Behind the bars of Thailand’s notorious Bang Kwang Central Prison hides a cacophonous world of violence and despair. Located in the Nakorn Pathom province, it’s a hellish place, built to house Thailand’s most hardened criminals. As a well-mannered gentleman from London, Joe Cole is an unlikely suspect behind these bars, but the ferociously dedicated actor has been training like he’s facing hard time. Preparing for the tumultuous fight scenes that lie ahead of him, Cole has been practicing Muay Thai in a no-frills boxing camp, even adopting a Liverpool accent in preparation for his upcoming role.
You might have seen Cole on BBC’s Peaky Blinders. Since then he’s steadily moved from project to project—a lead role in the fourth season of Netflix’s Black Mirror, supporting roles in Green Room and Secret In Their Eyes. What unites his roles is the high level of preparation and transformation they each required. Turns out it’s a trait Cole actively seeks. His latest feature, A Prayer Before Dawn, is based on the memoir of former prisoner, boxer, and drug addict, Billy Moore, who fought for freedom in Bang Kwang prison by competing in a series of vicious Muay Thai matches—a practice that will occasionally grant prisoners early release. Cole has pulled off transformations before, but personifying Moore may be his greatest challenge thus far.
Growing up in picturesque Kingston, South London, the emerging actor began his career at the National Youth Theatre, where he honed his natural abilities as an actor. Cole elaborates: “I feel a kind of release and a level of comfort when the camera rolls. When you’re embodying a character, its quite freeing.” Though naturally calm and collected, Cole has penchant for metamorphosis. In A Prayer Before Dawn, he breaks through the boundaries of his comfort zone as he reshapes himself both mentally and physically. Because all of the fight scenes were entirely un- simulated, Cole had to master the practice of Muay Thai without the aid of ‘movie-magic’. Transforming his body to meet the physical demands of the role, the audience watches as Cole evolves into a brawny, muscular fighter in real time as the film progresses.
Cole’s connection to Billy Moore as a living, primary source granted him unabridged access to the boxer’s personal history. The ability to connect emotionally with his character was a driving force behind his performance. Cole explains, “I have to have a lot of empathy. I feel like I can channel that empathy into my own aggression and emotion.” Getting into specifics, he continues, “I went the furthest with A Prayer Before Dawn. I had to dig very deep. I feel an affinity with Billy because of the level and depth that I had to go to.”
In preparing to inhabit the role of Billy, Cole had to deeply internalize the emotional turbulence at the core of Moore’s drug addiction. In reference to Moore himself, Cole states, “One thing he said to me was that he hated himself, completely. He didn’t look in a mirror for a year. That’s why he used drugs to escape himself and why he fought to channel his insecurities. He said he would do anything—from stripping naked to selling his own mother—just to get out of his own head.” Throughout the film, the shaky hand-held cinematography amplifies the rage and the haziness of being under the influence. As the audience is subjected to the purgatory of Moore’s heroin-addled point of view, they witness the perils of addiction and self-sabotage, thanks primarily to Cole’s fully committed portrayal. His strength as an actor lies in his ability to dissolve his personal, physical, and mental boundaries, to unconditionally empathize with his character. It’s a skill that suggests that what we’ve seen of Cole is only a prelude to a promising career.
Written by Elizabeth Hsieh
Photographed by Jason Hetherington
Styled by Tanja Martin
Groomer: Lee Machin