Actor Joe Cole skipped university and drama school, and by 24 has become a recognized British up and comer after landing roles in Skins (the good British version) and BBC America’s Newsroom-meets-Mad Men period drama The Hour, where in it’s recent second season, Cole convincingly played a fascist. Even over the phone, Cole boasts a commendable serious actor swagger. When we dared call the characters he has portrayed onscreen—a ’60s Brit fascist and ’20s Birmingham mafia type—hooligans, he rejected the term flat out, offering instead a complicated relatable makeup for all of his “bad guy” parts. Touche. Read on to hear about the 24-year-old’s professional fearlessness, his upcoming role in a BBC mafia drama alongside Cillian Murphy, and how he converted his parents into supporters of a career in the arts (the horror!).
Trevor on The Hour is a perfectly hateable fascist. How did you prepare for the role?
Luckily, it’s quite far removed from my normal self. I read about the racial hatred that went on in London and across the country during that time, and it was a really tense period. It’s really interesting in terms of how easily it was to get swept up in that whole thing as a person. I read accounts of a couple of young people that were swept up in it and tried to recreate that feeling and frustration and anger that some of those young people were having.
What was it like working on The Hour?
It was great. It’s sort of an institution now with Dominic West, and Ben Winshaw too, a couple of fantastic British actors. It was just a real pleasure to be a part of an exciting team working on an exciting project.
You had a part in Skins and now this, then Peaky Blinders coming up. How does that feel to be landing these roles?
It’s great. I feel very privileged. Peaky Blinders is another one which is quite an exciting project with Cillian Murphy. It feels bigger in a way. It feels like the American approach, in a sense. It’s been likened to shows like Boardwalk Empire, and I just feel like with that one there, they’re trying to step it up and make something a bit bigger, a bit more classy, and a bit more cool, rather than your typical kitchen sink British drama. I’ve seen a few rough cuts, and it seems like they’re pulling it off. It’s just exciting to be with those actors and those kinds of creative people doing new and exciting things.
When did you know you were an actor?
Don’t know, really. I messed up at school, and didn’t get the grades I needed to go to university, and I was having trouble in my personal life. I did a thing in the UK called the National Youth Theater which is what it says on the tin—it’s just a theater for young people in the UK, and it spans the whole country. I did a two week course with them, and I met a director there that really inspired me and made me believe I could actually do it as a career. From then on, I threw myself into it, and that was about four years ago now.
What did your parents have to say about that?
I think they were just happy to see me doing something, being proactive, and getting up in the morning and being happy. My parents went to university. They’re from the background of—it’s important to get an education, and it’s important to have a plan B before you get plan A, but I think that’s rubbish. I think, if you’re focusing on that, it’s never going to happen. I almost feel like I’ve changed their perception in a way. I’ve got four little brothers and I feel like what they’re doing with my brothers now, it’s a like they’re saying do what you want. School isn’t for everyone. You don’t have to follow this specific route. Whatever you enjoy, do it. They’re incredibly supportive.
What’s been your most difficult role to date?
I did the lead in a film called Offender, which is a drama set in a young offender’s institute in England, and it’s about a young man who commits crimes to get into the prison in order to exact revenge on these career criminals who attacked his girlfriend and ruined his life. It’s a big revenge thriller, action thriller, really. That was incredibly demanding. The whole film has an emotional intensity to it, and there was also the physical element. There was a lot of fighting and I was in the gym doing various street fighting scenes, while simultaneously also having to get to a place of anger and frustration every day as the character finds his way through the prison system.
What trajectory would you like to see your career go in?
I just want to keep working with good people and doing more of it and expanding and challenging myself. I look up to some of the actors who have gone over to America now. Tom Hardy, I’m a big fan of, Gary Oldman before him—just people who are changing it up a bit and doing something different and don’t necessarily stick to the script in terms of giving a regular performance. I like people that kind of switch it up and go there.
Do you prefer a specific technique?
No. I’m pretty free in terms of technique. I think, because I didn’t go to drama school, I approach jobs in different ways. It’s usually a load of different things, but I don’t stick to one specific method, because depending what actors you’re working with different things come out. For Peaky Blinders, I was working with a family. I’ve got brothers: Cillian Murphy plays my older brother along with Paul Anderson. We developed a pretty close bond. We had a lot of fun together, and we all have similar senses of humor, and we played on that. With Offender, I wouldn’t have approached Peaky Blinders the same way. It’s about a completely different thing. It’s about being able to connect with these actors and ultimately their characters, whereas with Offender, I was switched off from everyone else. I didn’t crack any jokes on set. I wasn’t chatting with anybody freely. I kept myself to myself, because that was needed for the role.
Tell me about Peaky Blinders and your character John Selby?
He’s essentially the young gun of the family, slightly all over the place, who follows in his brother’s footsteps. Initially, he’s kind of there as a bit of muscle and back up to his brothers, and then as the show goes on, he develops and you see some of his background and what makes him tick and what his real struggles are behind the scenes. Then, you learn about how he copes with that with the help of his brothers.
How different is it playing a hooligan 50 years ago to 80 years ago?
Well, I’ve never played a hooligan. I’ve played characters who were conflicted. With Peaky Blinders, he’s from a gangster family but its more about family, and there is a gangster element to it, but it’s more about what goes on behind the scenes, really: the conflicts and the love and heartbreak and heartache. I think, in The Hour, he was just literally there to serve a purpose, which was to show this anger and frustration during that time. I think it does differ. For me, I have to find the likability, and I try to find the reasons why the characters are the way they are. It’s important to side with them in some way, so I can get them across on screen and not just make them this horrible, horrible person.
The Hour Season 2 is now available on DVD and On Demand.
Photography by Jessie Craig