The Showtime drama series The Affair explores the emotional effects of an extramarital relationship on the individuals involved, as well as the upheaval that creates in their lives. When Alison (Ruth Wilson), a young waitress trying to piece her life and marriage back together after a life-altering tragedy, met Noah (Dominic West), a school teacher and novelist who is married with children, they were immediately drawn to each other. And as they explore that relationship and the consequences of their actions, the viewers get to see it all from alternating perspectives, which differ in their points of view.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, actor Joshua Jackson (who plays Alison’s husband, Cole) talked about being a part of a show that forces the audience to choose what to believe, building this character, getting to explore Cole’s point of view this season, weaving in the murder mystery, his most difficult scene to shoot last season, whether Cole could ever truly find happiness again, and what the end point for this series might look like. Be aware that there are some spoilers.
Collider: You recently done a lot of really thought-provoking work, with both Fringe and The Affair, and the father-son relationship on Fringe was really one of the most compelling father-son relationships that’s been on TV.
JOSHUA JACKSON: I’m happy to hear you say that because we spent a lot of time trying to nail that in. That challenge was completely different because, against the backdrop of all that craziness, I wanted to make sure that there was a dynamic that actually doesn’t get put on camera too much, with fathers and sons, and make that relationship real. We always talked about it as, if you took these two guys out of the show and put them someplace else, not trying to save the universe all the time, that dynamic would feel honest and real, like two grown people – a father and a son – trying to figure out their relationship and how that would work.
This is a show that leads to a lot of conversations that sometimes get pretty heated. Are you surprised at how upset viewers sometimes get with this show, because they don’t have definite answers, or do you expect that?
JACKSON: It is uncomfortable, but that’s the point of the show. It won’t be for everybody. The show requires the keen participation of the audience because it forces you, the audience member, to choose what you believe, and we never let you off the hook on that, intentionally. There’s never going to be a God’s eye view that says, “This is actually what’s right.”
Especially for the first season, when there were only two points of view, did you come up with your own point of view for your character?
JACKSON: No. We had very long conversations about this. In the initial conversations with Sarah [Treem], and then in the conversations with Sarah and Hagai [Levi], they were very clear and we built this idea together of who this man is, who this man is to this woman, where they are now, after this tragedy, who they were before this tragedy, whether it was working, what their dynamic was, if she was always half in and half out, or whether she was fully committed and happy until this tragedy that they just can’t get past. I thought that that was necessary because, unless you have a starting point, than the character becomes wishy washy. You have to have a starting point, and then filter it through what she’s seeing, and occasionally through what Noah is seeing, but most important for Cole is through Alison’s eyes. So, I had a pretty solid sense of who Cole was, as his own person, and then you just run that through the filter of where she is while she’s telling the story, and what her recollection would be, in that instance of how this man, regardless of his internal life, would be to her, in that moment. It’s complicated, but it was fun, actually. There’s anxiety in doing something like that, but it’s fun.
Do you feel like you’ve done more homework on this show than on anything you’ve ever done?
JACKSON: Well, yeah. To a large extent, I feel like I’ve done more homework and had more conversation. At least for me, I have to try to constantly keep clear who the person is, inside of whichever perspective it is. The telling of a memory changes each time the memory is told. It really depends on where the teller is, in the moment of that recollection. Stories can go from happy to sad, depending on where you are recanting that story. Your memory is colored so much by what’s happening, presently, and none of us are perfect recorders. When you’re telling a story, maybe you didn’t even intend to, but you embellished something because you were in a conversation and somebody found something funny, so you leaned into that, and that becomes a new layer on top of that memory. And each time you recount that story, it probably gets a little bit further from your initial recollection, but it remains just as true for you.
Is it really different to actually be in Cole’s head this season and explore him, in that way?
JACKSON: I think more than any other character on the show last year, Cole was seen in a very specific way. He was almost pure brute. There wasn’t really much going on to him, other than that he was this possibly abusive, but definitely cold and imperious figure in Alison’s life. I think there’s a lot of cruelty in the way that Cole dealt with Alison in the first season because he wasn’t dealing with his own sense of that loss. He was projecting that all onto Alison as though, if he could fix her, than everything would be okay, and that was a very lonely place for her to be. By and large, we never really got inside of Cole’s head and how he was grappling with those things. Now when we come back to him in Episode 2, that should, I hope, feel like, “Who is this guy because this doesn’t like anything like the man we used to know.” Now, you’re seeing a person from the inside who is actually riddled with their own insecurities and those big, broad questions of who am I, what purpose do I have in life, who do I want to be, what is my life, and what’s my reason.
He definitely seems like he’s more of a mess than he was in Season 1.
JACKSON: He is a mess. At the point at which we meet him, it’s all exacerbated by what’s happened. But by virtue of now going inside of his interior life, you can now see that this guy who projects outwardly this confidence and strength, and all of those things that we saw last year, is actually much more insecure about his place in the world, who he is, and what he wants to be doing with himself.
We saw that Helen was suspicious of what was going on with Noah, but have you thought about whether Cole knew that Alison was cheating on him with Noah, or was he just caught up in his own world?
JACKSON: Because it’s Alison’s perspective, who knows what he knew. But that scene that we had in the first season, where he walks out of the room and comes back and she’s got a pretty dress on, clearly something is going on. Whether or not he would, at that moment, think that she’s having an affair, or think that she’s having a life outside of him, he accepts it. As he recalls to himself the events of the affair that summer, I’m sure he would look back and see the signposts and realize that those were the signposts, but maybe he didn’t want to admit it to himself. Even after he finds out, his reaction really is, “Okay, did you get that off your chest? Is that something you needed to do? Fine. We’ll be okay, and we’ll move forward.” That’s a really noble and beautiful testament to the love that he feels. But as he recounts the disillusion of his marriage, in retrospect, he would probably see where it all went wrong.
Do you think it’s the same situation with this murder that’s occurred? Do you think Cole really cares if Noah actually did it, or does he just want to make him the bad guy, no matter what the truth is?
JACKSON: We haven’t caught up to that place, but buy virtue of having Cole in that courtroom, Noah being the scapegoat would probably feel very good to Cole. All this man has done, in Cole’s life, is violence. He separated him from his wife and, at that very moment, my other family life completely fell apart. It would be easy to attribute all of those things to that one thing. Cole already doesn’t like Noah very much, and I think it would be easy to want to lay all of that blame at his feet. Can you imagine a worse case scenario for him?
How challenging was it to shoot that incredibly intense scene last season where you had to hold the gun to your head?
JACKSON: Incredibly. That scene was really, really difficult. It was difficult for all of us because you have the perspective issues, so that’s always challenging, and it’s such a far break. The level of drama in that scene is pitched so much higher, frankly, than anything else over the course of the entire season. We’d never gotten to that sort of level. So, it was really difficult and it took a long time. We all struggled with it. We rehearsed it and we shot that scene for two and a half days, which in television is unheard of. We struggled with it, we tried it a bunch of different ways, we added things, we took things apart. That was a very hard scene, for everybody involved, to figure out what their space was inside the narrative, at that moment. It’s intense, and that’s good. I’m glad it came across. The intention was to create a scenario that seemed jarring and that was shocking, given everything that had come before. You needed to believe the tension, even though we’ve had a future present and you know those people survived. You needed to legitimately believe this guy was about to do this. That’s a really hard scene to bring to fruition, and we did, but we struggled with it. It was the most intricately complicated and difficult scene that I was a part of last year. The director finally was like, “This is out of character. This is over the top because this is what happens when you’re under so much pressure that you explode.”
Did you always know that you would be exploring these other viewpoints in the second season?
JACKSON: No. Right from the very beginning, Sarah said that there was a possibility that we would, maybe one or two times, go into a different perspective, just to give an outside insight into what was going on. I wasn’t party to these discussions, but I think internally they saw the direction that the show was going and they felt it allowed them to attack the story from a broader base. But when I signed on, I assumed it would always be inside the two perspectives, and that was fine for me.
Cole has been through this horrible, unspeakable tragedy with the loss of his child, and his wife is not dealing with things in the kindest way. Can he truly start over, have a life, move on and find his own happiness, after all that he’s been through?
JACKSON: I don’t think the loss of a child ever really gets too far from the front of your mind. Thankfully, I don’t have anybody in my close personal life who’s had to grapple with that, but in talking with some people who have, very often, the couple doesn’t survive because there’s just too much there. Eventually, you go back to living, but I don’t think you ever move on, per se. I think that Cole will start to build himself again and become a human again, which he’s not fully human yet, and hopefully he will find his sense of happiness, and a sense of belonging and purpose again. But, I don’t think the loss of a child ever really goes too far from your mind. I don’t know how it could.
Have you had conversations about how long this show could continue?
JACKSON: Sarah, from the very beginning, talked about it as a three-chapter story, so I would assume that means three seasons. I’m not really a party to, if there was a fourth season, what that would be. I do know she has an idea for what the third season would be and the direction she would want to take the story, but after that, I don’t know. I know there’s the murder mystery happening as well, but from my perspective, because it’s actually a very small show about the damage that we humans do to each other as we’re fumbling our way through life, trying to figure it out as we go along, the show will end but it’s not a show that has an ending. Breaking Bad had to end because that was an anti-hero’s journey and obviously that path must come to a close. But these people are just going through life, and life doesn’t end until it’s over. I somehow feel like we’re not going to end with a quadruple murder-suicide. So, I know there’s a storytelling and thematic end that Sarah has in mind, but I don’t know that there’s any necessary end game for the show. Just as the second season follows from the first, if they stay together or they break apart, the experience of being alive and being human doesn’t get to a place where you just stop having to worry and then you’re done.
Your career has been so interesting with such compelling work. Have you intentionally turned down certain projects, in order to go on this path instead?
JACKSON: Oh, sure, yeah. I’ve turned down things that turned out to be great, too, so I’m not saying that I’m batting a thousand here. And frankly, I’ve taken some things that ultimately didn’t become the thing that I was hoping they were going to be. I guess over the course of a career, you just hope to survive long enough to be able to keep on finding material that’s interesting. With Dawson’s Creek, I was a kid and it was a job. I can pretend like I read that script and was like, “Yes, this is going to be a huge hit!” Truthfully, I’ve turned down work to just go and not be working. At the end of Dawson’s, I was extremely tired. Frankly, at the end of Fringe, too, I was just burnt out. The time frame was more condensed, but I went six months and didn’t read a script, didn’t think about, and didn’t want to really talk about it. I love this job. There’s the career aspect of it, but then when I finally came back and was like, “Okay, I’m ready to go back to work, or at least think about going back to work,” this came sooner than I would have chosen. My intention was to take a good year off, and just be off and be back in my day-to-day life. And then, I read this script and it was fantastic and undeniable. And then, I had a conversation with Sarah and she was so smart, so engaging, and had such a clear and interesting idea of what the story was that she wanted to tell. As an actor, you can’t really say no to that. It’s not like there’s ten of these sitting out there and you just can be like, “I’ll wait for the next one.” Knock on wood, I’ve been able to get lucky, frankly, with good material.
The Affair airs on Sunday nights on Showtime.