GREATEST / Caleb McLaughlin

The Stranger Things star talks about his early start studying dance in Harlem, being an advocate for self-confidence and of course, sneakers. 

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Hopping off a plane in Atlanta in late March, I knew exactly what to expect upon leaving Hartsfield-Jackson: people driving with the windows down blasting music in residential neighborhoods, flip-flops with socks and pollen the metaphorical size of bald eagles flying through the air. As they say, “There’s no place like home.”

It was my first trip back in 2019, and even before I said hello to my mother, I was off to Decatur, the city’s Eastside play cousin. Pulling up in an Uber, I got a case of the chills, the kind brought on by the nostalgia of remembering, ‘Wow, I’ve been dunked on near here.’ I quickly found my way inside an Airbnb-turned-photo shoot studio, entered a well-lit room, and then froze. To put it plainly, I was in awe.

As if it was his happy place, up on a ledge crouched Caleb McLaughlin, star of Netflix’s Stranger Things. He donned a green suit, pulled off with the confidence of a 32-year-old who had just flown into Atlanta to interview a teenaged star. I looked at him, both impressed and almost jealous, ‘How is he doing me, better than I do me, but in almost half the Earth hours?’

After collecting myself, I noticed the playlist; the current song was “Livin’ on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi. I asked someone, playfully, whose music this was, assuming it was a producer’s. “Oh, it’s Caleb’s,” I was told.

Who was this kid? 

In the hours that followed, I watched McLaughlin transition from look to look inside the house, and then leave the sunny studio and walk outside with a mask over his nose and mouth (the pollen is not his friend, #ProtectCalebAtAllCosts), as tens of photographers, stylists and producers prepped him for the shoot. I stood inside, safe from the springtime allergenic onslaught, watching McLaughlin and feeling both terrified for and proud of him. But when it was time to finally shoot, he took off his mask and boom —you were witnessing a star. Whether it was on a dusty pavement road or a literal grassy knoll, McLaughlin worked the camera, posing, serving face and hitting pirouette after pirouette in an oversized Token suit.

Again, I repeated, ‘Who was this kid?’

That thought was interrupted, as Christmas morning had just presented itself to McLaughlin in the form of a pair of ‘Off-Whites.’ This wasn’t fake excitement— this was real, “the boy you thought had it all does not, in fact, have it all” gratitude.

As McLaughlin inspected the sneakers, he went on about why he loved them, especially the signature tag. “Why do you like the tag, Caleb?” someone in the room asked. “It’s…It’s just chill,” he said. I genuinely could not get enough.

And just when I thought my interest in McLaughlin had fully piqued, I walked in on him having a conversation about Lenny Kravitz: “Yeah, the guy from The Hunger Games. And then I found out about his music.”

I couldn’t wait to talk to this curious, humble star of a teenager, truly mature well beyond his years. And luckily for me, a few hours later, we did. 

I’ll admit, when I first became familiar with you on Stranger Things, I assumed you’d come out of nowhere, as if it was the first thing you’d done. 

Yeah, and they probably think I’m a one-hit wonder. 

But you have been doing stuff. Like, you’re a sneaky veteran at 17. Which became clear to me today, watching how comfortable you were in front of the camera. 

Yeah, it’s weird, but you know I just feel that I was kind of born to be in this industry? I feel comfortable, though, because it comes with time. I’ve been doing it for a minute. I was on Broadway, I was in an opera. I studied dance in Harlem: tap, ballet, jazz. I think all the arts combined just kind of prepared me for photoshoots like this. 

At what point with your parents were they like, ‘Oh, this is more than just a fun activity that our son is doing’? 

At first, I wanted to be a basketball player. I was just all about the sport. I wanted to be a wrestler, a body builder. I wanted to have a garage band. It was crazy. I’d done some community theater with my sister and I was like, ‘Wow, this is cool.’ But I think it was when I saw The Lion King on Broadway. That just did it for me, and I told them I wanted to take the next step. 

You saw it and were like, ‘This is what I want.’ 

I was like, ‘I want to be Simba. I want to be Simba in The Lion King on Broadway.’ Then it happened a year and a half later. 

That’s wild. 

Yeah. Not many kids get to just say they want to do something and then do it, in that time span. 

So you’ve done Broadway at a high level, you’re on a hit TV show, you were in Steven Soderbergh’s latest film High Flying Bird, you were in the truly beloved New Edition biopic miniseries— with all these things, is mixing it up and showing your range this purposeful, calculated thing? 

My whole thing with the arts, I didn’t want to just do acting and not everything else. I wanted to be a dancer as well. I wanted to study dance, I wanted to study the emotion behind the arts. Acting, Broadway, live action, film, everything. Not just, ‘I want to be on a TV show and be famous so everyone can see me.’ That wasn’t it. I just love the arts. 

My whole thing with the arts, I didn’t want to just do acting and not everything else. I wanted to be a dancer as well. I wanted to study dance, I wanted to study the emotion behind the arts.

Caleb McLaughlin

Last year, I was actually down here in Atlanta teaching at my old high school. It was the first time in a while that I’d just been around 17-year-olds. I quickly realized it’s an extremely interesting time to be a teenager, because even with the kids in my class, because of Instagram, everyone’s kind of famous. Everyone has a platform. So for you, I can’t even imagine what it all feels like. Is it pressure to stay on people’s radar? Do you feel a responsibility as a black kid to be a voice? How is it? 

Of course with me being African-American I have to do more. But I’m still doing me, being me. And people will love me for who I am. As for the social media stuff, I control most of my Instagram. Sometimes my manager wants to post some things, and he’s like, ‘Hey, what do you think? Should we post this?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, sure.’ With the fans, sometimes they’ll DM me, ‘I love you so much.’ I’ll answer sometimes. Or [if] they comment on my page, I’ll make sure I’ll comment. If my manager sees it before I do, he’s like, ‘Hey, this person said this. What do you want to say?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, cool, I’ll do it.’ You know? 

You know, it’s funny, thinking about the fact that you’ve spent your later teenage years in the public eye, do you ever get that thing where people are surprised you’re growing up? 

Yeah, they’re like, ‘Oh my god, they’re growing up so fast! I hate it.’ What? 

Since your fame has skyrocketed, however, what are the things that you do that kind of keep you grounded and still give you that normalcy? 

Family and friends—even friends that you meet in the industry. I have a few friends that when I meet up with them, I don’t have to talk about, ‘So, what you been up to? What you got going on now?’ I don’t always like to talk about the industry, because I’m in it when I’m in it. This is work, too. It’s fun, but it’s still work. As for my family, we all moved to Atlanta and we just hang out, go places, travel. We drive to Savannah sometimes with just some family. I still have to do chores. A lot of people don’t think I have to do chores because of my status. Doesn’t mean anything. I still get in trouble. 

Just spending time today, it’s very fun to see some-one that likes to be creative when it comes to style. Is that something you’ve always just felt adventurous in? 

Yeah, I was always very adventurous. My parents used to say I used to dress up in rain boots and – what are those – I can’t think of them. The one piece, with the buckle –   

Oh, overalls? 

Overalls! So rain boots, overalls and some type of hat. 

Strong look. 

Yeah, I used to wear all these colors, man, I’ve always kind of had a fashion-forward mind. Yeah, I was always just into fashion. And it doesn’t have to be a famous designer—if it’s hot, I’m wearing it. 

How do you keep up with stuff, being so busy, from fashion to music to news to all the other things to keep up with? 

I’m pretty informed on Instagram, which is also where I try to just lift up people’s spirits. My Instagram is all about positivity. 

Yeah, I saw that. I feel like a lot of times I see hashtags and it feels like a whole organization created this thing for the sole purpose of going viral. 

But no matter what I’m talking about, I talk about #BeYourBiggestFan or #EmbraceYourFace.

Yeah, it’s not a tagline. 

It’s not a tagline, exactly. Everywhere I go, I just want it to resonate, because it’s something that people need to know and need to hear. They need to feel it, the need to be it. They need to be their biggest fan. #BeYourBiggestFan is hard sometimes. Some days you’re not going to be your biggest fan. I’m not my biggest fan every day. I told my parents I feel like becoming your biggest fan helps even when you’re out of your comfort zone. When you’re out of your comfort zone, you can start to build up your confidence.  

It’s how you bounce back. 

You become stronger. And #EmbraceYourFace, it’s more specific. Embracing who you are, embracing who your parents are and what they gave you. There’s no one else like you in the world. Be you, love yourself, embrace your face. I’m doing it because we’re a community. I’m telling you more of, ‘I go through the same things you guys go through, even though I’m famous. I have a lot of followers—okay, but we’re still all humans in the same world. We were all placed on this earth together for a reason. Let’s all help each other out.’ 

#EmbraceYourFace, it’s more specific. Embracing who you are, embracing who your parents are and what they gave you. There’s no one else like you in the world. Be you, love yourself, embrace your face. I’m doing it because we’re a community.

Caleb McLaughlin

It’s really easy to not be compassionate to yourself. It’s real easy to be super critical of yourself but super sympathetic to everyone else. 

For sure. There are some people that have come to me: ‘Man, thank you so much for your hashtags and #BeYourBiggestFan because I really wanted to kill myself.’ And I’m like, wow, people really want to kill themselves because of who they are. That’s why this is bigger than just a hashtag. It’s a movement. 

Looking forward, thinking about the rest of your career, are there certain performers that you see and are like, ‘I really like the way they are doing their career’? 

Michael B. Jordan, definitely. Donald Glover is definitely a genius as well. I’m also musically inclined. I sing, I dance. No rap—I’m definitely not a rapper. 

You’ve got to do a song with Victor Oladipo. 

Oh, yeah, he can sing. I love R&B. I’m kind of a, like, R&B-soul guy. I’m actually coming out with music. 

Oh, word?

Yeah. I like talking about it, but I don’t. People are like, ‘Oh, another actor trying to be a singer.’ No, this stuff is going to be legit. It’s going to be groovy. 

You got to show some of those chops in the New Edition miniseries. Were your parents big New Edition fans?

Yes, they were. I remember when I got the audition, my mom was like, ‘They’re doing a New Edition movie, you have to audition, oh my god.’ I was like, ‘What is this? What is New Edition?’ Then my mom played the song, I’m like, ‘I thought that was The Jackson 5.’ She’s like, ‘No, it’s New Edition.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, shoot. I get a chance to do a biopic of a dope group.’ Then I started listening. I said, ‘I’ve heard this before.’ I’ve heard almost all of their music, but I just didn’t know they were New Edition. Then I was like, ‘Yeah, I gotta do it.’ I kept looking at their videos, and then suddenly they were like, ‘Oh, you got the part.’ 

That’s great. 

It was just one of the best experiences I’ve ever been a part of. That was just a very historical moment because of so much history from New Edition, and we met all of the guys. They sat down with us, It was like, ‘We’re all in this together.’ 

When I was a teenager, I really came into my own as an individual, be it in how I thought about the world or how I expressed myself in my attire. And it’s when I feel like I started to really hone in on the things I cared about, stylistically. Do you have things like that for you right now? 

I love shoes, I just love different types of shoes. But I feel like the thing for me is pants. Some nice— not skinny jeans—but straight jeans. And just any shoe that goes with it, you know? I don’t really match too much. I like color coordination, just let it do its own thing. But I haven’t really found that, ‘Oh, this is what I love.’ I’m still getting into that. 

I’ve seen you described as a sneakerhead. But that term gets thrown around a lot, especially of late with people that don’t even seem to really like basketball, which I’ve always found odd. 

Yep, so weird. Sneakerhead culture came from loving basketball. I was having this conversation with one of my cast members, who will remain nameless—I’m not going to blow him out like that. Anyway, they were like, ‘Yeah, I’m a sneakerhead, Caleb. I’ve got all these Vans.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, okay, cool. What’s your favorite Jordan sneaker?’ And they’re like, ‘I don’t really like those.’ So I was like, ‘You’re not a sneakerhead.’ 

You’re like, ‘Start over.’ 

Stop. 'Air Forces?' They were like no. And I’m like, 'You’re not a sneakerhead!' The thing is, I can’t even call myself a sneakerhead. I like sneakers, so maybe I can say I’m a sneakerhead? I’m just not so educated on the vintage sneakers, like the names and stuff. I just love the way things look and I have a lot of sneakers. I know what looks good, but I can’t say, ‘I’m a sneakerhead.’ 

But you’re a basketball head. 

Yeah, I’m a basketball head, so I can attach myself to being a sneakerhead. 

Who is your person right now? 

Okay, I still love Stephen Curry, 100%. But mine is changing. I just love a lot of NBA players—they’re all so good. 

Do you have, like, a team? 

Yes, I have to pick the Knicks, right? Because that’s where I’m from. I used to say Golden State. I still love Golden State, I support them. 

But if the Knicks start doing well— 

Knicks fan. 

INTERVIEW: REMBERT BROWNE
PHOTOGRAPHY: PARKER WOODS
STYLING: TAYLOR OKATA

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