When reflecting on the audition that eventually led him through the doors of Bly Manor — an audition which he performed on camera, reading his lines opposite his own mother — Rahul Kohli doesn’t mince words. “It was a nightmare,” Kohli recalls. “My mum read Miles, Flora, and Hannah. I didn’t think I’d get a callback, let alone an offer, once they saw the tape. When I got it, it was like, What? But I’m not gonna look a gift horse in the mouth.”
From that unlikely beginning sprang Owen Sharma, the sweet, pun-loving cook who serves as a welcome bright spot in the darkness of Netflix’s binge-worthy The Haunting of Bly Manor. (Owen’s last name was changed as a tribute to Kohli’s mother, so maybe that videotaped audition wasn’t so bad after all.) An instant fan favorite — and the object of many thirsty tweets over the weekend — Owen winds up at the center of one of Bly Manor’s most moving and tragic love stories, and winds up a sadder and wiser man because of it.
What Bly Manor stories and secrets can be squeezed out of the actor who played the goofiest, most dashing chef in the history of horror television? On a break from Midnight Mass, his upcoming second collaboration with Mike Flanagan — more on that later — Rahul Kohli sat down for a spoiler-filled conversation on child actors, hidden ghosts, Easter eggs, fan theories, and that truly incredible mustache:
Did you feel like you understood the role of Owen, and how you wanted to play it, right away?
I personally didn’t want to make Owen more complicated than he was. I tried to keep it as simple as possible, because the show is really not about him. I thought the best way to approach it was to be a supporting actor, in the purest sense of the word. Because that was Owen. He’s in the kitchen, and the kitchen is the heart and soul of the house, and he keeps the main characters fed. I didn’t draw attention to myself. Though the mustache didn’t help with that.
If you didn’t mention the mustache, I was going to.
Absolutely. I’d be offended if you didn’t.
You’ve mentioned that the mustache was your idea, Were you aware it was going to spark such a massive, thirsty response from viewers?
I want to say I was completely surprised. But I wasn’t, and only because I’ve seen a pattern forming where my work is concerned. I’ll create a character, and I’ll go out there and do what I can [with a big scene], and then I’ll see tweets that say, “Look at his beard and hair!” If I have this huge scene — where, I don’t know, a character dies, and it’s hugely affecting — they’ll say, “Yeah, but his eyebrows are on fleek.” I had a feeling there was a good chance, no matter what I did, that people would go, “Mustache!”
There is a science to it, when creating a look. It should always be true to the material. I don’t like to add things for the sake of it. What I wanted for Owen was, I think, correct for the time and the character. But at the same time, it was a Walt Disney idea: The silhouette. It’s about how easily, instantly recognizable someone is. You could recognize Owen from his mustache and glasses. You could draw him easily. You could turn him into an action figure. You could recognize him instantly from across a room. I know that sounds like a weird way to approach a look, but it seems to have worked.
There’s another part of your process for creating a character that interests me: Creating a playlist of songs you think your character would like. Owen’s playlist is a bunch of stuff like 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love” and George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” — but other than the fact that they’re period-appropriate for Bly Manor, why these specific songs?
A lot of them had to do with love. Lost love, or being in love with someone and not being able to communicate it properly. Obviously, everyone can relate — whether it’s high school, or when you’re older — to knowing that the person you’re looking at could potentially be the love of your life. And you could have this incredible future together … but it’s not happening. It’s just not happening. I felt that Owen, in that time period, his release would be to throw on some ’80s pop.
How much do you think Owen comprehends about what’s happening at Bly Manor? He’s worked there for years, but he doesn’t really seem to have any sense of all the ghosts everywhere.
I don’t think he knows a thing. He’s so attentive to everyone, and so sensitive. But at the same time, he’s just completely out of the loop. I don’t know if he notices. He can see Hannah is withdrawn. But with the kids, and their little tantrums … There just seems to be an innocence to Owen. He’s present, but I don’t know if he makes the leap to, “This house is haunted!”
To be fair to Owen, that’s a pretty big leap to make.
It is! I wouldn’t. In real life, if a kid was acting up, I wouldn’t be like, “You know what? Possessed.” I’d be like, “He’s being a little shit because his parents have died.”
What was it like working with Benjamin Evan Ainsworth and Amelie Bea Smith, who play Miles and Flora? It’s rare for a TV show that’s aimed at adults to hinge so much on the performances of young children.
I adore Ben and Amelie. They are the most wonderful colleagues I’ve ever had. That old cliché, never work with animals and kids? I had never worked with kids. So I had no barometer going into Bly. You look at the scripts and go, “Wow. How is this going to work? What if they’re not good?” Everything rests on these kids.
And I’ll be honest with you: Based on this experience, I say never work with adults. Adults will constantly let you down. You’ll go, “Seriously, dude? You’re in your fucking 30s, and you’re acting like this on set?” Adults annoy me more than child actors. [For Ben and Amelie] “kids” doesn’t even come into it. There is no “child actor” nonsense. They are doing the exact same job we are. If not more, because both Ben and Amelie are playing the duality [of children who are sometimes possessed by ghosts]. They’ve got two characters to figure out.
They turn up at the exact same time, do the same hair and makeup. And on top of that: when I finish a scene, I get to go sit in the green room, have a coffee, check my phone for the football scores. And when they do that, they immediately have to go see a tutor. They were the hardest-working actors on that show. It really made me appreciate where I was and what I was doing. Every morning — 4 or 5 in the morning — I’d get in the trailer, and Ben wants to talk about Liverpool and video games. And Amelie has got a joke, or she wants to play thumb-war. If I felt tired, I would look at the kids. Never did they complain. Acting in the purest sense. You go, “Oh my God, this is fun, and we’re so lucky to be doing it.”
What was it like to be on set when Ben and Amelie filmed the story-time plays at the end of the third episode? Those would be fairly lengthy and complicated monologues for any actor to tackle.
Dude, they did it in like, two takes. They don’t drop lines. They know your lines. You can see it on the tip of their tongues. It was probably harder for me to do my monologue than for them. They were just fucking incredible. You see the scene [in the script], and go, “How long is this gonna take?” And you want to be there, and you want to be supportive for them. And they don’t need you. And you go, “Oh. Okay. We’re moving on.”
Owen drops so, so many puns over the course of the season. Do you have a favorite and/or least favorite?
Jesus. The puns. I don’t like puns. I’m not a punny type of person, just because I can’t do them. I’m not smart enough. That’s all Mike [Flanagan]. Mike loves a pun.
“Assault and batter-y” might be my favorite, because it’s the most ridiculous. And it made me laugh because Owen makes that pun to Flora. She’s a child. She doesn’t know what assault and battery is. That’s why that’s my favorite — because he could give a shit whether she got it or not. That was just for him.
Bly Manor answers most of its mysteries by the end of the season, but there’s one scene that’s been bugging me. At the end of episode three, Hannah whispers something to Owen after his mom dies, right before he leaves Bly Manor. We never find out what she said, and T’Nia Miller says she can’t remember. Do you?
I do. We did that in two takes, so she only whispered to me twice. The one that played [in the episode] … I can’t remember exactly, but it was something genuine and sweet. If I did remember, I probably wouldn’t say anyway. But on the other take, I misheard T’Nia. We shot pretty much episodically, so this was the first time I felt like I really had some meat to dig my teeth into. Owen hugs Jamie and Dani. I’m fighting back the tears. I move over to the car, and T’Nia whispers in my ear. And what I heard was: “This was your fault.”
And I nearly fucking laughed. I was like, Seriously, T’Nia? You’re gonna fucking do me like that on my first take? And somehow, I buried it. I did something to mask my reaction to her fucking with me, and I jumped in the car. And the car was a whole nightmare thing in itself. I didn’t fit in it, so I actually honked the horn with my knees. Which nearly made everyone laugh.
So when I went back to T’Nia, I said, “Why did you say that to me?” And she said, “No! I said, ‘This is not your fault.’” So it was just a complete misunderstanding.
We definitely need to talk more about you and T’Nia, because you’re both at the center of the fifth episode, which is one of the highlights of the season. It seems like it would be a unique challenge on your end, because you’re not actually playing Owen — you’re playing Hannah talking to herself as Owen. But you also can’t tip that hand to the audience too early. How were you modulating that performance?
Firstly — this should go without saying — T’Nia Miller is just incredible. Her performance … give her all the awards next year. If she’s not nominated for something, I’m gonna be pissed. I can’t stop watching her.
When we had that scene, there were no table reads or rehearsals. It was daunting, how we were going to make sense of that. So we got into that space in the morning. We did the first one, which was probably the closest to what happened in Owen’s actual interview. So that was our baseline.
And then we’d move on to the next memory. Me and T’Nia would agree on how much is Owen, and how much is her. And I decided to start fucking with all the work I had done to create Owen. Dismantling it live. Taking apart this character I had been playing for three or four months. Changing his body, his voice, taking his glasses off. There were a lot of times where I was mimicking T’Nia’s physicality. And then putting Owen back on when I needed to. We didn’t know what would get used, or how it would read to the audience. It was one of the most satisfying days I’ve had as an actor.
This might sound weird, because Owen turns out to be such a sweetheart, but in the first few episodes, I was convinced there was going to be some kind of dark twist about him. Maybe he’d killed his mom, or maybe his mom didn’t even exist. Something to explain why we never saw her, and why Owen kept ducking away at night. As you were reading the scripts for the first time, did you ever think there might be something sketchy about Owen?
Absolutely. I absolutely did. I was like, “He doesn’t have a mum. He’s his own mum.” Dude. Straight away, I was like, “I’m fucking Norman Bates. This is amazing.” Because I only got the first few scripts, I was sure of it. I was like, “I know I’m playing a psychopath. This is great!” Because I know I’ve got that in my wheelhouse. Why is he running off home all the time? He’s dressing up as his mum, he’s arguing with himself. And there’s the money stolen as well. “Oh, yeah, uh, Quint and Jessel stole it.” That would’ve been a great twist.
I wanted that so badly. And then it turns out: No! He’s just a sweet chef. Maybe Mike Flanagan will do a Psycho remake someday.
The Haunting of Bates Motel.
The Haunting of Bates Motel! I’ve gotta text him.
What was it like filming with the hidden ghosts? Is it weird to do a whole scene pretending you can’t see a guy in a plague doctor’s mask crouched in a doorway?
Oh, everyone got on with the ghosts. But me — because I can be in my little world sometimes, or on my phone — I’d do a whole scene sometimes, and not realize the whole time that there was a little boy over my shoulder wearing a doll’s mask. It terrified me. I’d turn around and go, “Holy shit! You’ve been there the whole day?” Somehow I never got the memo. It was like I was the viewer. I’d look under the table and go, “Uh, there’s a kid under here.”
How does it work on a logistical level? Do the scripts call for certain ghosts at certain times, or does a director just notice they have some negative space in a corner and decide to bring a ghost in?
It’s a little bit of both. In a lot of cases, they were very intentionally placed. And obviously, it’s not a free-for-all, you have to call them in. But where they get placed comes after we’ve blocked a scene, and they know where the camera is going to go, and what they want to shoot. Then the AD and the director will discuss the ideal placement. Sometimes there’s a very specific reason why a ghost is there.
When Owen and Jamie arrive at Bly Manor in the finale, they say it’s because they both had a bad dream. The finale moves pretty fast, so we don’t get much more information than that. Did you and Amelia Eve discuss, even hypothetically, what that dream might have looked like?
Yeah. We absolutely did. I do remember a conversation. And then, when we tried to get too detailed, we decided to reverse out of it. We were getting way too complicated with it. “Forget it. We had a dream. Fuck it. Just commit to it, and that’s it.”
I learned that on iZombie, right? I don’t mean this in any negative way, but sometimes you can’t. Sometimes you’ve gotta facilitate the story. If it’s ridiculous, or if sometimes the logic needs to be suspended to drive the story forward… sometimes you’ve just gotta do it, and find the truth of it. I love those moments. Those are the best moments, as an actor. It’s easy to succeed with your giant monologues that have been expertly crafted. But it’s fun to make something like that work. That feels like a little bit of an accomplishment.
Given the big reveal at the end of the series, did you and Kamal Khan — who plays Older Owen — have any kind of discussion about coordinating your performances? It seems like another tricky tightrope to walk, since it needs to make sense that it’s Owen without being too obvious to the audience right away.
I’ve never told this story. I don’t even know if I should be telling this story, but fuck it. The first thing that happened was a phone call from my manager that said, “Can your dad act? We need an older you.” And I said, “Excuse me? Can my dad act? No. He was an electrical engineer. He can’t act worth a damn.” I come from a very regular working-class family, no one went into the arts.
So I said no. And my dad got really pissed off that I cut him out. It was the funniest shit, to me and my sister and my mum. We were like, “Dad… you don’t know how to act!” He felt like I was gatekeeping him from his big break, but I was saving him. I was like, “Dude. Listen. Even if you had no dialogue, and just had to sit at the table and eat … even then, I’d be concerned. But there is no way you can come in and do a four-page frickin’ monologue when I’m not even gonna be there.” And Mike [Flanagan] hadn’t met me yet. That’s not how I’m starting my relationship with him, with how shit my dad is on screen.
So they started casting, and they found Kamal. I wasn’t able to meet him, but I had a FaceTime call with him. I hadn’t even played Owen at that point. If this had happened at the back end [of production], at least I could have said, “I tried and tested it, and here’s a couple of things.” But — and this is so silly — I asked him to take his glasses off at the wedding speech. Even though my monologue at the bonfire was five months away [from shooting], I just decided I would do it, and match whatever footage he had. Do it the same way he did. And I asked props to give him the same watch. An heirloom from Owen’s father. And I recorded my own version of the wedding speech in full. Why not? I sent it to him and said, “That’s my cadence, do with it what you will.” And he did a great job.
I’ve been telling everybody to go back and watch the first five minutes of the premiere after the finale. It’s incredible how basically every shot, and every line of dialogue, means something different the second time around.
Absolutely. I think Mike is intentionally saying, “Watch this twice.” It’s all there. That gravity-well speech. The first thing that comes out of Owen’s mouth to Dani is, “You’re born here, you die here.” When Hannah says she won’t go to the funeral because funerals are for the living. There’s so many amazing little lines that, when you go back, you’re like, Ohhhhhhhh!
Is there anything else you’d specifically recommend Bly Manor viewers go back and revisit once they’re finished?
I’d love to sit here and take credit for this — but I saw a tweet from someone who watched the show. I can’t believe I’m admitting that this went over my fucking head, because I should’ve known this. Owen’s speech about dementia, and his mother losing who she was, is a parallel to what Viola and everyone else is going through. Not knowing who you are anymore. That’s exactly what the ghosts are going through. I sound like a fucking idiot, that it took a tweet for me to go, “Holy shit!” I should absolutely have known that.
Well, it’s not like Owen would know that.
That’s true! Yeah, I was just playing the truth of the scene! You just made me feel better. Owen didn’t know it, why would I know it? Exactly.
You’re collaborating with Mike Flanagan again, right now, for his upcoming Netflix series Midnight Mass. I know everyone is keeping their cards very, very close to their chests on this one — but can you tell me anything about it?
I am filming it right now. I cannot say a fucking thing. I can’t even say what genre it is. I don’t even know when it’s coming out. It’s shrouded in secrecy. I’ve never worked on a project that’s had that before. I will say — because I don’t think Mike is gonna punch me in the face for it — I think it’s the best script, or scripts, I’ve ever read.
Mike had started sizing me up from my first scene [on Bly Manor]. When he sat me down and told me the pitch and the character, and what was going on, I agreed. And he said, “Hold on, I haven’t sent you the scripts, and you need to talk to your team.” And I went, “No. I’m in. I’m 100 percent in. If I don’t take this job, I’m a fucking idiot. I’m in. Don’t look for anyone else. This is mine.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.