Rahul Kohli was riding an adrenaline high. He was meeting in the office of Mike Flanagan, the modern horror master behind the Haunting series, and there was a box of pizza sitting on his desk. The pair were still filming The Haunting of Bly Manor together when Flanagan offered him a role in an upcoming project, Midnight Mass, where he’d be playing Sheriff Hasaan. And he would be gaining weight to do so.
“Here we go,” Kohli remembers saying, before then grabbing a piece of pizza out of the box and aggressively stuffing it into his mouth.
Kohli wound up gaining 30 pounds of fat for Mass, and doing so with a bit of overlap during the end of filming Bly Manor (he says you can notice his character, Owen, getting a bit bigger in that series’ last few episodes) and that he did it “the bad way,” doing things like ordering McFlurries from his bed on DoorDash, and not doing things like working with a nutritionist. “I just was like eat crap, eat crap, eat crap,” he recalls. “And we got there.”
We should probably backtrack a bit. While filming Bly Manor, Kohli noticed Flanagan—who was previously behind Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House limited series and the Stephen King film adaptation Doctor Sleep, among other projects—sizing him up. He’d asked how old he thought he could play, what sorts of dialects he could speak in, and mentioned, in brief passing, another project. After enough hints were dropped, Kohli requested a meeting to get some answers. The meeting proved to be a fruitful one, as it resulted in landing the role of Sheriff Hassan, the lone law enforcement presence in the small island setting of Midnight Mass. Mass, Flanagan’s latest high-art horror series, is sure to thrill audiences for all seven hour-long episodes before sending them scrambling to Google seeking the best analysis the Thinkpiece Industrial Complex can offer.
Just before filming was about to start on Mass, Kohli realized he wasn’t breathing properly; his normally-slim frame wasn’t meant to hold the weight he had gained. But he was planning to work through it. He arrived in Vancouver for the show’s table read, which was set to take place just ahead of filming—on March 13, 2020. You can imagine what happened next.
The Covid-19 shutdown hit Midnight Mass just like it hit everywhere else—the Canadian border was shut, and Kohli went back to Los Angeles carrying 30 pounds of extra, unhealthy weight. What was initially supposed to be two weeks away became multiple months with, still, no start date in sight. In the meantime, Kohli was not doing well, being woken up in the middle of the night with heartburn and stomach problems.
A longtime and devoted gamer, Kohli ended up sending over a photo of Joel, the protagonist from the hit Playstation game The Last of Us, and Flanagan was on board. Once a filming date was finally deemed safe and decided upon, Kohli worked with trainers in Vancouver to lose all 30 pounds he had gained before regaining it back in the form of muscle.
“It was the stupidest method acting nonsense I’ve ever done, where I put on all the kind of weight that the industry would be like oooh look at him!, only to have to lose it all and hit the gym hard,” he says.
One place you may hear about something like this would be on Kohli’s social media feeds, where he’s amassed more than 350,000 Twitter followers and more than 440,000 on Instagram.
But even though his role on Bly Manor a year ago had some calling him the newest “Internet’s Boyfriend,” he doesn’t find it hard to keep humble. (“Because it’s not real,” he says. “If I want to, I can find stuff that says the opposite.”) He’s seen his following grow through the years, between roles on cult shows like The CW’s iZombie, which he appeared in all 71 episodes of, and Bly Manor, and while he clearly doesn’t take that engagement entirely seriously, he does see a way it’s helped through the years.
“It’s allowed me to create a larger presence than, maybe, my work has. On iZombie I was very much a secondary character, and much the same with Bly. And the Twitter engagement, and that kind of following I’ve amassed, kind of created a larger footprint than, necessarily, the roles did.”
Still, he sees his time on social media as finite.
“Just like a word trends, I think an actor, or a musician trends. One minute they’re the internet’s boyfriend, the next minute they’re the internet’s villain. It’s everyone’s turn. So I don’t take any of it seriously,” he says. “My relationship with social media, personally, is temporary. We are not in a long-term relationship. And as soon as I can get out of this toxic relationship, I probably will.”
KOHLI FACES ANOTHER toxic relationship in Midnight Mass, where his character is constantly seen as an outsider. He’s the only major player in the entire show to not have any background or history with the Catholic Church—Hassan is Muslim—and many characters within the show treat him as that outsider, including, at times, his own teenage son.
Part of what he was attracted to here is the contrast that Flanagan built into the role; a modern day twist on the sort of character that a Clint Eastwood would have played in the past.
“The Sheriff role in cinema, and TV, for many years is one of the most iconic American heroes, and it has existed for years,” he says. “And [Flanagan] had taken America’s greatest hero in cinema, and cast a man who has the physicality, or at least the look, of America’s greatest villain post 9/11: the bearded brown man.”
And so he wanted to tap into the spirit of that old Hollywood character. Many of Sheriff Hassan’s poses, and gestures he carries himself with, are purposely mirroring some of those of Eastwood, or John Wayne, or any number of Western characters, in a gesture meant to show how slow and quiet the Sheriff was. He wanted to make sure everyone had the same feeling: this is a character type you’ve seen before, but this time, he’s Muslim.
And Eastwood, in particular, was someone Kohli watched a lot in his upbringing. In fact this turned out to essentially be a modern take on one of his dream roles.
“My dad’s a big, big, big spaghetti western fan. And as a kid, I always wanted to be Clint Eastwood,” he says. “Well, not Clint Eastwood—The Man with No Name. And I used Sheriff Hassan to kind of scratch that itch.”
A combination of Covid protocols and the natural set-up of the show helped Kohli to get even more isolated during production for his outsider character. Where his previous appearances in iZombie and Bly Manor were inherently social—he describes it as a “campus” feeling, where you’re living abroad, and socializing and partying with castmates often—Covid wouldn’t let that be a thing at all. And on top of that, he was was one of the only British people in the cast (the only other being actor Louis Oliver, the son of Sherlock and Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat), and because his character was not involved with (most of) the stuff with the local church, he was working with an Islamic consultant while everyone else was busy elsewhere.
He admittedly removed himself a bit from the group and all that was going on. He has since made up for it on social media, and texting, and elsewhere, but has no regrets about what turned out to be a rather tricky shoot. “It wasn’t the most fun to film, for a variety of reasons,” he says. “But it was so rewarding to watch the show when it was done, and be like all of that was worth it.”
YOU’D THINK SOMEONE who’s been a series regular in a zombie show, and in now two surefire hit horror series would have a penchant for the frightening. But that’s not the case.
“I fucking hate horror,” Kohli says with a smirk. “I can’t stand horror! I was not a horror fan. I got my fingers burnt as a kid. I was a very scared kid—scared of everything, scared of my own shadow.”
He goes on to explain how he watched Jaws and The Exorcist as a kid, and it messed with him badly. His one in to the genre, as the massive gamer he remains to this day, was through video games. But that changed when he booked Bly Manor and got the chance to work with Flanagan.
At that point, Hill House already had a reputation that preceded it. But Kohli had to do his due dilligence as an actor, and his expectations were met.
“When a horror is celebrated, it means stay away from it to me. That means it does what it’s supposed to do, so don’t fucking watch it! I avoided Hill House the whole time,” he said. “And then I booked Bly Manor, and so I did my research on Mike, which meant having to watch that. And it was fucking terrifying.”
That was the beginning of a relationship he’s not ready to let go of yet, even after Midnight Mass has wrapped. With Bly, Flanagan only directed the first episode, serving as showrunner instead. But on Midnight Mass, Kohli got the full experience: Flanagan directed all seven episodes, and served as his dialect coach as well.
Kohli notes that most other directors would cast based on what a performer has done before. But Flanagan casts in a way that, well, there’s just about zero cross over between Owen from Bly and the Sheriff in Midnight Mass. And his faith in the director has turned that into a relationship that he’s not quite ready to let go of just yet.
“I don’t really want to work with anyone other than him,” he says. “Which is upsetting my team! Because they want to send me for stuff, and I’m like ‘No! Because Mike said maybe we might do this later, so I want to be free.’ So, that’s what’s happened right now—I don’t want to break up with Mike and be with anyone else.’
When his time filming Midnight Mass came to an end, Kohli had no choice but to immediately move on. He did a (currently unannounced) movie immediately after the shoot wrapped, making a 20+ hour drive in one shot back to Los Angeles. And while he’s even since moved on from that—he was just announced to be part of the cast for a new Mandy Patinkin-led pilot being produced by Hulu—he’s still been left with a bit of performance and anxiety and imposter syndrome that seemed bound to manifest during production of a super intense and often complex horror project centered on faith and religion.
“It’s been at the back of my mind every day since we wrapped,” he says. “Was I good enough? Did I do my service? Do I fit in with this incredible ensemble group? Which, I never felt like I did raise my game to where everyone else on the show was. So, that’s always been there.”
Kohli admits that that relatable sort of anxiety is something that will probably slip away once the show finally hits Netflix—an ‘end of the journey type of feeling.’ And maybe, if he sticks around on social media long enough, he’ll get an earful about whether those fans on Twitter love or hate his take on the Clint Eastwood character. It would be hard, at this point, to bet against the former.
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