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Surface’s Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Oliver Jackson-Cohen on their Apple TV+ series

What if you woke up one morning and had forgotten everything about your past? Could you trust your significant other, friends, and family to fill you in on your missing memories? That’s the situation presented in Surface, Veronica West’s new psychological thriller series from Apple TV+. Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as Sophie, a woman who survives a suicide attempt in which she jumps off a ferry in the San Francisco Bay. The tragic incident causes severe memory loss so it’s up to her husband James, played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen, and friends to fill her in on the details of her past life.

Sophie appears to have a picture-perfect life that includes a wonderful job, a loving husband, and a beautiful home. However, Sophie begins to question why she decided to end her life if it was so picturesque to begin with. Through her interactions with Baden, played by Stephan James, Sophie soon uncovers the truth about her past. In an interview with Digital Trends, Mbatha-Raw and Jackson-Cohen discuss the appeal of psychological thrillers like Surface and the dilemma of playing secretive characters.

Sophie and James stand next to each other in evening wear in a scene from Surface.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Digital Trends: Gugu, you have ventured into the world of psychological thrillers again. You recently starred in The Girl Before. Now, you’re starring in Surface. What was appealing about stepping into the role of Sophie?

Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Hmm. Well, I actually was on board of Surface quite a long while before The Girl Before. I had to be since I was an executive producer alongside Hello Sunshine, who I’d worked with before on The Morning Show. But Surface is completely its own thing. It’s completely singular in its vision. It really is very intriguing, and the mystery of the show drew me in from the very first script. Veronica West’s writing is incredibly compelling, and the story of Sophie not knowing who she is, trying to find her identity, trying to find the truth of her life, I just found so intriguing. All the characters have so many layers to them so it’s juicy stuff.

Oliver, your character, James, on the outside, he’s a picture-perfect husband with a perfect life. But, you slowly start to learn that everyone, even he, has secrets. How do you think James represents that theme of a double life?

Oliver Jackson-Cohen: I think it’s interesting. We were talking about this earlier, about this dilemma if you’re presented with something like Veronica experiences in the show. The whole premise of the show, Veronica said she saw this documentary called Tell Me Who I Am, which is about these twin brothers, and one of them loses their memory. They had this horrific childhood. And so it’s about what he chooses to tell him about their life. So if you ever find yourself in that predicament, what do you do? Do you eradicate all the bad? Do you give the full truth even though it will hurt? What do you do?

I think that Veronica West has written this incredibly compelling show where we’re constantly toying with how much do you reveal. How honest can you be? How much is that going to affect? How much is it going to cost? And so we’re constantly dealing with all of these. I mean it’s more than duality with all these characters of what is being revealed, which I think is incredibly fun to play. But, hopefully, as an audience, you’re constantly guessing.

Sophie walking on the pier in a scene from Surface.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Gugu, how important was it to play an active character who takes initiative into her own hands as opposed to the typical “damsel in distress” thriller?

Mbatha-Raw: Well, that was everything to me, really. When we meet Sophie, she’s seemingly had this very traumatic event happen to her, and you could look at her almost as a victim initially. She’s under a conservatorship. She’s living at home with her husband. She’s in therapy, and she’s in a fragile state emotionally, and to be able to see the journey that she goes on to empowerment. Initially, she is looking to everyone outside of her to tell her who she is. And then she has to realize she has to go deeper within herself.

That, to me, was sort of a theme that I thought was really empowering because, I don’t want to give too much away, but by the end of the show, she not only has the information, but she has so much power. It totally flips on its head, your sort of idea of her. So that, I thought, was really complex and interesting to play.

Oliver, what was the scene dynamic like between you and Gugu, knowing you’re both playing characters who are hiding things?

Jackson-Cohen: I mean it was incredibly interesting because, as you said, when two people are holding on to so much themselves and not sharing, it creates this sort of bizarre kind of tension that I think is incredibly telling of relationships and marriages. You know, we like to think that marriages are sort of these perfect things, but it’s all about the secrets that we keep. It’s all about what information we hold back to not hurt the other or whatever.

There’s this scene, and I remember it so clearly because it was very early on that we shot it, where Gugu’s character Sophie comes back from Marin. It’s a tiny scene between our characters. He sort of comes into the room and says, “How was it,” and she says, “Yep, good.” But it’s such a brilliant, tiny scene because it’s all about, “Oh, they’re back to these double lives.”

Mbatha-Raw: So much is beneath the words in relationships. And like you say, in a show like this where it’s the tension, it’s what’s not said that really has the power, and hopefully has the audience leaning in being like, “Do they really mean that? Can I trust what they’re saying?” [laughing]

Oliver, who is the shadier wealthy guy from San Francisco, James or Adrian from The Invisible Man?

Jackson-Cohen: Oh, Adrian for sure. [laughing] He’s an absolute sociopath. I can’t say too much about Surface because I don’t want to spoil it, but Adrian for sure. I would not want to be stuck in a house with that guy.

Surface — Official Trailer | Apple TV+

Gugu, you’re now stepping into roles as a producer. Has that changed your view on how to approach the role as an actor since you’re also thinking of the project from a producer’s standpoint?

Mbatha-Raw: It’s incredibly satisfying. To be able to work with a company like Hello Sunshine, who are all about empowering women, and with Reese Witherspoon at the helm as an incredible example of somebody who’s come from acting to producer, businesswoman, Hollywood mogul, it’s really inspiring. For me, coming into a project like this, the role is a dream role in terms of the complexity and in terms of the layers of the character.

But also to be able to have a conversation with the showrunner and the directors at a level where you’re able to influence the DNA of the show, the tone, the taste, the music, it’s been very satisfying. I think there’s a lot of “me” in this show. There’s a lot of my taste and my soul in this show beyond the performance, just in terms of having that role as an executive producer and being a part of those conversations.

The first three episodes of Surface premiere on July 29 on Apple TV+, with the remaining episodes debuting on a weekly basis.

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