As soon as Joe Cole and I are connected for this interview, it’s as though I am greeted by an old friend; he is relaxed, chirpy and prepared for a good old natter. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think I was talking to a colleague, a peer, but the British actor is more than that. His rising star within the cinematic landscape began modestly with secondary roles in UK procedural soaps but his career soon catapulted, making his face a familiar screen-favorite among the leading actors of our generation—and I suspect we will be seeing much more of him in the future, too. Cole has made appearances in Green Room (2015), Eye on Juliet (2017), and, perhaps most notably, in the critically acclaimed British period drama, Peaky Blinders (2013-present), as the razor-sharp John Shelby.
But fans should focus their attentions to the 29-year-old’s latest major role as Billy Moore in A Prayer Before Dawn. This gritty, primal boxing drama is based on the true memoirs of Billy Moore, a UK boxer who moved to Thailand and found himself incarcerated in two of Thailand’s most notorious prisons after dabbling in drugs and crime. While inside, Moore takes up Muay Thai boxing in an effort to—quite literally—fight his way out of prison. The film, which received Official Selection at 2017’s Cannes Film Festival, was released July 20 2018, and has lauded much critical acclaim since. (“It seems like people are enjoying the movie,” Cole says, humbly.)
Getting into character
Getting into the mindset of a true-to-life character—who is still alive—is unlike anything the actor has ever experienced before. “I actually met him [Billy Moore] when I was doing Peaky Blinders,” says Cole. “He’s a super charismatic, interesting guy with incredible anecdotes and life experience and he’s a joy to have around…So I got to know him really well and he opened up to me more and more in the build-up to shooting the movie. It was kind of amazing—he really gave himself to me, more than what’s in the book.”
I ask the actor how did this role come to him and what did he have to do to prepare for such a versatile character? “I actually share an agent with the director,” he explains. The film’s director, Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, made his stamp directing hard-hitting cult movies including Johnny Mad Dog (2008) and A Dios (2001). For his arguably bravest venture yet, the French director had his eyes firmly set on Cole to play his latest leading man after seeing his performance in prior films. “I trained a lot. I got to Thailand and was put in these real gritty Thai boxing camps where you wash with a bucket of water and kind of just really get stuck in and have these Thai guys beat you up for 10 hours a day [laughs],” Cole says. “That’s essentially what I did; and I ate Pad Thai.”
“I remember at one point I got a massage off of three murderers at the same time—getting a massage from three guys who’ve killed three people!”—Joe Cole
A new experience
What makes this award-nominated film so interesting and special is that, besides Cole himself and Thai actor Vithaya Pansringarm, the characters we see on screen are non-actors. Ex-convicts, boxers still incarcerated and locals found in bars were anointed with these exceptional starring roles, where a glaring sense of truth underpins the entire narrative.
“It’s an all-encompassing life experience,” Cole says. “It was a real experience, you know, working with ex-cons, prisoner boxers, a trans girl who we found in a club in Thailand and just all these people who hadn’t acted before and shooting in a real prison and what comes with that. It was just pretty amazing.” To my utter disbelief, the 29-year-old actor tells me, “I remember at one point, I got a massage off of three murderers at the same time—getting a massage from three guys who’ve killed three people!”
Cole fondly recalls non-professional members of the film’s crew who helped bring a deft authenticity to the narrative as a whole. “I remember a guy teaching me how to smoke Ya ba [a drug containing caffeine and methamphetamines], which is one of the drugs Billy [Moore] smokes in prison. He was the assistant props guy. He’d spent a few years in prison and was addicted to Ya ba. So he showed me how to make this Ya ba pipe and he’s actually done it for real, you know?
“Jean [is] a real advocate of getting the ‘truth’ in there. I’ve worked on films where directors have just said, ‘That’s fine, it looks good,’ whereas Jean is all about truth and authenticity ad he wants to listen to the real people. He doesn’t want to listen to the people who think they know, he wants to listen to the people who do know and they worked in front of and behind the camera. We spent a lot of time listening to those guys.”
Cole explains to me that all of the sparring that occurs during the film’s fight scenes is completely real. “We had to actually be physical with each other, and when you’re doing that 18 hours a day, it takes its toll. I remember I nearly got knocked out by a Southeast Asian boxing champion who also spent seven years in the prison in which we filmed. He showed me his bed where he slept, which was just a bit of floor space, and we actually shot in that cell a bit. And he actually nearly knocked me out [laughs],”—by accident, he adds hastily.
A new frontier
Acting is a notoriously difficult industry in which to succeed, so I thought it only pertinent to dig into how the Kingston-born-and-raised star did it himself. “I suppose it was the thing I was best at, at school,” Cole confesses. But it may surprise you, reader, that this actor is self-made in a way that makes you think that anyone can do this. “I didn’t know any actors, I didn’t have family [in the industry], obviously my little brother now [Finn Cole, Peaky Blinders]. But I didn’t know anybody in the industry. I never saw it as a logistical career path.” Cole tells me that his moment of career clarity came at a point when he had failed his A Levels at school and had been dealing with a bad breakup, all while watching his peers go off to university. “I just thought, you know what? This sucks. I need to pull my finger out.” After taking a drama course at the National Youth Theatre in London, Cole confesses that acting took over his life. “It is all I thought about. It was kind of weird. I was very passionate and obsessed almost. I was writing a lot; I wrote a television show that helped me get a better agent, and I was more interested in writing my television show than I was going out clubbing, for example. It was almost a necessity.” Cole’s advice for aspiring actors is not to simply ‘dream big’ or ‘aim for the stars’; it’s more rational than that. “I say this often to young aspiring actors: You’ve got to really want it; you’ve got to really, really want it.” He explains that to get to where is he now, he focused on what actors just one echelon above him in terms of career were doing. “When I hadn’t done any television work, I was looking at those actors who had done bits and pieces on television and trying to copy what they were doing. And then after that, I was looking at the next level of actor and seeing what they were doing and trying to replicate that.”
“I say this often to young aspiring actors: You’ve got to really want it; you’ve got to really, really want it”—Joe Cole
Cole’s mission to depict interesting and diverse characters and tell culturally taboo stories doesn’t stop here; in fact, this actor is just getting started. “I’ve just finished a show on Channel 4 [viewers can access this channel online] called Pure,” he tells me. “[Pure is] a true story based on this woman’s memoirs [Rose Bretécher]. She had a condition called Pure OCD which is a form of OCD where you have very vivid and intrusive thoughts constantly. In her case, it’s sexual thoughts. I play a guy with a porn addiction, who the main character meets, and we try to help each other with our problems.”
If this conversation wasn’t inspiring, then I don’t know what is; A Prayer Before Dawn will be available to buy on DVD from September 24 2018.
This feature was originally published in College News magazine, Fall Edition 2018.