The “Stranger Things” actor says working on his neo-soul, pop and R&B-based tracks is part of his quarantine schedule. Some tracks are already complete, some are not. But he will release it when he feels the music tells him to do so.
“The music I’m going to be producing will represent who I am as Caleb. People will see a different side of who I am,” he tells Variety. “Music is my experience with people and life and the world.”
Music, it turns out, played a pivotal role in helping McLaughlin get in character on the set of “Concrete Cowboy,” which co-stars Idris Elba and is set to premiere at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival Sept. 13. The drama is based on the novel “Ghetto Cowboy,” by Greg Neri. It follows a fictional plot, but it’s rooted in real-life details like the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club in Philadelphia.
McLaughlin plays Cole, a teen sent to his father’s house for the summer after a year fraught with behavioral issues. He and his cowboy father must learn to see eye-to-eye and work together to defend the community’s beloved horse stables from city plans to shut it down — it’s a far cry from the supernatural “Stranger Things” set he grew up on.
So to get in the proper head space, the actor would shuffle a ’90s hip hop playlist, which included everything from Tupac Shakur to Biggie Smalls.
But getting into the head of a different type of character wasn’t the only aspect of the film McLaughlin had to prepare for. He spent a month before shooting at the Fletcher Street stables learning to ride horses, clean out their shoes, take care of them and even stand on them.
“Working with (horses), I realized it’s more than just riding; it’s about bonding with the horse. Like once you bond with the horse, the ride will be smooth,” he says of the experience. “They’re beautiful creatures.”
When it finally came time to shoot the film, it often felt fast-paced, though McLaughlin still found time on set — especially during lunch breaks — to let loose and have fun. One of the more memorable moments involved a three-on-three basketball game alongside director Ricky Staub and fellow actor Jharrel Jerome.
And when in Philadelphia, you do as the Philadelphians do.
From dining on chicken calzones to befriending members of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, McLaughlin said he learned to appreciate the culture surrounding the urban horse riding scene in a playful environment, despite the film’s heavier nature.
“We would crack jokes, even the people in Fletcher Street,” he says. “When I first got there I was sitting down and they … were talking about how my hairline was bad, and I was like, ‘Oh, this is funny, yeah, we’re going to get along.’ They were cracking on me already.”
The Fletcher Street cowboys and cowgirls are part of a long, storied history of urban riders. McLaughlin says he hopes viewers are inspired to take action because the stables are under threat of being closed down due to gentrification, which often negatively impacts urban Black communities.
Working so closely with the riding club, McLaughlin says their passion for horses is palpable. And though filming wrapped up before the pandemic even began, he is excited to visit his new Philadelphia family when he can.
“They’re like family now. They’re my extended family,” he said. “Whenever I go back to Philly, I’m going to reach out to them to hang with them, you know?”