Oliver Jackson Cohen
The first horror movie I ever saw was The Exorcist on my grandmother’s RCA console TV, midnight on Christmas Eve. My grandmother is a Catholic Portuguese woman who was devout to cross stitching and Jesus Christ, resulting in crucifixes nailed into every wall of the living room. So, as every flash and jolt from the TV screen would animate the tortured figurines with chilling white light, I prepared in panic and thrill for each one to flip upside down.
Not only did this movie ignite my passionate love for horror, but actor Oliver Jackson Cohen’s passion as well. Mine lead me to accumulating random 70’s slasher movie memorabilia and sporadic nightmares, while Cohen’s lead him to eventually being the star of hit Netflix horror miniseries The Haunting of Hill House as his character Luke Crain, with a few nightmares as well. The 10 episode show is a modern reimagining of Shirley Jackson’s novel “Hill House” and follows the Crain family during the summer they lived in the haunted home, and flashes forward on their lives decades after the tragic events.
During a phone interview with him, I learned Cohen is much more than just a dedicated actor with a jawline that can cut glass; Cohen is a whirlpool of empathy, an artist who gushes his heart into everything he does, and demands that his character Luke, and those battling with similar struggles, are portrayed more than just their addiction.
With your role in last season, I was really impressed by how you portrayed a character with drug addiction, and how you refrained from making him a stereotypical, one dimensional person - and I was wondering how you avoided leaning on this cliche when approaching Luke?
Thank you, number one, I think we all have seen drug addicts portrayed in movies and tv shows before. Most of the time, they are always portrayed as their addiction, and I don’t think that’s very true for anyone who knows anyone who has substance abuse problems; there is actually a fucking person there. So it was very clear from the get-go that I had a responsibility to present a fully formed human being, and they actually brought in a specific writer to write Luke’s character- who was a heroin addict in recovery. I said to Mike, the director and creator of the show - before we even started that it’s very important that Luke is the sum of all his parts and is not just his addiction. So I think that the way I approached it, is that when I first began doing all the research and the pre-work before we started filming, I started looking at documentaries, because I had never done heroin before, so I thought, Oh I’ll start looking at documentaries - but then I realized quite early on that that was putting a judgement on him. And I don’t think it’s fair - because behind anyone who has fallen into this trap is someone who is deeply struggling. And I felt it - I felt a huge amount of, not pressure, but a need to show the person behind the addiction and show the person who is actually struggling, and why he had become an addict. So I focused on that - so I spent no time whatsoever seeing Lucas as a drug addict; I saw him as someone who was struggling to come to terms with everything that he had experienced and happened in his life. And so I focused on anyone who is trying to numb themselves, that know they’re running away from something. So I built up the terror of that, instead of focusing on “I need my fix.”
Was there something that happened in your own life, that was out of your control and not your fault, but regardless someone judged you because of that - perhaps driving your connection to Luke’s character?
Oh 100 percent, and that’s what is so interesting, because I don’t have a substance abuse problem - but I think that out of all the characters I have ever played in the past 10 years, there’s the most of me in Luke. Like, all of that stuff of just trying to function, and the vulnerability, and just trying to be normal, and being so ashamed - all of that is my own shit, and so [laughs] I didn’t need to be a heroin addict to understand the pain that he was going through, so, so much. I think it’s incredible getting to play someone like that because, in a weird way it felt like therapy - I was able to go to work everyday and just be all the parts of myself. I think it’s interesting as well for men, there’s this whole thing about having to be a certain way, having to always be strong, and I think inherently a lot of people do feel incredibly fragile. So all of that stuff of Luke is me, and my stuff, and I didn’t have to pretend - I just got to go to work and be as vulnerable as I feel. You know we all have incredibly complicated lives and incredibly complicated upbringings, and I used all of my stuff: I was diagnosed with PTSD a couple of years ago so all of that is in there with Luke - and it felt incredibly cathartic to be able to kind of put it all out there and be there.
When your work is something that is so emotionally rigorous, and strenuous, it must be very draining dedicating yourself to a character who is really struggling his whole life - How do you unwind and decompress from this intensity?
[Laughs] I….you know what, I’m not very good at it. I feel like I’m one of those people, I’m sort of with the school of thought that you either go to work and you fucking do it - and you do it for real, or go home. I’m not into this whole I’ll just pretend! thing, so it’s probably not the healthiest way of working. But I feel it’s necessary, and then I don’t know how to handle it. There were a couple of days on set where specifically we were filming all of Luke’s episodes or the stuff where he’s sort of roaming the streets - that got way too intense. We would rap at 6 am and I would go back to my house and sleep for a bit, and then wake up and just be so out of sorts: I would have to call people at home to reassure me that everything was okay.
I imagine the intensity can be overwhelming
Yeah, I mean, it sounds really wonky - but I think that when you’re messing around with stuff like that, and you’re tricking your brain into thinking something is real, and then on top of that you’re drawing from your own personal well of shit that probably should be kept untouched - it’s gonna be messy at times. So yeah, it gets… it did get a little hairy. But again I felt that it was important - and I think all of us across the board in the cast felt that it was so important to do that - to give Luke a voice. And what’s been so interesting when the show came out, it was so overwhelming, the response, specifically from people that have struggled with addiction. And it was so warming to hear these stories from people, so I think it was necessary for all of us as actors to go to those dark parts of ourselves, and put that out on screen.
Is there something that you wish you knew before you began acting in a horror TV series? Or about a TV series with intense family drama with horror influence?
Hm..I don’t know. Just… it’s all good. [laughs] it’s gonna be all good.
Honestly, that’s pretty solid universal advice. And I was wondering, are you a fan of horror in general?
And is this a genre that you want to continue with?
Yes, I had never done anything horror before, so this was a dream. I remember I watched The Exorcist when I was like eight or something, and it completely terrified me - and I still to this day have nightmares about it. I think what’s so clever about horror, and I think specifically with what Mike has done on our show, it becomes a metaphor for something else. So specifically with Hill House, if you take away the house and all the ghosts and all the horror elements, it’s about childhood trauma. So you can swap out what all those kids went through, the horror they experienced, can be swaped out for sexual abuse, or physical abuse, or anything like that. So you manage to kind of navigate all of these horrific things we kind of don’t want to look at, in the veil of ghosts, so it becomes palatable for an audience. I never knew this, Netflix told me this, that horror is the most watched genre in the whole world.
Across the board, yeah! I thought it would be comedy. But that’s why Netflix made the show. Because they realized that actually there was such a massive market for horror. So yeah, a really long winded answer to your short question - yes I was a fan of horror, I always have been.
Me too! I’ve never thought about how horror can be a metaphor for trauma. That’s so fascinating. Just one last question - I know that you can’t say too much about the second season… right? Or they’ll shoot you.
So, see if you can answer this: if Season 1 and Season 2 were mythical creatures, what would they be?
[Laughs] What would they be… ahhh...I genuinely don’t know how to answer that question. They’re both just beasts from the darkest corners of our minds. Season 1…. Uh… what I can say - is that season 1 I believe was amazing, and with what they’re doing with season 2 is even…. More incredible.