Entertainment01 April 2021
In the new Netflix film Concrete Cowboy, based on Greg Neri’s book Ghetto Cowboy, Idris Elba plays Harp, a man who finds solace in rehabilitating horses for inner city cowboys at the Fletcher Street Stables in North Philadelphia. When he is reunited with his estranged 15-year-old son Cole (Caleb McLaughlin), they both learn valuable lessons from each other and the surrounding community. Ahead of the film’s premiere, Elba talks about what drew him to the project, how he learned to emulate the real life urban cowboys of Philadelphia, and, yup, learning to ride a horse.
On signing on to play Harp:
Elba read the script while on a flight and by landing, he was all in. “Ricky’s potential was evident,” he says of the film’s co-writer Ricky Staub, who also made his directorial debut on Concrete Cowboy. “I’m also a big fan of independent film, and this was the type of project I was hoping to support. It was an easy decision.” He was also impressed by the lengths Staub went to keep the film authentic. “Ricky took his time to become part of the community, become trusted by the community, so that he can create a story to properly celebrate that community.” Elba also came on board as a producer, and his production company helped shape the script during the development phase.
On playing a complicated father figure:
In the film, Harp made mistakes as a young man that landed him in prison and separated him from his family, including his son Cole. So when he hears from his mother that Cole is struggling, he takes him in for the summer to help deter him from going down the same path. “Harp has been a cowboy all his life. The community of riders look to him as a leader,” says Elba. “He’s also a dedicated father but doesn’t know how to be a father. When he sees his son for the first time in so many years, emotions start to bubble because he realizes what his absence has caused.”
On learning to ride:
Elba was able to tap into his own experience as a dad for the role, but playing a skilled horseman and a resident of North Philly required much more effort. “I had never ridden before,” he notes, “so I had to undergo horse training - learning the movement, learning the lingo of the community, and the characteristics of someone from North Philly.” His preparation began months before setting foot on set, working on his dialect, mannerisms, and even the way the character smokes. Making his preparation more complicated was Elba’s slight allergic reaction to horses, which meant wearing gloves and long sleeved shirts to limit his exposure.
On shooting the film in the real life community:
Staub felt it was crucial to shoot in Philadelphia and many members of the community ended up working on Concrete Cowboy both in front of the camera as actors and behind the scenes as consultants. “Everyone pitched in. They were proud to have the film being done in their community,” says Elba. “At times it felt like we were shooting a documentary. Ricky and [co-writer] Dan [Walser]’s relationships with the community are reflected in the story. Anyone who sees the film will know that the director really knows the community.”
The creative team, including Elba, also wanted to do their part in helping to preserve the community. “It’s important to keep the legacy of the stable alive,” says Elba. “In many ways, the Fletcher Street Stables represents the heart of the community; it gives them purpose; it provides a place for those coming out of prison and a place for the next generation to come and hopefully, avoid incarceration. It provides an option to innocent youth stuck in a difficult position where there are few other options.”
Concrete Cowboy premieres April 2 on Netflix.