“Helen McCrory was the heart and soul of ‘Peaky Blinders'”
Joe Cole has more self-control than most. Harry Palmer, the ghost of the Cold War thriller The Ipcress folderbecame an iconic figure in cinema after Michael Caine portrayed the character in the 1965 classic movie. If you were cast as Palmer, the temptation to portray one of Britain’s most distinctive actors in one of his most distinctive roles would surely be too great.
When NME asks Cole if he impersonated Caine early on in the process, just to purge him from his system, he laughs. “I can’t say I did. The key for me was to stay as far away from Michael Caine as possible to bring my own background and personality to the role. I hope they are two different beasts.
Nine years after James Bond first donned a tuxedo for his debut novel in Casino Royalean unnamed British spy was introduced to Len Deighton’s 1962 mystery The Ipcress folder. Three years later, Caine delivered a career-defining performance in the film version as the cocky, sassy Harry Palmer (Caine and producer Harry Saltzman dubbed the character).
Caine’s style is a quintessential image of 1960s British cinema, his Curry & Paxton tortoiseshell glasses inseparable from the character. Michael Myers jumped similar trash cans on Austin Powers as a tribute and then invited Caine aboard to gold member, where he too wore Palmer-esque glasses. These are big frames to fill.
Writer John Hodge (Trainspotting, The Beach) has resurrected Palmer for a sleek six-part ITV adaptation of the novel that immerses Palmer – and the viewer – in Cold War-era Berlin, searching for a nuclear science and the simmering tensions between the West and Russia. What a relief all that is in the past. Rather than looking to Caine, Cole’s entry point into character was much closer to home. “Actually, what director James Watkins told me was to lean into myself,” Cole says, during a Zoom call from his London home.
“I think he saw me backstage hanging out with the cast and crew. At first James said, ‘I want you to be more like you’. You may have more similarities to Harry than you might initially think”. I often play men on the wrong side of the tracks, and they’re quite different from me, so it was fun to play someone who’s a little bit closer to who I am. Being given that Palmer is a thug and a black trader, are close comparisons to him a compliment? “I knew what he meant,” Cole laughs. “I took it as a compliment.”
The 33-year-old, Kingston-raised actor slips easily into this broad-boy, working-class Palmer disguising his mental acumen from his superiors with cheeky demeanor. “He lives in a time when it’s hard to navigate the class system, and he knows his place in the world,” Cole says. “He’s a fish out of water. He understands his position and he is facetious with it.
Cole’s Palmer is a more relatable character than ever, especially when compared to his often snobby MI6 contemporary, an indispensable outsider employed to realize the dirty realities of espionage. Given Palmer’s stature and influence on the genre — aside from two revivals of forgettable mid-’90s TV movies — why didn’t he share in Bond’s illustrious screen career? “I don’t know if Michael Caine was so iconic that people stayed away, and that’s a testament to him as an actor. Maybe there were rights issues,” says Cole. “In many ways he’s anti-Bond and there’s a place for Harry Palmer in the modern age.”
Cole feels so little pressure that the former glasses wearer hasn’t even felt the weight of the character specs. “I never liked wearing glasses when I had to, but there was something about this particular pair that worked and created character. They were very comfortable glasses.
“There was a part of me that regretted having laser eye surgery, but now I can’t wear big thick glasses. It’s the same with a peaked hat – I can never wear a bloody peaked cap again. Slowly but surely I am excluding more and more wearable items.
Peaky Blinders perhaps how many first met Cole, where he played Birmingham mob member John Shelby and the cousin of fellow gang member Michael, played by his real brother Finn. John – arguably his breakthrough role – fell to a hail of mafia machine gun fire in series four and he’s as eager as the fans to watch the final round, although his anticipation is tempered by the loss of Helen McCrory, who played Aunt Polly. “I’m excited to see what they do and I have no doubt there will be a fitting conclusion because Steven [Knight]Cillian [Murphy], and the whole team gave it their all. I’m bummed that Helen isn’t in it — to me, she was the heart and soul of the show in many ways.
McCrory obviously had an effect on both Joes. “Someone like Helen is one in a million. She was funny, curious and wanted to know more about you. A very generous actress and a very good mentor for my little brother Finn [Cole, who played McCrory’s on-screen son Michael]he reflects. “It was his very first job and she was the best role model he could have had. Finn, myself and all of us feel privileged to have had this experience.
As Shelby fell, Cole stood up. There was his BAFTA nomination for Best Lead Actor for his performance in the black mirror episode ‘Hang the DJ’ in 2017, then in 2018 he won Best Actor at the British Independent Film Awards for his portrayal of Billy Moore in A prayer before dawn, the true story of a British prisoner in a Thai prison who turns to boxing to survive. A month after the first lockdown of 2020, he was at the center of Sky’s hit original drama London Gangsplaying mobster prince Sean Wallace, who won’t be returning for series two: “Not unless I come back as a ghost. I don’t know how you come back from that one.
His rise was the product of his own resolve; he resumed his A-Levels after not getting the grades he wanted, then he entered the National Youth Theatre. Perhaps this delay influenced her decision to deviate from acting school and continue. “At the time, drama school didn’t seem like the right path. I wanted to start playing and not wait three years before I could; I looked quite young and wanted to enjoy it,” he says before a brief pause. “Look, if I hadn’t had a job, I would have tried to go to acting school.”
For now, there is little chance that he will return to school. As well as The Ipcress folder, he released two movies in March, both of which are studies of endurance. In One of these days he plays a contestant in a Touch-the-Truck contest, while in Netflix Against the ice he stars alongside Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in the true story of two Danish explorers left behind during an Arctic expedition in 1909.
Endurance has been a recurring theme lately. In September 2020, before the production of Against the ice, he and six pals raised money for Momentum, a childhood cancer charity, by cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats. In the end, after all the training and the epic journey itself, did he have calves the size of Jack Grealish? “They were close – I needed a new pair of knees afterwards.”
There was little rest for those knees. He describes filming in Iceland during lockdown as a “wild experience”, one where he moved around alone to savor the space and solitude. “I was hiking the glaciers on my own for six hours. I sent a pin to Nikolaj, in case of problems, and said: “Come back in five hours”. It was partly in the mindset of the character, but also because we had been stuck indoors for so long and I was trying to relish the opportunity to be out in the wild.
Did the experience of this environment, as well as filming in the great outdoors during confinement, change it? “Yeah, it did. It was a special moment. Hiking for hours in peaceful nature is not something he does very often.
“I grew up in London with four younger brothers. I grew up in homes with seven people, plus all the kids mom and dad used to take care of. There were often 13 people in the house, so I rarely had a moment like this. It was maybe the first time in 30 odd years. I liked it.” He laughed. “I wish I had some more.”
‘The Ipcress File’ starts on ITV this Sunday (March 6) at 9pm. “Against the Ice” hits Netflix on March 2. One of These Days is in theaters from March 18