“This is going to end up like a therapy session,” Oliver Jackson-Cohen jokes, a little over ten minutes into our Zoom chat. The 33-year-old actor calls on a sunny afternoon in his London home, where he’s been quarantining amid the coronavirus pandemic.
So far, he’s used the state of pause to dabble in baking, “like every other fucker in the world,” a hobby that lasted about three days. Though he modestly claims not to have done much else in lockdown, “not much” on Jackson-Cohen’s terms includes rewiring lights in his house and building furniture by hand, which he mentions as an afterthought, as casually as if discussing a new recipe he’d tried.
“It turns out I'm actually really into manual stuff so I made a dining table. I could show you if you want,” he says, as if building a pristine wooden table is something we’ve all done in quarantine, instead of the most impressive answer I’ve gotten after asking about someone’s pandemic activities. “I've just gotten into, like, sanding.”
Quarantine has also given him a chance to pump the breaks after months of nonstop work that took him from filming the titular role in The Invisible Man opposite Elisabeth Moss (not as easy as it sounds), straight to shooting The Haunting of Bly Manor, the follow-up to Netflix’s hugely successful The Haunting of Hill House. As such, the last few credits in his filmography have seen him delve into childhood trauma, addiction, gaslighting, and domestic violence. He’s conscious of the darker turn his resume has taken, hence the interview-turned-therapy session.
“I'm probably a therapist's dream,” he laughs. “I love exploring those [darker] sides, and bizarrely, it's where I feel more comfortable, which is why I think I struggled so much at the beginning of my career, because I was being asked to be pretty, and that was it.”
Jackson-Cohen, who kickstarted his career with small roles in rom-coms like the Anna Faris-fronted What’s Your Number and Drew Barrymore-starrer Go the Distance, as well as a part alongside Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the action vehicle Faster, says he spent his first six years as a professional actor taking the jobs he thought he should — projects he was grateful to have the opportunity for, but that sometimes left him too mortified to discuss anything he was doing.
“When I first started, I didn't know what I was doing at all. I relied on reps to tell me where I should be, and I think it's what you do at the beginning, you take the job you're offered,” he says. “The romantic comedies and all of that, they were fun, but I never felt right, I never felt comfortable. But I think I needed to do those jobs in order to figure out what I really wanted.”
The lightbulb moment came in 2017, when he remembers watching a TV show he’d done and thinking to himself, “this is not what you wanted from your life.”
And that was it — he made the conscious decision to pull away from the lane other people thought he should be in, and drove towards paths that excited him, projects he thought were important. It was, of course, easier said than done. Truly great parts don’t come by often, and he spent six months not working, but anyone looking at his roster now can tell you it paid off. Reviews praised his poignant performance in the 2017 BBC miniseries Man in an Orange Shirt, The Haunting of Hill House was deemed by many as Netflix’s best original show, and The Invisible Man earned rave reviews and major box office success.
Jackson-Cohen, for his part, was just excited to be able to play “creatively enticing” roles — acting is therapeutic for him because it involves using your experiences and parts of yourself to fuel characters, and up until recently, he hadn’t used much of himself in his work. Now that he’s been able to infuse more of his own self, the end result is a series of performances in which he opens the door so that we can absorb his light. In exploring human pain and darkness, he gives some of the most emotionally vulnerable on screen performances in recent memory.
I'm six foot three, I'm a big man, and I think it's quite rare to have someone that cries so much when they are my size.
“I am very sensitive, and I always have been — I'm aware that I am a man, and I am supposed to be non-emotional, and I've battled that my whole life, but I feel so much that it's ... I don't know,” he trails off, laughing. “That's just kind of who I am, and I know it's not the norm: I'm six foot three, I'm a big man, and I think it's quite rare to have someone that cries so much when they are my size.”
Though he says he’s way more comfortable playing a traumatized man struggling with addiction in Hill House than he would playing Prince Charming, Jackson-Cohen, who logs onto our Zoom call exactly a minute before the scheduled time, smiling widely in a black T-shirt — the exceedingly well-mannered man who apologizes that our conversation has become all about excavating emotional pain — could give the Prince a run for his money. He’s open and engaging and happy to sit and chat about everything from our shared quarantine binge watches (I May Destroy You and Watchmen) to blurry accidental photos we each have on our phones, even as we go over the allotted interview time.
“I feel like I'm painting a really dark picture of myself,” he laughs. “I mean, I have a great time when I'm not working! I watch dumb shit on the telly and go for walks and get drunk. It's like the yin and the yang, they can't exist without each other, so I need to go between the two.”
Read on as Jackson-Cohen discusses his pre-bedtime ritual, his favorite Robert Pattinson movies, and the uncomfortable outfit he still has nightmares about.
Who is your celebrity crush?
What is the last thing you do before you fall asleep?
I alternate between watching Modern Family or Parks and Rec so every other night I'll watch [one], and then I'd get to the end of season seven, and then start it again. That's what I've been doing for about a year now.
Who is your favorite villain?
Peter Quint [from The Haunting of Bly Manor].
What is the first album that you ever owned?
I think I bought two. It was Will Smith’s Willennium, and then I had one from a British band in the ‘90s called All Saints.
Do you still listen to those albums?
It was actually on tape. That's how old I am. I think they're somewhere at my parents' house, but I'm sure I do. I feel like they must come up on my Spotify, on my daily mix.
Do you have a favorite cheesy pick-up line?
“Did it hurt when you fell from heaven?” I just think it's the worst line you could ever use, but I'm all in for it.
Have you ever used it?
[Laughing] No, I'm not a psychopath!
If you had to spend £1,000 today, what would you spend it on?
I would buy reusable masks, and make all the fucking idiots wear them.
What is one place you've never been, but always wanted to go?
India. I feel like I've tried so many times, but you need like a month — if you go to Mumbai, you need to go for weeks.
What is the most uncomfortable outfit you've ever worn?
The green [visual effects] suit in The Invisible Man. I genuinely still have nightmares about it, and Lizzie [Moss] and I still text each other just awful pictures of me in it. It's like this kind of spandex, it just will kill every inch of confidence or fake confidence you have.
Describe your first kiss.
Wet, I guess. Just awful. I feel like no one's had a perfect first kiss. Just like an awful lot of tongues. I actually remember thinking, what am I supposed to do here? I'm supposed to do this. It's just the most uncomfortable thing, but yeah, just wet and a lot of tongue.
Do you remember how old you were?
I was like eight or nine. Maybe younger, maybe like seven. You sort of do it because you go like, this is what adults do, so this is what we're going to do. That [kiss] luckily wasn't like a cousin, so I'm good.
Who is your favorite Robert? Downey, Jr. or Pattinson?
What's your favorite movie of his?
That's quite a hard one. The Lighthouse? Yeah. He's just phenomenal. I still haven't seen The Devil All the Time, but I think I'm going to try to watch it tonight. And what was that other one he did? Cosmopolis. Do you remember that? What's your favorite movie of his?
Lighthouse was pretty good —
Were you going to say Twilight?
[Laughing] Yeah. Let's say Twilight. You know what? I actually haven't seen any of those movies.
Neither have I! But that's what I think is so interesting is that nowadays, he's sort of like a British version of Leo DiCaprio. I have no concept of any of [the Twilight series] movies, because I started watching everything that he did afterwards.
When was the last time you cried?
When was the last time I cried? Honestly, yesterday, but not honestly, like weeks ago.
What is your favorite bagel?
I'm a sucker for just, like, a cream cheese and smoked salmon. Are you talking about bagel, as in like the flavor of the bagel or the filling of the bagel or...
I do like an onion bagel. I also love a cinnamon bagel with peanut butter and banana. That is incredible.
The Haunting of Bly Manor premieres October 9 on Netflix.
Photographs by Shingi Rice. Styling by Oliver Jackson-Cohen. Production by Kelly Chiello.
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