Chatting with Abigail Spencer & Mark Johnson About One of TV’s Best Dramas, ‘Rectify’
Rectify is a hauntingly quiet and powerful show about Daniel, a man who spent 19 years in prison after being accused of a horrific crime he may or may not have committed, and the sister who got him out, Amantha (Abigail Spencer). Season two of the show premieres tomorrow night on Sundance (WATCH IT), and I recently had a chance to speak to Spencer and executive producer Mark Johnson during a roundtable interview at the ATX Television Festival.
[On whether Daniel is innocent or guilty and whether that truly matters]
Mark Johnson: It is obviously something horrific happened. It’s been 19 years and he’s paid for it, whether or not he did it. As callious as it sounds, it’s besides the fact now.
[On Amantha’s need and struggle to find her identity in season two]
Abigail Spencer: I think that season two is the space between that, it’s the bridge hopefully. Amantha’s going to be very tested in that area because Daniel is a human being who, unfortunately in this situation, has choice, in Amantha’s opinion. He has to be able to choose things now. It’s his decision. It’s not Amantha, as much as she’d like to. She can’t be his protector and keeper. She says, ‘I am my brother’s keeper,’ in episode two. I think she says it with irony, as she always does, but I think she actually really believes that. So we’re going to see Amantha really get challenged on ‘Who am I when I don’t wake up every day and my sole purpose is to get Daniel out?’
[On how Spencer approaches embodying Amantha]
Spencer: It’s a practice in restraint because there’s so much to be ignited about. I’m very passionate about certain things. Why I like playing Amantha is that it really ignites those parts of myself, but I actually think the power is in trying to restrain it and trying to have some awareness. The calibration of playing someone like that because it would be too much if she were unfiltered and unfettered all the time. It’s really about finding those places that are much more vulnerable, that are weaker because, usually, it’s a cover for someone who’s just really scared and hurt.
[On where Amantha would be if Daniel was never in prison]
Spencer: I think about it. I also come from a pretty small town not too far away from where we shoot the show. I had really big dreams of grandeur. I moved to New York when I was 17. I actually think there’s a similar thread. She would’ve gone to New York. She would’ve gone to college. Maybe she would’ve gone into law, found her way into something where she could fight the system on some level. She would’ve become very successful, because, fact is, she put all that energy into Daniel and he got out. The thing happened, the impossible thing that everybody else gave up on. Their father died of a heart attack, who was on her side. It was her and her dad. Some back story that we talk about, that I don’t know if it filters through or not in the cuts, but they worked together. When he passed on, this case killed people, like Hal Holbrook’s character. He said that he got cancer fighting these things. It really can destroy people and it didn’t destroy Amantha.
[On whether Amantha is resentful that Daniel got out]
Spencer: I think that’s part of the journey that we’ll definitely see is being challenged of her blind faith and care. I felt playing it and I see it in the story line too, she really gets tested between Daniel and Amantha of his gratitude, if he understands what her life was like, if he’s thought about it.
Amantha’s human at the end of the day. It’s nice that we get to see a bit more of that. It’s not just the She-Ra stallion coming in trying to save the day with no remorse or regret. That wouldn’t be real.
[On what drove Amantha to dedicate herself to the cause of Daniel]
Spencer: There’s this deep, interconnected, woven tapestry between her and Daniel. They are cut from the same cloth, as different as they are. He’s the older brother. I totally adored and admired my older brother growing up, he’s my hero.
Johnson: But you haven’t seen him for 19 years.
Spencer: Well, it’s the idea. Then now it’s become her identity, not knowing who she is without that. I think it’s just part of who Amantha is. It’s part of her DNA to fight to the death, to the freedom, and not give up, not lose hope. Some people come out that way and she’s one of those people.
[On the bond and relationship between Daniel and Kerwin, his friend in prison]
Johnson: [Kerwin] is the family that Daniel has. He has all these other people who come visit him and has blood ties to, but they don’t know him even close to how Kerwin knows him. What a perverted way to have a relationship, done through a grating between two cells. They know each other. I think it’s very profound when Kerwin says, ‘I know’ about Daniel’s innocent, because the rest of the characters, including the sister, they hope they know but they can’t not have doubts about what happened. And Daniel’s not a very good spokesperson in his own defense.
Spencer: The flashbacks in the prison really are mirroring something that Daniel’s trying to work through in his own mind. Kerwin really is such a pivotal force to project him into trying to live. Because he wouldn’t be out if it weren’t for Amantha. I don’t know if Daniel would’ve chosen that on his own.
Johnson: It’s interesting about Kerwin because there is no doubt in Kerwin’s case. It’s one of the early episodes, when they have a conversation in the cell and Kerwin says without irony, something about how his lawyer thinks his chances would’ve been a lot better had he not done it. Kerwin did it. Kerwin knows he did it. Daniel knows he did it, and this horrific thing. But in Daniel’s case, who knows? It really is the other side of that coin.
Spencer: Kerwin is a bit of the soothsayer who comes in and out. There’s quite a few on our show outside of the immediate family. It’s so beautiful to see some of these periphery characters that come in and ask these big questions of Daniel.
Johnson: And they get to the heart of the matter, perhaps quicker and with less filters than all the family around them.
Spencer: You’re just too close to it. In your family, you project your own things and everyone’s different agendas. As much the senator and some of our proposed antagonists have their own agendas, the people in the family have their own agendas, too, and are trying. There’s that self preservation that is igniting in each person that I think Daniel’s existence of being out flares up in each one.
[On producing Breaking Bad and how Rectify is similar]
Spencer: Certainly Breaking Bad and Rectify deal with the possible evil that’s inherent in all of us, or that we’re capable of doing. Independent of whether Daniel is guilty of this murder, we see that Daniel’s capable of being violent, capable of having dark thoughts. Maybe, if Mahatma had gone into one of those cells for 19 years, he would’ve come out damaged and dark and probably scary person. I love the idea that it’s what’s what are we capable of doing.
[On the fans]
Johnson: It’s clear from your questions that you really do like the show. You’re not asking questions because it’s part of your job. At least it has had some impact and that’s what I’m so proud of. Because it’s not in any way a conventional show, and it has the strength to say, ‘This is who we are and this is the speed at which we work,’ which is not clearly for everybody. It has some really, really loyal fans, so thanks.
[Photo by Nadia Chaudhury]
Nadia Chaudhury ended up talking to Abigail Spencer about how hard it was to not constantly break character while filming Burning Love.