Haunting of Hill House star Oliver Jackson-Cohen: ‘I’ve played quite a lot of toxic men – it’s time to move on’

‘I’ve played quite a lot of toxic men. But I’ve become fascinated with the question of, “how do we humanise these morally corrupt characters?”’ (Getty)
‘I’ve played quite a lot of toxic men. But I’ve become fascinated with the question of, “how do we humanise these morally corrupt characters?”’ (Getty)

I have this thing in my head,” Oliver Jackson-Cohen is telling me. “I don’t know where it comes from, but I am always convinced that everything I do is going to be s***. So I’m always pleasantly surprised that it’s not as s***ty as I think.”

The London-born actor really doesn’t need to be so anxious. Since landing his breakout role of heroin addict Luke Crain in Mike Flanagan’s Netflix anthology series The Haunting of Hill House in 2018, Jackson-Cohen has proven time and again his skill at playing damaged goods. Whether it’s his sociopathic turn as businessman Peter Quint in Flanagan’s sequel series The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020), or as Dakota Johnson’s terrifying boyfriend in The Lost Daughter (2021), or as Elisabeth Moss’s see-through ex in The Invisible Man (2020), Jackson-Cohen has cemented himself as one of Hollywood’s go-to baddies.

But in his latest film, the 37-year-old is taking a stab at being the hero... sort of. Jackdaw is set against a bleak, wintry North East of England, with Jackson-Cohen playing an ex-motocross champion and army veteran who commits a crime in the hopes of starting a new life for his family.

The actor is the first to admit that the Jackdaw script was “fairly straightforward” for the action-thriller genre: a criminal job goes awry, family member gets kidnapped, man must save kidnapped family member. But he says that the film’s director, first-timer Jamie Childs, wanted to prove that genre films like these don’t have to be the preserve of the US. “He wanted to make movies that would be made in America in the Nineties, but set in the North East,” Jackson-Cohen explains. “He wanted to really showcase that and show that we can make these sorts of high-concept movies on small budgets in the UK.”

There are blatant American influences on the film – it’s all synths, rain and neon, like it’s been put under an Instagram filter named “Blade Runner”. I tell Jackson-Cohen that his character in the film, Jack Dawson, feels like a mash-up of Ryan Gosling’s criminal characters in Drive (2011) and The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) – brooding, morally questionable types with good hearts at their core. “Yeah, like a Northern, poor man’s Ryan Gosling,” he jokes. “Listen, I’ll happily be a poor man’s Ryan Gosling for the rest of my life.”

Jackson-Cohen has a face that looks like it’s been carved by Bernini, so it’s no surprise to learn he originally found success as a model. On the day of our conversation, he’s wearing a frame-fitting black jumper; his stubble is grown out but perfectly manicured, as is his thick brown hair, which is styled into a messy quiff. A 2012 Harper’s Bazaar interview conducted at a London hotel noted a “perceptible thrill” that “rippled through the female staff” upon his arrival. His looks, accent and 6ft 3in height have also made him a perennial fixture in predictions for the next James Bond. But Jackson-Cohen is worried he’d be “too emotional” to play the part. “It’s such an iconic character, isn’t it?” he says. So if 007 producer Barbara Broccoli were to call, he’d send her to voicemail? “Of course not! No one’s gonna say no to Babs are they?”

Being ‘Netflix famous’ is quite an interesting thing. You’re the most famous person in the world for a while and then the next show comes along and that completely takes over

If he does end up firing guns and sipping martinis for a few years, Jackson-Cohen would be the first Bond to have appeared in Hollyoaks, the teen soap infamous for its annual Hunks and Babes cast calendars. He booked a single-episode role on the show when he was 15 – his first acting gig. “I remember getting the phone call and being like: ‘This. Is. It,’” he says, grinning. “Walking into school the next day I was so full of myself.”

After training at London’s Youngblood Theatre Company and then the famed Lee Strasberg Institute in New York, he began booking supporting roles in a number of American films you probably don’t remember: the Dwayne Johnson clanger Faster (2010), Anna Faris’s What’s Your Number? (2011), or Going the Distance (2010), one of Drew Barrymore’s lesser romcoms. He’s spoken previously about the grand expectations he placed on his early film work, assuming they’d propel him into the big leagues. He was shattered when they didn’t, leading him to take a nine-month break from acting.

The Haunting of Hill House, in 2018, proved to be a turning point. It was a smash hit, earned him a rabid fanbase, and helped launch him into a particular kind of recognition – something he describes as “Netflix famous”. “It’s quite an interesting thing,” he says. “You’re the most famous person in the world for a while and then the next show comes along and that completely takes over.”

Brooding, morally questionable types: Jackson-Cohen and Jenna Coleman in ‘Jackdaw' (Vertigo)
Brooding, morally questionable types: Jackson-Cohen and Jenna Coleman in ‘Jackdaw' (Vertigo)

Regardless, the role was not without catharsis for him. He has spoken about how his own experience with childhood sexual abuse and PTSD influenced his take on the character. He first discussed it in 2017, during the #MeToo movement, writing on Instagram: “[I] have spent most of my life living with PTSD, pretending it didn’t happen, and now, trying to rebuild what was shattered. The thing about sexual abuse is that the moment it is done, however brief or however long, it changes the course of your life permanently.”

I ask him how the part impacted him, and for the first time in our conversation, the actor’s geniality falters and his face takes on a visible strain. “I think, if you speak to any of us from that cast, those characters meant so much to us because we put so much of ourselves into them,” he says. Flanagan, he says, was “incredibly collaborative” and “allowed me to just take the reins with it and left me alone to do that.” He also knows the part struck a chord with audiences. He remembers being approached by strangers in public who’d share their stories of addiction. “I think ultimately all of us feel incredibly proud that it hit a note with people and it allowed people to open up a discussion, to feel like they could talk about this stuff.”

Cathartic: Jackson-Cohen in Netflix’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ (Netflix)
Cathartic: Jackson-Cohen in Netflix’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ (Netflix)

As soon as Hill House was released, Jackson-Cohen says he was sent “a slew of horror scripts” that were “all the same thing, just a watered-down, less good versions [of the show]”. He names Ira Sachs’s raunchy gay drama Passages, Jonathan Glazer’s new Holocaust film Zone of Interest and Justine Triet’s awards season darling Anatomy of a Fall as films he’s admired from afar this past year. “I don’t think there’s a formula of: you work with this director and this writer and then, success. But I do think you reach a point where you’re like, ‘Oh I do actually want more out of this.’”

He knows, for instance, that he’s seen a certain way by casting directors. “I’ve played quite a lot of toxic men. But I’ve become fascinated with the question of, ‘how do we humanise these morally corrupt characters?’ There’s a challenge in that, which I think is quite fun. But, like anything, you go through periods where you like to play a certain thing and then it’s time to move on.”

So no more baddies? He weighs it up.

“I think I’ve played my fair share now.”

‘Jackdaw’ is in cinemas