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‘Stranger Things’ star Caleb McLaughlin breaks big in ‘Concrete Cowboy’

Brian Truitt, USA TODAY
·4 min read
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Caleb McLaughlin stars as a troubled teen who learns about Black cowboy culture from his estranged father in Netflix's "Concrete Cowboy."
Caleb McLaughlin stars as a troubled teen who learns about Black cowboy culture from his estranged father in Netflix's "Concrete Cowboy."

He’s used to dealing with interdimensional monsters as Lucas on “Stranger Things.” In his new movie “Concrete Cowboy,” though, Caleb McLaughlin breaks out as a scary good actor.

Whether or not you live for his super-popular 1980s-set Netflix series, the 19-year-old New York native is a revelation in director Ricky Staub’s “Cowboy” (streaming now on Netflix).

His character Cole is a troubled Detroit teenager who’s kicked out of school and forced to spend a summer with his estranged father Harp (Idris Elba), an urban horse rider in Philadelphia. Cole reconnects with an old friend (Jharrel Jerome), who’s fallen into a life of crime, but also begins to realize the positives of his dad’s life when he befriends a horse named Boo and is drawn to the Black cowboy culture around him.

'Concrete Cowboy': Idris Elba braved a horse allergy to make his new father/son 'love story'

“This was the project that I needed to do to show my range and I knew it was going to grow me as a person and as an actor,” says McLaughlin, a rising Hollywood star with 11 million Instagram followers who’s used much of the last quarantine year for self-reflection. “I wasn't acting, I wasn't working, so I was just Caleb. I was just trying to find myself and what I actually love to do.”

He definitely found a new fan in Elba. “For someone that's been in the public eye from such a young age and really celebrated, he's so level-headed, grounded, ambitious, kind and considerate,” Elba says. “I’m proud to play his father.”

Here are five things to know about McLaughlin’s burgeoning entertainment career, including, yes, “Stranger Things”:

In "Concrete Cowboy," Idris Elba plays a Philadelphia cowboy who takes in his estranged and troubled teen son (Caleb McLaughlin) and shows him the ways of the cowboy in the Western-tinged drama.
In "Concrete Cowboy," Idris Elba plays a Philadelphia cowboy who takes in his estranged and troubled teen son (Caleb McLaughlin) and shows him the ways of the cowboy in the Western-tinged drama.

Becoming Cole was a true challenge

The movie proved an emotional, physical and mental test because McLaughlin’s “Cowboy” character “is different from who I am as a person. I have a great relationship with my father,” he says. One emotional scene, in particular, finds Cole angrily leaving the stables, Harp confronting him and Cole screaming, “You’re not my father!” For McLaughlin, he had to work hard to find that persona: “You got to remove Caleb from your mind and your spirit, and you have to bring Cole in there.”

But ‘Cowboy’ made him appreciate his dad

McLaughlin’s own father sat behind a camera watching that scene and many others, usually greeting him with a smile and a “Good job, kiddo” afterward. That always “warmed my heart,” McLaughlin says. Unlike the chilly dynamic between Cole and Harp, “me and my dad talk all the time. I tell him everything that I do." A lot of young adults like McLaughlin still live with their parents, "but it doesn't mean that they have a great relationship. But I have a great relationship with my father … and I love him for it even more.”

Harp (Idris Elba, left) teaches his estranged son Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) how to ride a horse in "Concrete Cowboy."
Harp (Idris Elba, left) teaches his estranged son Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) how to ride a horse in "Concrete Cowboy."

McLaughlin mucked stalls with real (and fake) manure

Before Cole learns how to ride a horse, Harp puts him through his paces, including cleaning out the stables – which meant digging into some fake Hollywood horse poop. (The recipe: “Peanut butter, dirt and water mixed together,” McLaughlin says.) His path to learning how to ride in real life involved cleaning up actual manure and forming a bond with his horse by cleaning it, brushing it, talking to it and learning its energy: “Once I was able to do that, me and the horse were one,” he says. “It's more than ‘Let's just ride into the sunset.’ When you connect with a horse, it's a really spiritual moment.”

McLaughlin’s musical debut is on the way

He can act and he can sing, too: McLaughlin, who played Young Simba in Broadway’s “The Lion King” from 2012-2014, will be releasing some of his own music for the first time later this year. His influences range from classic artists (Marvin Gaye and Earth, Wind and Fire) to more modern stars (Masego and Anderson .Paak) but Steve Wonder is his main man. "Because of my dad, my love for music is on a different level,” McLaughlin says. Elba might be even putting his co-star’s stuff in a DJ set: “Hearing him talk about how much he loved my music made me feel good about when I drop.”

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New ‘Stranger Things’ season’s gonna be ‘good’

"Stranger Things" stars Noah Schnapp, Caleb McLaughlin, Gaten Matarazzo and Sadie Sink return for an upcoming fourth season of the popular retro Netflix show.
"Stranger Things" stars Noah Schnapp, Caleb McLaughlin, Gaten Matarazzo and Sadie Sink return for an upcoming fourth season of the popular retro Netflix show.

McLaughlin’s currently finishing up filming the fourth season of his Netflix supernatural show, which started up in January of last year, got shut down due to the pandemic and was rolling again in September. “It was great to be back, but also weird because we had to wear masks and we had to social distance. We weren't used to that. I wanted to give everyone a big hug.” McLaughlin promises “bigger, better, stranger” things are afoot: “We can’t go backwards, man. It's going to be good.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Concrete Cowboy': 'Stranger Things' star Caleb McLaughlin breaks out