Joshua Jackson on ‘The Affair’: New Perspectives, Cole’s Culpability

Faces of Fall Extra 1 RROSALES_THR_2015_CBS_1631 - P 2015
Ramona Rosales

Faces of Fall Extra 1 RROSALES_THR_2015_CBS_1631 - P 2015

The Affair is amping up Joshua Jackson’s role.

The former Dawson's Creek star finally got the chance to tell his side of the story in the Showtime drama, thanks to the creator Sarah Treem’s decision to expand the series’ characteristic point of view storytelling in season two to include that of Jackson’s character, Cole, and Maura Tierney’s Helen.

The sophomore show spent the latter half of its second episode delving into Cole’s life, which is practically in shambles following his wife, Alison's (Ruth Wilson), decision to leave him for her summertime obsession, Noah (Dominic West). Opening up the narrative perspectives from two to four also provides the opportunity for more diverse retellings of events, a distinct aspect of the drama that drew some criticism in season one.

“Some people have trouble grasping the lack of objective truth… and I understand the difficulty or the discomfort in accepting that there is no true truth,” Jackson tells The Hollywood Reporter, adding with a laugh: “If you simply can’t accept that, then this is not the show for you. It’ll make you crazy.”

With more to discuss about his character than ever before, Jackson sat down with THR to talk about just why Cole is largely at fault for the demise of his marriage, how he’s hoping to challenge the inherent gender bias in our culture and what he likes most about the show’s provocative nature.

The show has weathered some criticism for its at times divergent perspectives. Is that a frustration you often hear from viewers?

Some people have trouble grasping the lack of objective truth, and I think partly that’s a philosophical idea. If you are, say, particularly religious, the idea that there is no object truth is actually offensive to you. So I understand the difficulty or the discomfort in accepting that there is no true truth. If you simply can’t accept that, then this is not the show for you. It’ll make you crazy. But that is the point of the show. For the way that we are telling this story (and I personally happen to agree with this), there really isn’t an objective narrative to all of life. The thing that our show is doing — something I’ve certainly heard from friends of mine — is that it’s forcing the audience to be that perspective. Our perspectives provide a couple of different layers of paint on the canvas, but it’s actually the viewer’s perspective that will tell them what the whole painting is. That’s an uncomfortable place for people to be, especially when you’re dealing with ideas like infidelity and human relationships because we like those things to be easy. We like it to be marriage till death do us part and total romance all the time, and that anybody who steps outside of that is obviously bad or evil. My view of life just doesn’t work in black and white like that. It’s all gray and fuzzy and what you think today might change tomorrow, and that’s awkward. This show is never going to be CSI. It’s not to be built to be something that you can watch that you kind of enjoy it and kind of get titillated by it but not have to engage it too deeply. This show requires you to go to some awkward places and it’s provocative — we are cutting right to the quick of most people’s worst moments so it’s going to get that reaction.

So you never get a script where you feel like the two point of views differ too much?

Absolutely. That’s why I’m sympathetic to that frustration. The finale last year was radically different because not only are those two perspectives so tremendously divergent, but the show has suddenly gone from a fairly slow-moving character study to suddenly having this one scene that’s essentially pitched at eleven. To try to reconcile that as a single actor and a group of actors, and then to add the complications of the two divergent memories, to get all those dynamics right is challenging. We had long, long discussions and a lot of back and forth. That shoot-out scene we shot in two-and-a-half days because we went and did it and it wasn’t right, so we went back out and did it again. This show takes that — it takes that time because it’s not easy stuff.

Were you surprised to find out that Cole would have his own point of view in season two?

Well, the conversation started out last year as potentially adding a different perspective every once in a while just to give a different insight into whatever was happening in the central plot. I know that those conversations intensified toward the end of the year, and I think during the off-season Sarah and the writers batted that around and decided that they were going to expand it to a permanent form, rather than just occasionally jumping into someone else’s story.

So, has it been a lot more work for you?

Yeah, there is more work because he is actually inside of a perspective. When it is his story, it’s fully his story as opposed to just dropping in mostly to Alison’s story last year. It’s definitely been more work that way, but it’s also been a fun and interesting challenge to now give this character, who I spent a year living through other peoples’ eyes, material life.

And you’re presumably lessening the load on Ruth and Dominic a bit.

Yeah, Ruth does have less work. Dominic is sort of doing the heavy lifting this year, whereas Ruth did last year. Ruth last year — man, it was relentless. She never, ever got a break.

How is Cole’s added perspective changing the way you see him?

As you see in the second episode, he’s clearly not in a very good place. I think in the way that he was seen last year from Alison’s perspective, he was flattened down to two dimensions. He’s generally respected as a standup and the patriarch of that family — a strong, emotionally distant, stoic guy, who seems to always know what to do, a capable man’s man. But now we jump into his story after the events of last year and you actually see this guy who is riddled with self-doubt. He is completely undone by the events of last year. To me, that’s a really interesting counterpoint. I hope that when people see the second half of that episode, the guy people see is shocking to them. We’ve seen this dude who rides up on a horse the first time we see him like the Marlboro Man. Now instead, when we get inside his head and he doesn’t know which way is up and certainly he doesn’t know what to do. He’s completely frozen in this moment. Then we progress from there.

There’s an emotionally heavy scene between Cole and Alison that plays out very differently in each point of view, but in your recounting of events, it’s more of a sad but heartfelt goodbye.

I hope it came across onscreen because on the page, it’s beautiful and painful when she finally releases him and says, “I’m not going to come back, but I still love you.” It’s maybe the harshest, most difficult thing to hear and to say to somebody, but that’s day one of his life. Now that sets the tone. Like, “I get it — you’re not coming home. There’s no point in holding onto this anymore.” So then, the next time we see him, he’s trying on a new form. He’s creating for the first time this new version of himself. That’s really his journey for the second season is deciding who he wants to be.

Is Cole a victim?

No. One of the things that stood out to me on the page last year is that from outward appearances, Cole seems like a good guy who is trying to do the right thing. But what he’s forcing his wife to do (to bear the burden of that pain alone, essentially), it’s the idea that she’s the only one that’s hurting and that he can just help her. From the outside, people go, “What a f—ing great guy. He’s there for her when she needs him.” But he’s making her grieve alone. He’s forcing her into this place where only she is grieving, and he (except for one scene last year) never admits that he’s going through this same pain. I think there’s a great degree of culpability to that. I think if we had gotten into Cole’s perspective last year, I think he recognizes the essential of cowardice to him not being able to admit how much pain he’s in. And forcing her to do that alone is achieving the one thing he doesn’t want to do, which is drive his wife away. So I don’t see him as a victim. There are always two people in a relationship and he is actively participating in that dynamic. Clearly, Alison makes the choice that is easy to moralize against, but Cole is a much more subtlety crueler character because, again, he refuses to be honest with her about the pain that he’s going through and makes her suffer alone.

Do you feel like you’re helping to challenge the assumptions associated with infidelity? Was that part of what attracted you to the series?

It was the stigmas around affairs, the politics of being in a relationship (I’ve been in a nine-year relationship, so you deal with a lot of shit over the course nine years), the gender bias that is inherent in our culture. When I read the pilot, I got through Noah’s side of it and then I get to Alison’s perspective — it was the first scene where they don’t agree — and my instinctual reaction was that she was lying. In talking with Sarah, she said that the reason that she put Noah first is because we culturally have a tendency to find men more credible than women (it’s why all our news anchors are all white men) and she did that on purpose to f— with our expectations, to put us in an uncomfortable position where those biases are already key. She’s working on things that we don’t even know that we do as we’re processing information.