Be honest. Do you have the guts to put your face half an inch or so from Tom Hardy’s, then scream at him at the top of your lungs? Remember, the guy is Mad Max, Batman villain Bane and Charles Bronson, all rolled into one. He’s also built like a bull.
Finn Cole does. “It was quite challenging,” he admits now, remembering the explosive final episode of the third series of Peaky Blinders, the smash-hit BBC gangster thriller set in inter-war Birmingham, when he did just that. Aged 20 when it was shot a few years ago, he dished out similar treatment to Cillian Murphy in the same scene. Like Hardy, Murphy is one of Hollywood’s most in-demand talents. Like Hardy, he’s almost two decades older than Cole.
“It is difficult to go toe-to-toe with those characters,” says Cole, referring to Tommy (played by Murphy), the head of the Shelby crime family and Alfie Solomons (Hardy), an unnervingly unhinged Jewish gangster. “But Tom and Cillian are such great guys and such talented actors. From a young age, even before I thought I could be an actor, I watched their movies and looked up to them. I still do, so that experience was amazing. I’m still on a high.”
If it was a watershed moment for Cole’s career, it might have been the same for his character. He plays Michael Gray, cousin of the brothers who make up the nucleus of the infamous Peaky Blinders. (Cole’s older brother Joe plays one of his on-screen cousins.) Michael was brought up away from the violence and criminality that shaped his relatives but, having joined the family business in the second series, morphs from a clean-cut accountant into a ruthless gangster by the end of the third.
“From day one when I first read the scenes, it was clear to me what I wanted to do,” says Cole, describing the transformation. “My influences were the Godfather and stories about [Colombian drug lord Pablo] Escobar. Although they’re terrible human beings, they are quite incredible. I’ve always been fascinated by that power and how someone gets it. Not that I could ever do it in real life.”
"It is difficult to go toe-to-toe with those characters..."
Speaking in the Rosewood Hotel in central London after sitting for the louche and luxurious images you see here, Cole says he’d love to wear some of the pieces from today’s shoot on the red carpet. But his everyday wardrobe is pared back and relaxed. “I love comfort. I prefer a baggier pair of jeans. I wear a lot of converse, a lot of Adidas. I love Cos, because I’ve got a big bum and big thighs, but the stuff fits me.”
“My hair’s in a weird place at the moment,” he says, messing it up with his fingers. “I’m in between jobs, so I’m growing it out for the next project. We’ll see what they want.” In Peaky Blinders a number of the characters sport quite extreme ‘high fade’ hairstyles, shaved almost to the skin at the back and sides. “I’m lucky enough to escape that,” says Cole. “But they still go pretty tight.”
Aside from his role in Peaky, which he recently reprised for the fifth series, Cole plays Joshua Cody, a young member of another crime family, in Animal Kingdom, which is broadcast on the US cable network, TNT. In 2018 he appeared in Slaughterhouse Rulez, the first film from a new production company from Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who teamed up on screen for Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. It was a change of pace for Cole: a comedy, in which he played the lead Don Wallace, who has to deal with a supernatural sinkhole and his first days at a historic English boarding school at the same time.
During his own school days in Kingston in South West London, Cole was a keen rugby player, but his acting career means that he’s had to hang up his boots. “I’d love to still be playing,” he says. “But if you try to play it ‘safely’ then you’re actually more likely to give yourself a bad injury.” At the moment, the limited time off he has is spent hanging out with friends from home.
“I have surrounded myself with quite creative people – a lot of musicians – and so I love to go and watch my friends play. We’ll go and watch live music together or make music together.” He plays guitar, too, and lists BB King and Muddy Waters, along with newer artists such as White Denim or Jacob Collier, among his favourites. “Or we just hang out – watching movies or going to the pub and having a drink. It’s a lot of that.”
Cole already has a sizeable social media following (his Instagram account has 520,000 followers) but says that while fans of Peaky and Animal Kingdom do occasionally come up to him in the street, his day-to-day life isn’t affected. “Although there has been the odd time I’ve been sitting in a restaurant and someone’s been looking at me for a very long period of time and I wonder if [they might recognise him]. I never say anything.”
"From day one when I first read the scenes, it was clear to me what I wanted to do..."
With an increasingly prominent role in Peaky, continued US success and the lead in Frost and Pegg’s movie – as well as an as-yet unnamed role in 2020’s Fast & Furious 9 – that might not be the case for much longer. So, with his career clearly travelling on an upward trajectory, has he thought about who he might like to collaborate with one day? He mentions Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Gary Oldman. They’re all capable of intense, menacing performances. Is that what he admires? “I think it’s the subtlety,” he says.
“One of my favourite actors is Mark Rylance [Wolf Hall, Dunkirk]. He can sit in a box and do nothing for hours and I can’t take my eyes off him. He’s got something that genuinely blows me away. If you compared his facial expressions in two photographs, you might not be able to tell a difference. But, from the performance, you pick something up from actors like that. It’s like a sixth sense.
“Hopefully I’ve got a lot of time to collaborate,” he adds. “Whether that’s in acting or other creative formats. I can’t wait.” If that scene with Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy is anything to go by, then neither can we.