Fans of noir thrillers and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo will feel very at home with Surface on Apple TV+.
Set in San Francisco, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Oliver Jackson-Cohen play a wealthy couple, Sophie and James, who are almost drowning in secrets. However, they’re given the opportunity of a clean slate after she suffers a traumatic head injury during what appears to be a suicide attempt. It leaves her with extreme memory loss. Is their perfect life as perfect as it seems?
I caught up with Jackson-Cohen and Mbatha-Raw, who also exec produces the show, to discuss Surface, how even Sophie’s clothes are clues and characters, and whether they have anything they’d like to confess to.
Simon Thompson: Surface was very Hitchcockian in many respects. Was that the vibe you got when you read the script or heard the pitch?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Oh, yes, absolutely. I think that Veronica West, our showrunner and lead writer, wrote this very Hitchcockian, if you will, thriller set in San Francisco. There’s the mystery of it all and certain noir-ish qualities that it has. Very early on, we talked a lot about Vertigo as a reference and the mystery of that but obviously in a modernized context. You are spot on.
Oliver Jackson-Cohen: It was very much in all of the mood boards that Sam Miller, our main director, came up with. There was a lot of Vertigo and red and green. You have it in the pilot where my character, James, is walking up this big noir-ish staircase, and there are the shadows. It’s great that you picked up on that.
Thompson: Watching Surface, I got to around episode four, and I thought I knew where it was going, but then that changed, and I very much didn’t. It went somewhere else. When you were reading the script, was there a point where you had a similar experience? How much did you know in advance?
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Jackson-Cohen: It was all laid out. I was sent a sort of Bible for the season, so I knew going into it exactly where the story went and what was going to happen. Having said that, receiving the scripts, they were still so compelling to read because there’s a difference between reading a paragraph explaining what will happen and seeing how Veronica West writes that into the scripts. I hadn’t read anything in a really long time that was that much of a page-turner with it remaining elevated, and there’s no gimmickry or any cheap tricks. It’s very much that the story she’s created is so complex and multi-dimensional that the uncovering of all of this stuff constantly, even knowing where it is going, is still arresting.
Mbatha-Raw: The delicious thing about the show is all of the twists and turns. The pilot was the only thing written at the point that I first came on board, and then I read an outline, but I was part of the development process in pre-production and with the writers room as we were getting directors on board. Coming on board as early as I did as executive producer and being part of the show was a different process for me. I always knew what would happen, but to be able to influence the tone and DNA of the show as it was being developed was a new and very gratifying experience.
Thompson: Talking about the DNA of the show, Sophie’s clothes in this are brilliant precursors and clues. For me, they were almost like Easter eggs. Am I reading too much into that, or was that the case?
Mbatha-Raw: No, you’re right. Sarah Byblow, our incredible costume designer, did a fantastic job. Some of the outfits in the show are characters themselves. I would joke, but that black dress or the midnight blue dress, we auditioned more dresses for that than we did for the role of the husband. The black dress especially was such an important dress for what it represents in terms of a key to Sophie’s past. Also, everyone had an opinion about how it should work, and it had to convey a lot, thread through the show, and be a big key to this other side of Sophie. Veronica West loves fashion and has very strong ideas about the luxury of this world. These are monied people, and seemingly everything should be perfect. Sophie’s closet was very well described in the script as the closet of dreams for every girl with the handbags, the Chanel, and all of the designer stuff in the show. It was really fun to play on an aesthetic level, but the trappings of the dark side of all of this luxury and what is a seemingly perfect life is what’s underneath all of it.
Thompson: Talking to things that are what’s underneath, and I don’t want to give too much away about the show, but I’m very curious about something. We know about Sophie’s life, but does James have a past that isn’t unveiled this season?
Jackson-Cohen: How do I even answer that without spoiling the whole of season one? Dot dot dot season two, I guess? That’s probably a Veronica West question. I literally got to New York yesterday, and I was outside waiting for my lost luggage when I bumped into her. She suddenly started telling me all this stuff she’d been thinking about, and I was like, ‘That is genius.’ The way her mind works is phenomenal. Without ruining anything for season one, I guess we’ll have to wait and see, but hopefully, we get to examine that some more.
Thompson: Theft plays a big part in this show. I still feel guilty about stealing some Smash Hits stickers from the store WHSmiths when I was a small child, so my final question has to be, have you ever stolen anything?
Jackson-Cohen: (Laughs) I have a good story. Marks and Spencer, as you know, has an incredible food hall, and they used to do, or maybe they still do, these freshly baked cookies you could buy. When I was 14 years old, I went into Marks and Spencer, ate a cookie, walked around the store, and then left. I hadn’t paid for it. I was then banned from Marks and Spencer until I was 18. They asked for my name, and I gave my best mate’s name as I didn’t have any ID. I didn’t actually get away with stealing, and I was not allowed back into those beautiful food aisles for four years.
Surface is streaming on Apple TV+ now.