Justin Marks and Rachel Kondo were playing with their kids in the park when Rachel spotted the strange man in the oversized T-shirt. He was walking around, clutching some kind of a pamphlet and gesticulating wildly. He appeared to be talking to himself. Such people are common sights in parks around the world, even Canadian ones, but this man reminded Rachel of someone. 

She’d yet to meet Cosmo Jarvis in person but she and Justin had been enchanted by him through a screen; enchanted enough to cast him as John Blackthorne, the de facto protagonist of their blockbuster TV adaptation Shōgun. Rachel nudged Justin, and Justin called across the park: “Cosmo!”

The man was indeed Cosmo Jarvis, the pamphlet the Shōgun script. He liked to run through lines in the park. Over the coming months, Rachel would often encounter the actor strolling around Vancouver – in the park, on the streets, roaming the seawall along the harbour. Every time they spoke, she was struck by how present he was with her. Wherever he had been before, he was immediately there in the conversation.  

Last December, I too found myself in the presence of Cosmo Jarvis. Our encounter occurred at Mc & Sons, an Irish pub in Vauxhall that hosted our photoshoot. The pub is a beauty, the walls covered with monochrome photographs from times past, the oak bar so sturdy it might have been there since creation. Jarvis is very taken by a bearded old man in a bowler hat – a butcher from Ireland and the owner’s great, great, great grandfather. “That’s brilliant!” he says of the connection.   

I suspect Jarvis would happily spend all afternoon hearing the stories of the many portraits. He would probably prefer it to doing the photoshoot. Every profile I read of him, and the person I speak to for this one, stresses his lack of interest in the gaudier accoutrements of his profession: photoshoots, red carpets, magazine profiles. He doesn’t have social media. Until recently, he didn’t have a mobile phone. 

Working with him is a pleasure. He arrives on time. He treats everyone with the utmost courtesy. He shoots every look without complaint. At one point, Lee the photographer asks him to put his foot up on a booth. Jarvis very politely declines. “I don’t want to look disrespectful,” he explains. When I do the coffee run for everyone (gotta make yourself useful), his gratitude is heartfelt and rather endearing. “Thank you!” he exclaims, as though I’m offering to bring him the elixir of eternal youth rather than a flat white.  

It’s Friday afternoon in December and we’re doing a photoshoot at an Irish bar. Coffee is the only drink that’s flowing – professional standards etc – but the mood is relaxed, the conversation easy. The subject of advertising campaigns is raised. “I’d never do any campaign,” says Jarvis. Why? “Because I’m an actor.” Think of the cheque coming your way… “If I needed that, I could work honestly for a couple of years.”  

He is an actor – but an actor is far from all he is. He writes, he gardens. He was once a musician. He is fascinated by the natural world around us and the stars that we can only imagine. His love of trees featured heavily in a past interview, so I decided to buy him a book as a present and icebreaker – The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. Jarvis seems delighted with this gift. He hasn’t read a book in ten years, he says, but he will read this one over Christmas.  

Cosmo Jarvis for Square Mile magazine

We profiled him a couple of years ago. He was in Vancouver filming Shōgun and his team requested that he do the interview over email. We suggested Zoom only to be told Cosmo doesn’t like Zoom and he didn’t have a laptop with him but don’t worry, his answers over email will be great. And they were. Articulate, thoughtful, idiosyncratic; an insight into a strange, wonderful mind. 

Take this response to the question of fame and does he want it? “I just want to live and die quietly. I am an employee. Of what worth is fame when so many greater minds than mine, so many wiser, more honourable, more enlightening and enlightened, kind, forgiving, ingenuitive and braver men and women than me aren’t anointed with it – in the way which people in my line of work who pretend to be different people seem to be?

“I’m not against fame, I’m against society’s distribution and adoration of fame and how it suffers under that influence and how it can distract the youth in particular from realising their own potential. I just want to do the work. Fame is the remaining shell of a cracked nut.” 

They were very good answers, I say as we take a booth in the corner of the pub. You have a future in writing if you ever tire of acting. He grins at this. “One day I’ll write something of worth. Probably fiction though.” Like what? “Who knows? When the time’s right. I do like writing because it allows for the most optimal way of asserting a point. Considering it and also embellishing it artistically if need be.” 

His wife recently purchased a second-hand typewriter from a charity store. “We were looking at the mechanics of the ribbons and the mechanisms by which the keys make that imprint, and it was such a foreign concept.” When using the typewriter, “it felt so much more meaningful, whatever I was writing, because of the mechanism that gets each character onto the paper and the knowing that you can’t really go back.”  

You would certainly think harder about your words… “The same also used to apply to language in general.” He tells me about watching footage of elderly people reminiscing about the war. “Everything they said was so considered and deliberate and left no room for interpretation. It was just so odd compared to today.” Some nights he watches Christopher Hitchens videos, “I just listen to him talk.” 

Jarvis mightn’t speak as fluently as Hitchens – few do – but he shares the late writer’s love and respect for language. Sometimes he will lapse into silence for ten, fifteen seconds while marshalling his thoughts. We speak for more than an hour in that booth and, as you might imagine, the conversation goes to some funny places – the Plymouth Dome, celestial navigation, the nature of existence. 

After trees and typewriters, the next thing we speak about is Shōgun. 

Cosmo Jarvis

In 1600, an Englishman went to Japan and became a samurai. James Clavell read the previous sentence in one of his daughter’s school textbooks. A former resident of a Japanese internment camp during the second world war, Clavell was inspired to fictionalise this Englishman’s story, changing the sailor’s name from William Adams to John Blackthorne. The resultant novel, Shōgun, was published in 1976 and became an immediate literary and cultural phenomenon. The book ran to more than a thousand pages, sold millions of copies and triggered a Western fascination with Japanese history that endures today. 

(The cultural impact of Shōgun is hard to overstate. In 1980, Professor Henry Smith wrote that “Shōgun has probably conveyed more information about Japan to more people than all the combined writings of scholars, journalists, and novelists since the Pacific War.” Clavell claimed that a Middle Eastern Sheikh once offered him an oil tanker if he would write a novel that would popularise the Sheikh’s country as Shōgun had popularised Japan.) 

A TV adaptation followed in 1980. Starring Richard Chamberlain as Blackthorne, the miniseries proved as popular on screen as the novel had on the page. Fun fact: my dad once worked in a San Francisco bar that held weekly Shōgun watch parties. Slightly less authorially specific fun fact: Blackthorne’s TV ship was none other than the Golden Hinde replica now ensconced in London Bridge.  

The 2024 Shōgun is a suitably gargantuan project – so gargantuan that its screening is spread across three platforms, Hulu, FX and Disney+. (The last is the international home.)  Filming stretched across eleven months and each of the ten episodes boasts a scale to shame the average blockbuster. The first alone includes a shipwreck, a clifftop rescue and a man getting boiled alive. Early reviews have been enthusiastic.   

Showrunners Marks and Kondo initially envisaged their Blackthorne as more of a Nordic figure but Jarvis’s video audition, filmed on a phone in his article, proved impossible to dislodge. “There was something about Cosmo’s approach with the language, with his physicality – it just felt very, very contemporary,” Marks says. He and Kondo speak to me over Zoom from LA. “He was kind of a punk rock version of Blackthorne. And that’s what we wanted – something that no one would expect.” 

Cosmo Jarvis

Jarvis was initially apprehensive about the project – “because of the scale and the knowledge of everything that would come after.” The length of the shoot gave further pause for thought. But he loved the story and grew increasingly fascinated by Clavell. Ultimately, he decided “I’d be an idiot not to do this” and got to work.  

He spent ages wrestling with the voice: how to strike a balance between authentically impersonating the speech of an Englishman from 1600 and yet be comprehensible to the modern ear. He went down a dialectology rabbit hole before accepting the unavoidable issue with a period-accurate vernacular: “Nobody would’ve been able to understand it.”

Unlike the 1980 adaptation, the new Shōgun provides subtitles for the copious dialogue spoken in Japanese. However, other languages were conflated into English. As Jarvis notes, “many of the times Blackthorne is speaking English in the context of the story, he’s actually speaking Portuguese but it’s presented as English to the audience. So that was another hurdle that I had to get over – which totally interferes with any notion of realism but it was necessary to accept.” 

Jarvis commits to his characters. He retained an Irish accent while filming 2019 film Calm with Horses; his co-star Niamh Algar was shocked to discover that he was English when the production ended. Yes, it’s a little ‘thesp’ but it also illustrates the lack of self-consciousness that Justin Marks finds so compelling in the actor. 

“There are people with no self-consciousness who are just cartoons of themselves. That’s not him. He’s a very interior soul and a very thoughtful person. But he’s not so self-conscious that he’s afraid to look vulnerable.” 

“He’s weirdly vulnerable,” agrees Kondo later on the call. She recalls those random encounters with Jarvis around Vancouver. “He would tell me things about his childhood, little nicknames that people would call him. He’s just an unforgettable person, let alone actor.”   

Cosmo Jarvis

Harrison Cosmo Krikoryan Jarvis was born in New Jersey, 1988 to an Armenian-American teacher and an English merchant seaman. His parents separated and his mother raised Cosmo and his younger brother in Totnes, Devon. “It was all right,” says Cosmo of Totnes. “I don’t really remember it too much to be honest. It was fine. I spent most of my younger days trying to eventually end up in a situation where I could do this.” (I assume he means acting, rather than talking to me.)  

He discovered acting at the Plymouth Dome of all places. The Dome had an exhibit where visitors could walk down a replica Tudor street. Cosmo was taken there on a school trip, most likely, he can’t remember for sure. But he remembers the street. “They had these dummies of Tudor people frozen in time. One of the frozen people came alive and made a loud noise and scared all of us. He was a real man just being very still – an actor!” 

(Alas, the museum at the Plymouth Dome is long closed. According to the Plymouth Herald: “The attraction suffered from the fact that the best bit, the Tudor street scene, came at the beginning and the displays became less inspiring as you walked through the building.”)  

As a teenager, “I was an arsehole.” Aren’t most teenagers arseholes? “Yeah, I think so,” he sighs in a manner that implies this doesn’t excuse his own arsehole tendencies. He often played the class clown. “For some reason I did find value in attempting to be a source of entertainment for people. I don’t know whether that’s because of some sort of deficiency or whether it just seemed worthwhile at the time. I don’t think I’ll ever know.” 

Like so many intelligent kids, he pushed against the confines of the education system. Why am I learning about this thing? Why not that thing? Or this other thing? “It was frustrating because when you’re young, you want to know so much about so many things and the curriculum doesn’t necessarily accommodate.” 

He tried in some lessons. He liked his English teacher and his history teacher. Not drama? “I didn’t really understand the use of drama. I didn’t understand it as a subject… I guess I didn’t respect it.” 

Music was his initial pursuit. He released several albums and the single ‘Gay Pirates’ went a 2011 version of viral. Not unsuccessful… “I was pretty unsuccessful,” replies Jarvis. He now sees the music as a source of embarrassment and has removed all videos from YouTube. “I always wanted to do acting,” he says. “I never went to drama school. I always wanted to find how you could become cast in something. But the time and the place wasn’t right.”

So he moved to London and started knocking on doors. Managed to land himself an agent and a few minor roles in the likes of Humans and Spooks: The Greater Good. Then he landed a lead in the 2016 film Lady Macbeth, playing the farm worker Sebastian who begins an affair with Florence Pugh’s young bride.  

Cosmo Jarvis

Casting director Shaheen Baig worked on Lady Macbeth, and would also cast Jarvis in Peaky Blinders and Calm With Horses opposite Barry Keoghan. He mentions Baig several times over the interview – “I owe a huge amount to her.”  

“We met loads of young actors,” Baig tells me in reference to the Calm With Horses screentests. “Cosmo stood out because he just had a very different sensibility and he wasn’t afraid of anything… There was something about Cosmo’s approach with the language, with his physicality – it felt very contemporary.”  

Unlike his former co-stars Pugh and Keoghan, Jarvis is not yet a household name. He has spoken multiple times in the past about his aversion to fame or any kind of public persona. He wants to be subsumed in the work. (I suspect this partially explains his disowning of his music – released under his own name, mined from his own life experiences.)

“I don’t think being a star is what attracts him to acting,” says Baig. “It’s the job of acting. It’s the character, it’s the stories. He has lots of things he chooses not to do because he doesn’t connect to the story or the character. He’s very true to his instincts. He’s a very instinctive actor. He can only participate in things that he one hundred percent believes in.”  

She sees Jarvis as a throwback: “There is something about him that reminds me of a different generation of actor… Muscular, robust.” Her words are echoed by Justin Marks: “He’s a great actor in a classic 1970s sense of what a great actor is meant to be. Someone who inhabits something and devours it from the inside out.”  

Fittingly, Jarvis’s next big project after Shōgun will see him star opposite the quintessential 1970s actor Robert DeNiro in Barry Levinson’s gangster film Alto Knights (scheduled for a November release). 

Did he socialise with DeNiro? “Not away from set,” says Jarvis. “But he’s as approachable as hell. He’s a lovely man. He’s just a lovely man.” 

Leading blockbuster TV shows, working with Hollywood legends… Cosmo Jarvis isn’t seeking stardom but it may yet prove to be his destiny. Just don’t expect to see him on TikTok anytime soon. 

Cosmo Jarvis

Forty minutes into our interview, the conversation turns to stars. After landing Shōgun, Jarvis often asked his father to explain celestial navigation – a skill that John Blackthorne would have possessed. “My dad would try in vain to explain the complexities of the mathematical equations which one has to employ to do celestial navigation, with sextant and angles. I tried my best to understand it but it’s incredibly complicated.” 

He learned one interesting fact: the earth is not a sphere but an oblate spheroid, meaning it isn’t perfectly round. There’s a slight bulge in the middle due to the incessant axis spinning. “I used to be pretty interested in astronomy,” he notes.  

How can you not? How can you not be fascinated by what’s out there? “Infinite! It’s unfathomable. I guess that’s why it’s so enticing to think about.” 

And overwhelming… “Especially when you start to think about the probability of us all being here on this oblate spheroid and how many other oblate spheroids there must be out there.”  

I used to be fixated about this stuff as a child, lying in bed at night. Sometimes I’d have to sit up and turn the light on.   

“I had a similar thought when I was a kid,” says Jarvis. “The fact that you’re alive to think about those things and then considering if you weren’t then you would never be able to think about those things.” The questions would circulate around his mind: what if I was never here? What if my parents were never here? Or their parents? 

“You’re left with this sort of blackness. And it’s strange that the only people who will be able to think about that blackness are people that have been afforded the opportunity to be alive. It’s pretty crazy. I used to sit there as a kid thinking my brain was frying. I can’t think about this anymore. My brain didn’t let me think about it. It was very strange.” 

I wonder if his gravitation towards acting might be an attempt to understand the world and his place within it? “Nah, nah,” says Jarvis. “That sense of the world was one of the first givens in my experience. One of my earliest realisations was that it’s crazy to be alive. It’s crazy that the universe is a vast expanse. And it’s crazy the relative insignificance of everything that may or may not happen on this planet. Everything I’ve done subsequently has been in some way a consequence of that realisation, or at least informed by it.” 

Cosmo Jarvis

Jason Isaacs gave me a great quote in a recent interview. I read it to Jarvis from my laptop. “I don’t think you’ll find many actors who aren’t trying to find some answer, who weren’t drawn to it because something was a bit cracked in their childhood.” Does Jarvis agree? 

“Yeah, I do agree with that,” he says with a chuckle. In what regards? The question triggers one of those long gatherings of thought. “Obviously I can’t speak for all actors but in my case it definitely comes from childhood. I’m over what happened to me when I was a kid, I’ve made peace with it. But some children have a harder time assimilating…” Another pause. “It’s such a deep topic.”

Feel free to tell me to piss off, I say, but you are referring to your parents’ separation? (He has mentioned in earlier interviews that it was not an amicable one.)  

“There’s no point in me talking about it,” says Jarvis, who I should stress doesn’t seem uncomfortable with the conversation; it’s more I get the sense that he doesn’t want to come across as self-pitying. 

Choosing his words carefully, he sets out his position. “Everybody has formative events that affect their characters, their personalities. Setbacks in life, we all have them. There’s no point in me talking about them because they are a given in life. But I can see how play can become necessary for certain kinds of young people in certain situations to fit into life, particularly at a young age and in school.

“I definitely agree with what [Jason Isaacs] said because I think it’s true but I don’t think it’s exclusively true. It’s like, if you can’t be comfortable in your own skin then it’s an interesting challenge to be comfortable in someone else’s.”

 He is a man of many skins, Cosmo Jarvis. Husband. Gardener. Dedicated actor. Aspiring celestial navigator. In the years ahead, he will shed a few and don some more. However many people he inhabits, he will remain resolutely himself.

Let’s tap in the great James Clavell and part ways with a quote from Shōgun. One that feels very Cosmo (and very everyone).

“Leave the problems of God to God and karma to karma. Today you’re here and nothing you can do will change that. Today you’re alive and here and honoured, and blessed with good fortune.” 

Watch Shōgun on Disney+ from 27 February