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Big Little Lies’ Douglas Smith Worked With Real Aquarium Employees to Play Jane’s Fish-Loving Beau

Photo: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

Among the generally terrible men who populate Big Little Lies’ TV version of Monterey, one hope stands out awkwardly from the crowd: Corey Brockfield, Jane’s co-worker turned love interest at her new job at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Played by Douglas Smith, Corey surfs, spouts random factoids about fish, and puts in the effort to bond with Jane’s son, Ziggy, though he also has a tendency to step into her boundaries.

Smith himself has a lot in common with Corey: He’s a chatty guy whose sentences double back on themselves, and he has also spent a lot of time surfing — though most of his knowledge about the ocean comes from shadowing employees at the real-life aquarium before shooting the show. In fact, one employee that season-two director Andrea Arnold told Smith to follow inspired much of Corey’s character.

Talking with Vulture over the phone from Hungary, where he’s filming the new limited series installment of The Alienist, Smith shared how he and Woodley approached their characters’ relationship, Arnold’s unique view of the casting process, and one frankly disturbing fact about sea otters he learned on the job.

Did you really have to learn about marine biology or work with people at the Monterey Bay Aquarium to play Corey?
So he works in the husbandry part of it; he’s not a marine biologist. I got up there, and there was a particular employee Andrea wanted me to spend time with because he was a bit awkward and a bit obsessed with weird factoids, so I sort of shadowed him around a bit. He was really obsessed with some otters, their genetic diseases based on inbreeding, weird stuff like that. The weirdest things would just come out of his mouth. You’ve only seen a little bit of Corey, but that’s in line with his sort of unedited stream of consciousness, stream of thought. Which is weird, but I think it’s ultimately really honest and sincere.

I was interested in what Arnold’s direction was like, given that she’s new to the show this season. How did she first describe Corey to you?
The way the role came to me was through an audition. They said, “It’s Shailene’s love interest, co-worker guy, on the second season of Big Little Lies.” I have a weird thing when I start to really connect with something; my body tightens up. It got me over my own nervousness and my own real-world shit. It got really quiet in the background, and all I was thinking about was the story and the people and the heartbreak.

The audition went well enough that Andrea wanted to Skype me pretty soon after. We got on FaceTime and we talked and talked about a lot of things. Stuff that had to do with the exact scenes and the story, but then other things about where I came from in my own life. We talked about lots of music. I think that speaks to her humanistic approach to filmmaking and storytelling.

In this week’s episode, Corey and Jane go out to dinner for the first time. How did you approach filming that scene?
In my memory of it, I didn’t think we did any of the scenes how they were written, so much of it was improv. Then I actually saw it, and I was like, You know, that was actually pretty similar to how it was written. But I feel like we only did it once as it was written. I guess a lot of that improv was to get us to feel like we were walking and talking and doing stuff, and then she sort of sneakily only had us do the words that were going to be in the show, maybe once or twice.

I thought, Is the writer going to be mad because I’m not saying his lines? Like when they’re at lunch or dinner and they’re talking about net-pen versus farm-raised fish — David [E. Kelley], the writer, is super into that. I think he has a fishery. [He runs an aquaculture business.] I actually had an easier way of understanding it talking to some of the aquarium workers who have an app on what fish is better to order because it’s sustainably caught.

On the date, Corey tries to kiss Jane and she pulls away. The show frames him as a nice guy, as far as we know, with maybe some boundary issues, who isn’t aware of her trauma. How did you and Shailene talk about their dynamic?
There’s some other stuff that happens I think I’m probably not going to be at liberty to discuss, given the early half of the season that we’ve seen so far. But the research that I found interesting was — I don’t want to say partner, because I think it’s a bit of an overstatement to say he’s her partner — there are some people who’ve documented their experience of being partnered with somebody who was a victim of sexual assault. [I talked] to Shai about some of the research she had done, not just on victims of sexual assault but on the partners of victims.

Just because somebody experiences something, it doesn’t mean that is going to be Cory and Jane’s experience, because we all deal with trauma in such different ways and we all get triggered by things in a different way. It all has to just feel true to her as Jane and then to me as this new person in her life. Cory is a fixater, and that’s why he fixates on the things he fixates on within the aquarium. I think he kind of looks at her like a new fish, as weird as that may sound.

There’s an exchange in the first episode this season when Corey asks Jane if she’s on the spectrum, and he implies he may be on the spectrum. Did you think about what his diagnosis might be?
He’s my age, and my experience was everyone was on Adderall and everybody was on Ritalin and everybody was OCD, and then everybody was on the spectrum. You get so much stress bundled up because your parents get divorced, and your eyes start twitching, and they … I don’t know. Maybe that’s not everybody’s experience. That’s the experience that’s pretty close to me, and it was already on the page with Corey. It’s a weird sort of thing, acting these things.

According to your Instagram, you surf a lot, like Corey. I assume you were shooting all his surfing scenes on the show, like when he’s teaching Ziggy?
Oh my God, it was so fun. I was talking to Jeffrey Nordling, the actor who plays Renata’s husband. I was just like, “My last job, I was wearing a 19th-century suit in the summer in Hungary. All I was trying to do was not pass out from heatstroke. Here I am, working with this amazing director and this amazing actor, and wearing a wet suit and jumping around in the water with this sweet boy.” I used to teach kids how to surf when I was in high school; I’ve always been a water person. I think it’s a really healing place.

You’re playing Shailene’s love interest, or basically a sort of manic pixie dream boy —
That’s a term I only recently learned about, manic pixie dream girl! When I saw the movie Tully and then heard NPR people talking about it.

Well, maybe it deserves to be retired as a term, but I was interested in what it’s like to play the male version of that — a guy who appears and is quirky and fun but also secondary in a way to Shailene’s larger arc.
You have to do reach-out to your writer and your director and your co-star who have a much larger part of bringing the thing to the screen, because you want to make sure you have the context. There was a lot of stuff that was told to me through the writing and throughout the other episodes. When I got the job, the day after, they sent me the first six scripts. That was really helpful in understanding what Liane [Moriarty] and David had thought of with the character, and Andrea. Then pretty soon I was talking to Shailene about it, and we sort of knew each other before working on it. We almost made a film together six years ago. It was always very, I think, a safe place to say your mind and say what was the deal.

You were in Big Love before this, playing the eldest son in a polygamist family, so you have a strong record for being in HBO shows with the word big in them.
Yeah! B and L next to each other.

I was curious if you’ve thought about how your perspective on your career has changed between the two shows.
I think when I was younger I felt like I had to announce myself as a certain kind of actor. Like, when I was 17, I started working with a teacher who was a student of Stella Adler. Then you actually get on sets, and you start working with actors, and you realize that it’s less thinking about things and it’s a lot of doing. You start to realize that it’s much more of a craft where you just need to get reps in; it’s more like it’s a physical thing. You can overthink, anyways. My older brother [Gregory Smith, best known for Everwood] is now a TV director, and he would always say, “Don’t study acting. It just makes you worse. Dah, dah, dah.” I don’t believe that. I went to [the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] for the summer to do a Shakespeare workshop. I’m always like, I need to learn more. But I will say I turned 34 on Saturday, and I feel like I’m becoming more and more okay with the fact that the more I know, the more I understand that I know way less — and that’s okay.

Of the things you learned from the guy you shadowed at the aquarium, did any facts about the work surprise you? I’m interested in life at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
There was the tidbit that’s sort of in line with the show … well, I don’t know if it’s in line with the show. He was really excited to tell me that the No. 1 cause of mortality in the wild otter is that, when the male and the female get together and procreate, their mating practice involves the male otter gripping the female’s mouth with his mouth, and then they shake, and shake, and shake. Sometimes they’re too violent, and they rip half of the female’s face off and they bleed out and die. [This is indeed a real thing.] He told me this with a big smile on his face because he’s so interested and excited to tell me. He didn’t even think I would find that sad or really disturbing.

But yeah, the aquarium a beautiful place. The jellyfish area is probably my favorite of the aquarium. It’s really dark and moody and blissful. It kind of feels like you could make a Sigur Rós music video there or something.

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