- Photography by Mr Azim Haidaryan
- Styling by Mr Tony Cook, Junior Fashion Editor, MR PORTER
- Words by Mr Chris Elvidge, Senior Copywriter, MR PORTER
Mr Joe Cole's CV reads like the logbook of a juvenile correctional facility: a catalogue of gangsters, thugs and borstal boys. The 24-year-old actor seems to have carved out a niche as the kid from the wrong side of the tracks - and now, with a role in the BBC's new big-budget gangster series, Peaky Blinders, he's got one more to add to the list.
Peaky Blinders sees the BBC doing its best HBO impression, as it ramps up production values and applies a heavy cinematic lacquer to the story of a Birmingham gang in the years immediately following WWI. Mr Cole plays John Shelby, younger brother of the leader of the Peaky Blinders, a real-life gang who were notorious for stitching razorblades into their suit lapels and the peaks of their caps - a practice that not only gave new meaning to the phrase "a sharp suit", but also lent them their grisly name. While the story may be based loosely on fact, gritty realism is not the order of the day: this is Pirates of the Caribbean translocated to England's West Midlands: a caricature of early 20th-century industrial Birmingham shot through a Hollywood lens. Flames belch from smokestacks, Rastafarian preachers stalk street corners and sparks fly from the anvils of burly, shirtless ironmongers.
I've played a lot of characters who are struggling with themselves - characters from the wrong side of the tracks
"The things I really love about it," says Mr Cole, discussing the show over coffee on a typically dank September day in east London, "are the same things I love about drama shows from the US. A lot of what we produce in the UK falls into the category of kitchen sink realism - that really down-in-the-dumps, depressing aesthetic. But watching shows such as Boardwalk Empire or films such as Goodfellas, it just made me want to be a gangster. It made me want to be in that fold, because it's so glamorised."
Much has been made of the obvious stylistic debt that Peaky Blinders owes to Boardwalk Empire, another glossy gangster drama set in roughly the same period. But the show also doffs its razor-lined cap to Gangs of New York, and to the work of Mr Sergio Leone. One particular scene early on sees the lead character, played by Mr Cillian Murphy, literally riding into town on a horse. Other Western tropes are present, too: the swinging saloon doors, the family run gang operating outside of the law, and the God-fearing lawman in the form of a scene-stealing Mr Sam Neill. From start to finish, the show has the feel of a loving homage to cinema - and one that has taken considerable effort to create.
"It was a huge production," agrees Mr Cole. "In terms of scale and the level of historical research that went into it, it was without a doubt the biggest thing I've done." Costume, in particular, was one historical element that fired his imagination. "The whole thing was just really damn cool. Everyone was dressed to kill. Buttoned-up grandad shirts, tweed suits, everything. There was a real element of style that we needed to reproduce because the original Peaky Blinders were known for being young, fashionable guys; that was their label. They were the subculture of their time, the equivalent of the 1980s football hooligans who'd wear Stone Island on the terraces." A born-and-bred London boy who grew up a few minutes from the home of Queens Park Rangers FC - and, coincidentally, MR PORTER HQ - Mr Cole should know what he's talking about. "I must have spent half my teenage years in Stuarts," he says, referring to the cult London menswear store popular with fashion-conscious football fans. "And half my money, too."
There's a swagger, a hint of attitude about the young actor that suggests he channels some of his own personality into his rebellious on-screen demeanour - but he's quick to point out that he's a far cry from some of his more unsavoury characters. "I've played psychopaths, murderers, rapists - I'd like to think that I'm very far removed from that," he laughs. Nevertheless, he admits to a fascination with these characters - and with the challenge of playing them. "My job is to dissect their psyche and turn it into something exciting, and something that the audience can relate to...
The Peaky Blinders (from left): Messrs Ned Dennehy, Ian Peck, Cole, Murphy, Brian Cohen and Paul Anderson
"Take Skins," he continues, referring to the teen drama in which he played a short but attention-grabbing part. "I played a guy who's in a destructive relationship with this girl. I had to make the audience fall for this character in the same way that the girl falls for him. I've played a lot of characters who are struggling with themselves - characters from the wrong side of the tracks. And I always try to find an affiliation from my own personal experience."
Indeed, it was his own personal experience that led him to acting in the first place - "things going on in my personal life", he says - including a missed opportunity to study theatre at university. "Ultimately," he continues, "it made me realise that I wanted to do something more than selling carpets and coffee, which is what I was doing at the time." He sounds driven: a young man with something to prove. And it's hard not to be convinced. Selling coffee is something of a rite of passage for aspiring actors, and yet somehow you just can't picture Mr Cole doling out the flat whites. With that rare combination of looks and youthful exuberance - not to mention a hint of the rebellious charm, equal parts menace and insouciance, that has marked out so many iconic actors - he's clearly made for something more.
Peaky Blinders concludes on Thursday 17 October. The series will be available to view on BBC iPlayer until 24 October.