Much to the surprise of viewers who haven’t seen Caleb McLaughlin since he was battling supernatural forces in Season 3 of Stranger Things in 2019, he is not 13 years old anymore. The now-19-year-old SAG Award-winning actor has grown up. He’s Marvel superhero-ripped now, thanks to hard-earned time in the gym. He’s recording his own R&B album. And now he’s starring in Netflix’s Concrete Cowboy alongside Idris Elba, his first major role in a movie.
An adaptation of 2009 novel Ghetto Cowboy, the film follows Cole, a troublemaking teen sent to live with his estranged father in Philadelphia. While there, he becomes familiar with the Fletcher Street Cowboys, a real-life, century-old group of Black cowboys who promote inner-city horsemanship experience. To prep for the film, he spent time with the cowboys, a community that’s long been deserving of recognition. “I think it’s important for people to understand that this is history,” he says. “This is a part of American history.”
We spoke with McLaughlin to discuss his training routine for the movie, his experience with the Fletcher Street Cowboys, and what it’s like to work with Elba when he’s not flying around the country to DJ parties.
What’s it like telling such an untold story of Black history?
It’s an honor. I didn’t really know about the Fletcher Street Black cowboys. I’m a part of the legacy and they allowed me into their community.
I liked that they had real Fletcher Street Cowboys take on roles.
They weren’t actors. It felt like I was a part of the community, so I didn’t feel like we were acting at the moment. Watching it, I couldn’t even tell that this was their first film. They did an amazing job.
How did you prepare for this film?
I did a month of training with horses where I learned how to connect with the horse spiritually, mentally, everything. A lot of people think that with riding a horse, you just hop on and yeehaw into the sunset. I spent like a week of just actually learning the horse, the horse learning [about] me, cleaning up the horse’s stable, and doing everything I needed to learn about a horse. Even before I went to Philadelphia, I spoke to Ricky Staub about my character and what I needed to bring to the performance emotionally, what luggage my character was holding behind, and his erratic behavior.
I remember in the beginning it started with Cole getting in trouble for fighting in school. It gave no background to it, but I feel like I saw the whole picture.
With that scene, when you see him for the first time, I want you to see that this kid has been through a lot and he’s going through a lot. I wanted people to see that from just that one look.
It was mainly the way you carried yourself and the mannerisms that you acted out that really carried the story, as opposed to dialogue.
The film was seen through [Cole’s] eyes, so it was just a lot of people talking to him, and giving him knowledge, and him learning. There wasn’t really too much dialogue, just only the times where he had to really express himself. What I really wanted the audience to see is that he’s from the hood, but also, he’s really not about that life. I want people to see his innocence, that he’s still a kid. His father wasn’t there and I wanted people to feel that anger. I wanted people to feel the love he had for his father. He was yearning for his father’s love and he didn’t want to express that.
This movie took the trope of the angry Black kid growing up without a father, but instead of leaning into it, it went beyond that.
You see a lot of father and son relationships [in Hollywood], especially for Black folks, where it’s always that the father wasn’t there and was a drug addict, and then it ends up bad and then [the son] finds his way by himself. But with [Concrete Cowboy], him and his father came to an understanding and loved each other. With Cole, I want people to see that his father, Harp, didn’t realize that he didn’t know how to be a father.
It’s not that he didn’t want to be there, he just didn’t know how. It was a coming of age experience for both of them.
What was it like getting to work with Idris Elba?
I was a fan of him before I knew I wanted to be an actor. When I found out I would be playing his son in the film, I was so stoked. Meeting him was beyond my expectations. He was a super humble dude and his work ethic was A1. We would film 15-hour days all week and then on the weekend, he would fly out to a different country to DJ and then come back with probably two hours of sleep. You would have never known.
How has the pandemic impacted filming for Season 4 of Stranger Things?
We were actually filming around this time last year, but we had to stop because of the pandemic. So, we took a long break, but then we started back at the end of last year. There’s a lot of social distancing, and testing three times a week.
I heard that you’re working on releasing new music, too.
I’m trying to release some music sometime this year. I’ve been working with this amazing producer, Rashad, who’s helping me cultivate my sound. It’s kind of hard to describe my sound because I feel like it’s different. I got some R&B, neo-soul, afrobeats; just a lot of different stuff mixed together.
Are you collaborating with anyone in the near future?
I want to drop something first. I want to establish myself as a solo artist before I start to collab. Everything, for me, has to make sense. My favorite artist of all time is Stevie Wonder; that would be amazing [to collab with him]. But would it make sense? Would my sound match his sound? Even when it comes to my films, everything that I do has to make sense to me. It has to speak to me. It has to be something that when people see me, they’re proud of me, knowing that I really care for it and I really took time in that project.
This interview was condensed for content and clarity.
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