Glass speaks to Caleb McLaughlin, the young star of Stranger Things

Glass speaks to Caleb McLaughlin, the young star of Stranger Things , about his passions, his goals and taking his first flight into feature- length films


I WAS first made aware of Caleb McLaughlin a couple of years ago when I was babysitting my little sister. She told me she had planned for us an evening of watching the latest and “coolest ever” programme that “everyone was talking about” in the school playground. The programme she was referring to was the Netflix phenomenon – Stranger Things. Of course, I had heard of it before – it wasn’t just spoken about in the school playground, but also at watercoolers at work, all across social media and on T-shirts in many high street shops.

Caleb McLaughlin. Photographer: Ssam Kim


Settling down to watch our first episode I wasn’t sure what to expect. From what I understood prior to watching, the programme was a science-fiction-horror that followed four young American teens battling with the supernatural – admittedly not a genre, or an age range, that particularly resonates with me. Yet, within the first two minutes, I was surprised to find how hooked I had already become. Kicking things off with a thrilling death wasn’t an opener that I would naturally associate with a group of young teens. I soon realised this wasn’t the kids programme I had assumed it to be. We watched the whole of the first series in one night and by morning it was all I could talk about. But, rather than the fast-paced CGI, iconic theme tune, and an incredible homage to ‘80s pop culture, what particularly stood out to me about Stranger Things was the extraordinary acting of the four young teens.

In the series, McLaughlin stars as Lucas Sinclair, a friend of Wills (whose disappearance sets the story in motion), and his approach to the role is incredibly mature and credible. Dealing with friendship, love, and loss amongst moments of family strain, police intervention, and school traumas, the four young teens must navigate through their fair share of life crisis. Lucas Sinclair is the natural leader of the group and his fearless and confident nature is depended on by all. When I spoke with McLaughlin these characteristics could be said for the young 17-year-old, too. Despite admitting that, “you also get nervous … I don’t know why but I start thinking whether I can actually play this character again. In the back of my head, I think, ‘oh I haven’t done this in so long. Will I be able to pull this off?’” he is quick to add “but when you get into that eighties mode and you’re in your element with your cast members and you’re just doing it, you just jump right into it.”

Caleb McLaughlin Photographer: Ssam Kim


The pressure on these young actors is understandably daunting. Since the show was released on July 15 2016, it has received critical acclaim – including 31 Emmy Award nominations, its third season will be released in July – with spinoffs planned for the future, and now, November 6 has become a Stranger Things Day. The dedication of the Stranger Things fanbase is “on a different level” explains McLaughlin, who believes it is the fans who are to thank for making Stranger Things “into a classic”. Few actors are more digitally adored by fans than the Stranger Things cast. With celebrities like Drake openly expressing his addiction for the show, and Stranger Things Instagram fan groups numbering in the thousand. Recently, the close-knit clan of Stranger Things Instagram accounts in Europe spiraled into mass hysteria when their beloved profiles began to vanish. Convinced that an EU Brussels copyright legislation was to blame for the purge (it wasn’t), the accounts mobilised into a widespread lobby and made national news. The fact that a threat to their online Stranger Things allegiance captivated not only their interest but also, in turn, the nation is pretty unique.

For McLaughlin, however, acting didn’t begin with Stranger Things. He explains, “before Stranger Things, I started off in community theatre because I loved performing on stage. I was on Broadway [McLaughlin performed as Young Simba in The Lion King], in operas, and then some television series in New York, such as a Law & Order and Blue Bloods, I did all those cop-shows. And then, as time came around I just realised I wanted to go more into film and tv. After I did my two-year run performing on Broadway, a year later I auditioned for Stranger Things and I got it the following fall.” Of course, this is the “short version” says McLaughlin, politely saving us from explaining, in his terms, “the whole rollercoaster ride”.


Caleb McLaughlin Photographer: Ssam Kim

And what a roller coaster it’s been. Born on October 13, 2001, McLaughlin grew up in Carmel, a small town in suburban New York, to parents who worked in performance and introduced him to the arts. Mclaughlin attended Kent Primary School and later attended George Fisher Middle School. His taste for performing began at Happy Feet Dance School in Carmel, New York and then later on at The Harlem School of the Arts under Aubrey Lynch, former The Lion King producer. Since then, he has had a range of television appearances but it was landing the role of Lucas Sinclair in Stranger Things that really threw MacLaughlin under the spotlight. He says, “I’ve become an inspiration to a lot of people, a role model. It’s definitely different, but it’s an amazing experience and I’m enjoying the ride.”

With full-throttle fame by the age of 14, McLaughlin takes the ride with surprising ease. His cool and understated edge can be said for his style, too.  At just 17 he is twenty-third on GQ’s best-dressed men list for 2019, being praised for his ability to set, rather than follow, trends. Fashion, McLaughlin says, is an important way of expressing an image, “it shows how you carry yourself and what you think about yourself”. He continues, “it doesn’t really matter what brand it is, or who the designer is – the designer, of course, is great and they can get the right products – but I just like what looks good on me, something crispy and smooth.” Selecting things with a conscious authenticity and for his own satisfaction is an approach that McLaughlin applies to his every day, too.


Caleb McLaughlin Photographer: Ssam Kim

When I spoke with him about his encouraging mottos, particularly “Be Your Biggest Fan”, that can be found in every one of his Instagram posts, as well as in his modest fashion collection, he said, “this is who I am 100 per cent”. And when I questioned whether he feels any responsibility to represent and encourage confidence and self-love for his younger fans, he was very quick to reiterate that he is “just being myself … I’m not trying to keep up this appearance of being nice and being positive to get more people to love me”. He does recognise that “by just being myself … I am a role model in some way”, and with this, naturally comes a responsibility. 

Although social media can be approached by many as a “job”, for McLaughlin his relationship with the world of social is a healthy one, one in which he doesn’t take himself too seriously, he focuses on the positives, and he keeps it real. This attitude is infectious and is a strong indication of how he garnered 5.5 million followers. As long as his fans “remember who they are and remember to become their biggest fan and be their biggest fan” then his “job” online, McLaughlin says, is complete. This consistent need to shift the spotlight from himself and rather onto his fans, giving them the room to shine, is a method that is way ahead of his years.

Most recently, McLaughlin has worked on his first feature-length-film, High Flying Bird, a sports drama directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Tarell Alvin McCraney. The film follows the game of American basketball and how a bold plan to save the careers of young sports players during NBA lockout disrupts the league’s power structure. In the audition process, McLaughlin applied his background in basketball to secure the role. From a young age, McLaughlin says, “I always wanted to be an NBA player” and the chance “to experience the life of a professional basketball player and the struggle of trying to make it, or be the best, was a blessing. I was blessed to have the experience of doing the things that I love, basketball and acting, and doing them both in one film!”.

Caleb McLaughlin Photographer: Ssam Kim


High Flying Bird is unlike anything McLaughlin has done before. Not only for its subject matter, which deals with the potent disconnect between players and team owners, and the commoditization of athletes, black athletes in particular, but also, in the way it was produced too. Soderbergh, similarly to Unsane, filmed High Flying Bird entirely on an iPhone 7. When we spoke about Soderbergh and the attention he pays to the iPhone as the future of moviemaking, McLaughlin described the unique approach as the very reason behind the trust he has in him as an “amazing director”. “It’s definitely different” and he “wouldn’t recommend filming Stranger Things on an iPhone”, but Soderbergh’s iPhone storytelling is a credit to his talent, says McLaughlin. “I love creating stories and making them my own”, and he likens this to Soderbergh, too.

Although McLaughlin says, “acting has a special place in my heart like no other”, his time spent with the award-winning Duffer Brothers, who wrote and directed Stranger Things, and on the set of High Flying Bird, written by Moonlight Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McCraney and directed by Traffic Oscar winner Soderbergh, has “inspired me to write my own films and tv shows”. It is apparent that his career schedule has also inspired this drive, “I’m just putting down some ideas because I can’t always wait on somebody to book me an audition or book me for a role. I have to make my own moves and do it while I can and I’m able to, while I have these fresh ideas.”

With such a determined mindset and portfolio of experience at the age of 17, I was curious to know what McLaughlin would consider his greatest success to be so far. But when I questioned him, he seemed taken aback, as if the question had never been asked of him before, almost as if he hadn’t even considered his life to have had significant success. This humble nature was reconfirmed when he answered, “my greatest success … wow. Some of my greatest successes I’m experiencing right now, but I haven’t really reached my full potential yet. I would say … right now it would have to be God. I’m just glad that he exists and that I have this amazing relationship with him and I love it.”

Caleb McLaughlin Photographer: Ssam Kim

McLaughlin is right, some of his great successes are happening right now. 2019 is an exciting year for him, High Flying Bird has recently been released, the third season of Stranger Things will be available to binge-watch in July, and his ventures in fashion, writing and well-being are continuing to grow. So where does McLaughlin see himself in five years? “I see myself in other films, and I’m starting music so hopefully my music will be out by then. Hopefully, I’ll be filming one of my ideas, or at least getting the production together.” A modest answer I think, “In the words of Caleb McLaughlin”, I say, “Be Your Biggest Fan.”

by Lily Rimmer

From the Glass Archive – Glass Man, Spring Issue 37,  2019

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Photographer: Ssam Kim
Stylist: Matt Bidgoli
Groomer: Jessica Ortiz at Forward
Photography assistant: Heehyun Oh
Stylist Assistant: Monique Ransom
Talent: Caleb McLaughlin

All clothing and accessories: Louis Vuitton SS19


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