Looking Beneath The Surface with Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Oliver Jackson-Cohen
Gugu Mbatha-Raw has had a career full of memorable experiences, from playing Juliet at the Royal Exchange Theatre in 2005 to joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the Disney+ series Loki in 2021. The subject of memories, and what happens when they are gone, is at the heart of the 39 year-old actress’ latest project, the psychological thriller Surface, premiering on AppleTV+ on July 29 and co-starring Oliver Jackson-Cohen.
“I was completely drawn into the world of Sophie,” Mbatha-Raw says, explaining that from the moment she read the script for episode one, she was hooked. Surface, created for television by Veronica West (High Fidelity), follows Sophie, a woman who has suffered a traumatic head injury that has left her with extreme memory loss. The cause of the injury is an apparent suicide attempt, as Sophie jumped off a ferry into the San Francisco bay. With the help of her husband, James (Jackson-Cohen) and her friends, Sophie tries to understand what happened, though she begins to question whether or not they are telling her the truth about the life she has lived. “I’ve seen lots of memory shows before, but this one felt … fresh and compelling,” Mbatha-Raw says, “and I loved the relationships in the show. I love that it’s set in San Francisco, which is just such a romantic but also kind of noir, cinematic setting.”
“I’ve seen lots of memory shows before, but this one felt … fresh and compelling.”
Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Hello Sunshine, approached Mbatha-Raw after previously working with her on The Morning Show. Not only did they want her to star in the series, they offered the accomplished actress a chance to spread her wings and get heavily involved behind the camera. “They invited me onboard as executive producer.” Mbatha-Raw says. “So to be able to have not only an amazing role on screen but also a new role off screen … I knew I’d be able to learn and flex some different muscles.”
The character of Sophie was new territory for Mbatha-Raw and presented an exciting challenge in playing a character who was discovering her world and herself as if for the first time. “You can’t really research their background, because she’s fresh to it,” Mbatha-Raw says. “So, for me, it was really about being open and really being aware of my senses. I think when you’re in a situation that’s new, you’ve got a lot of sensory stimuli in terms of sound, in terms of touch, in terms of visually—everything feeling very fresh. I tried to tap into that sort of childlike energy of just really being open to everything.” As the series builds and Sophie uncovers more secrets and potential answers, Sophie’s determination builds, too, and she is forced to grow and take charge of her situation, confronting whatever she learns about who she is, who her husband, James, is and how she arrived at these extraordinary circumstances. “Instead of building the character as your homework, the character kind of gets built up on screen,” Mbatha-Raw says, “which is part of the mystery of the show.”
“I tried to tap into that sort of childlike energy of just really being open to everything.”
Jackson-Cohen is hardly a stranger to suspense and intrigue, with previous credits that include The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor and the title role in The Invisible Man. Surface gave Jackson-Cohen a chance to sink his teeth into a complex and enigmatic character with James, Sophie’s charming-but-distant husband. “There was so much in the holding on of James, the sort of anchoring down, and sitting on all these secrets,” Jackson-Cohen says. “If you find yourself in this situation, and it’s a fresh start, what do you tell? What do you tell someone about themselves? What do you hold back? Why do you hold it back? What are you protecting for yourself?” The actor finds that he has to be careful talking too much about his character, or about the story of Surface, because there are so many twists and turns to the story to spoil. ”With this show, every single episode, something new comes to the surface,” Jackson-Cohen says. “You keep on finding out new information. The more we kind of get into it, there’s just so much with James that I just thought ‘this is genius.’”
Surface is a slow build that requires the viewer’s full attention, but it offers enough drama and genuine surprises—as well as outstanding performances—to be a fun puzzle to keep audiences solidly entertained, creating an excuse to spend some time indoors and escape the late-summer heat. New episodes of Surface will be dropping every Friday from July 29 through September 2 on AppleTV+.