Interview: Neil Jackson returns to screens in Absentia on Amazon Prime
Actor and musician, Neil Jackson has been a mainstay in the world of feature film and television for the last 14 years. From Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004) to 007: Quantum of Solace (2008) and Welcome to Marwen (2018), Jackson has worked with acclaimed directors consistently, having also amassed an extensive television catalogue, including credits such as The Originals (2017), Westworld (2018), Persons of Interest (2014), Push (2009), CSI (2008), How I Met Your Mother (2007), and Flash Forward (2009).
We talked to him about his lengthy amateur boxing career, the complexities of coordinating a fight scene, his role as the lead antagonist in Stargirl, currently airing on the CW, and the return of Absentia - Amazon’s hit crime drama, returning in July 2020.
You currently star as the lead antagonist, Icicle, in the CW’s Stargirl. What’s it like being involved in a franchise as notable as the Justice League, given how popular superhero films and TV shows are these days. Are you a fan of the superhero genre?
I’ve always been a huge fan of the genre ever since I first saw Richard Donner’s Superman movie when I was a kid. I love the power of the metaphor of superheroes. It’s so relatable to the struggles we all face in our daily lives. The struggle with identity. The struggle with acceptance.
The struggle with feeling weak or ostracized, or just wanting to fly away. So to be a part of that amazing world is a huge honour.
Icicle is a pretty ruthless character. Fans of the show characterise him as someone who will do anything to get what he wants. What do you think of him? You get bonus points for Icicle’s cool entrance in the show.
Ha, that was an incredible entrance. I called Geoff (Johns) when I saw it and thanked him. Yeah, I can see why fans see him as ruthless, and in many ways he is. But my take on him is that he believes he is the only person with the strength of character to make the hard choices
that will ultimately make society and mankind a better place. He sees himself as the hero.
You're also returning for season three of Absentia, the Amazon Prime hit crime series in July 2020. As the style and content of the show are a lot more mature than Stargirl, how do you personally, as an actor, switch between contrasting roles so effortlessly?
I see them as sides of the same coin in many ways. They’re both stories that, at their heart, are about people struggling with the enormity of great pain. Jordan in Stargirl is wrestling with the loss of his wife, and Jack in Absentia is wrestling with the death and subsequent resurrection of his sister. Take away the fancy effects and they’re really not too dissimilar.
I saw a clip in which you were talking about how hard it is to remember medical jargon. Do you still struggle with this?
Yeah, those fancy “floccipoxydoodle” words just don’t seem to stick in my brain!
What can we expect to see with Jack Byrne in series three?
This is a hugely emotional season for Jack. SPOILER ALERT: This season he is dealing not only with the grief of the loss of Alice, the woman he professed his love for, but he’s also unable to share that grief with anyone as the affair was still a secret. All that pain and emotion has to come out though... and it does.
Aside from television, you’ve made quite the impact on the big screen, with roles in Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004), Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010), and Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals (2016). But by far my favourite is the character of Kurt in Welcome to Marwen (2018). How was it to work with the likes of Steve Carell and Leslie Mann, not to mention the abundance of A-listers in the other features?
Marwen was a dream come true. I have LOVED Robert Zemeckis ever since I saw Who Framed Roger Rabbit in the cinema when I was 11. That film blew my mind and, in many ways, planted the seed that I too wanted to, one day, become a storyteller. So to get to stand on set and have that man call action on a scene I was in made my 11-year-old self do backflips. I told Robert this story on the set and, on my last day of filming, I walked into my trailer and there was an original signed Who Framed Roger Rabbit poster. It’s currently on my wall in pride of place.
You also had a memorable role as Mr Slate in Quantum of Solace (2008). That’s got to be a bucket list opportunity surely, to be involved in the 007 franchise?
Absolutely, that was another HUGE and surreal moment for me. I would have paid good money to be a walk-on extra in a Bond film, so to stand toe-to-toe with 007 himself and trade blows was incredible.
What’s it like shooting those fight scenes? Do you work with the fight coordinator closely to achieve the exact combinations of punches and throws? And did your boxing experience come in handy?
My boxing background has been instrumental in me being cast in many of the action projects I’ve been involved with, but that was particularly true in the Bond film. I knew and had worked with the coordinator, Gary Powell, on Oliver Stone’s Alexander, and so he brought me on board knowing that I could handle the fight and work well with Daniel to make it look authentic. We then rehearsed it every day for two weeks to really dial it in. Fight scenes on film are much like a dance. There’s a set choreography and you need to work with your dance partner or partners to make that very staged movement seem real. Both Daniel and I were pretty bruised up after that shoot.
You were an amateur middleweight boxing champion at university, right? Let’s talk about that.
Yeah, I trained and fought as an amateur boxer all through university in Cardiff. I loved it and was considering at one point whether or not to try and see if I could make it as a professional fighter. Then I got knocked out. I was fighting in the final of the Welsh Championships and just got cracked. I was out before my head hit the canvas, and out long enough that my mum, who was ringside, climbed into the ring to wake me up. I had a forced break from boxing for 30 days for medical reasons and in that break, I had a chance to re-evaluate what I wanted out of life. I was always creative, but my creativity had taken a backseat for five or so years as I pursued boxing. I realised that I wanted to direct my energies back towards my creativity and so hung up my gloves.
You were also on Westworld. My question is if such a place existed in real life, would you go? And do you think the tickets would be overpriced - just like everything these days?
I’d love to experience something like that, but there would always be the moral quandary of where the line is that you do not cross. If there are no rules and no culpability, that’s a very dangerous thing.
I haven't even scratched the surface with your roles. You have such an extensive set of credits, ranging from The Originals, Persons of Interest, Push, CSI, How I Met Your Mother, and Flash Forward. You even write, both screenplays and music, you renaissance man. Tell me a bit about having such an extensive catalogue.
I don’t really see it like that. To me, it’s just my life and my career. They’re all like beautiful memories to me that I have been fortunate enough to collect over my years. I love storytelling with all of my heart and love the fact that I get to be a storyteller. Be that through acting or music, writing or directing; it will be something I do until the day I die.
I’ve noticed you get a variety of roles on American productions or projects that ultimately air on American networks. Is this something you aimed for or did it just turn out this way?
I think that’s just a product of moving to LA. I’ve lived in North America now for almost 16 years, so when in Rome...
How has lockdown affected your work? Did all productions shut down?
Filming has obviously stopped, but it’s given me a wonderful opportunity to focus my attention back on my writing. I was also only home for five weeks during the whole of 2019, so a little forced downtime has been something of a blessing for me. My puppy likes it too.
DC's Stargirl is out now
Absentia returns to Amazon Prime from 17th July
Photography by Bernardo Doral
Interview by Oliver-James Campbell
Subeditor Primrose Jeanton