Interview: Oliver Jackson-Cohen Talks Netflix’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House’
Brit actor Oliver Jackson-Cohen has been very busy making a name for himself on both sides of the Atlantic over the past few years. His first major television role was the in the BBC’s period drama ‘Lark Rise To Candleford’, an adaptation of Flora Thompson’s autobiographical novel where he played the lead character, Philip White. He went on to star as role as painter Roddy Temple in ITV’s Emmy-award nominated ‘Mr Selfridge’, and in 2012, he starred alongside Miranda Richardson, Cynthia Nixon and Ben Chaplin in the Emmy award nominated ‘World Without End’ for Channel 4.
Over in the US, he starred in ‘Emerald City’, NBC’s gritty ten-part series based on ‘The Wizard of Oz’ alongside Ana Ularu and Adria Arjona, and as Jonathan Harker in NBC’s ‘Dracula’ series with Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Victoria Smurfit, Nonso Anozie and Katie McGrath. Most recently Oliver was seen in BBC Two’s two-part drama ‘Man In An Orange Shirt’. The series from novelist Patrick Gale was aired as part of the BBC’s Gay Britannia season, which marked the 50th anniversary of The Sexual Offences Act 1967. Oliver starred alongside Vanessa Redgrave, Julian Morris and Laura Carmichael in the drama which told the story of two love affairs, 60 years apart.
Oliver’s latest role sees him play Luke, the youngest of the Crain family in Netflix’s new horror-thriller ‘The Haunting of Hill House‘, which comes to the streaming service on Friday, 12th October 2018. Created by Mike Flanagan, the series is based on the original novel by Shirley Jackson and explores a group of adult siblings who, as children, lived in what would become the most famous haunted house in the country. Told through a fractured, non-linear, unreliable lens, the drama combines the labyrinthine structure of Flanagan’s film ‘Oculus’ with the complex family dynamics of shows such as ‘Bloodline’. We had the opportunity to sit down with Oliver and chat about the new show, and working on such an interesting and complex drama.
Geektown: I have to admit, horror is not really my genre usually, but I really enjoyed the opening two episodes of the show which Netflix sent me. It feels very much like a family drama with sort of some supernatural stuff spread across it.
Oliver: Yeah, well that’s great. That’s great. I mean, I think that what’s really interesting about the show as a whole, and I kept on saying this to people while we were filming it, is they were like, “What are you doing?” I said, “Oh, it’s this thing called ”The Haunting of Hill House’, and they went, “Oh, scary?” I went, “Well, not really.” “No, I won’t watch that. I don’t like horror.”
So, it’s just kind of a divisive genre, people either love it or they hate it, there’s no kind of an in between. What’s really interesting about the show is that we’ve been doing so many interviews the past couple of days and it’s very interesting meeting people that say, “I would never ever watch something like”. I was surprised with the formula of what they were actually focusing on. How it has been centred around these five kids and has been centred about this family and what this past experience has done to them.
And I think that’s where Mike is really clever. In that, he’s looking at what childhood trauma does to people. So there’s something inherently relatable to an audience that isn’t necessarily tuning in for any kind of scares. You know, tuning in for a story. So, I’m glad. That’s great to hear. I’m really glad that you liked it, even though you’re not a fan of horror.
Geektown: Yeah, the family drama stuff comes right through. It’s quite interesting because that is really an invention of Mike’s [Flanagan – writer] more than anything else. I don’t know the original book particularly but having read a quick synopsis of it, and he takes the character names but that’s about it. The book wasn’t about a family. It was about a bunch of disparate people that went to the house.
Oliver: Yeah. [In the book] they went on this experiment. But what he’s done with this though, yes, there are some character names, but he’s made the family the experiment, and there are passages from the book throughout the show. I think that everything gets a remake. Everything gets a sequel. Everything gets a prequel. And with this, he’s not trying to remake the original film or remake the original book, he’s taking all of those things, all of these elements, and then completely updating it for a modern audience, which I think is kind of really exciting.
Geektown: Yeah. It certainly seems to work, and it does feel like a very modern piece for something which is based off something that was written in ’59. It definitely feels like an updated, modern drama. So, let’s talk about your character. You play Luke in the show. Do you want to just give a bit of background about who Luke is?
Oliver: Sure. So Luke is the youngest of the five Crain siblings. He has a twin called Nell, and they have a very very deep bond. And because they were the youngest, they were the most affected by this experience. As the show goes on, you start to realise, especially by the end, by episode 10, you realise just how horrific it was, especially for the twins. So you meet Luke as a young child when they first move into Hill House, and then as an adult.
As an adult, he’s struggling with his past. He’s struggling to move forward. He’s developed a heroin addiction and is just, sort of, struggling to function, as anyone in that situation would. I remember saying this to Mike though early on, if you swapped out the house for any other kind of childhood trauma, these would still be the same effects. You would still have an adult suffering from PTSD. You will still have the amount of terror that’s in that. On top of that, the problem with the Crain’s is that they move through their life after leaving the house, but the night that they left the house, they lost their mother, and it’s never spoken about. They’re never ever given answers. So he was a five-year-old living in a house where all this disturbing stuff is going on and then to never see his mother again, and it is never explained.
What Mike was also set up this whole idea that the Crains and Hill House became the most famous haunted house story in America. The Crains became tabloid fodder. These kids were subject to tabloids questions like, “What happened to their mother?” “What was the actual house really haunted?” And so he’s created this whole world that’s very very realistic and relatable. So you are dealing with a certain amount of supernatural but it’s grounded in such reality that I think makes it hugely effective. And what’s so interesting about the response to the show so far is that, there will be people who will tune in for a cheap scare and they will be disappointed by that, because I don’t think the show necessarily offers a cheap scare. It offers you a kind of character study into loss and grief and trauma and guilt and how our childhoods follow us wherever we go. So there’s no escaping that and coming to terms with it is terrifying.
Geektown: I completely agree with you. Mike’s done such an amazing job writing it. The way the older siblings react to the trauma compared to the younger twins is really quite interesting.
Oliver: It’s also great because horror has often been given a bad rep, and sometimes quite rightly so. There’s a formula that’s followed as a family moves into a haunted house, all of these things happen, and then they all make it out alive. And Mike’s gone, “No. What would happen realistically to those children? What would the after effects be?” So it’s an examination of that. A sort of character study in a weird way. Even though it’s in the vein of the horror shows, it’s really a family drama about a dysfunctional family.
Geektown: Yes, I completely get that. You’ve also got this thing of them jumping backwards and forwards in time throughout the episodes. Of there being a younger version of the family and an older version of the family so, you’re getting bits of what happened at the house revealed as you go through the series. It’s not all pushed up front and then you see the older kids. It’s all mixed in together, which I think is really interesting because you get that sort of revelation as you go through. That means there’s a kid, Julian Hilliard, playing the young version of Luke as well. Do you get any say in the casting of that? I always think that must be really weird for an older actor when there’s someone cast as a younger version of you.
Oliver: I don’t get any say, but I was showed the options, and then I was told it was Julian. He’s five years old and had never acted before. He’s just a dream. He’s the sweetest, sweetest kid. It was great, but we had to be very, very careful though. Specifically with Julian because he was so young and with what happens with adult Luke. He kept on saying, “Oh this is me. This is me when I’m older!” And we just had to be very careful about what he was subjected to because we can’t really have him around on set. You’ll see later, episode 4 is the Luke-focused episode, and it gets quite dark for him. So we had to just, as everyone does, keep the kids away from all of that.
It was great to be able to see though. As an actor usually, you get a script, you read it, and you go, “Okay this is great. What happened? What’s the backstory?” So to have it already written and then just be able to see it, because they actually play out live, is such an amazing tool, and an amazing addition for an actor. That you get to see these key moments in someone’s childhood played out for you so you don’t necessarily have to just create it all in your mind.
Geektown: I can imagine. I’d not really thought about that. You don’t want to end up giving the actual kid actors PTSD from doing the show in the first place!
Oliver: [Laughs] No, I mean, that’s what so interesting. All of today, everyone’s questions have been, “Were you scared on set?” But it’s like when you’re doing a sex scene, it’s the least sexy thing you ever do. And I feel that way about horror. It is not that scary to film. There is stuff there that’s a little bit creepy, but all of that is created afterwards in the edit with the sound design and the timing. It was just so nice to have those kids around though. It was a nine-month shoot and we only finished two or three months ago. So it was just nice, every single day on set. we took over the Screen Gems lot in Atlanta, and they had a school there. All the kids were schooled there every single day and so to come out the trailer, or come off set, when you’ve been deal with some hard hitting stuff and just see these smiling kids… it was just amazing. And every single one of them was such professionals and so much fun. Just so lovely to have around.
Geektown: So, you’re filming in Atlanta. Is the house CGI creation or does it exist in real life?
Oliver: It’s an actual house, but it’s outside of Atlanta. It’s about an hour and a half outside in this place called The Grange. They spend months and months and months trying to find the right house… and they found it. It’s in the middle of nowhere and someone stumbled across, I think the locations guy, stumbled across it. He saw a path and just stopped and thought “Oh, maybe something’s up there,” and came across that house. But the interior of the house, the actual experience of the real life house, is so beautiful. It’s so nice! All the interiors of the house [on the show] though, that was a fully functioning set. It was on two floors and it was like the interior of a real house. It was huge.
For all of the exteriors, they basically took over this house and we shot a bunch of stuff at the beginning, which is all of the past Hill House stuff when the family first move in. Then they let it basically just fall apart. So for six or seven months, no gardeners were allowed there, no one was allowed, so the whole thing just overgrew. And when we turn up six months later it was like a completely different house. Props and the set department then did all of the dressing, it’s so clever. And also our cinematographer, Mike Fimognari, is a genius with light and creating a mood. So actually, when you see the house just in a regular picture it’s actually not creepy at all, but the way it’s presented in the show is very terrifying.
Geektown: Yeah, it is quite incredible what you can do with a bit of decent lighting knowledge and some sound effects. It does look particularly creepy on screen, they’ve done a great job with it. So, what was the most challenging thing for you on this shoot?
Oliver: I think just the length of it. The first 5 episodes are all about each child, each focusing on one child. So it goes, Steven, Shirley, Theo, then Luke, then Nell. Then after that, it’s actually only 48 hours. Episode 6 is a one-take episode where we all come together for a funeral, and from 6 to 10, only 48 hours pass by. So there was a period of time, I guess from January until about April, where every single day we were having to either go to a funeral or it was the day after the funeral or the day before the funeral. When you’re drumming up all of that stuff in that amount of time and for that length of time, it as just, you start to, kind of, believe things, and you have to, to a degree, suspend disbelief and believe what it is that you’re creating or that you’re feeling. But your body can’t really know the difference, so you end up in this kind of very weird place where, even though you rationally know nothing is wrong, there’s this bizarre kind of hangover. Especially with terror.
So I think one of the most challenging things was that really. It was a very incredible, amazing experience for all of us to be a part of telling the story, but I think that it was tough for everyone. When you’re all in it together and you’re doing it for that long, it was tough to shake. It makes us really wanky as actors to be like, “It was really tough to kind of shake it off.” [Laughs] But it, kind of, was. When you’re doing that for that long and believing that for that long, it’s quite hard to let go of it in a way.
Geektown: Yeah. It’s a long time for your brain to adjust I guess.
Oliver: Yeah. I mean, we had to do this thing today, where it was a very, small kind of social media thing and they had me say what young Luke says, I think it’s in the trailer, “What if I get so sad that I could poison…” I just got so emotional. Because, even though I know it’s not real, it still kind of feels real, which makes me sound like a crazy person [Laughs]. I apologise for that. We only wrapped very recently so. Yeah. [Laughs]
Geektown: So, you’re doing the press stuff at the moment. You’re off to New York Comic Con at the end of the week I noticed. Is that going to be your first Con, or did you go with Dracula or Emerald City?
Oliver: No I’ve “conned” before [Laughs]. This will be, I think, my second or my third. I think my third Con. It’s great though. I love it. I think it’s just so great. I keep saying this to people, someone should make a documentary about what happens behind the scenes of Comic-Con because there’s all of these, especially the one in New York, there are all of these tunnels underneath the building where you walk all the talent, and you bump into everyone. I mean everyone you could think of is in this maze. You do think, “God if someone decided to eradicate this building right now, that would be half of the comic books out of here [Laughs]. It’s just so much fun! I’m really excited, and I’m excited to see how an audience takes to the show. I think it will really interesting to see that.
Geektown: Awesome. I hope that all goes well for you. I’ve got a couple of final question that we always ask people when they’re on for interviews, So, the first one is, what TV shows are you watching at the moment?
Oliver: What TV show am I watching? I can’t actually think of one… I’m trying to go through my Netflix… Oh! ‘Succession’.
Geektown: Oh yes, great, great series that! And lastly, if you had the opportunity to work on any TV show past, present, or future, not one you’ve been on, what show would it be?
Oliver: Handmaid’s Tale! I think it’s so clever what they’ve done there. Amazing adaptation and so so kind of telling of the world that we’re in.
Geektown: Yes, yeah… Let’s hope it doesn’t become a reality…
Oliver: [Laughs] No. No!
‘The Haunting of Hill House‘ comes to Netflix UK and around the world on Friday, 12th October 2018.