Joe Cole knows how to take a punch. Just two days before our conversation, he was in Russia for England vs. Croatia in the World Cup, a game his side lost.
“It’s a bitter pill to swallow—but you know, it’s all good, innit? We’ve done well.”
Joe has a new film opening in the UK and the UAE, followed by the US on August 10—A Prayer Before Dawn. It tells the true story of boxer Billy Moore, who was thrown in a Thai prison and had to fight his way out. Joe’s is as committed and intense a performance as one could give.
In the last few years, Joe has built up his CV with impressive showings that caught your eye even if you didn’t catch his name. In the latest series of Netflix’s Black Mirror, he played Frank in the standout episode Hang the DJ. On Peaky Blinders, he played the gang’s youngest brother John Shelby. And in Green Room, Jeremy Saulnier’s 2015 masterpiece, he played Reece, one of the band members who gets caught locked away by neo-Nazis, trying to fight his way out to stay alive.
“Green Room for me was my most special filming experience overall,” Cole tells me. “It was the first time I’d done a job in America. Myself and some of the other actors as well. We all played in a band. We played music. We all became very good friends.”
He’s under-selling it. According to Saulnier, Cole, who had no previous musical experience, pushed himself a lot farther than he was asked to in order to become a proper musician for the shoot.
“I assumed they’d maybe learn enough to fake it and we could make it work in the edit. But what ended up happening was that they became a real f**king band. Joe practiced the drums religiously, every day, popping blisters all over the place. The Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks F**k Off” is not an easy song to play but he worked his ass off and was able to nail it. Anton and Alia started writing new material for the band and who do you think ended up playing show at our wrap party? Our so-called fictional band, the Ain’t Rights. Their commitment was astonishing,” says Saulnier.
Cole’s co-star Anton Yelchin tragically passed away in a 2016 freak accident the age of 27. Cole was heartbroken.
“Anton became a close friend and he would have been a friend for life. It was a special film, and it holds even more meaning and resonance for me now. I feel very lucky that I was able to work with him and spend time with him. He had a lot more to give in all aspects. He was more than just an actor—he was an amazing human being, an amazing creative, and a beautiful person.”
“So, yeah…that’s all I’ve got to say on the matter really.”
Cole wasn’t the actor first attached to A Prayer Before Dawn—it was originally Charlie Hunnam, Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur. When Hunnam dropped out, the director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire went with an actor he’d had in mind from the start.
“The problem was we couldn’t raise the money with Joe not being famous, not having a name. I said ‘yeah, he could be great, but the problem is we need to find a name actor to get the budget of the film’. Then, finally, with all these actors who dropped out, we said, ok, let’s do it with a lower budget, but let’s do it with Joe. He’s very interesting because he looks physically like Billy. He has something,” Sauvaire tells me.
“It’s the nature of the beast, isn’t it? It’s the industry we’re in. You’re never quite sure until you get on set,” says Cole. “I was very glad that the stars aligned and it worked out the way that it did because I think we made the best film that could have been made with this material. I felt I was the right person to play Billy. It’s a funny old game.”
Cole once again was committed to the role more than the average actor would need to be.
“In Thailand we applied training in different camps in Bangkok so he could get the real experience of someone coming and trying to do Muay Thai, not as a actor but as a real boxer. He trained for four months, then went back to the US to shoot then came back to Bangkok. We kept doing the training, then I introduced him to the prisoners,” says Sauvaire.
Before arriving in Thailand, Cole spent a lot of time with Billy Moore himself, getting to know his subject the best he could.
“I was shooting Peaky Blinders in Liverpool where Billy lives so I got to know Billy very well, spent time with him his family, and it was great to meet him and get to know him. I think you take the essence of the person and then you go your own way with it as an actor, and sometimes you go with your instinct. Billy was a fantastic resource and a great help for me because he was so giving and wanted to share so much of his story, his life, and his mental state. It was great to have him there, but as Billy didn’t come to Thailand, once I got to Thailand I was able to flourish with all the basics that I needed.”
Though Moore still cannot legally return to Thailand, Cole kept in touch with Moore throughout the shoot.
“I remember in one instance, I had this scene where I had to go and beg for some drugs, and I spoke to Billy the night before, and I asked him, ‘how desperate would you be for these?’” says Cole.
“He said, ‘I’d do anything it takes. I’d do absolutely anything it takes. I would not leave that cell without those drugs.’ He said he’d humiliate himself, he’d fight. I said, ‘ok, I’ve got it’—the kind of desperation and the need for the substance. I went and approached that particular scene with that in mind.”
On their late night phone calls, Moore also told Cole about the lasting effects of the experience.
“He told me that he couldn’t look in the mirror for a year because he was so insecure and he hated himself so much. You take this stuff on board. He’s his own worst enemy as much as the prison environment is tough and it’s hard, it’s actually his own head that’s the most difficult thing to deal with,” says Cole.
Cole is not a method actor, but it was hard not to go through some of the same feeling’s of isolation that Moore had to deal with. Sauvaire tells me that they found a recently closed prison, which had been one of the oldest prisons in Thailand, for the shoot. Cole himself was basically the only professional actor on set—the rest were non-actors, many of whom had been through the prison system themselves.
“I was on the other side of the world. Everyone in the crew spoke Thai or some of the key crew spoke French, so it was only my make up artist who spoke English. I felt very immersed. I think that just heightened the whole experience and for me it was just about focus and getting the job done. I was still able to speak to my loved ones in the evening on the phone back in England if I wanted to and separate myself for half an hour each day. Aside from that, I was very much in this world training, learning to fight and doing it. It’s just about being very focused,” says Cole.
Sauvaire filmed the fight scenes as realistically as he could manage, having Cole spar with trained fighters as a handheld camera stayed close to capture the whole fight. In his mind, the fight was like theater, so he would film entire fights for ten minutes or more at a time, with Cole and his sparring partner operating from light choreography.
“Sometimes when you watch a boxing fight in the cinema, it looks fun and entertaining, but when you’re in the ring, it’s really a different feeling, it’s tough and brutal. I wanted to show the brutality of boxing,” says Sauvaire.
“We shot long shots and rehearsed and they had to make contact with their punches—not with the same strength as a fight. For Joe, it was tough, because he was boxing with real boxers who don’t have experience of films and stunts. We were just in the ring as they do every day. It was interesting to have more realistic boxing scenes—not just the sound of the bunch, but hearing the breathing, the feet on the floor, the people around, with the Thai music that makes the fight feels like a trance. We were trying to recreate the feeling of being inside the ring.”
The choreography only got Cole so far.
“As Mike Tyson once said, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face,” I say to Cole.
“There was actually one instance on set where I was sparring with a Southeast Asian boxing champion who actually spent seven years in the prison in which we filmed. He got me with an uppercut that sent me to space,” says Cole.
“Any sort of choreography we had went out the window. I grappled him and tried to squeeze the life out of him. I then pushed him away, and we carried on sparring. Jean-Stéphane never cuts the camera so I knew he wasn’t going to in this instance. If you’re making a film like this, you need to get hit once or twice. That’s the nature of the film.”
After they finished, Cole couldn’t switch off the feelings that the shoot had inspired in him.
“I’m pretty good at switching off after a film, but I remember getting on the plane on the way home and feeling very emotional. This was quite strange, because at the end of the day, we’re just actors making movies. We’re not saving lives. I felt very emotional because of what I’d gone through and what we’d all achieved together. I’d met some extraordinary people—the crew, and the cast, and the people involved in this film—the dedication that everyone gave to this film. I just felt that we’d made something special,” Cole says, his voice cracking.