By
Jonathan Shia
Photography by
Yaniv Edry

Styling by Steph Wilson at One Represents. Grooming by Yaniv Zada. Stylist’s assistant: Rosalind Donoghue. Art direction by Dorit Oren.

JOE COLE HAD HIMSELF KILLED OFF


Joe Cole is not someone who does things halfway—as his new film, A Prayer Before Dawn, forcefully proves. As Billy Moore, a real-life English boxer and drug addict being held in a Thai prison and forced to fight for his freedom, he takes punch after brutal punch in a visceral, vigorous performance that marks a profound breakthrough for the young actor. Filmed mostly in a recently abandoned prison in Thailand—and, in one climactic fight scene, in an active prison with three thousand rowdy inmates watching—the movie is thoroughly absorbing, which is exactly what drew Cole, currently best known for his run as John on Peaky Blinders, to it in the first place. “It felt like it was something to really get your teeth into,” he recalls, “something very immersive and all-encompassing, with the physical element of it coupled with the mental side of it and trying to capture this guy’s psyche.”

Based on Moore’s own 2016 memoir of his time spent in Bangkok’s notorious Klong Prem prison, A Prayer Before Down is the second feature by the French director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, whose 2008 Johnny Mad Dog took a similarly faithful look at child soldiers in Liberia. The film is viscerally realistic, from the rundown setting to the cast of extras, largely composed of former convicts, most of them covered in tattoos. After being arrested for drug possession, Billy is sent to prison, where he shares his cell with dozens of other inmates. He spends his first night sleeping next to a dead body and witnesses rapes and murders during his time there, which are grimly reenacted onscreen. “It was wholly authentic,” the 29-year-old Cole recalls. “Jean-Stéphane’s style of filmmaking has an almost documentary feel to it.”

A trained Muay Thai fighter, Billy eventually manages to earn a spot on the prison’s fighting squad, which competes both internally as well as against other correctional facilities as a point of pride. His victories serve less as redemption than as penance, honing his focus as he attempts to earn his release. Cole began training while shooting his previous film, the PTSD drama Thank You for Your Service, and dedicated himself to preparation when he arrived in Thailand. “I was put in really gritty boxing camps and was waking up at the crack of dawn, eating pad thai, running around Bangkok, punching bags, washing myself with buckets of water,” he says. “I sparred with all the local guys.”

Jacket by Balenciaga from MatchesFashion.com. Shirt by Sandro. Tank top by Hanro. Trousers by Gucci from MatchesFashion.com.

Cole says he became close to Moore, who is currently back in prison in his native England, over the course of the project. “He was an advocate for me taking on the role,” the actor explains. Moore shared anecdotes and memories, helping to enlighten Cole on his inner thoughts on his darkest days. “He was actually a far more complicated character than perhaps you might initially expect,” Cole adds. “He’s hugely charismatic and funny. He has the capability to be this animalistic, violent guy, but he’s actually a lost little boy who’s vulnerable and insecure and just looking for love.”

The role of Billy was “all in the prep,” Cole admits. “I wanted to get to a place where I feel physically strong, like I could handle myself and have a fight.” He did all his fight sequences himself and says a lot of the kicks and punches he took actually landed. Sauvaire’s filming style helped add to the intensity, often letting the cameras roll for up to ten minutes while the actors fully immersed themselves in the scene. “It’s easier in a way because you don’t really have to act—you just be,” Cole explains. “After a minute or two, you forget you’re acting in a way. I could just be and I knew that I didn’t have to force anything. I could just relax into this world and let things happen.”

Jacket by Wooyoungmi. Tank top by Hanro.

Cole’s natural expressiveness can be seen in some ways as the result of his background growing up in southwest London. (His younger brother Finn joined him on Peaky Blinders and now leads TNT’s Animal Kingdom.) As a child, he was drawn to acting but never considered it as a career until he found himself aimless after finishing school. “I used to sell carpets and I had a breakup and I was hurt, so I was a bit of a mess really,” he recalls. “All my friends were at different universities across the country and I had this moment thinking, ‘Am I going to be this guy who’s stuck in Kingston and not really doing anything?’” The solution was to try everything he could to become an actor. He joined youth theaters, uploaded comedy sketches online, and even wrote his own television series before eventually landing on the seminal British teen series Skins. “That was a weird bit of fate,” he says. “I watched that show when I was a teenager and I felt like I had some life experience I could bring to it and I ended up on it.”

His real breakthrough came with the period gangster drama Peaky Blinders, an international hit about a crime family also starring Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, and Helen McCrory. Cole played John Shelby, a veteran of the Great War and one of the leaders of the Peaky Blinders gang, for four seasons and earned the adoration of the show’s passionate fan base. “I know people love it and people respond to it. Grown men have said to me they cried when my character died,” he laughs. “It’s hard to tell if they’re joking or not, but I don’t think they are. All you want as an actor is to try to garner emotions in people and if people respond like that, then that’s a credit to the work.”

T-shirt by Sandro. Trousers by Stella McCartney.

Given the popularity of the series—and its critical success, including a BAFTA for Best Drama earlier this year—it is an impressive display of determination that Cole asked to be killed off. “I’d been doing it since 2012 and I had a great run,” he explains. “I loved every minute of it but I wanted variety and I wanted to challenge myself.” The gamble has paid off in his varied work since, from the romantic lead in the famous “Hang the DJ” episode of Black Mirror to his role as a recovering sex addict in the upcoming British drama Pure. But it’s Prayer that stands apart in his mind. “This is something Jean has said and I agree with him: Filmmaking should be an experience,” Cole says. “It is special when the actual process of making the movie is an experience and that’s what this was. It felt quite emotional when I got on the plane home because I was like, ‘However this turns out, this has been a special experience.’”

As Cole embarks on a new chapter in his career, the “special experience” is something he promises to keep chasing. “I’m going to continue to do roles that are challenging, that people will be interested in,” he insists. “If I see something on the page that I think I can offer that is going to be interesting to watch and something different, then I’ll do it. If it’s something challenging, that’s what I’m looking for.”

A Prayer Before Dawn is out now.

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By
Jonathan Shia
Photography by
Yaniv Edry

Styling by Steph Wilson at One Represents. Grooming by Yaniv Zada. Stylist’s assistant: Rosalind Donoghue. Art direction by Dorit Oren.

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