Neil Jackson and Stana Katic in ABSENTIA - Season 2 | ©2020 Amazon

Neil Jackson and Stana Katic in ABSENTIA – Season 2 | ©2020 Amazon

In Part 2 of our exclusive interview with English actor Neil Jackson, he talks more about his work on The CW’s new Tuesday-night DC series STARGIRL, which is co-created by Geoff Johns and Greg Berlanti. Jackson plays the villainous Jordan Mahkent, aka Icicle.

Jackson is also one of the leads the thriller series ABSENTIA, which premieres its third season on Amazon Prime on July 17 (the first two seasons are already available on the streaming service). Jackson plays Jack Byrne, a disgraced doctor. Jack’s sister Emily (Stana Katic) is an FBI agent who vanished for six years, causing her to be declared dead in absentia. When Emily returns, she finds that her husband Nick (Patrick Heusinger) has remarried, their young son Flynn (Patrick McAuley) doesn’t know her, and Emily isn’t sure what happened to her. As Emily works to unravel that mystery, Jack becomes romantically entangled with Nick’s current wife Alice (Cara Theobold).

ASSIGNMENT X: How did you become an actor?

NEIL JACKSON: I’d been in school plays when I was fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, and when I was seventeen years old, I went to my careers advice officer, which we had to do when we were in school. And she said, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I said, “I want to be an actor,” and she literally laughed at me, and we talked about what a realistic career would be. My brother was about to join the Royal Air Force in the U.K., and I had friends in the Army, so I said, “Why don’t I become a Royal Marine?” I was always very physical and very sporty, and so she arranged for me to have interviews, and I went along to the Royal Marines base in the U.K. to do a potential officers’ course, a three-day course, and I failed the course. They said, “We don’t accept officers unless they have a degree. So why don’t we keep your application on file, and go and get a degree at university, come back when you’re twenty-one.”

So I applied to a university to do a sports degree. The first university that gave me an acceptance was Cardiff University in Wales. So I went along there, with the sole idea being that I was going to get my three-year degree, reapply for the Marines, and then life on the ocean waves. And maybe six weeks into doing my degree, I was like, “What the hell do I want do I want to be in the Royal Marines for?” The idea of being dragged out of bed at four in the morning to do press-ups in the mud just didn’t seem appealing, but I was on this path of doing my degree, so I stuck with it. My sport was boxing, and I won a few medals for the university as a boxer. The dean of the college said, “Would you like to stay on and do a Master’s degree? We’ll give you a scholarship if you carry on doing boxing for the university.” And I was like, “Yeah, I don’t what else I’m going to do, I’m not going to be a Marine now.” So I stayed on for another two years to do a Master’s degree, to try to figure out what I was doing.

Neil Jackson in ABSENTIA - Season 2 | ©2020 Amazon

Neil Jackson in ABSENTIA – Season 2 | ©2020 Amazon

And I reached a point, almost a year into my Master’s degree, where I was just not happy. I was training as a boxer five days a week, I was fighting as a boxer probably once every six to eight weeks, and I was making my money working four or five nights a week as a doorman in some rough clubs, bouncing. My life had taken a detour very rapidly from anything creative to being just physical, and I was just angry and upset. An ex-girlfriend pointed out, “You don’t seem happy.” She said, “When was the last time you were happy?” I thought, “It was when I was doing plays, back when I was seventeen, for school.” So I applied to the Welsh College of Music and Drama. They had an open audition for one of their courses. I had to do a monologue and a song. And I went along in front of a panel of judges, and started doing this monologue, and they stopped me less than a minute into it, and said, “You’ve clearly got no training. We don’t think you have a future as an actor.” And the fighter in me kicked in, and I went, “Okay, I’ll show you.”

So I wrote my play RINGSIDE that became a musical about boxing, and worked on it for six months, with my whole plan being that I would fund the play on the fringes of the West End,  and agents would come and see it, and realize what a good actor I was, and that would be me off to my career. And put the play into a competition called the William Ellis Award competition, and it came third that year in the award, and got the attention of a producer. The producer asked me to do a prepared readthrough of the musical, so we got five undergraduate actors together in a church hall, made some crummy sandwiches, and we read the play with my friend playing the piano so we could sing along. I still have a copy of it in a drawer in my study. We recorded twelve out of the eighteen songs that were written, and I still have a CD here somewhere with the songs, and every so often, I put them on, just to have a nostalgic smile. And they’re not bad. So maybe one day I’ll bring RINGSIDE: THE MUSICAL back up [laughs].

The producer, Michael Armstrong, called me into his office the next day and said, “The musical needs work.” Which it did – it was the first thing I’d ever tried writing, and I was twenty-three at the time. He said, “Why did you write it?” I said, “I wrote it to become an actor, but I don’t have the money to put myself through university again.” Michael Armstrong used to be a teacher at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, and he was still at the time a module teacher there, but he’d started his own acting school, the Armstrong Arts Academy, his name is Michael Armstrong, and he said, “I’ll give you a scholarship to come to my acting school if you come and work with my production company.” And so that was what I did. I finished my Master’s degree, moved to London, enrolled in the acting course, and I graduated from that nineteen years ago.

Neil Jackson as Jordan Mahkent in DC'S STARGIRL - Season 1 - "The Justice Society"| © 2020 The CW Network/Annette Brown

Neil Jackson as Jordan Mahkent in DC’S STARGIRL – Season 1 – “The Justice Society”| © 2020 The CW Network/Annette Brown

AX: Has boxing in any way helped you with your acting?

JACKSON: Absolutely. In a literal sense, the very first job that I ever got was a British TV series called HEARTBEAT where I was in one episode, playing a boxer. My break into films was Oliver Stone’s ALEXANDER, and I played the general of Alexander’s infantry. I believe I was cast in that because Oliver Stone loved the fact that I was a fighter and had the countenance to make it look like I was a guy who could stand at the helm of an army and go toe to toe. I did the Bond movie [QUANTUM OF SOLACE], and that was basically as a result of my ability to fight.

But on an emotional level, it’s also helped me. Because I see the two as very similar. When I was a boxer, it’s a very solo endeavor. When I step into the ring, it’s just me against my opponent. And I know that if I haven’t done all the preparatory work to get myself there – the road work, the bag work, looking after my nutrition – then I can’t expect to be victorious when I step into the ring. And taking that metaphor to my career, that ring either being an audition, or stepping onto the set, preparation to me is everything. It gave me a work ethic. Being a boxer gave me a work ethic that allowed me to step into the arena of the entertainment industry, knowing that it was up to me to put the work in to make sure my career happened. And opportunities and luck and all those things occur, but opportunity is squandered if you’re not prepared. So it gave me a work ethic that I think has helped me through.

AX: You also have the third season of ABSENTIA coming up on Amazon. Where do you shoot that series?

JACKSON: We shot all three seasons of ABSENTIA in Bulgaria, so that was a little different.

Neil Jackson as Jordan Mahkent in DC'S STARGIRL - Season 1 - "Wildcat"| © 2020 The CW Network/Jace Downs

Neil Jackson as Jordan Mahkent in DC’S STARGIRL – Season 1 – “Wildcat”| © 2020 The CW Network/Jace Downs

AX: How was shooting in Bulgaria?

JACKSON: I love Bulgaria. Bulgaria is just an incredible place – beautiful people, beautiful country, the food is amazing. There’s no such thing as “organic” in Bulgaria, because everything is organic. They don’t have the same sorts of pesticides and everything else that we use everywhere else. They don’t need to delineate. You bite into a tomato, and it tastes like nothing you’ve ever tasted before. It’s been my fourth time going to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, and hopefully, he said, knocking on wood, we get a fourth season and I get to go back again.

AX: Your character in ABSENTIA, Jack Byrnes, is an alcoholic doctor who becomes a paramedic. Did you have to research alcoholism, medical procedures, or anything else for the part?

JACKSON: The alcoholism was something I very much looked into and researched. I have friends who have really struggled with alcoholism, and that was something I really wanted to honor. I didn’t want to appear like a tourist in that world, I wanted it to be authentic. So I talked to some friends, I went to an AA meeting, and tried to get my own handle on how he was. But on the other side of it was allowing myself to kind of commit to each moment where he is in his struggle, without allowing my ego to creep in – “Do I look silly? Is this working?”, those kinds of questions.

Because especially in Season 3, he is at the worst place we’ve ever seen him emotionally. He’s having panic attacks, he’s having breakdowns. The world is not a fun place for Jack in Season 3. That’s a very exciting challenge as an actor for me to experience on screen, but it’s also incredibly scary, because I’m not one of those actors who you can say, “Cry,” and I can then say, “Which eye do you want the tear to come out of?” I have to allow myself to immerse myself in the emotion that I’m portraying, so that the emotions bubble up real inside of me. I don’t know what’s going to come out. There’s a scene we did in Season 3 where my character has a full breakdown, and I could have done all the preparation in the world, but who knows when they call “Action,” and the grip is standing two feet away, scratching his bum, and I can hear the carpenter outside slurping on his coffee, if I’m going to be able to deliver what happened. Thankfully, we were able to create something on set that I think is very authentic and very true to what he was going through. But it’s always a little bit of a roll of the dice, what you end up with.

AX: So Jack is not taking the events at the end of Season 2 very well …

JACKSON: Well, there are two things there. One, he’s not taking it very well at all. But two, he can’t talk about it. Nobody knew about the affair. So he can’t share it with his sister, he can’t share it with his dad, he can’t share it with anybody, because nobody knew that they were having an affair. So he’s having to bury all of these feelings that he’s dealing with, and essentially hide. He’s just not able to deal and compartmentalize all of those emotions. So he’s really struggling mentally.

Neil Jackson as Jordan Mahkent in DC'S STARGIRL - Season 1 - "Icicle"| © 2020 The CW Network/Jace Downs

Neil Jackson as Jordan Mahkent in DC’S STARGIRL – Season 1 – “Icicle”| © 2020 The CW Network/Jace Downs

AX: What’s Jack’s relationship like with his sister Emily in Season 3?

JACKSON: It’s interesting. It’s good. He essentially saved her life twice now. And so they are very strong. But she also is aware that he is going through something, he’s avoiding her. She doesn’t know what it is, but she’s smart, and eventually, she’s going to figure out what was going on between him and Alice, and that’s his biggest fear is, what the reaction of the family will be. And when the information does come out, it’s very raw, very emotional, and very painful.

AX: How is working with Stana Katic?

JACKSON: She’s great. First of all, she’s an incredible actress. I knew that from Season 1. I was aware of her, but I hadn’t seen anything she did before. We were both in QUANTUM OF SOLACE together, but weren’t working at the same time. Working on Season 1 of ABSENTIA, there was a scene where she walks back into the house for the first time and sees her son Flynn for the first time in six years, and I stood and watched this master class in acting. She was just exquisite. It took every part of me not to cry, watching what she was doing, because I felt every piece of pain the character was going through, though her performance.

AX: On STARGIRL, how is working with Brec Bassinger, who plays Courtney/Stargirl, and Luke Wilson, who plays her sidekick/stepfather?

JACKSON: They’re great. Brec is just a wonderful ray of sunshine, and for somebody so young, Number One on the call sheet, the lead character in the show, there’s a lot of weight that is placed upon them, not least of all the fact that they have the most amount of work to do, so they’re normally the most in demand, and therefore the most exhausted. But there’s also a sense that Number One on the call sheet is the leader, that they set the tone, and they’re the one kind of leading the charge, in terms of energy and the way that they conduct themselves. And for someone so young – she’d just turned twenty when we started shooting – she took up the mantle of being Number One on the call sheet with amazing maturity.

And Luke is has been doing this forever, he’s an incredible professional, knows his job, and he never rests until he thinks he’s got the absolute best out of each moment, constantly changing lines and talking with Geoff and saying, “Maybe if we change this word here,” and constantly mining it to make sure that it becomes the best iteration that it can possibly be, which is wonderful to work with.

AX: Is that secret chamber where Jordan keeps his artifacts on STARGIRL as set as big as it looks on screen, or is that CGI?

JACKSON: No, it’s pretty big. And we’re going to see more. They introduced the Dr. Ito character, who is Dragon King, played by Nelson Lee, and they establish his lair. And if you think that the Injustice Society lair was big, this one dwarfs it. So they just built these incredible sets that we got to be a part of, that are awe-inspiring.

AX: Can you say anything about your work in the upcoming film THE KING’S MAN?

JACKSON: I can say what I’m allowed to say. It’s a massive production, the prequel to THE KINGSMEN franchise, set in World War I. I play a character called Captain Forrest, who is a high-ranking British officer, and he’s tasked with a very important job that will turn the tide of the war.

AX: Do you have anything else going on that we should know about?

JACKSON: Not right now. Everything is in lockdown. We were looking to shoot a feature film that I wrote, that was going to be the first time I direct. And we were going to shoot that in the fall. But with Covid, it’s been pushed until spring. So I can’t wait to direct my first feature film.

AX: Can you say what that’s about?

JACKSON: Yes. It’s called BUTTER SIDE UP, and it’s a dark comedy about a man who, incredibly depressed, decides to end his life, but in the process of trying to end his life, ends up inadvertently repairing all the things that were broken. It’s a wry and amusing look at something that’s very dear to my heart, which is mental health issues. I’ve lived with depression my whole life, my brother has it, and I’m very vocal about it on social media. And it’s my exploration of that.

AX: Is that for you to act in as well?

JACKSON: No. I’ll direct it. We’re actually in the process of casting it now, so we’re just about to make an offer on an actor.

AX: And what would you most like people to know about STARGIRL right now?

JACKSON: That it’s fun. It’s this wonderful slice of escapism. I think that especially right now, with everything that’s going on in the world, one of the things Geoff Johns created with it, which is a thing I love, is it felt like I was watching an ‘80s classic for the first time. He leans very much into the homages to BACK TO THE FUTURE and E.T. and GOONIES, and all of those wonderful films from the ‘80s. And when I watch it, I feel like I’m watching them. So it’s just a wonderful piece of escapist entertainment.

AX: So STARGIRL leans a little into the Richard Donner of it all …

JACKSON: Yeah. Geoff was an assistant to Richard Donner, it was one of his earlier jobs, so he knows Richard Donner very well.

Related: Exclusive Interview: Actor Neil Jackson on STARGIRL and SLEEPY HOLLOW – Part 1

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Article: Exclusive Interview: Actor Neil Jackson on STARGIRL and ABSENTIA – Part 2


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