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Concrete Cowboy stars Idris Elba, left, and Caleb McLaughlin, right.

Courtesy of TIFF

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If you are unfamiliar with the Black cowboys of Philadelphia, don’t worry: neither was Caleb McLaughlin, the star of the new drama, Concrete Cowboys, that focuses on the little-discussed American subculture.

The 18-year-old McLaughlin, best known for his role as the headstrong Lucas on Netflix’s Stranger Things, had neither heard of Philly’s Black cowboy scene nor the Greg Neri novel, Ghetto Cowboy, which explores the community when he signed on to star in director Ricky Staub’s adaptation.

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But it all worked out: McLaughlin used his unfamiliarity to fuel his performance as Cole, a troubled Detroit teenager sent to Philly to get straightened out by his estranged father (Idris Elba), who happens to wrangle horses at his Fletcher Street stables. It is a far cry from Stranger Things’ parallel-universe monsters, but an Upside Down world for Cole in its own way.

Ahead of Concrete Cowboy’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this weekend, McLaughlin spoke with The Globe and Mail about horses, Elba, and the limbo-like sensation of debuting a film when the rest of the industry is at a standstill.

TIFF 2020: The Globe's guide to everything you need to know about this year's festival

After signing on, did you conduct much research into the Black cowboy subculture?

The thing with my character is that I wanted to have a first-hand experience once I got there. So my character doesn’t know anything about the urban cowboy life – I wanted to be as surprised as him. I did, though, do a month of horseback riding, and learning how to build a connection with the animals. And I got some boots!

Idris Elba carries an intimidating presence. And here he is, playing your intimidating father figure.

Going into filming, I was definitely nervous. I needed to be at my best on-set, all the time. But he’s a nice and dope guy, and that bond that our relationship has in the story, he made it very comfortable.

Caleb McLaughlin arrives at the 25th Critics Choice Awards in Santa Monica, Calif., on Jan. 12, 2020.

DANNY MOLOSHOK/Reuters

And we get to see him riding a horse through North Philadelphia. Which seems like a selling point of the movie itself. Though this is a largely Black story about a Black American community. Yet Ricky Staub is a white filmmaker. How do you reconcile that?

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The thing with Ricky is that he’s very hands-on as a director. He grew up in Philadelphia, around the people and the horses on Fletcher Street itself. He understands, and has been working on this project for three years, side by side with the horsemen there. He always allowed them to input their stories into the creative process. I believed in his vision, too, because I saw his short film The Cage, and knew he was brilliant.

This film is having its world premiere at TIFF, but most festival-goers won’t see it on the big screen, but digitally. Is there an ideal way this movie should be viewed?

It’s quarantine right now, and this is how it is. I am excited that we get to launch the movie, and people will see it. I mean, I was filming [Stranger Things] right before the pandemic started, and I had to stop. Everything has been put on hold. It’s a different way of life now.

Can you tell me anything about the next season of Stranger Things, or am I stupid for even asking?

Yeah, it’s still a secret. We haven’t gotten back to filming Season 4 yet, but we’re going to. And that’s … well, yeah, I can’t tell you much more at all.

This interview has been condensed and edited

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Concrete Cowboy premieres at TIFF on Sept. 13, 9 p.m., Lightbox, with additional screenings Sept. 14, 6 p.m., Bell Digital Cinema and Sept. 19, 9 p.m., Lightbox

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