When you talk to Joshua Jackson about what it’s like to be on television, he doesn’t bullshit you. The kid who got his start in “The Mighty Ducks” is now a veteran with two long-running series — the WB teen drama “Dawson’s Creek” and Fox sci-fi series “Fringe” — under his belt. But he’s genuinely excited about his work on Showtime’s “The Affair” as the reserved and grieving Cole, whose marriage to Alison (Ruth Wilson) falls apart after… Well, you know the title.
Indiewire spoke to Jackson after a fairly contentious TCA panel, where journalists questioned the show’s evolving choices that, by the end of Season 1, had viewers convinced that “The Affair” would never really embrace the idea of an objective truth. Instead, events on screen remain colored by the people at their center — something Jackson seems more than happy with.
Below, Jackson gets real about the difference between a 22-episode season and a 10-episode season (spoiler alert: the latter is a lot more enjoyable) and how the first time we’ve technically seen the “true” Cole was during last night’s episode, which told the story from his point of view. Also, it turns out that Jackson would love to be in a Western — even if, in his words, “the strong, silent type kind of sucks.”
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So the panel this morning was pretty lively…
It was. I’ve certainly been on more contentious panels over the course of my career. But I have to say, it was lively in so much as it’s a challenging show. I don’t think anyone up there minds being challenged. Certainly I don’t, and I don’t mind giving it back. But it’s been my experience so far that this show, the level of questions that it provokes are actually quite intelligent and probing in a good way and in some ways catch us off guard and force us to stop and think about things. Which I don’t mind at all.
It seems like there are a lot of touches in the series — like having Alison wear a different outfit in one version of a scene versus another — where there’s not a diagrammed reason for why this is happening. It’s more instinctual.
Exactly. Sarah [Treem] can speak to that more directly, but I think that’s an intention. We don’t really program the best versions of memories. You and I are sitting here and we’re having this conversation and I’ll have a vague memory that there’s a poster over here. And maybe in 10 years, I’ll be like, “Yeah, I think there was a ‘Dexter’ poster at ‘The Affair’ thing” and someone will be like, “Nah, it couldn’t possibly be, because ‘Dexter’ was off the air.” So those little variations are just that: little variations. You misremember something or you don’t misremember something and someone remembers it differently.
I think the most contentious point in the panel was — and I’m sympathetic to this, but it actually is the central point of the show — is the lack of the objective, empirical, God’s eye narrator; the lack of the clear and distinct hero who is telling us their story is discomfiting to people. It makes you as an audience choose what you want to believe. Maybe some people stick with one character, but I think that for most people, their experience of watching the show is sometimes, “I buy that. That seems reasonable to me.” And then you go an episode or two down and you’ll shift over to another person and be like, “Actually, I think this is where the truth is.” That’s an uncomfortable spot to be in because we’re not used to narratives doing that. We’re not used to being forced to make the choice for ourselves.
What I found fascinating about the first two episodes of Season 2 — this is my interpretation, so who knows, since there’s no objective truth anymore — is that part two of Episode 2 is the first time we are seeing the true Cole.
I would agree with that. By virtue of not having his own perspective in the first season, you don’t see his interior life. So this man, who is presented as very strong, capable, stoic, emotionally removed — certainly from his wife — you finally see inside this dude, who is actually riddled with all of the normal insecurities and the self-doubt. Particularly after the events of last season, he’s in a particularly emotionally raw, empty state. He’s almost in stasis, waiting for somebody to make a choice for him, because he doesn’t know how to be anymore. And that was a lot of fun.
Even to the point of physical changes, he’s let himself go because he’s in a depressive place. So he’s got a beer gut, his beard is all shaggy, his hair’s wild, and he has big, dark circles under his eyes. Because, I don’t know about you, but when I’m not in a good place, I tend to see myself in a darker light. And when you’re feeling great about yourself, you’re like, “Actually I look great today” and nothing’s really changed. But these are our personal interpretations, that until you got into Cole and also Helen’s life, you were never going to be able to see that.
In Season 1, were you chomping at the bit for the opportunity to do this?
I don’t think this was part of the original game plan. I know that fairly early on there were conversations between Hagai and Sarah about occasionally possibly wanting to jump out into a different perspective, to give another layer onto an event or to a series of events, but I’m sure it wasn’t — because it was never pitched — that we would jump from two to four in the second season. I think over the off-season they committed to doing that. So I wasn’t chomping at the bit. I liked Season 1, and I had a great time performing Season 1. I really like this cast a lot and I like working with them. So even if we had only ever stayed inside those two perspectives, I would have been quite happy to keep on doing scenes with these folks.
So in Season 1, when you were approaching the individual scenes you were doing, was the approach in your head “Here’s how Noah sees Cole, so here’s how I should play it?”
There’s one step before that. So here’s who I think Cole is and I come to a real sense of who that is in all its variations. So this is my version of Cole, and then run it through this filter of “What does this person, who is remembering him, know about him?” So on Noah’s side, it’s much simpler. He doesn’t know anything about him. He’s just taking him for face value for what he thinks is a brutish, townie hillbilly. [laughs] Funny description. And then the Alison stuff was much more complex because she has this ocean of time they’ve spent together, essentially their entire lives together. The romantic life has been 16 years together. So that’s a much more complicated area to delve into. So you take my version of Cole again and not only run it through how she sees him at this point in their lifetime together, but also given where she’s at in this specific moment: How then does that add another layer? Maybe yesterday morning when they were happy, she would have seen this conversation as being easier or lighter, but now because she’s just gone and seen her– What is the male version of mistress?
I don’t know. Mister?
Isn’t it funny that our language doesn’t have that? Her lover, I guess, which is gender neutral. It is actually weird that we don’t have a word. So maybe if she’s just gone to see him, maybe there’s guilt that’s informing this conversation, so she’s seeing him more suspiciously, or however that would be in the day-to-day. Lots of different variety.
It sounds like an incredible acting challenge.
Yeah. And Ruth is fucking great. To be able to work with somebody of that caliber– the whole cast, but dominantly my work was with Ruth last year, and to have access to that woman, who is just so very good, and to be able to play these scenes out with her and to just get into it and to have her be totally engaged in the process and want to throw herself in. She had an impossible year last year. The places she had to go on a nearly daily basis, it was unrelenting. And to her great credit, she never shied away from it and always leaned into it, and she’s great.
You talked about how you started off with your perception of Cole. How close did it end up matching to what we see in Season 2?
It ends up matching because it was my choice. [laughs] When we come to find him in Season 2, he’s in an outlier place in his life. If we had had Cole’s perspective starting from season one, I don’t think what we see in the beginning of Season 2 is what we would have come across. Because I think what Cole was hiding more than anything last year was his own panic at his inability to process the loss of his child. I think that he recognized that he was pushing his wife, and he wanted to fix that more than anything. And he recognized that he wasn’t brave enough to admit his own fear and failure and fault, the three F’s, in that disaster. And by that inability, he was making it a fait accompli that he would lose his wife and that his whole life would start to unwind. So I think that it would have been a very different thing if we had been with him in Season 1. But now we find him in Season 2 and all of these things have been wiped away, so we’re starting with things incredibly bleak. I haven’t seen the episode, but if it’s anything like we intended it to be, Cole is not in a good place.
He seems like he’s having a pretty rough time.
Yeah, he’s not dealing with it very well.
I feel like I know what the answer is going to be, but I’m going to ask anyways because I’m interested in your perspective on it. The concept of playing the stoic, strong man versus perhaps someone more emotionally vulnerable: Is stoic harder?
Yeah, the strong, silent type kind of sucks. A lot of that is in having a filmmaker who will create an environment around you that makes it not just seem like you’re bored. It takes a story that wants to present the stoic by creating the environment around them that that person is standing apart from. If you’re just making a character choice that you’re stoic and nobody else knows, you’re going to look like you’re just hanging around.
When you say environment, are you talking about the set? Are you talking about the people?
Yeah, the set, the people, the scenario. A stoic is a much harder character to play. And I’m not sure that as a purely stoic character, that was Cole. Because every time he was on camera, he was animated by someone else’s memory. But in a different version of this show, if we were telling the story of Cole and he is a stoic, the strong, silent type at the center of this thing, there’s a reason that works so well in Westerns. Because you’re on a horse, you’re shooting a gun, you’re going across the prairie. You create a scenario around you where everything is total hurly-burly all the time, so the strong, silent type seems like a counterpoint to that. Whereas if you’re just a quiet guy in a crowd, if the filmmaker and the scenario aren’t helping to tell that story, you’re probably just going to look like you weren’t all that engaged.
Was having the horse and that iconography behind you a help, especially in those early episodes?
Sure, no better character introduction. You knew exactly who that character was from the second that he came on camera.
I forget, have you played a proper Western role before?
No, I haven’t done a proper cowboy. I was briefly in the original version of “Tombstone,” but I didn’t make the final cut because that movie went through a couple of different permutations. But I’ve never done a proper grown-up cowboys and guns. That’s awesome. I would love to do that.
In terms of where “The Affair” leaves your career, has it opened up new opportunities for you?
I don’t know. I haven’t explored them yet. I finished last season, I came home, I had a bunch of life stuff to deal with, and then we were back into Season 2.
What do you feel like this could help you launch off to do?
My hope is always to be able to find well-written, interesting material with good people and then actually be able to get those jobs. So if it allows that, then it will have accomplished everything external to the show that I would want from it.
So do you like sticking to series?
I like sticking with good series. I would like to not ever do 22 episodes again. I would really love to not do that. Beyond the physical grind of doing 22 episodes a year, there’s an attention to detail that you can have at 10 or 12 or 13 episodes or whatever it ends up being that I just don’t think is possible for the human mind at 22 episodes. I certainly have always felt at various points during each 22-episode season that I have lost the plot or I’m not as confident for better or for worse in the work that I’m doing. If you don’t like my work in “The Affair,” that’s fine, but I’ll stand by the work because I felt that everything that went on camera was what I intended to go on camera.
With 10, it’s much more manageable?
With 10, it’s much more manageable. The way that our story breaks up, it’s even more manageable than that because it’s not like 10 episodes every single day, dealing with all of these big things. We have these discrete storylines, particularly this year, where you’re in one half of an episodes and maybe a couple of scenes in the other half, but you’re not all over all of the episodes, which gives you more time. And then, also, nothing blows up, there’s no car chases, there’s none of those external things.
So in a way that is very unusual in at least my experience of television, we take the time to rehearse. We spend a lot of time rehearsing. And if there’s a problem with a scene, we’ll put it on its feet and rehearse it and improvise it and try different things and then usually come back to the original text anyways. But that’s not a space that’s really afforded much, just given the pace of television. Normally, the rehearsal is just blocking. If you don’t have an intention going into that scene, you’re not going to be given the opportunity to find it. With our show, that is not the case. We take the time to make sure that we’re servicing the material in a deep and rich way rather than just getting it done.
I’ll cop to this, so much of doing a 22-episode show is just keeping your head above water. We’ve got 10 pages today, we’ve got 10 pages tomorrow, we’ve got 10 pages the day after that. And if you’re doing something like “Fringe,” you’re literally talking about saving the universe every single day. What is the emotional in to finding a way to make that scene fresh or new, so that these things have accumulated, and making sure that you remember 72 episodes ago a conversation that you had? You lose your place sometimes.
But here you really get a chance to breathe.
Not only a chance. You’re encouraged to. Like, “Take your time with this. It’s okay.” We just did a scene the other day that’s a best case scenario for how a bunch of actors on a set can work. I did a scene around a dinner table with a group of actors. I can’t tell you who they are or else it spoils the episode, but a group of actors known to our show. It was a single nine-page scene, which in television is unheard of. Nine straight pages of screen time. I’ve only done a couple of those in my TV career.
And we got there and the group of actors stood outside and we talked about it for a little while, and then we put it on its feet and then we talked about individual beats, and then we put it on its feet again. And then we brought the writers out and we put it on its feet for them and they made some notes to it and we added something and we took out a couple of things. And then we brought the director in and we put it on its feet for them and they had their notes and they pushed and pulled in a couple of different ways. So by the time we got it in front of the camera, we had run this thing 30, 40 times probably, and it was dialed in in a way that if we were just fumbling around during a first shot, you would never ever get to that place.
How long of a process was that?
The rehearsal… we probably took an hour or two out of the day and then shot it for 10 hours after that and got it all cleaned up. But there are very few shows where you could say to your producer, “Hey, we’re going to not film for two hours, but I promise you it is going to save you time in the long run.” Because productions just don’t run like that. People would be having a panic attack.
You did get nine pages shot in a day.
Yep, we did it. I haven’t seen it, but the directors were happy. Everybody by the end of the day felt like, “Yep, I was in control of my piece of that,” and the dynamics work and I think we got the story across. And because there’s no externalities to deal with — it’s not a nine-page scene with a gunfight in the middle of it — you can really take that time to dial in each piece, each line, each intent, each whatever it is in a way that is not often encouraged.
How important is it, that ability to point to it and say, “I had control”?
It certainly makes me more willing to accept criticism. If I did what I wanted to do and it didn’t turn out, that’s on me. If I was scrambling to figure something out and we just had to shoot it because it had to get shot and it doesn’t work, I have a much harder time accepting that.
“The Affair” airs Sundays at 10pm on Showtime.