'A fully-immersive prison movie is a rite of passage' - Joe Cole talks leaving Peaky Blinders, and channelling Fassbender and Hardy in A Prayer Before Dawn
When Joe Cole decided to leave hit BBC series Peaky Blinders in a blaze of bullets at the peak of the show’s popularity last year, some people may have questioned his logic. However, even judged solely on his latest performance – a star-making turn in prison drama A Prayer Before Dawn – the decision was the right one.
“My mum said that,” he says of the notion that he was ‘mad’ to leave Peaky after four series playing John Shelby, the youngest of the Brummie Shelby brothers (his on-screen siblings are played by the ‘incredible’ Cillian Murphy and Paul Anderson who 'is very free, you never know what he’s going to do – he loves to improvise').
“I said, ‘Trust me mum!’. The right people, my agents and me, made that decision and it was the right decision,” the 29-year old London actor tells Independent.ie
“I had been in it since 2012, I had an amazing run, and I’m hugely grateful and had a lot of fun on that job, but the reason I’m in this industry is I want to try new challenges and stretch myself in a variety of roles and I’m not going to get that if I stay in the same show my whole life.
“It was the right time. I felt like my character had served his purpose. And it gives the opportunity to new actors to step up and give more people the opportunity to perform. At the end of the day it’s six episodes and a huge ensemble cast of highly talented actors. Not everybody gets to do what they want.”
This burning ambition is evident in Joe's incredible performance in A Prayer Before Dawn, the kind of gritty, visceral prison drama that’s an endurance test to watch never mind shoot. It provided the challenge he craved, and more.
He filmed it two years ago in Thailand and jokes he has “just about” recovered from the toll it took on him both physically and mentally. He plays English boxer Billy Moore who, while imprisoned in a Thai jail, managed to survive a world of drugs and violence by fighting his way through Muay Thai tournaments.
Joe bagged the part when he was filming his final weeks on Peaky in Liverpool, and he had the opportunity to spend some time with Billy and his family at his home in the city.
“I learned a lot about him, his mental health, his vulnerability – he’s a far more complicated character than you might initially think,” says Joe. “ When I got the role the director [Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire] said to me, ‘You know you need to meet Billy because he’s really not what you’d expect.’
“He’s not just this thug who’s been in prisons all his life. He’s a hugely complicated, interesting, fascinating, charismatic dude. You’d love to sit around and have dinner with him. He’s obviously lived an incredible life, and his anecdotes are amazing and hilarious. He’s a real people person but coupled with that he’s an extremely vulnerable little boy in a man’s body and that was very interesting.“
The actor trained in Muay Thai several months in advance of the shoot and when he got to Thailand he endured Thai boxing camps, “waking up at the crack of dawn, running around Bangkok, fighting every day, sparring, just so I felt physically and mentally ready”.
The action was filmed in a working Thai prison and, rather than spar with other actors, he was pitted against some real Muay Thai prison champions; “I’m acting opposite men who have spent most of their adult lives in prison so I need to be able to handle myself,” he says.
Despite the training he admits he was battered on a daily basis, “Every day the make-up artist was covering bruises instead of adding them,” he reveals, but reckons fighting real fighters was actually a better experience.
“One of these guys killed three people in prison,” he says, “He got early release because he was a champion fighter in prison and what you find with these men is they have a certain discipline. They know their bodies very well and they’ve spent so many years fighting, they’re sportsmen. If you have to do a fight scene opposite another actor it can be worse. Fighting these guys I actually felt more confident with them.”
Prior to the shoot Joe began learning Thai but when he got on set he realised that the less Thai he knew and the less English he spoke the better for his performance.
“I remember one guy, he plays a prominent character, and he was sitting in the prison and he couldn’t speak a word of English and we were trying to communicate and it felt really odd and I said to the director, ‘Is this really going to work?’ because I had no clue what he was saying and he was looking at me baffled.
“Jean said, ‘No, that’s the beauty of it, that’s the interesting stuff. Rather than broken English, you’re using you body and facial expressions to communicate and that’s the most interesting stuff. So we played with that.”
Such was the intensity of the shoot, he found himself having very strange dreams.
“I remember having weird dreams about being back in England and going to like a chain coffee shop and having a coffee in an air-conditioned room and having these weird, sad dreams about how amazing that would be and then I’d get up and get the shit kicked out of me all over again,” he reveals.
“I remember being on the flight home and feeling quite emotional. However the filmed turned out I knew I’d had this amazing life experience. The whole cast and crew were just a really interesting bunch of people. The love interest is a transgender person from Bangkok, a woman we found in a club out there, and everybody worked on making the film something special, so however it turned out I thought not many people on the planet get to have an experience like this.”
Following his A-levels he didn't quite make university and found himself working as a carpet salesman for a time. Clearly he has drive, however, as he went back to sit his A-levels again and then applied to, and was accepted by, the National Youth Theatre.
He went on to appear in Channel 4 series Skins, bagged a role in Offender, and then landed the Peaky gig. Playing Billy Moore is a dream role for any actor, although he concedes it was also a bit of a “nightmare”, but one he felt was necessary to propel him to the next level.
“I think for a male actor I feel like a rite of passage in some ways is doing a fully immersive prison movie,” he says. “I’m lucky enough to intertwine that with a boxing movie, a true story, and I’m playing a real guy who was an addict, a very complicated guy.
“I look at films like Bronson and Hunger and really I never saw the actors, Tom Hardy and Michael Fassbender, I felt like I just saw the characters in those films, they were so all-encompassing. I guess I felt like I wanted to do a film like that.”
On Peaky alone, Cole worked with actors of the calibre of the aforementioned Murphy and Anderson as well as Tom Hardy, Adrien Brody, Helen McCrory and Sam Neil. Throughout his five years on the series he managed to pop over to the US to appear opposite Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman and Julie Roberts in Secret in their Eyes, and the late Anton Yelchin and Imogen Poots in Green Room.
However, it was his role in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror episode, Hang the DJ, opposite Georgina Campbell, which earned him a BAFTA nomination, and conveyed his softer, more romantic side, a side he says is much more like himself than his more violent or villainous turns.
“[Black Mirror] was a lot of fun. I loved it. It’s funny, I guess it’s a blessing and curse if you do something well people kind of associate you with that, so if someone fights and does that well then that’s what he does. And I was like, ‘Well, I’m actually probably closer to the Black Mirror character than some of the other characters I’ve played, like Billy Moore’.”
Next up there’s another interesting, Fassbender-esque role in Channel 4 series Pure. He plays a recovering pornography addict. It’s based on Rose Cartwright’s acclaimed biography in which she shares her struggle with ‘pure O’, a form of obsessive compulsive disorder where obsessions take the form of intrusive sexual thoughts.
“It’s a form of OCD where people have intrusive thoughts, in her case sexual thoughts, so she constantly sexualizes everything she sees and hears. It’s almost like Tourettes. Other people have violent forms of it where they think about beating somebody up and killing them.
“I play a recovering porn addict and I’m banned from using any sort of screen. I meet the lead character at a mental sexual health recovery centre and we have a bond that continues throughout the show. It’s something I was never really aware of and it is not particularly well researched or talked about in public. People think OCD is all about having pens lined up in a row and that is an element of some OCD but there are other forms and we’re exploring pure OCD in the show.”
He has also wrapped on Ben Wheatley’s latest project, a family drama based on Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. A man who comes into some money rents out a castle for New Year’s Eve and invites his family and the film explores the trials and tribulations.
“In typical Ben Wheatley fashion there’s a lot of improvisation and freedom to do what we wanted,” he says. “It was a very, very quick shoot, a very interesting experience. It’s very inspiring to watch Ben Wheatley work. He gets it done - directs, edits, the whole shebang.”
Directing is not on Joe’s radar just yet – in between his many projects, he’s writing – but there’s a sense this guy could tackle anything; “Never say never,” he laughs.
A Prayer Before Dawn is in selected cinemas now. There are also tickets available to A Prayer Before Dawn with a Q&A - Professor Green in conversation with the real Billy Moore - at cinemas across the UK and Ireland tonight (July 23). Click HERE for tickets.