Rahul Kohli's Sheriff Hassan Is the True Hero of 'Midnight Mass'
The British actor plays the small-town sheriff with perfect compassion and poise, though he would probably disagree.
Rahul Kohli is way too hard on himself. The British actor who first made waves with his performance as Ravi in the CW's iZombie turned heads—and inspired loads of memes and internet love—when he stepped into the role of Owen, the bespectacled, mustached cook, in Mike Flanagan's The Haunting of Bly Manor. Midnight Mass is his second collaboration with the writer-director and, as much as he loves the work, his creative relationship with Flanagan, and the on-set experience, he simply believes he's not that good at what he does.
"I'm not the best actor," Kohli said plainly. "Mike, at this point in his career, can have his pick of anyone he wants." Respectfully, he's selling himself short.
In Midnight Mass, the iZombie alum plays Sheriff Hassan, a lawman in the small island and overwhelmingly Catholic community of Crockett Island. His skin color, religion, and culture ends up positioning Hassan in perpetual standby mode. But as people begin to go missing and odd miracles are performed at St. Patrick's Church at the hands of the mysterious new preacher, Father Paul (Hamish Linklater), Hassan is forced to reckon with his personal demons, and the rift in his relationship with his son, in order to step up and figure out what in the hell is going on.
Speaking to Thrillist during a lengthy chat over Zoom, Kohli dove deep into his passion for creating the characters he plays, acknowledges the video game influence of The Last Of Us on the project, and points to the two things that really brought the character to life for him on the page: He's America's hero, John Wayne, and America's post-9/11 villain, a brown Muslim man, fused together. And his ongoing struggle with imposter syndrome. We also talk about that.
This interview features mild spoilers for Midnight Mass and has been edited for length and clarity.
Thrillist: Midnight Mass was supposed to start production right when the pandemic hit. What was that shut down experience like for you?
Rahul Kohli: I was the only one celebrating. I was on Bly Manor and I think I had a three week turnaround from Owen into Sheriff Hassan. I'm playing this guy where I have to learn Arabic, Islamic prayers, speak with an American accent, and play 40-something when I'm 34. I was also, at that time, told to put on some weight for this guy to look older. So I put on 30 pounds.
In three weeks?
I didn't do it immediately on Bly. But towards that last episode, I did. I did it fast. I barely was back in LA. I did a ride-along with the LAPD and I was going to the gun range. I was doing this accent in the show and was working with a dialect coach privately and just cramming, cramming, cramming, cramming, cramming when I could.
Again, you only had three weeks to do this?
Right. There were a lot of moving pieces for me, and I wasn't ready. I got to the table read. We were shooting on a Monday and the table read was on a Wednesday, or something like that, and I wasn't ready. And then Friday, we got a call: We're shutting down for two weeks. And then two weeks turn into a month. And then, months.
I just couldn't hold onto the weight. I started to have signs of health issues. I ended up texting Mike around July with a picture of Joel, [the main character] from The Last of Us. And I said, "What do you think about the Sheriff looking like this, instead?" And Mike immediately was like, "Fuck yeah! That's the look. That's the one." We did the look and I had to lose the weight.
Aside from The Last of Us influence, what other work did you do to get into character?
So, I spent a lot of time researching. It was my own indulgence because I'm such a huge fan. I was watching spaghetti westerns. I was rewatching Deadwood. I wanted to make sure that the audience saw the silhouette of the sheriff and thought of everything they've seen before. The mannerisms, the pose, the walk, the pace. Everything. That's the small-town sheriff. John Wayne. That's the guy. And when the lights come on, they'd be like, "But he looks like that!?" That was my main aim at where that character was concerned.
What sort of character conversations did you have with Rahul Abburi, who plays your son in the series?
I am very honest and candid about my experiences. I do regret that I isolated myself intentionally from the cast, which I did. I wouldn't bond. I wouldn't let anyone in. I was so much in my own head. But also, it was a pandemic. We get bubbled. And then when you get to work, you get me with headphones in, sitting in the corner somewhere. Hamish [Linklater] called me out on this, actually, the other day on Instagram, because it was one of my biggest regrets. Just not spending more time with Hamish, learning from him, and watching him work.
I do regret it. And the same goes for Rahul, who played my son, Ali. He's such a sweet kid, and I didn't mess with him because he shouldn't know who I am. I wanted him to feel like we didn't have a bond because they don't on the show. So I don't think Rahul ever got to know me.
As someone who isn't a fan of horror movies but is a diehard video game fan, was there any pop-culture point of reference in your head regarding the depiction of survivors fighting vampires that helped you in those scenes?
My career has been really funny because it's been zombies, ghosts, Batman villains, Gears of War... I've been doing these really dope things that are genre. And [vampires] were missing. I hadn't played in that world before. I was like, "Well, that fits with the rest of my credits." Like, yeah, let's get into some of that. As long as I don't sparkle.
Joel from The Last of Us was a big influence, visually, but also there's the game—survival horror. I was cosplaying, to be honest. I was basically doing it before Pedro Pascal did it. I'm having fun. I'm doing my own Last of Us in my head on the last episode.
You've been rather vocal about your personal issues with your work. Aside from the fact that many would disagree with this stance, talk to me about the experience of meeting your fans. Has that helped position your performances in a different light for you?
When I meet someone who's dressed as a character, I'm always like, "if it resonates with you, it's wonderful." It's the best feeling in the world that I've provided some really iconic costumes for brown men and brown women. I saw a ton of gender-bent Owens last year. I know, as someone who did go to London Comic-Con when I was a kid. I was looking at who could I dress up as, and it was always a race bent version of something. So when iZombie came out, and I started to see brown men dressed as Ravi and not have to do anything. That's the correct look. That's the code. That's it. You look like the dude [I played] from the show and that meant the world to me.
You've been pretty specific in the details you put into creating your characters, so far.
I do take a lot of time. And I do methodically plan out what my character looks like. I think I have a knack. That's the one time I will toot my own horn. Because I am more hard on myself and I don't like my work. But I am good at knowing what makes a good-looking character. And Ravi was a lot. I had a lot of input over that. I had a lot with Owen with the mustache and the glasses, there. Then the sheriff's the same. I love how I look in it. I took that costume home. I know Mike's got the same one, that double denim with the Crockett Island badges and all of the stuff with the cowboy boots. I know that when we go back to Comic-Cons or Halloween parties, there's going to be a couple of boys that now get to be the brown sheriff. And that's cool.