Joe Cole has got his head screwed on. At the grand old age of 25, he’s already made some smart career decisions that belie his years.
First rising to prominence in critically acclaimed Channel 4 drama series Skins in 2012, in the short time since he’s impressed with roles in British youth reformatory drama Offender and, of course, Steven Knight’s 1919-set Birmingham gangster drama Peaky Blinders. This by way of cancer tearjerker Now Is Good and parts in British television’s The Hour, The Thick Of It and Playhouse Presents. Yep, that’s right. All in just two years.
We’ve arranged to meet at a flat in southeast London to talk about the new series of Peaky Blinders. The first series was so well received it’s captured the attention of telly bigwigs across the Atlantic, and it’s soon to be made available to viewers on Netflix over there, with both series running together as a thrilling 12-parter.
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Peaky Blinders, series two trailer
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Joe’s estuary tones come sing-songing through the door before the rest of him follows. He’s striking – with strong features and a head of glorious red-tinged hair (good TV hair, some might say). If you only know Joe from Peaky, with that soft Brummie accent and slick, brown, cropped hairstyle, it’s kind of a surprise. Of course, if you think he’s the Aston Villa midfielder (many do – Total Film referred to him recently as the identically-named footballer, which Joe drew amusement from tweeting), it’s even more of a surprise.
Anyway, he’s keen for a cuppa, and a conversation sparks up about how to brew the perfect cup of tea. “This is like a scene out of The Royle Family!” he laughs, as we discuss milk in first, agitation techniques and brew time.
Now’s probably the time, then, to turn the conversation to the grittier world of early 20th century gangsters – while Peaky Blinders is a work of fiction, its premise is based in reality. Writer Steven Knight’s relatives were involved in the gang whose name the series is taken from: they used to sew razor blades into the peaks of their caps to use as lethal weapons.
“His granddad and his great uncles were mixed in with that world,” Joe explains. “He heard a lot of stories about these mythologised gangsters, and he found the whole thing quite seductive and he subsequently wrote Peaky Blinders about it.”
While a series like Boardwalk Empire, the lavish American HBO episodic prohibition-era drama with which it has parallels, is bound by historical documentation to stick – to some extent – to known accounts and real-life characters, Steven found a freedom in this material.
“He wasn’t tied down by the constraints of fact,” says Joe. “A lot of what they did and what happened was purely fabled within Birmingham. It wasn’t actually put down on paper, so Steven had free rein. He wanted to create this sense of mythology and to glamorise them [through the storytelling].”
Joe is interested in the comparison to Boardwalk Empire, mostly because it highlights the differences between the dramas. “Peaky Blinders is more of a family drama. There’s more in the relationships between the brothers and the matriarch – Helen McCrory’s character (Aunt Polly Gray).”
But that isn’t to say it’s insular. “In the new series, there are more gangsters and the world’s expanding; they’re moving to London and things are changing,” says Joe. “It’s not just behind the doors of the illegal betting shop – you actually see a lot more of this world.”
As a family drama, it seems fitting, then, that Joe’s younger brother, Finn, is joining the cast for the second series. Joe, who grew up in Kingston in a household with four younger brothers, drew on his childhood to inform his portrayal of John Shelby, a young father of four whose wife has died.
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I just had this light bulb moment. I’d just sold an 18 by 20 thick-pile carpet and I remember thinking this was not for me…
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“I’ve been surrounded by kids for as long as I can remember,” he says. “My house has always been a madhouse. There are parallels with the Peaky Blinders family, just because there were never less than six people in the house, and there was often up to 15. It was just crazy. So you pick up things.”
As the eldest, Joe admits to having had some responsibility for his brothers, but he would have also surely been a role model. It’s no wonder that Finn wants to follow in his brother’s footsteps, but Joe is humble at suggestions he’s been an influence: “Finn always wanted to find his own path – he was very keen and showed a real energy and passion for acting.”
So it’s an enthusiasm Joe spotted and encouraged?
“He just kept nagging me,” he says. “I batted him off, actually, but eventually I said, ‘I’ll talk to [the show’s producers] if you read the lines and you figure out the character and you learn the accent and you learn the scenes. You do the preparation, and I’ll film you doing it.’ He put in the work and, credit to him, he worked very hard at it and he got his just desserts.”
So what about Joe? Did he have anyone that helped him along the way with his ambitions? For the eldest boy in the family, it was a different story.
“I’ve been acting for about six years now but I never really set out to be an actor. I messed up at college, didn’t get the grades I needed. So I went back to my old sixth form, re-took. I was in my brother’s year while all my mates were travelling and off at university and stuff like that, and I was selling carpets and coffee.”
Did he feel left behind?
“I just had this light bulb moment. I’d just sold an 18 by 20 thick-pile carpet and I remember thinking this was not for me.”
He made a decision to knuckle down and work harder than anyone else he knew, got in to the National Youth Theatre and his career took off from there. “I met an incredibly inspiring director who gave me some belief. I did a play with them and then I started working. I got an agent and started writing, too. I was creating my own work and doors were opening through that.”
He’s currently penning a comedy series with Matt Lucas, which he’s hoping will get picked up. It’s based on a gang of boys he knew at school that were stealing and selling cars. Other aspects of his background have presumably informed the script.
Joe says: “I’ve worked in pupil referral units, doing anti-knife crime. I was working with ex-offenders and people like that. And there were so many different characters [at my school]. Some of these people, even some kids, even 14-, 15-year-old kids, they know how to be quite intimidating. I found that quite interesting and I’ve tried to replicate that.”
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Peaky Blinders, series one recap
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Joe may not have done well academically but he’s more than making up for it now, with a talent that’s earned him a shedload of praise and an impressive work ethic that’s allowed him to combine acting with writing, and goodness knows what else. He also seems to have the golden touch when it comes to choosing projects to work on, selecting jobs that interest him over any old Hollywood nonsense. It’s generally an equation that adds up to longevity and acclaim.
“I think a lot of young actors believe that America – if you go to Hollywood – is the achievement. But it’s just about doing the best projects.” In Joe’s case, that means Green Room, Blue Ruin director Jeremy Saulnier’s next film about a punk band in peril.
“I’m out filming in Oregon for two months from the end of September. It’s a crazy, crazy script. Everything just feels like it’s moving in the right direction. Some people talk about what superhero they want to play but for me, I much prefer playing a [great] character, working with interesting people and finding this sort of stuff.”
Does he find it more challenging?
“I don’t know,” he sighs. “I find it more fulfilling. I guess it is, in a sense, but there is a challenge in being able to take yourself seriously when you’re dressed in pants over your spandex.”
Keep making those smart choices, Joe, and you’ll be just fine.
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The second series of Peaky Blinders is on BBC Two on Thursday nights (starting October 2nd), with catch-up available on BBC iPlayer. The DVD and Blu-ray of the series is available from November 17th. More information here.