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Idris Elba trained to ride horses to get into character as an estranged father in Concrete Cowboys — despite being allergic to the animals.
“In defense, I’m allergic to horses, OK. I couldn’t see what I was doing, I couldn’t breathe,” Elba said as fellow cast members ribbed him about his horseback skills during a press conference at the Toronto Film Festival on Sunday.
Elba and Stranger Things star Caleb McLaughlin star in writer-director Ricky Staub’s drama Concrete Cowboy, which has its world premiere on Sunday night in Toronto and is produced by Lee Daniels.
The father and son drama, set in North Philadelphia, portrays a troubled teen, played by McLaughlin, torn between a life of crime and the urban-cowboy lifestyle of his estranged father (Elba).
While hardly a horse whisperer, The Suicide Squad star said he learned to ride horseback to ensure realism for his role as an urban cowboy. “It goes beyond just learning how to ride a horse. Very quickly, you have to have a bond with the horse,” Elba recalled.
The Concrete Cowboy production used in many cases horses belonging to Hollywood wranglers. “They quickly understand who’s riding on the back of them. And then you have to understand them,” Elba said as he became accustomed to his horse’s rhythms, just as the animal became attuned to his own movements and voice.
Concrete Cowboy is set around the real-life Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club that, while part of a long-hidden American sub-culture of Black horse riders and trainers in north Philly, as an inner-city horse stable helps at-risk youth turn their lives around.
Lee Daniels told the Toronto presser that he hopes Concrete Cowboy will help preserve the inner-city horse stables, not least for what it brings to the local Black community. “I pray that if enough people see it, they’ll see the beauty of what these men are doing, and what these stables means to the community and we can fight the city to keep it open,” the veteran Hollywood producer said.
Director Staub recalled first learning about north Philly’s urban horse riding culture when looking out his production office window one day. “I heard the music first, and then I saw this cowboy and basically a horse and buggy, but it was all huge rims. It was a striking image to be in this neighborhood and see this guy with a horse, as a Black cowboy,” he recounted.
Staub befriended some of the Black cowboys at the Fletcher Street stable and eventually pitched the father-and-son drama, based on a Gregory Neri novel called Ghetto Cowboy, to Lee Daniels.
Daniels, who grew up in Philadelphia, said he was taken by the script for Concrete Cowboy, and how the father and son relationship resonated in part with his own experience growing up with his late father. And then the producer discovered Staub, for his film about Black urban cowboys, was White.
“I was shocked, because I saw Ricky’s short film and and I was, he knows how to handle a camera, he knows how to evoke feeling, he’s a director,” he told the TIFF presser. “So when I found out that he was White, I was like, OK. OK. And I pondered and then I said I’m in,” he added, as he insisted Staub was telling a story that deserves to be told.
The Toronto Film Festival continues until Sept. 19.
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