In his Netflix series The Haunting Of Hill House, writer-director Mike Flanagan tells the story of Olivia and Hugh Crain moving their five children into what turns out to be an extremely haunted house. Oliver Jackson-Cohen was the show’s breakout as Luke, the joint-youngest Crain child (with twin sister Nell); while all the Crain siblings are irrevocably changed by their residence in Hill House, it is only Luke who struggles with an addiction — to heroin, which he uses to self-medicate the lingering trauma from his contact with literal ghosts, one of which haunts him into adulthood.
Jackson-Cohen had been a steadily working actor — mostly in his native England — but Hill House vaulted him to more and higher-profile roles. You’ve seen him shine in horror, opposite Elisabeth Moss in The Invisible Man and in Flanagan’s next Netflix series, The Haunting Of Bly Manor. You’ve also seen him as one of the taciturn men lurking around the fringes of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s writer-director début, The Lost Daughter.
Now, Jackson-Cohen is back on TV inSurface. The latest from Reese Witherspoon’s production company Hello Sunshine, Surface stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Bay Area philanthropist Sophie, newly amnesiac following her suicidal leap (or was it) from a ferry; Jackson-Cohen plays James, her finance-bro husband, who is trying (or is he) to help her piece her life back together. Cohen also currently appears in the new-to-premium-VOD Mr. Malcolm’s List, a Regency romcom with Zawe Ashton and Freida Pinto. GQ spoke to Cohen about his specialty playing “toxic men,” lightening up in a comedy for once, and what makes Maggie Gyllenhaal one of the best directors.
GQ: In the New York Post, you called yourself “the go-to guy for toxic men.” Was any part of you hesitant about playing another rich San Francisco jerk just a couple of years after The Invisible Man?
Oliver Jackson-Cohen: Not really, because I think that there’s something really interesting in the complexities of these men. There are so many layers to them that you get to explore. I don’t know if I’ve ever made a decision, specifically in the past, like four or five years, that has been about, “Oh God, how’s this going to look?” I’d rather play someone like James than play the friendly neighbor, do you know what I mean?
The season really puts James through the wringer. I think we see him both cry and seem like he might kill someone in every episode. You’ve spoken about having a hard time closing the door on roles that are emotionally wrenching like this. Was that the case with Surface?
I think so. I’m probably a therapist’s dream because there is a part of me that’s like, “If it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t count.” I’m not interested in faking it. It probably sounds incredibly clichéd and probably a little bit fucked up, but I feel like I learn so much about myself by going through these emotional turmoils. I guess this one was taxing, but then every job is taxing to a certain extent.
TV shows don’t generally shoot in the order that we see. Given how much it changes over the season, what were the challenges for you and Gugu and keeping your characters’ relationship straight from day to day?
We actually managed to shoot most of the season in order, apart from Episode 6, where we just went away for three weeks, but even that was kept in sequence. It’s the episode where James is telling Sophie everything about their lives [before the start of the series], and they were so generous that, by this point, I’d made all the decisions about the backstory, all of the little things that they’d done and that happened to them. And they let me just sit in front of Gugu, and they put two cameras on us, and they filmed us for, like, 45-minute takes.
I just improvised this whole story, but it was all the story that I knew. And it was the first time for her, hearing it. So that was incredible, to be able to start at the beginning — not too dissimilar to this documentary called Tell Me Who I Am, which inspired the show.
That level of collaboration is unusual in TV or film.
Yeah. I mean, I’ve watched the season once, like this [partially covering his eyes], but what was quite remarkable is that they’ve kept so much of all the stuff that we improvised as well. Working with people like that, who embrace what you bring to the table as much as being respectful of what you need to bring on their end, it’s very lucky.
Luke, your character in Hill House, has issues with substance abuse, and you’ve said you wanted to avoid clichés about it that tend to appear in pop culture. What research did you do with or around the recovery community to make sure that what you and Mike Flanagan created together was truthful?
Well, quite a lot. It was an interesting prep period, for Luke. When they offered it to me, I watched a bunch of documentaries. Then I thought, “No, no, no, this isn’t the right way. I don’t want to play an addict, because these are people.” Playing Luke was not about playing a heroin addict. It was about playing someone that had been so deeply traumatized that he had no choice but to end up in this place, and that it wasn’t his fault. No one fucking wakes up one morning and goes, “I know what I want to do.”
Let’s stay in the horror realm with The Invisible Man. It’s amazing how much I felt not just that there’s a presence in the room with [Elisabeth Moss’s] Cecilia, but that it is specifically Adrian — it still seemed like you even when you’re not on screen. Because it’s not always just special effects or a stand-in: you were there!
In that sexy green suit, yep. Lizzie is such an incredible talent and I just wanted to support that as much as I could. I mean, she’s more than capable of doing it without me, but it just felt like the right thing to do all the stuff that I could do. I mean, some of the stuff were [stunt performers] doing it. I’m glad that you say that: we did want this constant looming threat, so I’m glad that it’s achieved.
But that sexy green suit was horrific. Never ever say yes to green spandex. Ever.
You did a similar thing on The Haunting Of Bly Manor, in the scenes where Miles [Benjamin Evan Ainsworth] is possessed by your character, Peter. Do you ever get stressed out working with children, particularly on something that scary?
I think there’s always a concern when you are working with kids: you don’t want them exposed to anything. Ben and Amelie [Bea Smith, who plays Miles’s sister Flora] were just so incredible, and their moms were with them the whole time. We tried to make their experience as uplifting and as fun as possible. But with Ben, I would sit on set with him, and I would do the scene, and then he would copy what I did. Then I would just sit by the monitor, in his eye line. I mean, kids at that age, they’re such brilliant mimics, you know what I mean?
Apparently I love to do stuff like that offscreen. Maybe I shouldn’t be an actor. It felt very, very important for the story, as with Invisible Man. Whether or not people will notice that, I don’t care, but I feel like all this minutiae hopefully adds up to something in the end.
When I was going back through your older press, it was impossible not to notice the dates on all those pieces about The Invisible Man: it really was the last big movie to come out pre-COVID, and your first big splashy Hollywood movie. What was it like for you to have the movie and lockdown happen right on top of each other?
It was mad. Like, it was really quite mad. I remember getting home from the press tour and then four days later the world shut down. But it was exciting in a weird way. Even as quarantine was happening, I remember Universal pivoting quite quickly to say, “We are going to release this at home and people are going to stream it for like 700 bucks.” It became this thing that people were doing, watching at home even though it had just come out.
So I feel so proud of that movie. But my dad just had passed away, and three days later I went on a press tour for The Invisible Man. The whole press tour, it was like, “What is happening?”
Then I got home. The movie was this huge success. My family was a mess. And then the world shut down. From March to September was such a bizarre time — for everyone, of course. That’s why when the quarantine lifted in September and I went and did The Lost Daughter, it came at such an important time for me personally, with what had happened that year. It was life-affirming stuff, being in Greece with all these people that I respect so much and just having a laugh — and being with any people when we hadn’t been for so long.
Your director on The Last Daughter, Maggie Gyllenhaal, is, of course, a prolific actress. Leigh Whannell also has a background in acting. How does it change your process when you and your director can relate as peers in that way?
It’s like a completely different language that’s spoken, because there’s such an understanding. Maggie’s a phenomenal actor, but I think an even more phenomenal director and writer. She said this very early on: “I hire people that I trust. So whatever it is that you are going to do, it’s going to work, but what flavors do we want to bring?” On set, she’s like, “Why don’t we do this? Why don’t we do this? This is nuts, but why not?” And so it becomes this playful thing, this quite fun exercise.
One day on set — it’s a small thing, but it was post-lockdown. My dad bod was in full swing. And then I got to Greece and was like, “Oh, shit.” And I was like, “No, I feel like my character just, like, wears tank tops all the time.” And then we got to set and Maggie was like, “You look great. Why don’t we try it without that? You look great.” She’s been in this situation so many times, and knows what it feels like. And so she’s able to approach her actors with such care, which is not always the case, you know?
I think we’ve covered all your darkest roles, so let’s move to a very light one: Mr. Malcolm’s List, which is out now. You had previously played the same character, Lord Cassidy, in a short film version. Had you followed the project’s journey from that iteration to feature film?
[Director] Emma Holly Jones I’d met because she was a hostess at a bar in L.A. when I was living there. I was like, “Oh my God, you’re English. Right, let’s be friends.” I was 22. We were babies. And so she called me in 2018 and said, “Listen, there’s this movie that I’m trying to make, it’s just a short, will you come and help me out?” Of course. And then she was like, “We’re making it into a movie.” And I feel like you hear this quite a lot: “No, we’re going to make it into a movie.” And then she fucking did. I’m so incredibly proud and happy to be a part of it. I think it’s important to champion first-time directors, and specifically first-time female directors.
Is Regency rom-com a genre that you spend a lot of time with as a viewer or a reader?
Not really, but I think that was the appeal. I’ve done this Emily Brontë movie, which comes out later in the year. I knew nothing about Emily Brontë or Wuthering Heights — or very little. It’s the same with something like Mr. Malcolm’s List. I’m familiar with it all, but it’s not in my wheelhouse. So there was something very exciting about jumping into those worlds, and they’re so fun.
Given the rough stuff that you do most of the time, how did it feel knowing this was coming up on your schedule?
I loved it. Like, I really, really loved it. Because I went from The Lost Daughter to Malcolm’s List and then went into this Emily Brontë thing, which is pretty harrowing. So it was this magical moment. There’s something really incredible about being able to go to set every day, and your main focus is to figure out what makes you laugh the most. Working with Zawe Ashton, who I think is comedic perfection, it was just such a joy building that dynamic [with her character, Julia] of utter co-dependence — these two cousins who need each other but hate each other.