Oliver Jackson-Cohen Likes to Play the Bad Guy

The British actor is developing a reputation for villains and complex antagonists, as seen in 'The Invisible Man,' 'The Lost Daughter,' and the new Apple TV+ series 'Surface.'

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Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

The new Apple TV+ thriller series Surface casts a cryptic pall over Oliver Jackson-Cohen. Watch a few episodes and you'll be convinced his character, a San Francisco-based venture capitalist named James, is up to no good, concealing secrets from his amnesiac wife, Sophie (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who recently attempted suicide. After seeing Jackson-Cohen as a villainous stalker in The Invisible Man, a manipulative ghost in The Haunting of Bly Manor, and a menace in The Lost Daughter, it's easy to buy into the intrigue. The 35-year-old British actor seems to be making a career out of playing bad guys. In this case, there may be more beneath the, ahem, surface.

During a recent Zoom conversation, Jackson-Cohen, who has a wide smile and attentive eyes, made clear why he has gravitated toward mysterious roles, including in the forthcoming Amazon series Wilderness, a "twisted love story" about revenge. Early in his career, when he starred in the would-be action blockbuster Faster opposite Dwayne Johnson, he felt out of place, realizing he craved more nuance. That led to parts in the Australian miniseries The Secret River, BBC's Man in an Orange Shirt, and Netflix's aforementioned Haunting anthology.

"This idea of masculinity and the way that men are portrayed—this sounds so cliché, but I'm quite sensitive," he says. "I feel quite vulnerable a lot of the time." He wants his work to reflect that, even when the bad guys think they're immune to vulnerability.

Ahead of Surface's July 29 premiere, Thrillist talked to Jackson-Cohen about calibrating his on-screen villainy, finding his way in Hollywood, and not wanting to be "sexualized."

Thrillist: You get the scripts for Surface. Is there any part of you that says, "Another bad dude"?
Oliver Jackson-Cohen: But is he a bad dude? The thing that's great about Surface is that nothing is ever what it seems. And then when you think you know and you are given answers, there's constantly more that comes out. What I love about these characters is that, including Sophie, they all live in a gray area. Of course, we have to set up certain things that put people, in an audience's mind, in certain categories. But the joy of it is to subvert that, and it happens multiple times throughout the season. So I don't know necessarily if I approached it as playing another bad guy. I think he's an incredibly complex, flawed individual.

Surface sets up a seemingly bad dude who's shadowy and enigmatic but maybe not what we think he is. The Invisible Man sets up a seemingly bad dude who very much is a bad dude. How do you calibrate those differences?
In Invisible Man, he's psychotic, so that's his category. That was pretty straightforward. The thing about that movie that I thought was so much fun was that, again, we wanted to trip people up. You had this idea of who this person was so that when you properly met him in the final act, we wanted it to be so disarming. That in itself is so disturbing. They are very, very different characters, but with James, we are dealing with someone that is holding onto secrets, and that can be read so many different ways. It can be read as dangerous and untrustworthy, and potentially it is.

We played with this idea very early on with Sam Miller, the director, about putting a coat over someone's shoulder. It can be seen as a genuine act of kindness or an act of possessiveness. There is something quite delicious about that as well. But with James, I knew right from the get-go the full extent of what happened and the history. Is he a good guy, or is he a bad guy? I don't really know. That's what's so interesting.

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Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in 'Surface' | Apple TV+

Your character Toni from The Lost Daughter raises some interesting questions along these lines as well. We don't get a lot of backstory for him. We often see him on the periphery, looking intimidating and angry and maybe abusive-seeming. Who was Toni to you?
Toni, to me, was actually quite terrifying. [Lost Daughter director] Maggie Gyllenhaal and I spoke about this a lot. Originally, I met Maggie for a different part, and—

Was that the Paul Mescal part?
No, I'm too old for that. He's 10 years younger than me. No, it was to play Jessie Buckley's husband. I met her, and then they hired Jack Farthing. The Toni part was written as this 60-year-old, overweight and bald. And then Maggie just had this idea, and so she rewrote it a bit. We wanted him to be unsettling, but I genuinely think Toni is a person that I would really not want to be around. We talked about what he gets up to. He quite clearly has multiple mistresses and has probably managed to stay out of jail for quite a while.

Usually when we think of costumes really informing a character, we think of something more like a movie you recently did, Mr. Malcolm's List—an extravagant period piece set in the 1800s in Europe. Toni has the opposite: slicked-back hair and black muscle tees. What did the look of that character do for you?
Oh my god, so much. Our costume designer, Ed Gibbon, was incredible. I remember the first fitting: We had to figure out what Toni wears when he arrives [in Greece] on his boat. And he just said, "I feel like he went to Miami and bought this, and this was so expensive." It's a Gucci shirt and matching shorts with some horrific design on it and a gold cross. All of that stuff is so helpful. Again, I can't speak highly enough of Maggie.

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Panos Koronis and Oliver Jackson-Cohen in 'The Lost Daughter' | Netflix

You have the physique of a traditional movie star. You look like somebody who should be in a Mad Max or a Marvel blockbuster or something like that. What has stopped you from either getting or taking those roles?
I've had quite an interesting path to this. When I first started, I was 21 or 22. I had to leave drama school because I got a job, and I was moved over to LA to do an action film. It never resonated well with me. Those films are hugely enjoyable, but I feel like what I get great joy from is delving into something that's maybe a bit more complex, character-wise. Also, I've never felt comfortable trading on, I guess in a way, being sexualized. I would much rather that any outward stuff is either irrelevant or is an added thing.

When you say "sexualized," are you thinking about the physical regimen required to get the eight-pack and biceps that guys in blockbusters now have?
I've done it for jobs before, where I've been thrown in gyms, eating chicken breasts at 4am. It's an experience in itself. To me, that's not really why I do this job or why I love the job. It's very much a thing in itself, which I fully respect. It's just that I'm looking for more substance than being whittled down to a body. As much as it would be great fun to go and do, to wear a superhero suit or being in a Fast and Furious or whatever it is, up until now, I have always just wanted to be dealing with nuances of humanity. I feel that's where I get really invested and excited at the moment.

Before action movies were the dominant genre, the movie stars of yesterday were beautiful and sculpted and godlike, but they weren't inhumanly built. Now there is an expectation put on actors to go to great lengths to look a certain way. And I don't know that it's healthy for anyone.
My hat comes off to people that do these rigorous trainings. A friend of mine has just done a Marvel movie, and it's so much work. It's incredible that people are able to do that with themselves. I think that this has been a lifelong thing about the unrealistic expectations we are putting out into the world. I remember doing a job with an actor once who had to do a scene where they just sat on the edge of a bed in their underwear. This was years ago, and a producer came in and said, "Do you want to put a sheet across?" And she said, "No. This is me. I have a responsibility to show bodies as they are."

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Victoria Pedretti and Oliver Jackson-Cohen in 'The Haunting of Hill House' | Netflix

Faster must have been an interesting experience because we think of Dwayne Johnson as box-office gold, and that movie really did not take off. You put in all this work, you did this thing that felt a little uncomfortable, and then people didn't really pay attention to it. Was that part of your reaction to how to move forward afterward?
I do have to say: Dwayne and Billy Bob Thornton were just incredible. I was a kid from nowhere. It was quite a harrowing thing because I feel deeply embarrassed by what I did in that. I watched the movie and was like, "Oh my god, I'm terrible. This is horrific." I probably should talk to a therapist about it. After watching that movie, it completely shattered my confidence. It was quite a hard punch in the face. And actually it was a good lesson. It was a good experience to go through to learn how the world works. With that particular movie, I feel like I was trying to put so much humanity into someone that should have just been a hit man. I think that what it did do is it made me go, "Okay, I think I need to work with stuff that's probably better suited to who I am as a person."

You were bringing layers to Faster, and they were not needed. But there are many layers to your characters in the Haunting series or Surface. Are you conscious of finding new ways to peel those layers?
The Haunting of Hill House was such an important turning point. The reception of it was incredible, but the actual doing of the job was very important to me. It was the first time when nothing was expected of me. I could be as vulnerable as I feel. I didn't have to pretend to be anything other than that. I've been very lucky since then. I feel very proud of the output. That's not to say that I get it right—I don't know if I do. But this process of making them feels right to me. I made a marked decision after doing something on NBC—I was like, "What am I doing?" I took a break and I was like, "I need to only do things now that mean something." I sound like such a fucking actor cliché, but I feel I'm better suited for that.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Matthew Jacobs is an entertainment editor at Thrillist. Follow him on Twitter @majacobs.