Helming Jamie Childs' new crime-thriller, the actor talks tuning into a character, writing out their history and embracing the spontaneity of his own.
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Words SOPHIE WANG
In early January 2022, as the rest of us added layer upon layer, watching the temperatures drop to zero, Oliver Jackson-Cohen travelled north of his London home and jumped bravely into the North Sea. “I’m really proud of the whole movie, but I’m quite proud that we all made it out alive, really,” he tells me nine months later, home safe with rays of morning sun separating us from the realities of his time filming, Jackdaw.
The debut feature from TV writer and director Jamie Childs (The Sandman, His Dark Materials), Jackdaw tells the story of Jackson-Cohen’s Jack Dawson, a former motocross champion and army veteran who, in an effort to support his younger brother, agrees to pick up a mysterious package in the North Sea, only to find himself tricked and his brother kidnapped. Subsequently, Jackdaw — as he’s better known — embarks on a one-night, breakneck journey through Northern England’s rust belt on his bike, reconnecting with his past as the subtleties in his complex backstory and familial history slowly unravel against a backdrop of nail-biting action.
The nuanced portrayal of such a character could possibly only be achieved by Jackson-Cohen, who seamlessly masters the art of tuning into his character’s psyche. Since a childhood trip to see Home Alone in the cinema, the 36-year-old has been fascinated by the possibility of disappearing into someone else’s world and delving into their stories. Subsequently booking his first job at 15 years old, the London native has spent the past decade and a half immersed in alternate worlds, from the horrors of 2018’s The Haunting of Hill House and 2020’s The Invisible Man to the post-WWII reality of Man in an Orange Shirt and the 19th-century Yorkshire of last year’s Emma Mackie-led, Emily. He mentions twice in our chat that at this point in his journey, he feels “like 150 years old”, and it’s hard to be surprised. Between time-travelling, fronting countless stories and embodying dozens of different people, he’s lived many lives.
“I always think it's quite funny that this passion was born as a kid and here I am as an adult doing it,” he laughs. “I do sometimes think: ‘Is that the smartest fucking thing?’ Because when you're a kid, you have all of these ideas and they're not the smartest ones.”
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Though some of his childhood plays (written and directed by him and his friends) may have had “zero plot”, as Jackson-Cohen tells me, and it took him a bit of time in his early twenties to figure out the projects that would resonate with him, it is safe to say that his childhood dream was definitely not a bad idea. “I think with any passion that stems from childhood, the drive is so insane. I think with anything creative, you have to have this insane determination, regardless of where it stems from. It's just this weird drive forward that you kind of can't stop.” He pauses. “I feel like I've had many iterations of a career. I look back at the stuff I was doing in my early twenties and it was very much what I was told to be doing. I think it takes time to make mistakes and learn from those to actually find out what it is that resonates with you. Ultimately, I think it probably has something to do with exploring something that I'm not looking at in myself and being able to unlock that, to explore that with a character.”
Hearing this, it is easy to see why the Jackdaw lead would be a perfect fit for the role. However, he didn’t originally believe the part should be his. “I'd met Jamie Childs on a job I was on before and we got to know each other genuinely,” he explains. “He started to talk to me about this idea, this script that he was writing and when he was finished, he called me up and asked if I’d read it. Then he went, ‘Will you play Jackdaw?’ And I immediately said, ‘Jamie, I don't think I'm the right person for that. Do you know who you should hire? You should hire this person.’ And he was like, ‘No.’ And I was like, ‘No, do you know what? You should hire this person...’ And I kept throwing ideas at him.” Eventually, perhaps after exhausting every other option for Childs, the actor agreed and dove headfirst into the lead, making it implausible that his alternative suggestion could have embodied it so definitively.
“I feel like all of us jumped in because of our belief in Jamie,” he says. “And I think to have your protagonist be someone that is flawed and vulnerable and not your [stereotypical] sort of action hero was such a clever move on his end. It just felt like nothing I'd ever been a part of before. And there was something in that script about someone feeling like there isn't a place where they belong and being thrown into a position of having to care for someone and the tragedy that's gone on with their mum… all of that became a really interesting thing to play around with.”
Building out a character’s story is one of the most exciting parts of the job for Jackson-Cohen. With Jackdaw, this meant lots of meetings and discussions with Childs and co-star Jenna Coleman, who plays his love interest, Bo. “We sat down and hashed out when they were together and how long they were together and what happened and when the last time they saw each other was,” he says. “I think what’s so clever with Jamie is that he doesn't really over-explain, but he drops these pebbles as you go. And I think they're quite effective. It’s like, you know Jack's been away in the army. You don't really know why, but whatever it was, it wasn't good. So it was trying to figure out, 'okay, what was it?' And I don't think you necessarily see it on screen, but for me, my favourite part of it is trying to write out a life for them.”
For Jackson-Cohen, with any story he portrays, getting into character isn’t necessarily about becoming someone else. Rather, it’s about tapping into what’s already within him. “It’s like when you're in a music studio,” he says. “You've got all those dials and it's about turning something up that exists within you that you don't necessarily tap into and turning certain other things down. It's all coming from you.”
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“In real life, I rarely get emotional, and I think it's because I have this outlet,” he continues. “There's this space where you can go and it's safe to experience and feel all of this stuff. It’s this weird, playful safety bubble that you get to go off to and play around where, ultimately, it’s real in the moment, but it's not real in your life.”
However, sometimes his body doesn’t register the difference between his own experiences and those of his character. “I played a character in the past who was a heroin addict and that was really hard [to get out of] because you are left with this inherent heaviness of all the stuff that you've created and felt in your head,” he explains. “Or earlier this year, I did a film set around the beginning of the Holocaust. And so you’d come home at the end of the day and you’d know it's not real, but your body can't really tell the difference. So you get these weird sort of hangovers if it's incredibly heavy and emotional. You know it's not real, but your body's playing catch up.”
“The older I get, the more embarrassed I get to say that this is my job because it's such a fucking stupid job. But also, I absolutely love it.” He laughs. “I feel so unbelievably grateful that I get to do this as a job. I always eye-roll when actors say things like, ‘Oh, it's such a privilege,’ but I do feel incredibly grateful because I get to go off and explore these parts of humanity that I would never otherwise.”
While he might endeavour to plot out the history of his characters, Jackson-Cohen’s very much letting his own future write itself. “Part of the exciting thing about being an actor is that you don't really know what's going to come in or what you're going to read that's going to excite you. I want to be surprised. I'd love to work here, in small filmmaking, with first-time directors, telling stories that people may love or hate, anything that's trying to say something a little different.” He pauses. “But until I read it, I won't know.”
Jackdaw is out in UK cinemas now and Wilderness is available to watch on Prime Video!
Interview taken from Man About Town Autumn/Winter 2023.