Surface Stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw And Oliver Jackson-Cohen On The Complexities Of Their Noir Thriller [Interview]

In the new Apple TV+ series "Surface," Gugu Mbatha-Raw ("Loki") and Oliver Jackson-Cohen ("The Haunting of Hill House") play a married couple living a life of the ultra-rich in San Francisco. Their marriage, however, is strained (to put it mildly) because Mbatha-Raw's character, Sophie, has lost her memory after an apparent suicide attempt.

"Surface," a noir thriller, unfolds from there, with many twists and turns for the characters and for the audience as well. /Film interviewed "Surface" stars Mbatha-Raw and Jackson-Cohen about what attracted them to the show, how they delved into their characters' many layers, and what "Surface" tells us about our culture.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

'Scripts like this really don't come along every day'

One of the things that's interesting about "Surface" is how the characters are so complicated and have so many layers. Was that what initially attracted you both to your specific roles on the show?

Mbatha-Raw: Exactly that — they are layered, complex characters. I read Veronica West's script, and scripts like this really don't come along every day. It completely drew me in — being inside the mystery of Sophie's head, being inside her dilemma of trying to figure out who she is in this psychological thriller set in San Francisco, which I have such a sort of romantic noir association with, and just really being able to work with Hello Sunshine again, Reese Witherspoon's company, who I had worked with on "The Morning Show." It was just such an amazing package of things to get my teeth into as an actor.

Jackson-Cohen: Similar to Gugu, the scripts were so delicious and dense. I feel like I thought I'd figured it out and then I hadn't quite figured it out, and it just kept on surprising me. And so it was a combination of that and then Gugu and Hello Sunshine, who I think they're an incredible company, they make incredible stuff. And with our director, Sam Miller, it felt like a complete no brainer.

There's more than just two versions of each of your characters — did you know going in about their respective complexities? Did you get all the scripts up front? When did you know what about your characters?

Mbatha-Raw: I pretty much knew very early on, because I came on board as executive producer before it was even really with Apple. So, I'd read the first episode, which was a complete pilot script. And then I'd read an outline of the show, which Veronica had written and was part of the process while she was evolving the scripts in the writers' room. Obviously things change as we go, and things evolve as people are cast and all of that. But yeah, I pretty much knew upfront where it was all going.

Jackson-Cohen: Same. I was sent a bible of the show. I don't think all of the episodes had been written by the time that we started, but we knew exactly where the story went. We both knew where we were going to end up.

'I feel like we all have different versions inside of ourselves, don't we?'

Gugu, you mentioned San Francisco, and the city is a prominent part of the show. What was it like shooting in San Francisco, and did it serve as inspiration for you portraying your characters?

Mbatha-Raw: I loved it. We did shoot a predominant amount of the show in Vancouver for San Francisco, which is an amazing place and has just a really lovely energy. For San Francisco itself, we went at the very end of the shoot. So we'd spent nearly six months together and then we did this trip to San Francisco and it was just great because we'd been in San Francisco in our hearts and in our minds and our imaginations for so long. To be there, it's just so cinematic — Chinatown, the Golden Gate Bridge, the fog, there's so much atmosphere there that really lends itself to the mystery and the noir of our show. We were all so excited to be in these real locations that just have such texture to them and such history.

And Gugu, your character especially, you really had to play different versions of Sophie because there are flashbacks and in present day, she doesn't remember her past. How did you prepare to play those different versions of your character, given they were pretty different over the course of her lifetime?

Mbatha-Raw: I feel like we all have different versions inside of ourselves, don't we? We contain multitudes or whatever the quote is, but I genuinely believe that. I feel like I have many different versions of myself. I feel like we all present different versions of ourselves to different people in our lives. So for me, it was really great to be able to have a role that had that breadth, had that multifaceted complexity, because I do believe that we love to oversimplify things in our culture. We love to label things, put them in boxes, simplify them so we can understand them and move on. And I think nobody's like that actually in real life — everybody is complex, and obviously this is a drama and it's a thriller, so it's heightened. But I do think in terms of preparing for it, it was really just digging within and digging deep because as I say, I think we all are complex beings ourselves.

'It's all about an audience interpretation'

Oliver, without getting into spoilers, there's one episode where a lot of it is your character telling Sophie about part of their past that she can't remember. And it's told from your point of view. When you were playing that version of your character, did you adjust in any way knowing it was portrayed from his point of view?

Jackson-Cohen: No, I didn't, actually. I feel like I tried to stay the same throughout and so I definitely didn't approach any of that stuff differently. Because I think that then it becomes a manipulation of the audience. I don't think I necessarily altered anything, which is where it's so interesting — when you talk about someone putting a jacket around someone to keep them warm, it's like, that can be a kind gesture, and it can be a controlling gesture. It's all about an audience interpretation. I just tried to play the truth of what was going on and then the audience will decide how that's interpreted.

The first three episodes of "Surface" drop on Apple TV+ on Friday, July 29, with the ensuing five episodes released weekly on the following Fridays.