A Conversation with the Stars of Rectify

By this point, I’m hoping that all of you have seen the Season 3 premiere of Rectify. (If you haven’t, watch it immediately!) The season is off to a brilliant start, and I was fortunate enough to talk with three of its stars following their ATX Television Festival panel: Aden Young (Daniel Holden), Abigail Spencer (Amantha Holden) and J. Smith-Cameron (Janet Talbot). It was such a great conversation, and you can read it all below before tuning in to the next episode, tonight at 10/9c on SundanceTV in the US and tomorrow on Netflix in Canada.

During the panel, you mentioned something interesting about the third season. Both Daniel and Amantha have been at a standstill, stagnating and not able to grow up. Can you talk about not necessarily moving on with your lives, but starting to act more like adults rather than the teens you were when this happened to your family?

Aden Young: It’s a really intriguing series. For me to portray a character who we don’t know who he was at 17. We don’t know who he is 17 years later. All you get to really see is these moments of nostalgia, the moments of flashback where he recounts something traumatic, which parallels of course with his experience in this new world and we begin to learn through his experiences outside, and I have to go with him on that trip very openly because I don’t know what’s happening. I don’t know where Ray [McKinnon]’s vision is headed. Here’s a guy who has come back to this family that’s very much had to rebuild itself out of what was left after that night, after his arrest, after the sentencing, after the knowledge that one of their kin, one of their clan was forever gone and they would probably have to wait for that to happen. We don’t really know and we never get to glimpse back in their lives. You get to come back with Daniel to see how his relationships with Kerwin and Wendall, and the environment of death row shifted his sensibility and consciousness. But for [Amantha and Janet], they’ve got to carry all that in the present performance. I take my hat off to everybody on set with them because there’s a weight there.

J Smith-Cameron: And then the fact that we live in Polly, which is like this little fishbowl. There’s no anonymity and we’re all living not only in this suspended animation but feeling so exposed, or maybe that’s particularly my character who is so self conscious about that. But it is interesting. It’s like we’re all a little stagnant or frozen.

Aden Young: You can see in J’s performance, for example, in Season 1 Daniel’s return and this shock has been so great that she’s lying with her handbag still on. I didn’t even have the opportunity to think about it.

Abigail Spencer: My mom has commented on the show, and that moment in Season 1, she was like, “I know that feeling.”

JSC: In that episode, we come home with groceries and we have this question about [Daniel needing] a cell phone, he’s not safe. I’mcompletely blasted and I leave all the groceries out, including the ice cream, … and I said to (Director) Billy Gierhart, “Can I stop and get my purse?” And then he came up later as we were lighting the set and asked, “Why are you getting your purse?” I said, “I don’t know.” It wasn’t in the script, but it was an instinct that we all understood.

When we first meet Janet, she’s resigned herself to the fact that her son is gone, but she has this other son, and you referred to him as the “replacement son.” Daniel is on death row and not going to be around much longer, but Janet has moved on. She’s living her new life when Daniel’s release rocks her world and blows up the stability with the new husband, the stepchild and the new child.

JSC: I think that this is the season that that storyline all gets very threatened. Those people, those relationships that were on high ground are now drifting out to sea and Janet’s trying to rectify her past.

AS: Going back to your question about us and where we’re at and the stagnation. We’re the only two Holdens left. Our father passed away. I think that’s a big part of Amantha’s play, is to clear their name. We are the only Holdens left and I’m tied into him.

AY: (Sings) I’ll keep holding on …

JSC: I never thought of that. That’s amazing. Amantha’s holding on.

AS: I think what Ray and I talked about a lot, and what I would get particularly fired up about in Season 3, was how do we navigate old Amantha and new Amantha. That was a big conversation. We’re learning about new Amantha. Ray said something really powerful recently: “Through great pain can change truly be made.” I felt like Season 2 was very painful for me, for Amantha. I don’t even know why because it wasn’t a particularly threatening storyline. She got a job at Thrifty Town and got depressed. Not a lot happened, but it was torturous to play.

At the same time, so much of Amantha has been defined by clearing her family name and trying to prove that her brother is innocent. Who is she once those questions are answered? Where do you go? Where does Daniel go?

AY: Also, don’t forget that there’s a possibility now in her mind of doubt for the first time in 20 years. Daniel took this way out, back to freedom, not just because he didn’t want to lose his fingernails climbing out of the darkness again, but because he did it.

JSC: And Amantha says to John, “I hope he did it.” She’d rather him be frank and honest and be a murderer than give up.

AS: It’s black and white. Amantha’s struggling with her need for black and white and for absolute truth. It’s hard. I’ve been playing her, and I don’t even think the emotion and the feeling, I don’t think she could truly think that he did it, more for self-preservation. How could you give 20 years of your life to a lie? That would be devastating.

There’s an impression that I’ve always gotten, and I don’t know if it’s just me reading too much into things, but Daniel almost looks like he’s willing to accept punishment because he feels he may deserve to be punished for something. Would you say that’s a fair assessment?

AY: If you’ve ever been in a situation which is essentially the cause of any regret, you return to that. That’s the definition of regret. You regress to that moment where you could have changed things. I think his reexamination of this night has lead him to believe that he’s responsible for this girl’s death, and responsible for this girl’s destruction and her rape.

JSC: As you said very articulately today on the panel, if he’d just taken a left instead of a right maybe she wouldn’t have been killed.

AY: It’s as simple as me getting up to go out here and, “Oh, I forgot my phone.” That four second difference is the difference between hitting the breaks or not. Daniel’s had a lot of time to think on that. And I think that has traumatized him and has broken him to a certain extent. He carries a great responsibility for not only Hannah but what’s happened to his family, what’s happened to the Dean family. There’s a certain amount of rage there as well because the memory is clouded with elasticity in the retelling and it’s changed itself. We now know that through neurological breakthroughs that we can rebuild and we can do that, but in the retelling of something we’re shifting it. We’re morphing it into its own place in the present. We’re taking elements of that back to the memory and all of a sudden you have much more of a dream-like situation. Witnesses are being found to be completely and utterly unreliable even though they’ve just been shown something. They’ll sit them down and they’ll say, “What did you see?” And they’re all wrong. They film it and you see that they’re all wrong.

Here’s a guy who didn’t do this crime … or maybe he did. But if he didn’t, think about what’s happened to his family. All the shit the world’s dumped on them. All the shit the world’s dumped on this boy just because he was there. If there isn’t a bigger Greek tragedy, I can’t imagine. This is a question of lives being destroyed by ambition, by politics, and social need for vengeance. Or is it a question of “We let a monster out?” or “A zebra never changes its stripes.”

Aden, you said something so beautiful during the panel, and I couldn’t think of a better way to phrase it: putting Daniel in the guest house when you’re not filming this series. Do the rest of you have a guest house where you put your characters? With a story like this, I have to imagine that it really sticks with you and perhaps gets carried with you into other roles.

JSC: That’s sort of an occupational hazard of all acting, not just this show which is a flagrant example of how hard it can be. There is sort of channeling, like a radio with lots of bands that you can turn up and turn down. I think maybe [Aden] has a singular experience because his head is full of bees.

AY: His head is full of bees. Thanks mom.

JSC: I feel the fact that television show is theoretically an ongoing story, there’s a feeling like I will revisit this, and for now I’ll put it aside.

AY: Mother, my head is full of bees. There’s a buzz in that helmet there, like it’s full of bees.

AS: I think, for Amantha, instead of a guest house it’s a bag. It’s a big …

AY: Duffle bag.

AS: Yeah, a big Mary Poppins carpet bag of Amantha. What’s great about going to Griffin, Georgia to shoot is you can just pull out the bag when you get there. I listened to Serial this year, so that was something to put in the bag. I pull photos or images or other things, and this year I asked Ray before Season 3 to send me a little piece of writing. I didn’t need to know anything else but I wanted to get a little piece of writing and sit with that for awhile.

JSC: It really is a great thing that we’re not shooting it in our homes where we live. We go to that place and it’s like a boot camp where we go and do it.

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