There’s a rite of passage for a certain type of Young British Actor who wants to make it in Hollywood. Step one: become relatively well known for some decent TV in the UK. Step two: get your head violently kicked in on camera. It worked for Tom Hardy in Bronson. It worked for Jack O’Connell in Starred Up. And with A Prayer Before Dawn, there’s every chance it’s going to work for Joe Cole.
You’ll know Cole’s face from Peaky Blinders, where he played gangster Tommy Shelby’s younger brother John for five years. But it’s a very different face to the one in A Prayer Before Dawn, which is released in cinemas on 20th July. For starters, it’s more bloodied. In the film, based on a true story, Cole plays Billy Moore, a Liverpool boxer and petty criminal who moves to Thailand but then winds up in prison. Moore spends most of the film being pummelled, by other people’s fists and his own addictions. But it’s a redemption story, and it’s the fighting, in the form of Muay Thai boxing tournaments, that eventually frees Moore from his hell.
“It was important to be able to fight and get to the physical level where I could handle myself,” explains Cole. “All the sparring in the film is real. So yeah, I’m getting hit. My make-up artist spent most of her time covering up bruises!”
Many of the supporting cast were ex-prisoners and boxers, and Cole spars with them for real. If you get in a ring with a boxer, then, as Cole puts it, “things are going to happen”, and if you look carefully there are bruises and cuts that appear on Cole’s torso, unexplained, as the movie progresses. He took a beating or two, he says. “But I kind of like that, in a weird way.”
It’s the fact that he “kind of likes” getting hit that makes you sit up. On screen, Cole is a shaken bottle of pent-up anger; he gives you the same feeling as watching Stephen Graham or Tom Hardy, that things are not quite safe when he’s in the frame. Is he acting at all? I wonder if he will punch me if I say the wrong thing or look at him the wrong way.
“Ha! I can turn it on, you know what I mean? But by no means am I that person. In this industry, and particularly in the UK, sometimes people are a bit blinkered. They see you in one thing and they think that’s all you are.”
Which is why Cole asked to be written out of Peaky Blinders. It takes some self-belief for a 29-year-old actor to decide they can do better than a regular role in a show that has become a hit here and in the US.
“I started out in this industry because I wanted to do a variety of things,” he says. “I don’t want to sit and do the same job. I felt like I wasn’t being stretched as an actor and wasn’t allowed to show what I could do because of the nature of the show. It’s a massive ensemble drama and it’s difficult for everybody to get their moment.”
Since he left he’s been cast against type in Black Mirror episode Hang the DJ and appears next in Channel 4’s Pure, playing a man with a porn addiction. “I could quite easily have stayed on Peaky. Then Black Mirror would never have happened and people would see me as the same old thug.”
Cole hasn’t always had this kind of self-belief. He grew up in south-west London, the eldest of five brothers, with his dad, a management consultant, and his stay-at-home mum. The house was always full, and Joe was the japester.
“I struggled. I failed my A-levels. Then I went back to my old sixth form and retook. I was trying to get the grades to go to university. I didn’t get them. I had a break-up. I was selling carpets. I was feeling sorry for myself. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. No one I knew was an actor. It wasn’t even something that came into my mind.”
At one point he got arrested; it was a mistaken identity thing, he says – he doesn’t want to go into it. But it made him realise: “I was living at home, in a box room, and thought, ‘I can be this guy, or I can make something of myself.’” So he joined the National Youth Theatre, where he met writer and director Rikki Beadle-Blair, who was given an MBE in 2016 for services to drama.
“He asked me if I wanted to be an actor and when I said ‘yes’ he said, ‘Why do you want to go to university then?’ And then he showed me case studies of people he knew – that he’d mentored, almost – who were very successful. ‘Noel Clarke? He couldn’t get a job for love nor money and then he wrote a film, it was Kidulthood.’ I was like, ‘OK, it’s more than achievable.’”
From then on, Cole realised that most things were achievable, if he stuck to Beadle-Blair’s mantra that it’s never crowded on the extra mile. He got involved in local theatre, wrote scripts, posted comedy videos online. He’d seen Skins and reckoned he had the passion and personality to get on that. And he did.
“I thought I could get to a certain level. But I didn’t really think I would get to the level I’m at – doing all these films in America – but I have. So now I think anything could be possible.” With no fewer than four films out this year alone, it seems that in leaving Peaky, Cole may have played a blinder.
A Prayer Before Dawn is released in cinemas on Friday 20th July