Caleb McLaughlin Teases ‘Stranger Things 5’: ‘I Want People’s Hearts to Be Broken — Again’

"We're raw," McLaughlin tells IndieWire about what's to come on the Netflix smash. "This is not PG-13 anymore, this is rated R. We gotta bring it home."
A teen boy in a white "HAWKINS" track jacket with orange and green arm stripes, standing in the hall of a school building with matching colors; still from "Stranger Things 4."
"Stranger Things 4"
Courtesy of Netflix

Caleb McLaughlin cried while watching “Stranger Things 4.” 

The actor, who has played Lucas Sinclair since he was 13 years old, went to an entirely new emotional place during the final episode, when Lucas nearly loses Max (Sadie Sink) to the Upside Down after a vicious fight with his basketball team captain, Jason (Mason Dyer).

“He almost died,” McLaughlin told IndieWire about finding Lucas’ headspace in the scene. “But then he saw Max levitating and he was like, ‘Aw no, I gotta get this man up off me,’ and that’s what motivated him. He watched Max’s bones break in front of him. That’s traumatizing! I was traumatized. I cried watching, forgetting I was in the show — and forgetting it was a show.”

It’s a gut-wrenching scene that rests on McLaughlin’s shoulders, and his character is undoubtedly among the most affected by Season 4’s events.

“Right now I feel like he’s in a really sad place, but he definitely has some type of chip on his shoulder,” McLaughlin said. “I feel like he doesn’t believe it really happened, and I don’t think he realized that it actually happened to him. This is the first time that Hawkins gang lost. He can’t really grasp what the situation is.”

“Stranger Things 5” is still a long way off, but McLaughlin has his ideas.

“I want people’s hearts to be broken — again,” he said. “I feel like a good story ends. Not sad, but just a real ending. Happily ever after — that’s like, like back in the day, that’s Disney Channel, that’s Nickelodeon. We’re “Stranger Things.” We’re raw. This is not PG-13 anymore, this is rated R. We gotta bring it home. I know Season 5 is going to be darker, if anything — if that’s possible.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

IndieWire: At the top of Season 4, Lucas is very actively distancing himself from his friends, but where would you say he’s at now?

Caleb McLaughlin: I wouldn’t even say he’s actively distancing himself from his friends. I personally feel that he was trying to get his friends to join him on a new path. You can see that in the first episode, where he’s just tired of being bullied and he wants to be cool. But as a young teenager, his definition of cool is just to be accepted. A lot of people don’t know you don’t have to be accepted, you don’t have to force people to accept you. He realized that towards the end. I don’t think he cares about being accepted at this point [at the end of the season]. I think he cares about Max right now, his best friend, the girl that he loves.

What was it like being separated from a lot of your main costars for some of those early episodes?

I like working with different people, so it was cool, but I definitely missed them a lot. I was bouncing back and forth from filming with them, filming with the jocks, but I was hanging out with the jocks majority of the time. I felt that it was good because it helped me get into character, made me feel like a high school basketball player trying to fit in. It was a different journey I was experiencing with Lucas. I learn something new about Lucas every season.

And what did you learn about Lucas this season?

He wants to take initiative in his own life. It was interesting that he decided, “Okay, I’m gonna go on this journey myself,” but he’s still cool with his friends. He still wanted to play D&D, and then be with the jocks. It was really cool that he was able to step outside the box and do something on his own. That’s some confidence. Back in the day, in the ’80s, to be popular you had to be a jock. Nowadays, I don’t only think jocks are cool.

I recently rewatched Season 1 and was like, “Wow, they did get bullied.” He was called Midnight! He was being made fun of because of his skin color that he was born with. Mike was made fun of for his face, the face that he was born with. Dustin was made fun of because of his condition. There’s silent moments where these kids still get bullied. Lucas probably wanted to find or try something different — maybe he wouldn’t get bullied if he did this, but that didn’t change. Jason didn’t understand; he was trying to make it seem like Lucas was this freshman that was crazy and trying to talk down to his friend, and Lucas realized: “You’re not listening, man. I thought I wanted to be like you, but this is not cool what you’re doing.”

You mentioned that Lucas was made fun of for his skin color, which was very jarring, and in Season 2 we had Billy not wanting Max to hang out with Lucas because he’s Black.

Thank you for reminding me! I was reading comments recently and I remember people’s theories on part two of Episode 9. People were like, “What trauma has Luke gone through?” And I was looking through everything like, well, his girlfriend’s brother didn’t like him for being Black, also he was being made fun of [for] his skin color in Season 1. People miss those things. I love Dacre, he’s an amazing actor, his character Billy is amazing, but Billy really isn’t a great guy. Jason is actually a better guy; Jason was just misunderstood. Jason took Lucas in, was trying to show him the ropes — maybe he was arrogant, a little obnoxious, but he wasn’t racist. He wasn’t really that bad. His girlfriend died, he thought Eddie killed her, and then he was just trying to be the superhero but ended up getting cut up in half, sadly. Lucas’s girlfriend’s brother hated him because he was Black and threw him up against the wall in Season 2, and was like “Stay away from her.” I think people miss this! I don’t know why.

We never really reckon with it, and then Billy is dealing with his own stuff in Season 3. It isn’t super explicit, but is that something that was discussed behind the scenes or something that you interpret as an actor?

It’s definitely an important topic, but it’s a TV show. I love the fact that the Duffers implement those moments. Even though “Stranger Things” is a fictional world, there’s still discrimination towards people in the world, and they touch on those issues. I love that they brought awareness to it in those moments, maybe even in Season 4. We don’t talk about it, but Lucas may have had worse experiences. Maybe that’s why he wanted to be a jock. Maybe being a basketball player is cooler than a nerd. We’ve definitely touched on those moments, I feel like people just missed it. People pick and choose what they want to see.

Three teens exiting Hawkins High School, dressed in white, green, and red; still from "Stranger Things 4."
Finn Wolfhard, Caleb McLaughlin, and Gaten Matarazzo in “Stranger Things 4”Courtesy of Netflix

If Max actually had died — not just for a minute — how would that look for both Lucas the character and Caleb the actor?

I feel like Lucas still feels like she died, honestly. People think that she didn’t. I’ve seen people who were like, “Um, Max didn’t die, guys, relax,” but she’s not the same. She’s in a coma; would you want to see your loved one or your family member in that state? Her eyes were about to be sucked into her head, all her bones are broken. She could be there, but she may not be there. She’s not the same anymore. They were supposed to go to the movie on Friday, and I don’t think they will.

How do you get in the headspace for that whole sequence, including the fight?

That scene definitely was cut into different pieces. We shot the scene where she “died” first. Then we shot the fighting after. It was really mixed up, but it was definitely an intense moment, I really dived deep into what I needed to do, but once I understood the feeling and where I needed to be, that’s all I needed. When I have good cast members to bring me there — like Sadie and her performance, and Mason and his performance, just bringing that intensity — it helped a lot.

This was my very first scene on “Stranger Things” where I had an emotionally intense, exaggerated scene, where Lucas really had a moment. I’ve had it in other films that I’ve done, but this was definitely something different that Lucas hasn’t really experienced [with] someone close to him. He’s seen it happen to other people, but this time it’s actually happening to him. Even on the day, you don’t realize how intense those things are, because I don’t get to see any of that when I’m filming.

There’s been a lot of conversation about the cast growing older, which must be very tiring. What do you say to that?

Everyone was like, “Oh my god, they look so old on the screen blah blah,” but when you watch they look like teenagers. They look like they’re in high school. Our characters are aging with us — it’s not like our characters will stay 12 years old for the rest of our lives hanging out in Mike’s basement playing D&D. Everyone grows, everyone changes. The Duffers did a great job — the show got darker as everyone aged. But I feel like people will continue to say, “When the next season comes out, they’re gonna be 30 years old!” I’m probably gonna hear that for the rest of my life. I’ll be like, “Guys, I’m not doing ‘Stranger Things’ anymore.” “I know, you’re just getting so old!” Like, what do you mean? “I’m 30 with kids.” We’re getting old — I’m old now!

We’re all getting old. That’s just how it works.

That’s just how it works, guys.

“Stranger Things 4” is now streaming on Netflix.

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