The greatest testament to that is, of course, his starring role opposite Idris Elba in Concrete Cowboy, a gritty urban Western released on Netflix just last month. Drawing inspiration from Philadelphia’s real-life Black cowboy communities, it sees McLaughlin give an emotionally wrought turn as Cole, a wayward teenager sent to live with his estranged father, Harp, played by Elba.
The rawness and verve of his performance more than prove his acting chops, but it is, arguably, what McLaughlin gets up to off-screen that makes him a true ambassador of what it means to work in the industry today. An outspoken mental health advocate, he’s spearheaded two widespread social media campaigns -- #EmbraceYourFace and #BeYourBiggestFan -- as a means of “promoting self-love and positive thinking” among his young fanbase. He’s also proven himself to be a multi-hyphenate creative talent, spending time over lockdown working on original new music that’s due for release later this year. Even with all this under his belt at the tender age of 19, McLaughlin’s motivations for the future remain charmingly modest. “Whether acting or singing, I really just want to spread as much joy as possible,” he says.
Mahoro Seward: Playing Lucas Sinclair on Stranger Things was your breakout role, but your turn as Cole in Concrete Cowboy feels like a real ‘arrival’. What sides of yourself as an actor were you keen to show that you perhaps hadn’t before?
Caleb McLaughlin: I’ve loved all the roles I’ve gotten to play so far in my career, but this one definitely felt next level. Cole presented me with acting challenges I hadn’t really experienced yet. I’d never had the chance to be that vulnerable onscreen before, and there was something in me that felt ready for it. And working with Idris Elba was a dream come true. He was an awesome mentor to me and a leader on set. Being in scenes with him immediately forces you to up your game.
MS: Cole comes across as an extremely emotionally complex, layered character. What was the process of getting into character like for you?
CM: My relationship with my dad is amazing, so Cole’s experiences are entirely different from mine in that respect. I had to find a way to relate to Cole and understand his journey, and one way I was able to do so was by talking with my dad. He told me about his experience with his biological father, which was a difficult one. Hearing him speak about it was a really emotional experience for me, and I definitely found myself channeling that when playing Cole.
When it came to preparing for the film from a physical standpoint, I spent a month training with horses. Something that people might not realize, though, is that when you are training with a horse, the horse is training with you, too. You really have to be one with each other. It isn’t just a matter of getting on and riding. The horse I worked with was named Patrick, and after we built a bond and felt each other’s energy, we trusted each other and were able to perform together really well. It was a life-changing experience.
MS: You’ve essentially come of age in the public eye. How have you found the experience of navigating the world of celebrity from such a young age?
CM: I’ve been incredibly lucky, my parents have guided me through the experience and kept me grounded and humble. Being a “celebrity” isn’t something I chose but there’s an aspect of it that comes with the job; and in terms of getting to engage with my fans, it’s been a blessing. I like to keep things focused on my work though. I feel so lucky to be able to do what I do and try not to let the rest of it overwhelm me too much.
MS: Over the past decade or so, it feels like social responsibility has become an increasingly crucial part of actors’ roles. Why do you think this is so important?
CM: Using your platform really means speaking up on behalf of others. For me, I think that means helping people feel seen or heard, especially when they’re struggling to do so. There’s nothing more powerful than that. There are difficult, important conversations happening right now in our world, and we need to keep having them in order to start making some positive changes. For me personally, using my platform means acknowledging what’s going on and also spreading positivity, which can hopefully be transformative for those who need to hear those words or see themselves reflected in some way.
MS: You’ve been working on your own original music over the past year. Could you tell us more about that?
CM: A lot of people don’t realize I’m a singer and musician, too -- I’ve been singing for as long as I can remember. It’s been really exciting to develop my sound over the last couple of years. It’s influenced by a lot of different genres: R&B, neo-soul, afro beats, and pop -- and I’ve been working with an amazing producer, Rashad, who’s helping me cultivate my sound. We’re working to drop some music this year. I’m excited for people to hear it.