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Stephan James: Key to 'Surface' success was not giving too much away

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Stephan James' Apple TV+ thriller, "Surface," has its finale Friday. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | <a href="/News_Photos/lp/ecee3c6c36e84d579a3e2d78d4bbc812/" target="_blank">License Photo</a>
Stephan James' Apple TV+ thriller, "Surface," has its finale Friday. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo

NEW YORK, Sept. 2 (UPI) -- If Beale Street Could Talk and Homecoming actor Stephan James says it was challenging, but exhilarating, for him and his co-stars to play characters in shifting timelines in a story told from the point of view of an unreliable narrator in the psychological thriller, Surface.

"It was exciting for all of us, as a cast, to read about what was happening next and embody the characters accordingly," James told UPI about the Apple TV+ production in a recent phone interview.

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"Our directors, especially Sam Miller, helped us gauge where we were in the story and were really conscious about when we were giving too much and when we should pull back a little and help keep the audience in the blind as long as we could," James said.

Set in contemporary San Francisco, the show's season finale premieres Friday. It follows Sophie (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a wealthy woman who experiences serious memory loss after falling overboard from a boat.

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Her husband, James (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), along with various friends, acquaintances and even her psychiatrist try to help Sophie remember the details of her life.

However, she refuses to believe the story many of them tell her -- that she attempted to die by suicide and her near-drowning was not an accident - and begins investigating the blank spaces.

James plays Baden, the cop assigned to Sophie's case, who also is the former lover she is starting to remember.

"Originally, when this character was pitched to me, he was described as a dark, mysterious character who we couldn't quite put a finger on. Just having those elements, along with playing an undercover cop on television, was very exciting to me," James said of Baden.

"When I read the pilot, what was pitched to me by Veronica West, our showrunner, came through on the page tenfold. It was a no-brainer for me to want to dive into the role."

James fine-tuned his performance according to where Sophie was on her memory recovery journey.

"Sophie, being the center of the story, was our north star," the actor said.

"Everybody molded themselves around Sophie and where she was in any particular time or state. That would change our performances depending on the scene. As the series unfolds, we peel back the layers of these characters that weren't really there from the beginning," he said.

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The cast and creative team worked hard to make the story as believable as possible so audiences could relate to it, James said.

"The show is so grounded, it feels like it could happen to anyone and it begs the question, what would you do if you were in this position?" he said.

"What would you do if you woke up one day and you couldn't remember your life, who you were? Who would you look to put the pieces of your memory together? Who could you trust? Any time you're doing something this grounded and this human, it's going to be exciting for people because they can see themselves in it."

James shot Surface in Vancouver last year, and then took a short break before starting work in Toronto on Beacon 23, a Spectrum Originals series about the staff of a space lighthouse in the 23rd century.

The adaptation of Hugh Dowey's novel of the same name hasn't premiered yet, but it already has been renewed for a second season. Lena Headey and Marnie McPhail co-star.

"We're making a show that feels like it is one of a kind. I don't believe I've seen this show on television before," James said.

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"I don't believe I've seen sci-fi quite in this light before. Everyone seems to be really happy with the work we're putting in and the world that we are building. I very much look forward to audiences coming to space with us."

James also recently played a man with an intellectual disability who is accused of his sister's murder in the film, Delia's Gone.

"Delia's just struck me as a very, very special script [that allowed me] to play a character who was very layered and nuanced, who had had a great injustice done toward him," he said. "Tonally, it struck me as not only a dramatic piece, but a thrilling piece."

The actor also is onboard to star in and produce a series about the late 1980s artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

"I've been a fan of his since I was a boy," James said. "His art has influenced a lot of my art and my life, so I knew pretty early on in my career that that was a role that I'd love to play and the timing has only started to align itself now.

"I really couldn't be more grateful for the opportunity. It's something that scares me and excites me all at the same time."

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