Joe Cole has more self-control than most. Harry Palmer, the spook from Cold War thriller The Ipcress File, became an iconic figure in cinema after Michael Caine portrayed the character in the classic 1965 film. If you were cast as Palmer, the temptation to impersonate one of Britain’s most distinctive actors in one of his most distinctive roles would surely be too strong.
When NME asks Cole if he impersonated Caine right at the start of the process, just to purge it 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 experience and my own personality to the role. Hopefully they’re two different beasts.”
Nine years after James Bond first slipped into a dinner jacket for his novel debut in Casino Royale, a nameless British spy was introduced in Len Deighton’s 1962 mystery The Ipcress File. Three years later Caine delivered a career-defining performance in the film version as the cocky and impertinent Harry Palmer (Caine and producer Harry Saltzman christened the character).
Caine’s styling is a quintessential image of ’60s British cinema, his tortoiseshell Curry & Paxton spectacles indivisible from the character. Michael Myers popped similar bins on Austin Powers in homage and later invited Caine aboard for Goldmember, where he too wore Palmer-esque glasses. These are big frames to fill.
Writer John Hodge (Trainspotting, The Beach) has resurrected Palmer for a stylish ITV six-part adaptation of the novel which plunges Palmer – and the viewer – into Cold War-era Berlin, the search for a nuclear scientist, and simmering tensions between the West and Russia. What a relief all that’s in the past. Rather than look to Caine, Cole’s entrypoint into the character was much closer to home. “Actually, what the director James Watkins told me was to lean into myself,” says Cole, on a Zoom call from his London home.
“I think he’d seen me behind the scenes hanging out with the cast and the crew. Early on James said, ‘I want you to be more like you. You have more similarities with Harry than maybe you initially realised’. I often play men from the wrong side of the tracks, and they’re quite different to me, so it was fun playing someone who’s a bit closer to who I am.” Given Palmer’s a rogue and black marketeer, are close comparisons with him much of a compliment? “I knew what he meant,” laughs Cole. “I took it as a compliment.”
The Kingston-raised actor, 33, slips into this wide-boy with ease, the working class Palmer disguising his mental sharpness from his superiors with a cheeky demeanour. “He’s living in an era where it’s difficult to move through the class system, and he knows his place in the world,” says Cole. “He’s a fish out of water. He understands his position and he’s facetious with it.”
Cole’s Palmer is a more relatable character than ever, especially compared to his often snobbish MI6 contemporary, a dispensable outsider employed to perform the dirty realities of espionage. Given Palmer’s stature and influence on the genre – apart from two forgettable mid-’90s TV movie revivals – why hasn’t he shared the illustrious screen career of Bond? “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,” explains Cole. “In so many ways he’s an anti-Bond and there’s a place for Harry Palmer in the modern era.”
Cole feels so little pressure, the former glasses-wearer didn’t even feel the weight of the character’s signature specs. “I never liked wearing glasses when I used to have to wear them, but there was something about this particular pair that just worked and created a character. They were very comfortable glasses.”
“There was a part of me regretting having laser eye surgery, but now I can’t wear big thick glasses. It’s the same with a peaked hat – I can’t wear a peaked bloody cap ever again. Slowly but surely, I’m ruling out more and more wearable items.”
Peaky Blinders might be how many first encountered Cole, where he played Birmingham mob member John Shelby and cousin of fellow gang member Michael, played by his real-life brother Finn. John – arguably his breakthrough role – fell in a hail of Mafia machine gun fire in the fourth series and he’s as eager as fans to watch the final run, 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 have given their all. I’m gutted Helen’s not in it – for me, she was the heart and soul of the show in so many ways.”
McCrory evidently had an effect on both Joe. “Someone like Helen is a one in a million. She was funny, inquisitive, and wanted to know about you. A very giving actress and a really good mentor for my little brother Finn [Cole, who played McCrory’s on-screen son Michael],” he reflects. “It was his first ever job and she was the best role model he could have ever had. Finn, myself, and all of us feel privileged to have had that experience.”
As Shelby fell, Cole rose. There was his BAFTA Best Leading Actor nomination 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 jail who turns to boxing for survival. A month into the first lockdown of 2020 he was the centre of Sky’s hit original drama Gangs of London, playing gangster prince Sean Wallace, who won’t be returning for the second series: “Not unless I come back as a ghost. I’m not sure how you come back from that one.”
His rise has been the product of his own resolve; he re-took his A-Levels after not securing the grades he wanted and then made it into the National Youth Theatre. Perhaps that delay influenced his decision to swerve drama school and get on with it. “At the time drama school didn’t feel like the correct route. I wanted to start acting and not wait three years before I could; I looked quite young and I wanted to take advantage of that,” he says, before a brief pause. “Listen, if I hadn’t got any work, then I would have tried to go to drama school.”
Right now, there’s little chance he’ll be going back to school. As well as The Ipcress File, he has two films out in March, both of which are studies in endurance. In One of These Days he plays a contestant in a Touch-the-Truck competition, while in Netflix’s Against the Ice he stars alongside Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in the true story of two Danish explorers abandoned during a 1909 Arctic expedition.
Endurance has been a recurring theme of late. In September 2020, prior to production of Against the Ice, he and six mates raised money for child cancer charity Momentum by cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats. By the end, after all the training and the epic trip itself, did he have Jack Grealish-sized calves? “They weren’t far off – I needed a new set of knees afterwards.”
There was little rest for those knees. He describes filming in Iceland during lockdown as a “wild experience”, one where he’d trudge off by himself to savour the space and the solitude. “I’d go on hikes across glaciers on my own for six hours. I’d send Nikolaj a pin, in case of a problem, and say, ‘Back in five hours’. That was partly to be in the mindset of the character, but also because we’d been stuck indoors for so long and I was trying to appreciate the opportunity to be in nature.”
Did the experience of that environment, as well as filming in the wilderness during a lockdown, change him? “Yeah, it did. It was a special time.” Hiking for hours in the peaceful wilds isn’t something he gets to do very often.
“I grew up in London with four younger brothers. I grew up in houses with seven people, plus all the kids mum and dad used to look after. There were often 13 people in the house so I’ve rarely had any time like that. It might have been maybe the first time in 30 odd years. I liked it.” He laughs. “I’d quite like a bit more of it.”
‘The Ipcress File’ begins on ITV this Sunday (March 6) at 9pm. ‘Against the Ice’ hits Netflix on March 2. ‘One Of These Days’ is in cinemas from April 1