy person.’ I’m not saying be into yourself, but love yourself. You have to learn to love and appreciate yourself and take that time to do it. With #EmbraceYourFace it was all about taking care of your face and embracing it.
CDM: What piece of advice would you give to people who maybe aren’t feeling themselves, or feeling like they are their biggest fans?
CALEB: I’m going to be honest with you, I’m not always my biggest fan! No-one is always their biggest fan, these words are just encouragement to become it - you’re never going to fully be your biggest fan, but you have to learn how to love yourself in a certain way. It’s going to be hard, sometimes you have to jump out of your comfort zone to be your biggest fan, sometimes you have to embarrass yourself to become your biggest fan. But do the stupidest thing, do something that you’re not good at, and that’s how you gain more confidence. For example, if you see a person you like, go up to them! Even though you’re so nervous to do anything and you feel like you’re going to get rejected, and even if you get rejected, it’s a good thing, because it just makes you stronger! Just go for it.
CDM: You also learn from any type of experience, even bad experiences.
CALEB: Yes, you learn from it. If everything is good, you’re not learning anything. Your bad experiences, sometimes you learn from, sometimes it’s a scar in your life, but sometimes those bad experiences help you for the next situation.
CDM: In an ideal world with unlimited resources, what would your relationship with fans be like?
CALEB: I feel like we’re friends. Sometimes when they comment under my posts - because I’ve been wearing my #BeYourBiggestFan sweatshirt for the longest time - they ask, "When are you not in your sweatshirt?" I literally tell them, "I sleep in it too." So I mess with them. I love them. I wouldn’t be where I’m at without them, and their love and support.
CDM: I feel like you have mutual respect with your fans, which not all celebrities do.
CALEB: It’s kind of hard for some people to do that. It’s not that they think they’re all that, it’s just for some people it’s hard to communicate with a million people on your page. It can be overwhelming for people, and it can be overwhelming for me sometimes, but it’s not bad at all if you think of us as regular people. They’re regular people, I’m a regular person, it’s just that I have a different platform, you know?
CDM: We spoke to Finn Wolfhard a few years ago about the impact that the show has had on his privacy - he felt he’d been personally invaded in a lot of ways. Have you had a similar experience? How has that changed over the past few years?
CALEB: Definitely. Sometimes I feel like I get paranoid more than I need to be, because of seeing what some people go through. You can’t mess up. If you mess up, they’ll bash you, and they’ll always remember. You’ll do something good, but they'll always remember, ‘Oh, but they did this.’ So you always have to be doing the right thing.
CDM: The world of 'cancel culture' can be quite vicious now.
CALEB: It’s crazy now. I’m at a vulnerable stage in my life now; I’m a teenager. Teenagers mess up a lot, and it’s normal for anyone to mess up - also adults, anybody. I want to say I can control my privacy. I’ve been myself the whole time, so nothing really crazy has happened.
[Absent Dimitri Printed Short Sleeve Shirt by Hallenstein Brothers.]
CDM: The close-knit bond between all the characters in 'Stranger Things' is one of the things that I think makes the show so genuine and nostalgic. How do you think the way people form and maintain friendships is different now in 2019 compared to the 1980s?
CALEB: In the 1980s you couldn’t argue over text, you had to meet up in person or maybe over the phone. It was a very hands-on type of friendship, whereas now you could be friends with someone online for the longest time and never meet them - it’s crazy.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY KAREN ISHIGURO
GROOMING BY DENIKKA DANYELL AND TARIQ NEVAR
‘Stranger Things 3’ premieres July 4 globally on Netflix - watch the trailer below…