Finn Cole is back where he’s happiest: at work, in front of the camera.
Catching up with NME over the phone from LA, the rising star is between takes of Animal Kingdom – the popular US gangster drama returning for a fifth season next year. After 10 months stuck in various levels of lockdown, his relief at being able to do what he loves again is palpable. “My ideal place to be is on set, figuring out how to tell stories and entertain. That’s where I’ll usually be if you’re looking for me,” he says.
Best-known as Peaky Blinders‘ fledgling mobster Michael Gray, Cole’s career has gone from strength to strength in recent years. As well as a central role in Animal Kingdom, he’s been a leading man in Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s comedy-horror chiller Slaughterhouse Rulez and he’s filmed with The Rock for the next instalment of the Fast and Furious franchise arriving next summer. His latest role sees him stepping up as a Hollywood lead alongside Oscar-nominated actor Margot Robbie in the dark, Dust Bowl-era drama, Dreamland.
“My ideal place to be is on set”
Out in cinemas this week, Dreamland sees Cole playing Eugene Evans, the stepson of a detective hunting Robbie’s character, Allison Wells: a woman wanted for robbing a bank and murder. Evans, who is unemployed during the peak of the American depression, enjoys escaping the misery of his impoverished day-to-day by reading crime stories and dreaming of a more exciting, thrill-seeking life than the one he has. When Wells, on the run, turns up in his family barn, Evans is intoxicated and the two plot a dangerous getaway to a better life.
Interestingly, Cole’s character in Dreamland has parallels with Michael. Both lost their birth fathers at a young age to alcoholism, both work hard for their families in the difficult depression era and both are eventually seduced by the glamour of crime. Cole’s role in Animal Kingdom has similarities too, with his character being front and centre in a criminal family.
Why is he drawn to playing such characters? “I think the period element is really what gets me going,” Cole says. “There are so many elements to it that they’re exciting. There’s an element of fantasy in both Animal Kingdom and Peaky Blinders but they’re both real in lots of ways… In Dreamland, it’s a little bit of that too. It’s that Bonny-and-Clyde story and then reality hits – and I like it when reality hits. I like when characters suffer in stories because that’s real life and that’s what we all go through.”
From a young age, Cole enjoyed drama that was rooted in real life. Raised in Kingston-Upon-Thames, south west London, Cole became interested in drama at school and eventually joined the National Youth Theatre in his teens. With a group of his drama-loving mates, he ventured to Edinburgh, putting on plays about ordinary people’s daily struggles. “I always loved acting,” Cole says. “I always loved realism. I loved the theatre, specifically small audience, real-sets stuff.”
“My brother Joe and I had a blast on ‘Peaky Blinders’”
Cole’s professional acting career began after he landed the role in Peaky Blinders. The experience was made even more special by the fact his elder brother, Joe, was already in the show playing younger Shelby sibling, John. “I’m very lucky to have an older brother in the industry,” Cole says. “We had such a blast filming together on Peaky. I always ask him questions and he always asks me questions. We’re really good mates – I’ll call him once or twice a week to catch up.” He swells with pride talking about Joe and his impressive career. “It’s really nice to be able to see Joe do all the other stuff that he’s doing [like hit 2020 drama Gangs Of London]… it’s really exciting.” Cole makes it clear they are very close.
There are also another three Cole brothers in addition to Finn and Joe – but don’t expect the next acting dynasty to emerge any time soon. “At the moment it’s just Joe and I, but who knows?” Cole laughs. “I wouldn’t put it past them. We’re all very creative.” As well as sharing a love of the arts, Cole says they all bond over sport too – especially Manchester United (Cole’s father and grandfather were originally from Middleton in Greater Manchester).
Since that first audition, Cole has grown from a peripheral cast member to the one threatening head-honcho and Shelby family patriarch, Tommy (Cillian Murphy). The end of season five saw a furious showdown between both as Michael sought to take over the running of the entire Shelby empire. Looking ahead to the next series, where does he think Michael will end up?
“He could be the one who betrayed Tommy, but there are a number of other candidates. I think going up against Tommy would probably be a mistake,” he says, referring to Tommy’s formidable record of dealing with those who seek to challenge him. “I hope [Michael] doesn’t betray the family too much because people really didn’t like it last time,” he laughs, after audiences reacted furiously on social media to his actions. “But it’s very exciting,” he continues, “I can’t wait to get back to work and for the fans to see it because they’ve been waiting so patiently for so long now: it’s about time we gave them something.”
“I’m hoping ‘Peaky Blinders’ season six will be ready by the end of 2021”
And when can we expect to see the new episodes? “I’m hoping that we can go back to work next year and that we can have things ready for you by the end of the year,” he reveals, but stresses that nothing is set in stone. Script wise, he doesn’t know what to expect and hasn’t seen any drafts yet.
“The fantastic thing about working with Steve [Knight, creator], from an actor’s perspective, is you will always be surprised and they’ll always be something good in the script. I always say – and this isn’t me being difficult – when anyone asks me about what I think might happen, I can tell you everything I think might happen but one thing I can guarantee is that none of it will be true and none of it will actually happen because Steve has one of those brains that will never fail to come up with something more interesting than I could ever think of.”
Indeed, one of the ideas mooted by Knight last year was a number of potential Peaky Blinders spin-off shows. Would Cole be up for a Michael Gray spin-off if the opportunity arrived? “Yes!” he beams, without hesitation. “If the writing was great, and it usually is with Steve, and the story was good, I’d be open to the idea, of course.”
Cole’s past, present and future (if those spinoffs come through) is clearly dominated by Peaky Blinders, but it’s not the only part that made people pay attention. After he made his debut on the show in 2014, he played a central role in the BBC’s adaptation of J.B. Priestley’s classic mystery An Inspector Calls and in Slaughterhouse Rulez, he earned praise for his leading role as Don Wallace on the big screen. Now, he’s made the leap to Hollywood.
“I’ve looked up to Margot Robbie for years”
Was a starring role alongside one of Hollywood’s most sought-after actors ever a daunting prospect for him? “Yes, it was,” Cole says. “But I never really saw [the part] as a leading man in a Hollywood movie,” he adds, his humble nature quickly embarrassed when talk of success arrives. He continues: “I think it was more [of an] opportunity for me to test myself and learn from someone like Margot Robbie who I’ve looked up to for years. I’ve admired her career, choices and taste, but not only that,” Cole adds. “It was her attitude, her personality, her way of dealing with people who are working for her – it gets the best out of those individuals creatively.”
Filming took place in hot, arid, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Cole had to drop 10 kilos and fast daily so as to resemble an impoverished, unemployed resident of the Dust Bowl. There was also the not-so-insignificant matter of a few steamy scenes with Robbie (including a night-time skinny dip and motel shower) which leave little to the imagination. “I would say that lake we got into was just about the coldest lake I have ever been in,” Cole laughs as he elegantly swerves speaking about some of the scene’s finer details. Was it nerve-wracking? “I’m not sure if it was the cold or nerves [that made us shiver] in that scene,” he laughs. “It was probably a bit of both.”
Cole, who comes across as someone eager to study his craft and push himself in more challenging directions, says he learned much from working with Robbie. “Just being there and watching her do her thing was fascinating and really cool [like] how she works her way through the material, how [she made] every take feel different and fresh,” he says. “There was a buzz to it which kept me on my toes, that kept me focussed in all of those scenes, that made me want to do my very best… Choosing the moments to be more emotional, more aggressive, more subtle, more natural and [knowing when] to throw things away.”
He compares it to his experience on Peaky Blinders with Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy. Cole had challenging on-screen moments with both during heated arguments. “It can be daunting doing scenes like that,” Cole says. “But those guys [were] so welcoming. I was so lucky working with Tom and Cillian to be able to try things in that performance that maybe I wouldn’t have tried if it was a less inviting actor on the other side… nine times out of ten, that doesn’t work, getting up and shouting in someone’s face. Other people giving you confidence is great and I’m lucky they gave me [those] moments and they’ve allowed me to test myself and try things.”
Another set where he’s been allowed to test himself is on the new Fast and Furious film (the ninth in the series), which arrives next summer after its release was pushed back due to the coronavirus pandemic. “I’ve always loved the franchise,” Cole says of the series which has grossed almost $6billion worldwide so far. “I think they do what they do brilliantly and their reach – it is just extraordinary. I was excited to see those guys at work,” he says of The Rock and co., on what was his biggest set experience to date. “Meeting those guys was awesome. I saw a very different side to the industry than I was used to, working in TV and smaller films. It’s huge to work on a film like that.”
While he can’t reveal too much about his role in the upcoming film yet, he hints it might not be the last for the franchise. “It’s a small role, I can say that. I didn’t get to spend the whole year there. They obviously have months of shooting together so I didn’t get to spend all that time with them…but who knows? Maybe there’s an opportunity to do another one of those in the future.”
“Working on ‘Fast and Furious 9’ was huge”
Discussing the scale of a set like Furious leads Cole to talking about the film industry shutdown this year – and his frustration at seeing thousands of crew members suffering as a result of the lack of sufficient financial support from the government. Suddenly serious, he comes across as someone with a keen sense of justice.
“The film industry has been hit really, really hard and this government, as we can see, are doing absolutely nothing to help,” he says firmly. “It’s really sad. I follow [some] crew members on social media and I can see they’re unable to work and are struggling. I think our industry has been left behind in lots of ways and people need to stand up and say something and do something about it if they want it to continue.”
He adds: “It’s not just me who makes this stuff. It’s hundreds and hundreds of [production crew] and we couldn’t do it without them. Until there’s some certainty from our leaders then who knows [what will happen].”
For now, Cole hopes his work can give people some escape from the 2020 pandemic. “All over the world people are having problems,” he says. “I hope that the shows I’ve been working on can bring some kind of entertainment and respite for people who’ve been struggling, at the very least.”
“The film industry has been hit really, really hard by COVID”
With filming due to end on Animal Kingdom in a week, Cole plans to head home to his family and friends, travel restrictions permitting. While he may now be a Hollywood leading man, the ever-humble actor has his feet planted firmly on the ground, remaining true to his roots. “Family and friends are really what my life is about when I’m not working,” he says. But working will continue for a while yet. Whether it be a new Peaky spin off, a Fast and Furious follow up or another leading Hollywood role, Cole is here to stay.