There’s a scene in A Prayer Before Dawn, the film adaptation of Billy Moore’s prison memoir, in which the convict hits rock bottom. An Englishman incarcerated in a rough Thai jailhouse dubbed the “Bangkok Hilton,” he’s strung out on drugs and has nearly killed a man. Before Moore was a prisoner, however, he was a bare-knuckle brawler. So, in the hopes of finding a reason to stay alive, he visits the facility’s gym and pleads his case to the Muay Thai team’s skeptical trainer. “I want to box,” he insists. “I’m a boxer. Just let me show you … I can fight. I need to fight.”
The urgency of the moment comes courtesy of the young man playing Moore: a 29-year-old actor named Joe Cole. You may not know the name, but you’ve seen his face in movies like Green Room and Thank You For Your Service; in four seasons of the cult-TV crime drama Peaky Blinders; and the Black Mirror episode “Hang the DJ.” There’s something of his personal ethos in that scene that makes it stick out as well. He’s an actor. He needs to act. Just let him show you.
“I never really saw it as a career, because I didn’t know any actors,” Cole admits, sitting in the lobby of the Bowery Hotel. “I didn’t have any friends who were actors.” Raised in the Kingston area in South London, he was the oldest of five brothers and had what he deems “a pretty ordinary upbringing.” But his grades weren’t good enough for university, and Cole went into a bit of a tailspin. “I used to sell carpets and coffee,” he recalls. “I was getting into trouble and I got arrested.”
He was saved by the theater. “There was a kid in my class, a friend of mine who had done a thing called the National Youth Theatre in England,” Cole says. “It’s young people putting on plays, and it’s a really good opportunity to [act] in front of big, big audiences in London and in England, in a safe space.” That got him work on British television, beginning with a one-off on The Bill — a police procedural that, in terms of longevity and boosting new actors, is the U.K.’s equivalent of Law & Order — followed by guest shots on Skins and The Thick of It. “For me — I’m only speaking from my personal experience — learning on the job has been the best thing,” he says. “You learn about acting but you also learn about every facet of the game. You learn about conserving energy and you learn about what looks good on camera. You learn about how to sell a fight.”
That last part helped him when it came to A Prayer Before Dawn, though Cole will readily admit he was not the first choice for the part. (“A lot of people kept dropping out,” he says.) In fact, the creative folks behind this intense mix of prison drama and boxing movie were having a hard time finding anyone who could credibly play Moore. “I was looking for an actor who had his physicality – who could box and fight – but who could have also this kind of vulnerability,” says the film’s director, Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire. “Not just a huge guy with muscles, but also with a heart inside.”
The heart got him the role, but the physical transformation required for a boxing picture inevitably gets more of the ink – particularly since the French filmmaker’s visual style, which favors long takes and tight close-ups, doesn’t leave much room for fakery. And thanks to the movie’s rather modest budget, Cole was often left to his own devices. “This was no Fast and the Furious,” he says. “I’m not getting handed protein shakes, you know, and have a trainer down at Equinox three times a day. A lot had to come from my self-discipline.” In fact, his self-imposed training and bulking process went a bit awry when he reported to Sauvaire in Bangkok. “I actually put on too much weight,” he says. “Billy wasn’t the most ripped guy … he had a bit of belly on him. I had muscle but I also had some fat on me. “
“He was fat as hell!,” Sauvaire declares, laughing. “He said, ‘You told me to be big.’ I said, ‘Yes, for me big is more like being strong, not like you drink a lot of beers!’ So he was kind of embarrassed. I said, no worries, we go to camp tomorrow, and you’re gonna train. And that’s what we did.”
The actor and director both knew it would be tricky for Cole to find the right footing during production. The film was shot in a real (and, until quite recently, active) Thai prison, with a cast of primarily non-actors – real guards, real prison boxers, and real former inmates – creating an atmosphere of displacement and discomfort mirroring that of Cole’s character. The star was subjected to scenes of grueling physical intensity and emotional duress; to work in those conditions, Sauvaire figured, Cole would have to strip away all of his artifice. “I wanted him to forget the comfort zone you can have as an actor playing a part,” the director says. “I said you have to be the part, to feel how it was for Billy to be alone – to be immersed in this prison. So not speaking Thai, not knowing these people, meeting them for the first time and them looking at you.”
“I could go in with like, a Jason Statham action hero mentality,” Cole notes, “but they’d sniff that out and see through that and then just take the piss if I tried to do that. Or I could be a complete pussy, and they’d see that. There was definitely this balance that I had to find through the film.”
So he dealt with his rough-and-tumble cast mates and sketchy surroundings as directly as he could — and that directness, both as an actor and person, may be Cole’s most striking quality. He acts out of a sense of competition and a love of the craft, sure. But he doesn’t pretend like that’s all there is to it. Cole is well aware of the career arcs he’s expected to traverse — and why it makes sense to veer off that path and make a sharp, unexpected left turn.
“I think he was at the point of his career, where he had something to prove — that he could not only perform but that he could be someone other than the guy from Peaky Blinders,” Sauvaire says. “He had much more to say and much more to show on screen … [This] was kind of a ritual, a coming-of-age film, and then you can access more adult parts and characters.”
Cole himself is, if anything, even more pragmatic about where he is and what A Prayer Before Dawn means for him. “I suppose, unconsciously, I’ve been looking for a role like this one for a while now. I feel like those prison movies, like Hunger or Bronson — they’re seminal performances in those actors’ careers. They’re all encompassing and they’re just fantastic for an actor to be fully immersed in something. So I suppose, unconsciously, I was searching for something like that. Now I’ve done it.”