Interview with joe cole
Published in Hunger Magazine, Autumn/Winter 2017
“I’ve learnt that acting is all about experiences, it’s not about seeing your face on the big screen. With the people I met and the stories I heard – I thought, ‘I am so privileged to be able to do this. No one gets to do this.’” Joe Cole and I are sitting in a hotel conservatory on a rainy afternoon in central London. The discussion focuses on A Prayer Before Dawn, a woozy and testosterone-pumped brawl of a film in which he plays a heroin-addicted British boxer making his way through the Bangkok prison system. It is based on the true story of Billy Moore, who got off drugs and wrote a memoir of his experiences after his release.
As one of only two professional actors in a cast of real-life Thai ex-prisoners, guards and boxing champions (the other actor is Vithaya Pansringarm, of 2013’s Only God Forgives), Cole performs the lead role of Billy with a nuanced blend of guarded bewilderment and barely-contained despair. The 28-year-old London-born actor is best known for playing characters that run the macho gamut (a drug dealer in Skins, a gangster in Peaky Blinders, a teenage delinquent in Offender), bringing a feather-light touch of vulnerability to each that has led to a thick-and-fast slew of new projects.
A Prayer Before Dawn is visceral and hyper-sensory, with ample opportunities for Cole to showcase his acting abilities. Brutality is shown as a way of existence in the prison, but gradually a narrative of redemption begins to grow creepingly through the pavement cracks of Billy’s broken life. Several unexpected moments of calm and subtle tenderness break up the film’s thesis of violence- as-communication – especially in scenes featuring Billy and Fame (a transgender woman played with soul by newcomer Pornchanok Mabklang). “Those were my favourite scenes to shoot. They’re probably some of my favourites scenes in the whole film, actually – there’s a lot of realism there.”
Authenticity and realism are of persistent interest to Cole, who is also understandably keen not to be misquoted in this interview – he laughingly explains how one piece previously claimed all his friends are plumbers (“I said one of them was! They all still send me plumber emojis in the group chat now”). With the advent of this raw and disorienting film, it seems that as a leading man he might very well be the real deal.
Hunger: How does having to learn a physical skill like boxing add to your immersion in a role?
Joe Cole: Being confident in what you’re doing on-screen makes the whole job easier – feeling physically fit, or in the case of this film, feeling like you can win a fight. I really did feel like I could have a row with most of the guys in the film, so that automatically translates – you’re not faking it.
How did you find the training?
It’s a low budget film, so there’s nobody handing you protein shakes, no Equinox gym and all that. A lot of it was off my own back and I had think about the most efficient way of doing things. There was only the gym that’s in the film – we built it on set, and it became a real working gym. You just use what you’ve got. There was a lot of sparring, body weight stuff, running, and Muay Thai.
And the set was a real prison, wasn’t it?
Yes, it had shut down a while before. It’s full of so many stories. All the guys playing the main prisoners had spent years inside, in and out of prison. One of the dudes in the film who I spar with is a young Thai fighter, the South East Asian champion in his weight group. He spent seven years in that prison. These guys had had seriously complicated lives before doing our film, which they bring to the roles. He showed me where his bed had been, it was just a rug on the floor with 200 others around him. We shot all the opening scenes in that particular area – and he spent seven years there, in that room. It was mad having that level of authenticity.
Was Billy Moore there while you were filming?
He has a 10-year ban from Thailand. He booked his flights and tried to come anyway – Billy’s a bit of a chancer – but they didn’t let him on the plane. We shot the last sequence in the Philippines, so he came up for that and saw the end of the whole process. I’m good friends with Billy now, and he was a fantastic source for me. He’s got a very interesting family up in Liverpool. I was hanging out with him and going for dinner every night while I was filming Peaky Blinders.
You’re involved in a lot of projects that explore the ‘masculine’ experience – the violence and vulnerabilities and strengths of it. Is that intentional?
You get what you’re given to a certain extent – you get put in a box, then you try to make the box bigger. I like to look for challenges though. I did a short film called Slap about a transvestite boxer – I read it and thought, ‘I have to do this, because it’ll be really hard’. It was the same with A Prayer Before Dawn. Probably I was subconsciously looking for a part that was a bit Bronson-esque, or like Hunger – I’m not saying this film is anything like those, but those guys [Tom Hardy and Michael Fassbender] deliver powerhouse performances. I want to feel fulfilled as an actor.
Which of your projects are you most proud of?
You’ve just got to do them and move on – you can’t be reminiscing about previous work, because you’ve got to be focused on making the next thing the best thing. In terms of how hard I worked and the way I was stretched, it would be [A Prayer Before Dawn]. But you’ve got to constantly look to better yourself – ‘you’re only as good as your last piece of work’, and all that razzmatazz.
You’ve got some other exciting projects coming up for release – like Woodshock [directed by the Mulleavy sisters of Rodarte fame, and starring Kirsten Dunst].
They [Kate and Laura Mulleavy] are so creative. The textures of your top, the shapes of the items on the table, the materials around you – everything is like a piece of art to them. Kirsten has known them for years, and they brought me into the fold and let me be part of the gang while I was out there. Shooting was always off-book – they’d be in a field for hours and hours, while the first AD [assistant director] is driving himself mad about the schedule and lighting... Ultimately, they’re there because they’re artists, and I felt a lot of joy being around that. Their visual understanding is incredible. And obviously Kirsten’s a force of nature. They’ve known each other so long, so they could really push her. For Kirsten, it was a mad one. It was nice for me, because I play a different kind of character – a softie, in some respects. So that was quite nice. I don’t think I had to throw one punch!