Joshua Jackson on 'The Affair's' Two Storylines and Playing a "Pretty Dark Character"

"When you see him through his wife’s eyes, you see a more nuanced character," Jackson says
Joshua Jackson in 'The Affair'

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Sunday's The Affair premiere.]

Joshua Jackson has played good-guy roles in Dawson's Creek and, more recently, Fox's Fringe. But he's taken a darker turn in The Affair, playing Cole Lockhart, the husband of Ruth Wilson's Alison.

"I think there is a great liberty in allowing the ugliness that can happen between humans just to happen," he tells The Hollywood Reporter. In Cole's first scene of the newly premiered Showtime drama, he sexually assaults his wife — or at least, that's how the scene is shown from the perspective of Noah (Dominic West), who's having the affair of the title with Alison while on vacation in Montauk.

Read more 'The Affair': TV Review

It's the two-sided narrative that intrigued Jackson most about the ambitious series. "What I loved is because we have this conceit of the memory play, you’re able to show [the characters] how they were received, not how they were acting," he says.

He tells THR what drives his character, why cable "beats the pants off of broadcast" and what to expect from the buzzy drama's first season. 

What about this script first attracted you?
It plays on our prejudices as readers and audiences that the narrative we’re being shown is the objective truth. We all have our own version of reality. The quality of the writing is incredibly strong, both [series creators] Hagai [Levi] and Sarah [Treem] are very strong writers, and once I got into conversation with Sarah about what she wanted the show to be, I signed right up.

What interested you about Cole? Did you read for him specifically, or for Noah too?
Sarah brought it to me with Cole in mind. What I love about Cole and the possibilities of that character are what I love about the conceit of the show. When you meet Cole in the pilot, you’re seeing a pretty dark character. There’s an unambiguously bad thing happening when he’s introduced, and you’re seeing it through Noah’s eyes. Then when you see him through his wife’s eyes, you see a more nuanced character, a softer version. I thought the possibilities of that are very interesting and very true to life. We all have our personal prejudices and the tendency to see people the way we expect to.

Given the unusual story structure, is this role like playing two different characters?
I don’t know that I would say it’s two characters. It’s different versions of the same thing. The root remains the same. The way Noah would see him — as his adversary, the other man — will continue to color their interactions, and the way Alison would see him as the woman who’s spent many years married to him will give you that side of him, and it would be very hard for those things ever to meet in the middle. That’s been the fun of the job. It’s fun to have the opportunity to go in and play with those things. There’s kind of an iconographic masculinity to Cole, too. In the second episode he rides in on a horse, with boots and cowboy hat. It’s very Marlboro Man. That’s fun to play with too, with perceptions and biases, and then you have a little time to spend with them and you see something more.

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What’s most difficult about this role?
Having done melodrama and science fiction and coming-of-age, I’ve worked all over the place, and the challenge as I see it always is to find what is the human relatability at the center of this scenario. For Ruth and I, there is this grand imposition of this dead child that hangs over every one of their interactions, and you have to guard against playing into the maudlin side of that while recognizing that that doesn’t get compartmentalized. For Ruth and I, it’s just making sure that our relationship feels lived in, rather than the joy and freshness she’s experiencing with Noah — the thousand little ways you express your love to someone when you’ve been with them a long time, or the discomfort you now have around each other. I want to make sure above all that that marriage is portrayed fully.

Where’s Cole’s story going this season?
There’s an inevitability to the narrative. It’s called The Affair. The cat’s out of the bag on that one. For Cole, the development is, as much as Alison I think is still underwater in the grief of having lost her child, that the way he’s consciously decided to not deal with his grief is trying to “fix” his wife. That’s a convenient way for him to avoid the pain he’s also feeling. His journey over the season is basically to have that worldview collapse around him, to see how selfish that is, and as all these things get revealed, all the places he used to put importance in fall in on his head. 

Your TV work has been almost exclusively on broadcast shows. How do you like working on cable?
The pace of it is more like working on a film. It’s like working on a long film rather than a TV show. Just the nuts and bolts of it — we would shoot a 63- to 65-page script on Fringe, with car crashes and stunts and special effects, with multiple characters, in eight days. On The Affair, we have eight days to shoot a 55-page script that is mostly people talking. You can take the time and you have the opportunity really to dive into things, and you’re only doing 10 episodes. This is why cable consistently beats the pants off of broadcast in quality, frankly. It’s the human element. You can’t work 14-hour days for nine months and be as sharp in all of them. By doing only 9 episodes in the first season and the pilot, by the time everyone’s getting tired and worn down, you’re finished, which is amazing. The major difference is just the focus is on quality and attention to detail, rather than simply finishing and keeping going.

Email: Austin.Siegemund-Broka@THR.com
Twitter: @Asiegemundbroka

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