Hollywood actress Caitlin Carmichael really embodies the word philanthropist, with just about as much activist work under her belt as screen credits. Having recently starred in Lionsgate thriller Midnight in the Switchgrass opposite Megan Fox, Bruce Willis and Machine Gun Kelly, as well as a role earlier this year on an episode of NCIS: Los Angeles, Carmichael has been focusing a great deal of energy on her studies at UCLA, where she became the youngest student ever admitted at 14 years old. In addition to pursuing her American Literature & Culture degree, Carmichael devotes plenty of time to a variety of causes like cancer research, combating homelessness, and women’s education. As an official Ambassador for the American Cancer Society, as well as the founder, partnering with Starbucks, of her very own foundation, StarsofBlessing.org, we heard all there is to know about Caitlin’s slew of justice efforts, straight from the actress herself.
Read the full interview from The Untitled Magazine‘s latest print edition, The “INNOVATE” Issue, out now.
You are currently a student at UCLA — and the youngest accepted female at that! — studying American Literature and Culture. What made you decide to pursue acting?
I started my career from a chance encounter. It was really a right place, right time scenario. I was in Los Angeles on vacation with my mom and grandmother at three-and-a-half years old when an agent asked if he could talk to me. My extroverted, bubbly, toddler self talked and talked to him, and he thought I was a perfect fit for the entertainment industry. We agreed to fly back and forth from Georgia, and I booked my very first audition. What was initially a trip for a few weeks to film on Jenny McCarthy’s web series, In The Motherhood, turned into a few months to stay for pilot season, and now it’s been almost 14 years. I truly believe everything happens for a reason, and there’s no such thing as coincidence – that man is still my commercial agent today.
Why did you make the choice to continue your education by studying literature as well?
After growing up in the entertainment industry, I wanted to ensure my college experience would expand my horizons and take advantage of studying concepts I wasn’t as familiar with. Not to sound like I’m above deepening my film or acting studies in any shape or form – I just didn’t want to limit myself to only enriching one aspect of my identity. My American Literature and Culture major is an English Literature degree with components of psychology, gender studies, religion, and philosophy. I thought this cultural analysis will help me develop more of a global perspective and, therefore, make me a better actress as well as screenwriter, director, and producer. I also declared my Film, TV, and Digital Media minor to complement these studies after falling in love with the film classes I’ve taken so far on campus. I’m hoping this balance will help me grow as an artist both in front of and behind the camera.
You recently starred in the Lionsgate thriller Midnight in the Switchgrass. Tell us about your role in the film and what it’s all about. How did you prepare for your role as Tracey?
Yes! The film is based on the real 2009 Highway Serial Killings Initiative started by the FBI. After seeing the tagline “based on true events” on the front page of my script, I was instantly hooked. Our story follows two FBI agents as they partner with a local sheriff to track a serial killer who’s abducting and murdering young girls along I-10. Knowing that Tracey’s abduction was representative of a true story shaped my perspective in playing my role. I didn’t want to shy away from the fear, vulnerability, and grit of my scenes or glamorize her abduction in any way. Having the opportunity to be a voice for the voiceless and represent the thousands of girls whose stories we’ve never heard motivated me to dive into researching the true cases our movie is based on. It was a lot different than just creating a fictional abduction narrative. There is something really interesting in our film that distinguishes Midnight In The Switchgrass from typical thriller movies: the way the women save themselves and come together to save each other. I really enjoyed bringing the authenticity of my scenes to life to symbolize such a powerful message about the importance of female unity to overcome adversity.
How was your experience on the set of the film? It’s a very intense movie so there must have been some challenges you faced.
Our movie’s intensity was only matched by our off-screen filming environment. We shut down two times due to COVID-19 to prioritize the safety of our cast and crew. Filming in 2020 was completely uncharted territory. I think it ended up being a blessing in disguise in some ways to allow our cast and crew to deepen their connections and develop a greater sense of off-screen chemistry. Our 18-day shoot was spread out over seven months. As far as the actual filming process, my scenes were very intense. Prioritizing the authenticity of the story was a main focus for Tracey’s narrative, and I was excited that my role would challenge me to really immerse myself in Tracey’s circumstances. I broke through a real sewage pipe and crawled through switchgrass with real zip-ties around my wrists as Tracey battled her escape. Doing my own stunts helped me find a place of genuine fear and mirror her struggle, determination, strength, and perseverance with my own.
Aside from your acting, you are quite an active philanthropist! Tell us about being named the West Coast Teen Ambassador for the American Cancer Society in 2018. What’s the story behind that, and what have you been doing for that organization?
My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 10 years old. Even though I wasn’t the one diagnosed, one six-letter word changed my life, too. Now, almost seven years in remission, my mom uses what she learned on her journey to be a sister and ally to other cancer survivors and current cancer warriors. I was really inspired by my mom to use my platform to spread awareness for breast cancer early detection and the importance of a healthy lifestyle. In 2018, I started working with the American Cancer Society and have been the West Coast Teen Ambassador ever since.
Why is cancer research particularly meaningful to you? You also lead the Los Angeles ResearcHERS campaign. What is that effort all about, and what can we at home do to support the cause?
Women make invaluable contributions to research breakthroughs and discoveries but are constantly underrepresented through fundraising and in leadership positions. Since 1946, the American Cancer Society has raised over 4.6 billion dollars to fund scientists, but most of the money runs out before it ever reaches female researchers. Our initiative strives to change that. In 2019, the American Cancer Society launched the ResearcHERS campaign to support a group of female ambassadors in their efforts of raising funds for some of the most influential cancer research endeavors led by women. In other words, it’s female-driven fundraising to foster female-driven cancer research. Our initiative’s goals are to raise money for female scientists; advocate for more spaces that involve women in science, technoloy, engineering, and math programs; and save more lives from cancer. This innovative fundraising program bridges the gap between crucial cancer research and the dollars needed to fund it. I’m excited to both support female cancer researchers and inspire young girls to get more involved in STEM programs.
There is also your global foundation, StarsofBlessing.org, which you founded with Starbucks in 2018. Tell us about the foundation, its goals, and what it stands for. How did the partnership with Starbucks come about?
Growing up, my mom treated herself to a Starbucks latte on a regular basis. When Starbucks launched their mobile app, we were probably some of the first users. Taking advantage of skipping the line allowed us for a quick pick up at our local Starbucks as we hurried to church on Sunday mornings. One Sunday morning in 2016, when I was 12, we met Robert, a homeless man who camped outside by the trash can of our local Starbucks. We would always offer him our spare change or cash to help buy him breakfast. Then, one Sunday, my mom didn’t have any cash. Robert was there, hungry, and we had no means of helping him.
That was when I had the idea to redeem my mom’s Starbucks reward points (aka “stars”) to give Robert breakfast at no expense out of our pocket. That small act of kindness made me think, “What if other people around the world used their Starbucks stars to feed the homeless too?” It kind of took off from there. Every Sunday morning from then on, we used our points to redeem Robert his favorite sausage, egg, and cheese biscuit with no cheese. By downloading the free Starbucks mobile app and using it to order online, you automatically collect stars. If you see someone hungry, you can redeem your stars to buy them a meal at no extra cost to yourself. If one Starbucks customer uses their points to help someone else, a chain reaction will be ignited. The moral behind this foundation means a lot to me because it truly shows how everyone has the power to make a difference.
You also have been sponsoring two students at the Community Hope School in Namibia. Tell us about the sponsorship and how that started.
John Hunter, the Managing Director of Community Hope School in Namibia, began a philanthropic collaboration with our church in Beverly Hills when I was 7 years old. He was asking members, elders, and deacons of the church to consider sponsoring a child at the school. seven-year-old me decided that I wanted to give back, too, and selected Babsie’s photo from a selection of images of first grade children because she wanted to be a teacher. I’ve been extremely privileged to have such easy access to educational opportunities, and I wish it was that way for every girl around the world. I’ve sponsored Babsie’s school books, supplies, uniforms, and food with my own money from filming for the past ten years. We’ve become pen pals and she sends me pictures to go along with her written anecdotes of her life. She is a member of the archery team and now wants to be a lawyer. In the beginning of 2020, I started sponsoring a new first-grader, Deborah, as well to help grow her academic foundation. I’m so glad John and his wife, Suzanne, have institutionalized a school that allows and guides Babsie, Deborah, and other children in Namibia to expand their educational horizons, and I’m just blessed to be able to support them in any way I can.
How do you manage to balance your roles as a philanthropist, actress, and student?
Staying grounded is the core aspect of my mentality when things get overwhelming. Focusing on the value of every opportunity definitely helps me stay present in every moment as opposed to worrying about what I’m not or could be doing in other aspects of my life. I’m very lucky that the components of my identity go hand in hand – for example, school makes me a better actress which gives me the platform to give back, etc. Also, I love what I do, so that definitely helps a lot of things not feel like work.
Were there any challenges you had to face or overcome during the pandemic to stay positive and creatively active?
PATIENCE. IS. A. VIRTUE. My position in the world was very unique at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic as I was in production in Puerto Rico. Having filming halted due to rising case numbers was daunting and extremely disappointing, even though we obviously needed a hiatus for the safety of our cast and crew. What was initially a two-week “see you later” shutdown turned into six months of waiting and quarantine until filming could resume. Having something to look forward to was beneficial, but it was excruciating to watch time slowly pass by as this virus was looming over and even robbing people of their lives. It was so important to stay completely isolated, not just for the protection of my family and friends, but for an entire cast and crew waiting to return to work. I distracted myself from the future’s uncertainty by indulging in my college Zoom studies and even taking summer classes to keep my mind working. Finding a creative outlet in film classes online at UCLA was extremely helpful to give me new artistic challenges even when I couldn’t be on set.
Do you have any words of wisdom you live by?
I write down life lessons I’ve learned pretty regularly but “the things you take for granted; other people are praying for” is a quote that’s been weighing heavily on my mind recently.
What about words of advice to other girls your age?
There’s a biblical scripture I love which warns readers to not conform to the patterns of the world (Romans 12:2). I think people of all religions, especially other teenagers my age, can relate to the feeling of trying to mold their identity according to how others perceive them, even if subconsciously. It’s so important to surround yourself with people who love you for who you are as opposed to feeling the need to suppress the qualities that make you you just for others’ approval. I’m not a perfect follower of this advice by any shape or form, but it’s a great reminder to never apologize for being myself and that the people who truly belong in my life will love me for being exactly that.
This is our “INNOVATE” issue. What does that word mean to you, and how do you plan to keep embodying it in your career?
Innovation is all about making positive change according to your unique power and position. I think “innovative” is the only adjective that can truly describe a much-needed revolution of female synergy in the world. I’d love to be an innovator in the entertainment industry by using my platform to empower and create opportunities for other women in filmmaking.
What’s next for you? Are there any upcoming projects we can look forward to?
I’m starting my junior year at UCLA this September as an American Lit and Culture major. I’m so grateful UCLA and its College of Letters and Sciences have agreed to work with my filming schedule quarter by quarter and hold my spot when I’m filming. While I’m committed to being a full-time student for this fall quarter on campus, I’m continuing to read scripts and work behind the scenes on the development of future projects. I declared my Film, TV, and Digital Media minor after falling in love with my classes on the history of filmmaking. I’m excited to study critical film theory and shape my perspective for future on-set experiences, and my hope is that my major’s components of creative writing, gender studies, psychology, philosophy, and religion will help me become a more multidimensional artist. As an actress and future writer, producer, and director, I’m looking forward to using these tools to innovate the entertainment industry.
Caitlin Carmichael @reallycailinxox
Photography by Indira Cesarine @indiracesarine for @theuntitledmagazine
Stylist Jennifer Austin @jlynnstyle18
Make-up by Archangela Chelsea @archangelachelsea using Chanel Beauty @chanel.beauty
Hair by April Bautisa @aypruhl
Photographed at Sofitel Los Angeles @sofitellosangeles