When you talk to Emory Cohen, it immediately becomes clear why he joined The OA, the show from Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, which stealthily dropped on Netflix around the holidays, and has beguiled, enraptured, and infuriated viewers with its sincerity, mysticism, and yes, dancing. “You gotta watch this show with your heart, not your head,” Cohen said over the phone. “And I’m that kind of guy, as a dude and as an actor.” One of the centerpieces of The OA is a series of contemporary-dance moves called “the Movements” that characters use to tap into a spiritual netherrealm. According to the narrator, they must be done “with perfect feeling,” and as Homer, Cohen does just that, imbuing the Movements with a ferocious grace. Best known for his work in films like Brooklyn and The Place Beyond the Pines, Cohen talked about how Marling and Batmanglij wrote him a letter asking him to do The OA, gave us his take on the controversial ending, and offered a strong defense of the Movements.
How did you come to this project? It sounds like a lot of things were very top secret.
I guess none of it really felt top secret to me, to be honest. But I met with Brit and Zal last summer and they didn’t have any scripts really that they were showing anyone. They just were still writing and I saw there was one board that had a picture of a football player on it and above that it said Homer and I said, Alright, well that’s what I got. And then we just sat and talked for a bit, you know? I really liked their work. I’d seen The East, and we got on. We talked about different things; they talked to me about an outline, the possibilities. Then I was off shooting this film called War Machine with Plan B, who also did OA, and my producer on that had the first five episodes for me. And with the first five episodes was the letter from Brit and Zal asking me to do it. And it was just such a beautiful letter that I knew that basically I wanted to do it.
What did the letter say?
I mean the thing that really stood out to me was they said to come join them on their odyssey, and it made me feel a lot more comfortable because I knew it would be hopefully a multiyear thing. Because, you know, it’s weird, you’re kind of always on these mini-odysseys for every film, you know? And then you’re in your own kind of bigger odyssey of your career and then your life. I’ve been bouncing on the road and there was something about joining people for a creative cause that would repeat almost like a theater group would, because I’ve never really been a part of like a theater group or something that made me want to do it. I think the big thing too is just having written a letter was like a thing, you know? That’s like a proper person, you know what I mean?
That to me made me feel like these are people for a creative cause, and that excited me. It was kind of this funny thing: I was in Abu Dhabi, and you know, Abu Dhabi’s cool, but there’s not a ton to do, so I was like trapped in a hotel room with these five episodes and nothing to do for a little while and this hotel had these really enormous glass walls. You could look out and lower the blinds all the way and raise them, like the way the cells looked, now that I think about it. It’s funny. Anyway.
In the episode where your character goes to Cuba: How it was getting into the mindset of someone who’s so deeply traumatized and experiencing post-traumatic stress in front of our eyes?
The funny thing about Cuba is that that was the last thing we shot of anything. We basically shot the entire eight episodes in New York City for a certain amount of months, I can’t remember now. But then we went down to Cuba, just for a week, and we shot like the entire Cuba part of the Cuba episode, but I had worked on and prepared all eight from the beginning. There was kind of a post-traumatic stress, since this is my episode and we’re finishing this thing, you know what I mean? I think a lot of that was physical, too. There were a lot of physical things I did with Homer to begin with so there was a quality of the animal out of the cage. All those scenes, I rehearsed them a bit, but I didn’t actually figure out the specifics until I got down to Cuba. I just tucked them away and I kept trying to look at them and I was like, No, no. I just couldn’t. And then when we got to Cuba it was like a purge.
Speaking of physicality, a big part of the show is the Movements. I personally love them, but they’re fairly controversial with some critics. Did you ever feel silly doing them?
No. I didn’t feel silly doing them. Well, I mean, we all made jokes, yeah. I mean we had fun with them. We weren’t like the way that they’re done in episode five, all emotional. A lot of time we were having a lot of fun in rehearsal. I don’t know if you want to say, “did we take the Movements seriously.” We did, we took them seriously getting them right. We did work really hard, and we knew it was a big thing.
I don’t know man, I just think it’s beautiful, and this may be kind of blunt, but for me, I watch it, and the thing I like about it, dude, is I’m like, Yo man, it’s got some serious balls on it! Like not everyone’s doing movements, you know? That’s the thing that I’ve been saying to all of my people and my friends and stuff like, dude, I’m just into the fact, that it’s something that’s fucking different. That’s weird. And I get it. I get it. It is weird, and look, you’re right: If you do them in real life you won’t raise the dead. I’m sorry about that! It doesn’t work that way. I know. You know? But, it is what it is, and for me I wanted to tell a story. I was saying this to someone the other day: To me, you gotta watch this show with your heart, not your head. Because if you’re going to watch it with your head, it’s not gonna work. I don’t know, maybe that’s a generalization, but then you’re probably going to have some more problems with some things than if you watch it more so with your heart. And I’m that kind of guy, as a dude and as an actor, and so for me that’s the way I thought of it.
What were the logistics around shooting the death scenes with Hap’s contraption?
It was like over a period of three days. So that rigged thing that we had to go in — me, Will, and Brit, were the three people who had to deal with that — and we all shot in a day and a half. Brit was like a day and a half and Will was like a day over a period of three or four days in succession. We started calling that rig thing “the chair” because it was uncomfortable — maybe not emotionally, but physically it was very uncomfortable. The good thing was that when we were doing close-ups, we had a different rig where we could just pull our head in and out and it could fill with water so we could have our head in, have it filled with water, and just be filming as long as the actor could take it and then whip your head down and be pulled out and safe. It was kind of like a nice warm bath.
So have you watched the entire show?
What did you think of the ending in the final episode?
Well, I don’t know because I don’t think I can say much. I can tell you that I liked it and that’s about all I can say because I have certain things that I know about what goes on that I can’t share. At all. So that’s why I think I can’t really say much more than I really enjoyed the ending and the series. I’ll tell you what: I loved watching the high-school kids doing all five of the Movements, I thought that was absolutely beautiful.
Do you believe that what Prairie is saying is the truth? Or do you think it’s all in her head?
I don’t know the answer to that, man. I don’t know that much. I’ll tell you what, I’ll give you an insight that I had in my own process that may refer to something like that, which was that being Homer, to me, was all a world of the past, or a world of her retelling to the boys. What I felt we were shooting was the stories the way that she saw what happened and who Homer was. That’s just how I was creating, you know?
So you were approaching the character as someone who was a character being told through someone else’s eyes?
As being retold, yeah. I think the world carries it now when I watch it. I mean, look, that’s just my opinion, but I think the world carries it. I think there’s certain things that I got away with in that idea. That if I was in the world of the present with the boys, it would read as untruthful to be quite honest. There’s certain things where I start getting antsy, and I think it fits in the world, where it maybe wouldn’t have fit in the world in the present.
What do you find the most compelling thematically from the show?
The thing that resonates the most with me has to do with this idea of building your own family, and who is your family, and being able to create that. The one thing with the Movements — the one way to defend that for me is that it’s about the will of communal belief in something better. It’s funny, like we were just joking before, these movements, if you actually do them, you can’t raise the dead, but if someone just had their mother die, if someone needed to believe that they could hold their wife one last time and that these movements would do it, I think a lot of people, as silly as it sounds, if they were actually faced with that, they’d say, I’d give it a try.
Are you in production right now for the second season?
No. I don’t know anything about that. I don’t even know if we’re actually a go for season two. So I’ve got no idea. Brit is on in like a week, I’m going to go hang out and get a coffee and see what’s up.
This is a random question, but do you feel like Smash was prematurely canceled?
Um, nah. I think at that point it was … look this is a business, and they were spending a lot of money on this show, and I don’t know if it was doing what they wanted and so that’s a part of the business. There are shows that have been prematurely canceled, but I don’t know if Smash was one of them.
This interview has been edited and condensed.