You’ve seen Joe Cole somewhere – whether it’s from his scene-snatching turn in ‘Peaky Blinders’ or one of the few (sort-of) romantic episodes of ‘Black Mirror’ – but for his first starring role on the big screen, he’s gone for a challenge. To play Liverpool boxer Billy Moore, who turned to Muay Thai to survive during a three-year spell in the notorious Bangkok Hilton, he learned the art and took the punches – and came out grateful on the other side…
RSNG This is the second film where you’ve played a fighter – in Green Room, you do some of the best Brazilian jiu-jitsu that’s been seen on-screen. Can you really handle yourself after all that?
JOE COLE, ACTOR ‘Well, I wouldn’t like you to test me. One of the great things about this job is that you get to learn a lot of new things, so for Green Room I went and did a bunch of jiu-jitsu lessons so that I wasn’t floundering when I got to the set, I could make it look authentic – I only do a few moves, but I wanted to make it look like I could really do them. With the Thai Boxing I threw myself into it again, and learned a bunch of new moves which I could use in my own training, instead of just doing weights and running. I feel very lucky that I can do that kind of stuff.’
‘We shot in a real prison courtyard with 2,700 prisoners where I fought a pro Thai fighter’
RSNG The fight scenes in a Prayer Before Dawn are pretty intense, which was the hardest to shoot?
JC ‘They were all tough in different ways. The middle one was pretty tough – they were all shot in very long sequences, but we shot that whole one in one go every time. But then the last fight was tough because we shot in a real prison courtyard with 2,700 prisoners, they put a boxing ring in the middle of the yard and put me in with a pro Thai fighter after one day of choreography… so it was very much just about seeing what would happen. None of them were easy. It was pretty close to having a fight – the sparring was real, all the punches and kicks connected, but also you had to do it over and over again, all day, every day, and that last fight scene took us two full days to put together. That’s where you have to be really focused mentally – just get enough sleep and get in there ready to go.’
‘I had a lot of training. I had to make sure that I was mentally prepared. I knew Billy very well – he’s an addict, I had to understand the addictive elements of his personality, and the insecurities he had, but I also had to get to grips with the physicality of the part. I had to learn to fight properly, to learn Muay Thai. We also shot in a real prison, with a lot of ex-cons who’d spent large portions of their lives in prison, so that element was a bit easier because I just had to see it all and react.’
RSNG What else did you get from meeting Billy?
JC ‘Billy was just such a fascinating, convoluted character – he’s really not what you might expect, he’s funny, he’s charismatic, he has a lot of great stories and life experience as you might imagine. He’s also very open and shares a lot, which was really helpful to me. Over the course of getting to know him, I felt like I really understood his character and his psyche and was able to put my own spin on it, but it was getting to know him so well that kind of coloured the performance.’
‘It let me do certain things in certain scenes where otherwise I might have made a more generic choice, and where I could really get into the mindset of being in that situation.’
RSNG It’s a very physical film, without much dialogue. How did the training you went through help you prepare?
JC ‘That’s a good question… I became quite strong, and confident in my fighting ability, and that was quite a juxtaposition with my mindset for the role, because Billy ultimately is a little boy in a man’s body in a lot of ways. He has these insecurities and he’s a vulnerable guy, so he uses fighting and his body as a body to protect himself, almost from himself in some ways.’
‘I remember him telling me that the worst part about being in prison was his own head, because whenever he had any sort of success or achievement he’d be back to square one because of his own actions, because of his mind. So those two things, the physical and the mental, were an interesting combination.’
The RSNG 1-Minute Review: A Prayer Before Dawn
By Joel Snape
What We liked There’s a haunting, elegiac quality to Prayer’s quieter, scenes, contrasting with the brutalities of prison life and intense, claustrophobic fight scenes to create a film unlike anything else you’ll see this year.
What We Didn’t, So Much It’s absolutely not a first-date – or even third-date – film, thanks to a variety of unflinching moments and a total dearth of easy answers.
Final Score: 4/ 5
WHAT NEXT? Check out the official trailer for A Prayer Before Dawn, and catch the film in cinemas now. A one night only screening with Professor Green in conversation with Billy Moore screens in cinemas alongside the film on 23 July.