It’s familiar territory for Cole, who previously played gangsters in “Animal Kingdom” and “Peaky Blinders,” but “Dreamland” also represented a big step forward for the actor, who gets top billing in a movie alongside an Oscar-nominated star. Cole threw himself into the role, losing weight in advance of a steamy shower scene with Robbie, and researching the Dust Bowl to get a sense of the extreme poverty that led people to turn to crime. “Dreamland” premiered in limited release on Nov. 13 and will debut on demand on Nov. 17.
Cole spoke with Variety about working with Robbie, his attraction to sociopathic characters and what to expect from “Animal Kingdom’s” next season (be warned: spoilers abound in that part of the interview).
Why did you want to make “Dreamland”?
Coming-of-age stories are always appealing, especially as a young man who’s still trying to figure out this complicated world. The time period was also attractive. Everything in that era of the 1930s was built to last — cars, buildings, weapons. There was so much passion in everything that was created. The design on vehicles, the costumes, it’s like a different world. And as I started to uncover who was involved, my enthusiasm grew and grew.
What kind of research did you do?
I read a lot of books about the period and looked at photographs from the time. The images give you a sense of how poor people really were. It was so dry and there was dust everywhere. It was a filter that was covering the landscape. My character’s finances were quite tight and he came from poverty. So there was a bit of weight loss involved, a bit of dieting and lots of jogging. That added to the onset feeling of deprivation.
How much weight did you lose?
I guess they thought I was on the heavier side. I’d been working out a little bit before I auditioned for the role. I probably lost about 10 kilos in total. I needed to do it before I got my kit off onscreen.
What was Margot Robbie like to work with?
When I was on the train going in for my audition in London to meet Margot, I was very nervous. I had prepared as much as I could, but I worried I was going to forget the lines. That’s credit to how impressive I thought Margot was, because I don’t usually get like that. As soon as she walked into the room and we got to know each other, that immediately dropped. She’s got a welcoming personality and from day one I felt like we were collaborating together. She listened to everything I had to say. I learned so much from her. I believe she made me a stronger actor.
Your character starts off reading lots of pulp novels and mythologizing gangsters. Over the course of the film, his views about criminal life change dramatically. How would you describe his arc?
He’s very naive and innocent when the film starts. He wants to find some purpose in his life. Then he thinks he may have found it. His stepfather is a cop. He wants to find this lady and get this bounty. When he does come across her unexpectedly and she manipulates him. As he grows into himself a little bit more and gets the confidence to ask questions of this lady he’s in awe of, he understands what this criminal lifestyle is like, but he’s committed at this stage and he doesn’t want to be a failure like his father was. We see a new character come to life as that confidence grows.
Your film and television work, such as “Peaky Blinders,” “Animal Kingdom” and now “Dreamland,” tends to center on people who get seduced into a world of crime. What attracts you to those roles?
I’m fascinated by personalities that succeed in that way of life and those that fail in that way of life. I’m really intrigued about why and what makes someone be able to make these decisions and not feel remorse or guilt. I like to look into what makes a human being take that path. Maybe that makes me slightly sociopathic, I don’t know. You don’t hear many stories about people who grow up, have normal lives, pay taxes and pay bills, have mortgages and have kids. You hear stories about Billy the Kid for a reason.
At the risk of sharing spoilers, “Animal Kingdom” closed out Season 4 with the death of Smurf (Ellen Barkin). How is the Cody family coping?
We’re back to figuring out how to survive without our leader. Without spoiling it, there’s a lot to be excited about in the upcoming season. We start to see these characters coming out of their shells a little bit more and explore different parts of their personalities. There’s a lot more action going on, too.
What’s it like to not have Ellen Barkin on set?
We miss her dreadfully. She was a great leader and a great teacher. It’s been weird, but that’s part of the creative process to try to figure out as characters how to move on and be better.