Though best known for his role as Lucas on the mega-hit horror/sci-fi/adventure show Stranger Things, Caleb McLaughlin has much more in store.

ESSENCE caught up with the young Netflix star just as Stranger Things season 4 ended and left fans hungry to know what happens next now that Vecna has sealed his victory in Hawkins.

“I knew this was going to be the best season yet and everyone would be excited, everyone would be on the edge of their couch watching,” he said. And indeed, nearly literally everyone was. Stranger Things 4 was the first-ever English language program to cross the 1 billion-hour streaming threshold – surpassing the wildly popular Squid Game by 15 million streams in just its first 28 days of availability. Needless to say, McLaughlin is a star.

This season of Stranger Things not only saw the children of Hawkins in more dire circumstances than ever before, but, naturally, looking far more grown up than when we were first plopped into the plight of Eleven and The Upside Down back in 2016. Though McLaughlin’s much more mature appearance was jarring for some fans, the visceral online reaction to their post-puberty appearances was just a bit funny to the 20-year-old actor.

“It’s like, people grow. Everyone grows. That’s how life works, so that’s where I was confused,” he said. “Our characters are growing up with us. We’re not going to be 12 years old forever.”

Still, when he takes a look back at himself on old episodes, he can understand where the online cries of “OMG, he’s so grown!” are coming from.

How Caleb McLaughlin Found His Divine Calling In The Upside Down
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK – MAY 14: Caleb Mclaughlin attends Netflix’s “Stranger Things” Season 4 New York Premiere at Netflix Brooklyn on May 14, 2022 in Brooklyn, New York. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

“I mean, I’m myself so I see myself every day,” he laughed. “Of course, comparing [myself] season one and season four, I definitely was like, ‘Whoa, that’s wild. I changed a lot.’ My voice has changed, I grew seven inches. It’s insane.”

Season 4 also found this more grown-up McLaughlin giving perhaps his most emotional performance on the show to date. In the season’s final episode, the actor shines in a harrowing fight scene leading to a moment of intense anguish (without giving spoilers, of course). A testament to his talent, McLaughlin was able to snap into mode and deliver on-cue, without even knowing that the scene was set to be shot on that particular day.

“I didn’t ever practice it, I just went for it because I want it to be natural. I want it to have the actual emotion. Once I understood the feeling and where I was in the scene and what I saw, I was able to deliver. I just like to go for it,” he said. “I felt like I was Lucas and this was what was going down. I think when I push into the scene without having any type of preparation, I give my best performance.”

That performance, compounded with those of his young yet talented-beyond-their-years castmates and impressive writing and production earned Stranger Things its third Emmy nomination for Outstanding Drama Series – an honor which McLaughlin greatly appreciates.

“We worked so hard for two years on the show. It’s a blessing,” he said. “It’s surreal, honestly. We’re being recognized for the work that we’re doing, so it’s amazing.”

How Caleb McLaughlin Found His Divine Calling In The Upside Down
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – MARCH 24: Caleb McLaughlin attends Vanity Fair and Lancôme Celebrate the Future of Hollywood at Mother Wolf on March 24, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images)

But with Stranger Things now put to rest until a year or two in the future, McLaughlin has his eye on other big endeavors. But first, he has a milestone birthday to plan. The actor turns 21 on October 13.

“I’m planning it right now, actually,” McLaughlin said of his 21st birthday bash. “I’ve never really had a party before, so I want to throw a nice party, go away with my family and friends, and have fun. That’s what I’m planning on doing because I’ve never really celebrated myself.”

Acting since the age of 10, McLaughlin admits he’s missed out on a lot of childhood experiences and milestones, even things as simple as birthday parties. But he sees it as a necessary sacrifice to achieve greatness in what he deems his divine calling.

“I started professionally at 10 years old and I’ve been working ever since,” McLaughlin explained, noting that his big start came performing in The Lion King on Broadway. “By 12 years old, I was working almost a 9:00 to 5:00 for two years. My day off was Monday, but I was doing schoolwork.”

Working harder than many adults before he even hit puberty thrust McLaughlin into somewhat of an early manhood. His experience and speaking poise belie his young age. While his peers were attending school, joining sports teams, and taking field trips, “I was at work,” he says.

“I wouldn’t say I regret that – I’m glad I made that sacrifice. I’ll find my fun later. But it definitely has made me mature faster than the average child.”

How Caleb McLaughlin Found His Divine Calling In The Upside Down
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK – MAY 14: Caleb Mclaughlin attends Netflix’s “Stranger Things” Season 4 New York Premiere at Netflix Brooklyn on May 14, 2022 in Brooklyn, New York. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

“I feel like it’s my calling,” McLaughlin continued. “Of course, there’s more I have to do to become better and I have to work at that,” he said. “God has called me to do this thing called acting and the performing arts. I never wanted to do it – it just happened. I love it more than anything now.”

While Stranger Things is in stasis, McLaughlin has multiple projects coming down the pipeline. Not only is he starring Lebron James’ upcoming biopic Shooting Stars, and Netflix’s Lee Daniels-directed thriller The Deliverance alongside Mo’Nique, but he’s working on his first-ever EP slated to drop sometime later this year.

While his social media followers are already more than familiar with his vocal ability, his R&B-flavored stylings will prove to be a pleasant surprise for many a casaual fan. Being a triple-threat on the entertainment front, McLaughlin says that it’s all about topping his personal best, rather than running a race against any other entertainer out there.

“I’m not in competition with anyone but myself, and I think once I know I work hard enough for myself and I know I put my all into everything, then that’s my goal. That’s what I want to reach.” 

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“I want to continue to do music, produce my own stories, create my own stories. Start things I believe in, partner with people, maybe do some more fashion stuff,” he says of his future. “There’s so much in this world that I can do that I don’t even know about. There’s so many things that I can learn every day. The door is open to anything.”

Though he’s going with the flow and doesn’t know exactly what the future holds, Caleb McLaughlin knows that it’s bright.

“I would say just stay tuned. I wouldn’t even say [just] the next half of this year. Just in general, in the next five years, next 10 years and next rest of my life. There’s going to be different levels. I’m going to evolve as a person and in my career. Just stay tuned, for real.”

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