October 29, 2020

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Oliver Jackson-Cohen on Building His Own ‘Bly Manor’ Villain and Those ‘Hill House’ Comparisons

From ELLE

Spoilers for The Haunting of Bly Manor episode 7, “The Two Faces, Part Two,” below.

The Haunting of Bly Manor has no shortage of ghosts, apparitions and otherworldly villains, most of them working both as literal threats and metaphorical representations of guilt, grief, and denial. But the most memorable and complex of all the baddies haunting Bly Manor is Peter Quint, a suave Glaswegian valet who’s hiding a whole host of dark secrets behind his rakish smile.

After briefly appearing as a frightening specter haunting the manor, Quint is introduced in episode 3, “The Two Faces, Part One,” as a fantasy of an urbane 1980s man, shopping for tailored menswear and premium whiskey in west London to the sounds of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.” Even as the fantasy is undercut with the revelation that the luxury goods are for his boss, Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas), Peter still retains an air of effortless confidence. That easy surface charm belies a dark, singleminded determination to get ahead at all costs—and to escape his own past, no matter who he takes down in the process. That charm also enthralls Wingrave’s newly hired au pair, Rebecca Jessel (Tahirah Sharif), whose tumultuous affair with Quint ends up destroying her.

Jackson-Cohen speaks to ELLE.com about Quint’s toxic relationship with Rebecca, the machismo he wears as a mask, and how he compares to The Haunting of Hill House‘s Luke Crain.

Luke really goes through the wringer in The Haunting of Hill House—heroin addiction, deep grief, a near-death experience—so you had a lot of heavy stuff to play. When you were approached to return for Bly Manor, was it important to you that Peter Quint be a very different kind of character?

On Hill House, Mike [Flanagan, series creator] used to always feel sorry for Luke and apologize [for] days when I had to be in floods of tears and all that. But it’s my job! It is my job, at the end of the day. So with this, Mike called me as he was standing outside the Netflix building, I think last February. Nothing had been announced, they were still talking about what they were going to do [with season 2]. He called me out of the blue and said “Hey, I’ve got this idea. It’s Turn of the Screw, do you want to be in it?” He said he wanted me and Victoria [Pedretti] to be in it. I went, “Yeah, of course, who do you want us to play?” And he went, “I don’t really know. I think Victoria will play the nanny and then we’ll figure it out with you.” Coming on that early was kind of incredible, because we got to develop Peter together.

What did that process look like?

Well, Mike initially said to me, “He’s the villain,” and my immediate response was, “Okay, but why?” In the book he is this kind of threatening specter, so how do we make him human? How do we make him real? How do we make him relatable and still be an adaptation of what is represented in the book? And one thing I said to Mike early on is that it’s very interesting that Peter behaves the way he does, because it’s a mask.

When you meet him at the beginning of the show, he comes across as this arrogant know-it-all: He’s sort of a product. He’s a man from the ’80s, thinks he’s quite suave. I loved the idea that for Peter, he thinks if he puts on a suit and does his hair really nicely, and he is charming and engaging, and all of the things he thinks he should be, then he won’t ever have to deal with the fact that he came from a childhood that was incredibly painful. I think that’s a very human idea.

Photo credit: EIKE SCHROTER/NETFLIX
Photo credit: EIKE SCHROTER/NETFLIX

Right, his whole identity is him trying to deny his past.

Yeah, Mike and I started talking about that an awful lot. We meet these types of people all the time in the world. How we rarely ever get out of childhood without scratches, and some are more severe than others. I think it’s very interesting for someone to overtly be that macho, suave type of man, when there’s also something incredibly hurt in there.

How much of his relationship with Rebecca is genuine? He seems to have real feelings for her, but he’s also so willing to use her and con her in whatever way serves him.

The way that I approached it was that he truly, truly loves her, but doesn’t really know how to do that. He doesn’t know how to express that in a healthy, safe way. Early on, Mike said, “Oh, he’s just manipulating her,” and I said, “Wait, wait, wait. She wouldn’t fall in love with him unless there was something about him that made her fall in love with him.”

So we needed to do it in a way where he genuinely loves Rebecca. He genuinely loves her and ends up doing these horrific things, but in his mind it comes from this place of, he has never had anyone in his life show him care or love in that way. He’s never going to let that go. He will do whatever it takes to keep that. I think it holds a mirror up to so many toxic relationships that real women and men experience in their lives, where you can see it makes sense, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay. We wanted to confuse the audience that way, and have them hopefully flip backwards and forwards between thinking he’s this horrific, toxic man, and actually feeling his pain.

Photo credit: EIKE SCHROTER/NETFLIX
Photo credit: EIKE SCHROTER/NETFLIX

There’s one moment in particular I can’t stop thinking about, which is the first time we really see Quint’s darkness. He flies into this rage after Rebecca tastes Owen’s batter. It’s really sudden and really nasty. What’s happening there?

He’s nuts! What I think is happening is that he’s scared. He doesn’t think this will last. In that moment, he suddenly felt he wasn’t worth [Rebecca’s] time, that she was going to leave like everyone else has left. So, “I’ll hurt you before you can hurt me.” I feel like everyone’s been in a relationship at some point where that’s happened. When people are vulnerable or scared, they lash out in such ferocious ways to cover up their pain.

Midway through the season, we realize that Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) is actually being possessed by Peter, hence his creepy, older-than-his-years behavior. How did you and Ben approach those scenes?

Ben and I sat down in pre-production and started to discuss stuff we could bring in, and what we could work together on: physicality stuff, speech, all those different things. Then we would go through the script and for any Miles possession scene, I would read the Miles lines and then Ben would sort of copy what I did. It must have been quite a tall order, to ask someone that young to suddenly transform like that: Right, go ahead, be a creepy 35-year-old man! But he was brilliant. He really was. Then when we would go to shoot it, I would go to set, and be just off camera. I’d sort of help direct him in the way I felt Peter would behave or react to certain things.

Quint is Scottish and works for English people, which is obviously a very specific dynamic historically and adds a lot to the character. How did you and Mike settle on that as his origin?

It was quite a big thing in building him. Originally Mike asked if I could do a Manchester accent, and I said, “I don’t think I can.” So he said “Okay, well, what do you want him to be? Do you want him to be from London?” And I remembered seeing this exhibition years ago by a photographer who took pictures of these tenement buildings in Glasgow. All these council buildings from the ’60s and ’70s, and I just thought, that’s where Peter is from. I know what his house looks like.

I thought it was very, very interesting, the dynamic of him being from Glasgow, specifically at that time. Growing up there in the ’60s and ’70s, with what was going on at that time, I thought it really adds to the story that he’s moved to England to work. He’s trying to get as far away from the life that he knew as he can. Which is why, ultimately when his mother turns up, it’s the worst possible thing that could ever happen to him, that she’s found him. She’s entering into his world without his consent.

Yeah, the relationship with his mother that emerges in episode 7 really changes how you see the character.

It was the building block of it. Again, it’s a very human thing, that we all are kind of obsessed with appearance. I’m not just talking about physical appearance, I’m talking about how we come across in the world. We worry about, do these people like me? Am I going to be accepted like this? How am I going to be seen? I think that’s been Peter’s whole existence. He had this really rough, abusive childhood, and has never had anyone in his life that showed him care or love. In a way, he’s a product of that, and the extremes of his behavior are a product of that. His entire life is built around, how do I appear to be something that I’m actually not? How can I be seen in a certain light that negates what has gone on in my past?

It’s also quite interesting, the idea of choice. In Hill House, Luke had these horrific experiences as a child. But his will to good was greater than his will to bad. He wanted to be good. In contrast, you see with someone like Peter, it’s gone too far. There is a part of him that cannot recover and cannot rebuild from the damage that was done.

Watch The Haunting of Bly Manor

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