Usually when people call a TV show slow, they don't mean it as a compliment. But for three actors, that languid quality is partially what drew them to "Rectify," the Sundance Channel's first wholly owned scripted series, in the first place.
"Even compared to a show like 'Mad Men,' which is a slow show, this show just really breathes, and that's just not something you get to do anymore in film or television," enthused Clayne Crawford at a press lunch promoting the six-part season. It painstakingly details the first week of Daniel Holden's reintroduction to society after new DNA evidence found by an Innocence Project-like lawyer springs him from his nearly 20-year stay on death row for the rape and murder of his high school girlfriend. "Cable now is a lot like film was in the '70s -- about the material, about telling a story, able to take chances."
Aden Young (Daniel) feels the protracted pace of "Rectify," which was created by "Deadwood" actor Ray McKinnon and produced by the team behind "Breaking Bad," suits the story of this man, who is suddenly returned his family and his small Georgia hometown, which was torn apart by the vicious crime. "I met a man at a pub in Sydney once who was an hour out of prison, and you could not find any speed coming out of him. Talking to him was like talking to a snail. The rhythms were so different," said Young ("The Starter Wife"), adding that he remembered that encounter when perfecting his character. "With Daniel, I had to take the character and put a box around him for 20 years. He spent 23 hours a day [asking] did I turn left when I should have turned right? When you strip those walls away, there is a man paralyzed by opportunity and options, and physically that had to manifest in the performance. Like the man who fell to Earth."
Abigail Spencer, who plays Daniel's loyal sister Amantha, feels the "meditative" project explores "the time between seconds, the space between the moments. Our show puts a camera in front of those private lives," the "Mad Men" and "Burning Love" alum explained. "Daniel comes back to reality. What is this life outside the box, and was it better in the box? He should hate death row, yet he doesn't know anything else. When you get used to something, it's very safe. But shouldn't this be safer because he's out?"
Spencer recalled her own experience with an ex-con at last month's Atlanta Film Festival where "Rectify" was screened as further proof this was the way to go with this subject matter. "A guy in the audience who had been in jail for eight years stood up and was like, 'Man, I don't have a question, but I got a comment. You guys nailed it. That is what it is like when you get out of prison.' I got really emotional hearing him say that because that's what you long for. You want the artistic interpretation to be real and strike a chord."
Having two weeks of rehearsal before shooting, using locals as extras and regional actors as periphery characters, and filming on location in Griffin, Georgia, added authenticity (yes, that's the local Walmart) and aided the actors in keeping it real. "The town, the pace, and the people were very beneficial. We ate with them, drank with them," agreed Crawford ("Justified," "The Glades"), who portrays Ted Jr., the stepbrother Daniel has never met and who fears that his return will cost him his inheritance of the Holden family tire business and possibly even his wife. "The town is a character in the script."
Spencer was motivated by the extras. "They are so real that it made us work even harder. In Episode 2, there's a scene between Amantha and Jon [the new lawyer and her secret lover] in the diner. Amantha has this great line at the end. 'God, I hate this f------ town.' The room was filled with extras who live in this town. I felt bad. I didn't want to offend the town I'm working in. But the woman who owns the diner came up and said, 'We say that all the time,' and erupted in laughter. There's a love-hate relationship because you feel like there is no way out, yet you don't know anything else. I think that's a metaphor for Daniel."
But as helpful as shooting in real-deal Georgia was, it also forced the cast and crew to get creative because there is no film industry there to speak of. When they shot the first few days at a prison, they were forced to break every so often to allow real criminals be brought in for processing. With no soundstages or studios in the area, they instead had to build sets inside an alligator tanning factory. And the only option for housing the entire cast and crew in one spot? Condos at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. "I lived in a David Lynch movie," Spencer joked. "There was stadium seating in the living room to see the [track], and there were races every Friday night. We watched 'To Kill a Mockingbird' as a bonding experience. We'd have barbecues on the rooftop and watch races. I lasted a month. I couldn't take the noise."
Being out of their comfort zone and being afforded the rehearsal/bonding time as well as the hands-on approach of their creator was also key to making it one of the most positive work experiences they've all had. Spencer reasoned, "As on 'Mad Men,' we are serving one man's vision, [yet] Ray was so encouraging and always left room to explore. It takes real confidence, honesty, and humility to lead in that manner. It is a lovely way to work. You all go in to battle together ,and if the infrastructure works well, it shows in the work."
For his part, Young knew "Rectify" was special the minute he read the pilot. "You get sent a lot of stuff that's very funny and it's not meant to be. One I received was even a story about a man getting off death row and it was such a polar opposite. The writer had forgotten to tell any sort of truth. Yet when I read 'Rectify,' it was a very different story. It is much more cinematic than the majority of television today. The market is the defining voice of modern entertainment and Sundance offered Ray and all of us the opportunity to be involved with something that sits outside that. If this show had gone to a different network, they would have probably said, 'No. This is not television.'"
Coincidentally, Spencer likened "Rectify" to a different medium altogether. "As it got made, we treated it like a novel brought to life. We even call the episodes chapters. Like a great book, you never know what's going to happen, and you just want to turn the page to see what's revealed."
While other suspects are introduced, details of the questionable tactics used to build the case are disclosed and various characters admit their opinions, one thing that is never revealed is whether Daniel actually committed the crimes that led to his incarceration. "I told Ray I didn't want to know [because] it's not really a question of guilt or innocence, which is a very slippery slope," Young said. "What occurred on that evening can never be rewound, and the guilt he would carry would be almost catastrophic."
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McKinnon didn't clarify this point to Crawford, whose character clearly thinks Daniel is a killer, either. "I don't think it is as black and white, as did he do it or not do it. I don't think that is his main concern. His concern is losing his livelihood and his wife. I saw him as the guy who is not as connected to Daniel and who is saying what everyone, [including] the town, wants to say."
Spencer continued, "Ray made a great point that Teddy's not wrong. Nobody's wrong or a villain. Everybody is speaking from their truth, and our truth and past is always going to color our point of view of the situation. For Amantha, he's innocent, and nothing anyone will do or say will convince her otherwise."
With the question unanswered in the first season, one can only hope that the series will see Season 2. It is a hope that Spencer and Co. share. "It is a standalone piece, but I don't feel like it is a satisfactory ending," she admitted. "It's a creation story. There are so many more epic battles to fight."
Watch the trailer for "Rectify":
"Rectify" premieres Monday, 4/22 at 9 PM on the Sundance Channel.
- Arts & Entertainment