Joe Cole Always Knew He Was Going To Make It

And how he really feels about Peaky Blinders.

Joe Cole of 'The Ipcress File' and 'Peaky Blinders'
ITV/Getty Images

Joe Cole’s had a long day. Amidst promoting his current show, ITV’s adaptation of The Ipcress File, he has partaken in a rowing machine challenge for non-profit organisation Choose Love. Joining fellow actors James Norton and Cynthia Evrio, the star contributed to the initiative’s successful attempt at rowing 450km in 12 hours. Cole takes it in his stride, quite literally.

Born and raised in the London suburb of Kingston, Cole has become a recognisable face for British audiences, largely thanks to his breakout role in hit BBC drama Peaky Blinders, but we’ll come back to that in a bit. In 2012, Cole got his first taste of what it’s like to star in a TV show with a cult following when he gave a brief, but memorable, performance as bad boy Luke in teen drama Skins. That same year, he showcased his leading man ability in the prison revenge tale Offender. The British talent has since enjoyed various main roles in high-profile projects including A Prayer Before Dawn, Netflix’s Black Mirror, and Gangs Of London.

Now, he’s turned his hand to an existing classic: espionage drama The Ipcress File. Cole portrays the series’ lead, Harry Palmer — made famous, of course, by Sir Michael Caine, who played the part in the hit 1965 film of the same name. It’s only natural that comparisons will be drawn between the two performances, but this isn’t something that perturbs Cole. On stepping into Caine’s rather sizeable shoes, he tells me: “I subscribe to the belief that someone’s got to do it. You pick jobs based on merit and script, and this felt right.” Confident in his reasoning, he notes: “If you’re redeveloping something that has such a standing in British film and literature, you’ve got to back yourself.”

Featuring the “phenomenal” (as Cole puts it) Lucy Boynton as its female lead, the spy tale is based on the original book. This connection to the primary source makes all the difference, the actor muses. “The movie is set just in London, but this [series] is transatlantic,” he explains. “It’s set in Berlin, Beirut, the Pacific Islands, and London.” The cast filmed scenes in Liverpool when the rest of the country was under a stay-home order, resulting in somewhat of a reflective period for Cole. “We went to Croatia [to film] and had a good old time there,” he tells me. “To be working at a time where no one could leave their homes… It was nice to get out and do something. You get an extra understanding of privilege.”

Aside from his work trips, Cole spent his lockdown in London, living with two of his siblings. “I’ve got four younger brothers, and there were only two of them [with me], so it was easier than it used to be,” he says, laughing. He was glad of the company, too: “You hear a lot of stories about people being alone, and in that time it was so important to get connected.” One of his sibling housemates was his fellow actor, and one-time Peaky Blinders co-star, Finn Cole. Having already established himself portraying John Shelby, Joe secured a job for his younger brother, encouraging him to audition to play his on-screen cousin, Michael Gray — a role Finn has held since 2014. Now, the brothers are going head-to-head in the weekend ratings, with Peaky Blinders and The Ipcress File airing at the same time on Sunday nights. But Joe laughs at the idea of there being any competition. With streaming platforms, “it doesn’t really matter” when a show is on TV, he reasons.

Although it’s Cole who first mentions Peaky Blinders when talking about his former roles, he’s somewhat reluctant to talk about the series in any great detail. “Whatever I say [about Peaky] becomes the headline, so I've got to be careful,” he reveals, somewhat cautiously. Referring to the show’s cult status, and its impact on his career, I tell him it would be curious if we didn’t talk about it. I liken it to a band going on stage and not playing their biggest hit. “But it’s a little bit different with acting,” Cole says. “With acting, once you’ve finished that role, the role is done. People can rewatch my role, but I don’t have to do it again.” Still, Cole appreciates how much the show means to fans, especially those who took the 2017 death of his on-screen character to heart. “All you can wish for as an actor is to get into people’s souls like that,” he explains.


Alongside his new ITV drama, Cole has been promoting two film projects: One Of These Days and Against The Ice. As such, he’s had plenty of reviews coming his way, but it’s not something the actor puts too much stock in. He explains: “I watch what I’m in, and I have an opinion on what I’ve done. If I think it’s good, then whatever else happens, I don’t really mind.” Cole is only too aware of the need to give up control when it comes to the critics. “It’s important to have other things going on, and not be consumed by it,” he reasons. This measured response is in stark contrast to how he felt in the early days of his career. “I had no idea if I was going to get on TV,” he admits. “You rely on things being seen and doing well. Now that I’m more established, it’s not as much of a concern.”

Growing up, Cole had an appreciation for the arts and, deep down, wanted to study drama, but was unsure how to proceed. “I didn’t know that being an actor was a thing you could do, really,” he explains. When the star failed to get the grades to go to university, he found a home for himself at the National Theatre. The rest, as they say, is history. Looking back, Cole credits his early mentors for giving him the “bit of belief” he needed to forge a career for himself. He speaks fondly of his drama school teacher Ms. O’Shea, who he often credits as an important influence. “Teachers have an amazing place in society, and they don’t get paid enough,” he tells me earnestly. “My mum’s a teacher and, up until recently, so was one of my brothers. My mum’s helped so many kids over 30 years.”

Although he had a strong support network, Cole’s determination to succeed in acting came from within. “You have to have a mad passion for it, and I did,” he states. The star highlights one particular incident which fired him up. “I walked into a drama audition, and there were hundreds of kids sitting around,” he recalls. “The principal came out and said, ‘Only one person in this room is going to make it.’ I remember thinking, ‘That’s absolute rubbish! There’s so many people in here that have talent.’” He continues: “I thought, ‘I’m gonna make it, and I’m definitely not going to be the only one.’”

All these years later, Cole continues to approach his career with a strong self-assuredness and a belief that things will work out. While he still endures the auditions circuit, he’s now in a position where he gets approached with roles, rather than having to seek them out for himself. Of his plans for the future, the actor notes: “I want to spin the narrative on what people see me as. I like to challenge myself in indifferent ways.” Hesitant to not give too much away, he adds: “There’s a couple of exciting things in the pipeline that will hopefully surprise people.”