Sheyi Cole Talks Netflix’s ‘The Beautiful Game’ and Breaking Through With Steve McQueen’s ‘Small Axe’ (EXCLUSIVE)

British actor Sheyi Cole has a prominent role in Thea Sharrock’s Netflix original film “The Beautiful Game.”

The film revolves around the Homeless World Cup, an annual soccer tournament bringing together displaced or dispossessed players from nearly 50 countries, playing not merely for a trophy but for a second shot at life. Cole plays Jason, a would-be ladies’ man given a sharp #MeToo education when he inappropriately comes onto sparky Mexican-American player Rosita (Cristina Rodio).

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“One thing that was great about Thea is that she was so hands on – any concerns that we had, she was willing to have conversations and was able to alleviate any concerns that we essentially had, surrounding that conversation with Jason,” Cole told Variety. “I think what she really wanted to highlight was Jason’s naivety and innocence. And the lack of role models that he had in his life. So although Jason does make grave mistakes, she didn’t want it to come from a knowing place. I think she wanted it to come from a place of innocence and a place of childlike naivety that she wanted to explore.”

“Although he does make these mistakes, I wanted to get the audience to really feel for him. And I really wanted the audience to look at Jason and go ‘Aah, I wish I could just take him under under my wing and gave him some guidance,'” Cole added.

The Beautiful Game
“The Beautiful Game”

The bulk of the film is set in Rome and the cast underwent a boot camp under the tutelage of soccer choreographer Mike Delaney. “He’s worked with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and all these huge spearheads in the football [soccer] industry. So it almost felt a little bit like I was a professional footballer,” Cole said.

Cole says that Jason’s character’s behavior is informed by a lack of role models, something the actor had plenty in real life. Cole studied at the BRIT School and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. His phone background since BRIT School has been Sidney Poitier, holding his Oscar.

“That’s something that I think day in day out and that really inspired me to not just become an actor, but to be able to be an actor at the highest level, and to really, truly achieve greatness, and mass success in the craft,” Cole said. “Sidney Poitier has been someone that has really driven me and more currently, it will be people like Daniel Kaluuya and Denzel Washington. And of course, honestly the best and my favorite actor I’ve ever met and the most exciting actor, it has to be Leonardo DiCaprio. He is someone that throughout my life, just never failed to surprise me or inspire me. I love his work.”

In his gap year after the BRIT School, Cole joined several youth theater companies. He also found representation with The Artists Partnership. While studying at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Cole continued auditioning and that’s when the big break came, playing the title role of Alex Wheatle, a Black British novelist who was sentenced prison after the 1981 Brixton uprising, in a segment of Steve McQueen’s acclaimed anthology film “Small Axe” (2020). “Sheyi Cole, who has never been in a movie before, and has a brainy sullen sensuality that could take him far, makes Alex a glowering chameleon,” said the Variety review of the film.

Small Axe Alex Wheatle
Sheyi Cole as Alex Wheatle in “Small Axe.”

“Steve is a living legend. He’s an icon, and he’s a genius. And when someone of that level reaches out and sees those qualities in you, there is an element of responsibility, an element of pure nerves that run through your body,” Cole said. “Playing Alex Wheatle will always be an honor for me. And it’s something that I will never ever forget. Steve gave me my own space to really walk into this industry and throw myself in the deep end, without any stabilizers. At the time, it was completely nerve wracking, I was full of fear. But when I look back at that moment, in that period of time, I’m extremely grateful. Because I learned so much, I learned how to lead. I learned how to express myself in different ways. Physically, I was able to transport myself back to a time that I wasn’t able to actually live and be in. But due to the research, and due to his help, and the team surrounding me, I was really able to, in a way, take myself there.”

“He’s almost like a dad to me in this industry. I honestly owe him a lot. I wouldn’t be here without him,” Cole added. “When you work with an auteur like Steve McQueen, the whole world wants to tap in and everybody wants to see what what he’s making. So I had a lot of eyes on me very early on my career.” The actor says that “Small Axe” opened the doors to subsequent roles in Donald Glover’s “Atlanta,” Steven Soderbergh’s “Full Circle” and romcom film “Boxing Day.”

Next up for Cole are several independent films and he’s also working some music, which he describes as his “first love.”

“The Beautiful Game” is streaming now on Netflix. Cole is represented by The Artists Partnership and WME and managed by Luber Roklin Entertainment.

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