A frank chat with the rising star.
Jacket ZADIG VOLTAIRE, shirt LOUIS VUITTON, T-shirt ZARA
The son of David Cohen and Betty Jackson (the latter of which was responsible for some of Absolutely Fabulous‘ most iconic costumes), Oliver Jackson-Cohen is making his own legacy. After cutting his teeth performing in a tiny theatre company alongside industry heavyweights Carey Mulligan and Imogen Poots, Jackson-Cohen has gone on to star in a multitude of visual highlights across film and television.
For his latest project, the actor is appearing in Man in an Orange Shirt, part of the BBC’s Gay Britannia Season celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Sexual Offences Act 1967. The two-part drama explores two diverse gay relationships – one set in WW2 and one in the modern day. Also starring the iconic Vanessa Redgrave, Orange Shirt is the first screenplay by celebrated author Patrick Gale, who based the TV show on his father, who was found to be sharing love letters with his male best friend.
We grabbed a moment to sit down with the actor and talk about his latest project.
(LEFT) Jacket ZADIG VOLTAIRE, shirt LOUIS VUITTON, T-shirt ZARA
(RIGHT) Jumper ZADIG VOLTAIRE
Do you want to start by telling us how you got into acting?
I got into acting when I was a kid, about six or seven, and it’s because I watched Home Alone and my dad told me that they were doing a sequel and I genuinely thought that I could be the kid in the sequel, so that’s actually what started it! It wasn’t a love of film or anything, I just wanted to be in Home Alone. I went to a French school and the way the French education works, they don’t really teach arts so there was a separate organisation that did theatre – I started doing that when I was about seven and it was all in French, then when I was 12 I moved to this place called Young Blood which was a theatre company. It was a small company, there was maybe like eight or nine of us, but all of us gone on to do it [acting], so Carey Mulligan was in it, Imogen Poots was in it, it was great!
So, you started your foray into acting at quite a young age then!
I finished school and went to uni because i thought it would be the right thing to do, was miserable so dropped out and then got my first proper job when I was 20.
It’s quite rare that someone would want to be an actor at such a young age and then stick with that career ambition.
I’d probably be a therapist’s dream. I don’t actually know what it is, I don’t even think it’s a desire to be centre of attention, I think there’s something quite freeing about disappearing from the world and being someone else for a while, and I think that’s what I love — see therapist’s dream!
You’ve done both film and television, how do the two compare?
It’s the same process for an actor but with television it’s a much much longer shoot. I think that in the past five or six years, where television has come better than film, you get an awful lot more character development so you spend more time with the character so I think television can sometimes be great for an actor, because you get to really develop something and stay with it for an extended period of time. There’s also this weird thing with film because they’re such short shoots in comparison! I did this job last year that was a nine and a half month shoot for 10 episodes of TV and then you go and do a film and it’s a six week shoot!
How do you prepare for a new role? Do you do much personal character development?
I think that’s the thing I like about the job the most. I remember I did this job in Australia and we had four weeks of prep and me and the director sat down every single day and we’d do a backstory and it was the day before filming and she said “I guess we’ll just do it all tomorrow” and I said “I don’t even want to film it now, I feel like my work is done.” I kind of love all of that stuff and I kind of love figuring out why people are the way they are and why they react the way they do and what circumstances do to people so that’s kind of the part that I really love — figuring out how we all work.
Your next project is Man in an Orange Shirt, how did you get involved in that?
It was pretty simple really, I’d come off a big job and I was sent the script and I read it and I thought it was really really interesting and so went to meet them and read for it. I was on a press tour which was really strange – for this big commercial project – and then it was a very quick turnaround, so from being offered it to shooting it, it was two and half weeks.
Presumably that didn’t leave you very much time to do research?
No, but with the character – I play a guy called Michael who falls in love during the second world war – it’s kind of about how he feels so detached and isolated from the world and I kind of thought, I’m not going to read or obsess over doing too much here because I felt there was something with that character that I instantly understood. It was an amazing shoot and an incredible cast!
What was it like working with the author Patrick Gale?
It was great. He was very very good. It was the first script he’d written so he was on set a lot. He was good at — if something doesn’t work, which often happens, he wasn’t precious about his script. He was able to mould with what we were doing. In rehearsals if something didn’t work he would immediately say “OK, this is how we sort it out” and there was one day when we were on set and we were talking about a scene that we were supposed to shoot in the afternoon and he just went away and rewrote the whole scene. He was just brilliant!
What would you say is the one thing you took away from the experience of filming Man in an Orange Shirt?
Good question – it was quite an intense shoot because it’s two one-hour [shows] and there’s so much that happens in them. My first day on set was nuts! We shot this scene where my wife finds all these love letters and confronts me about it and then goes into labour, so that was quite intense!
What do you have lined up for the rest of the year?
I’m going to take some time off! I had a bit of a nuts two and a half years, especially after Orange Shirt, I just needed a bit of a break. It kind of fucks with your head all of this stuff. The day that we wrapped [on Orange Shirt] I spent in my house and I never cry but I sat in my house and cried sporadically throughout the day and I have no idea why! I think if you keep on telling yourself that something is real, after a while your body doesn’t really know the difference.
That sounds like a bit of a head-fuck!
It’s a massive head-fuck! This is an amazing job and I do feel really fortunate that I get to do it but all the travelling and all that stuff can sometimes take a toll on you, so it’s sometimes good to sit down and step back. It’s probably quite sadistic but I’m just like do it or go home — there’s something quite dark about it but I love it! I do think that to do this job there has to be a certain amount of you that is willing to take the leap, you can’t really play it safe. What’s the point in doing it if you play it safe?
Catch the first episode of Man in an Orange Shirt on iPlayer – here – and part two on Monday 7th August on BBC One.