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Ray McKinnon on His New Sundance Channel Drama 'Rectify' and Why 'The New Indie Is In TV'

Photo of Alison Willmore By Alison Willmore | Indiewire April 22, 2013 at 3:00PM

Though Ray McKinnon won an Oscar for his 2001 short "The Accountant" and went to Sundance with his 2004 film "Chrystal," starring his late wife Lisa Blount and Billy Bob Thornton, he's best known for his work as an actor. He's a familiar face from features like "That Evening Sun" and the upcoming "Mud," and shows like "Sons of Anarchy" and "Deadwood," in which he played a pivotal first season role as the kind-hearted but slowly deteriorating Reverend Smith. Sundance Channel's meditative, lovely new series "Rectify," which is created, written and executive produced by McKinnon, seems clearly shaped by those experiences on both sides of the camera.
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Aden Young in 'Rectify'
Sundance Channel Aden Young in 'Rectify'

How would you say your background as an actor has informed how you approached the series?

Well, I did play all the parts. [laughs] There's a side of me that says thing that people wish I wouldn't and Amantha [Abigail Spencer's character] got to be the conduit of that. She does it with such a fierceness and conviction, and I love to express that side of me through her. With writing fiction, I’m either not courageous enough or just not suited for telling truths in a more conventional way. As an actor, I inhabit those characters as I’m writing them.

The characters who convicted Daniel in the first place react in this way that echoes some famous real cases where people are released from jail, and the prosecutors or police still insist "I know he's guilty anyway." Where do you think that mindset comes from? Is it self-protection or is it a need to really believe that there are obvious bad guys out there to be caught?

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It's a great question and one I haven't seen a lot of exploration of -- especially in some cases which are much less ambiguous than this one, you're like "How can they possibly believe that these guys did it?" I think it’s all of the above. It’s a belief system you've based your whole career off of. Some people can't deal with the idea that they could've done this because they don't see themselves as bad people. Pride, ego and in some cases pure ambition.

There was one case where the prosecutor said "I know the guy did it," and they said "how do you know?" He said "because I couldn't live with myself if he didn't." That's not a good reason. With a television show, it allows you to explore that psychology a little more in depth -- if we go further in the show I'm curious to see, as in real life, if we can change our belief systems. Some people can. They believe the world is flat and they come around and think the world is round. It's not an easy thing to do. It requires humility and you have to give up some of your pride. It's not easy to go from a place of "he's guilty" to a place of "oh my, we've done a bad thing." I'd like to see that.

You've acted in arcs on "Sons of Anarchy" and "Deadwood." What did you take from those experiences and bring to this show?

"Deadwood" was just a wonderful opportunity for me. Outside of my own things that I've written, I hadn't had the opportunity to play a character with that amount of depth and range. David Milch gave me that opportunity and I'm forever grateful for it. At the time I was old enough to realize how special it was to be a part of that, and most of the actors did. We were all very aware of what we had. I was in the pilot up to the end of the first season -- I got to watch it evolve and watch David expand it. It was very influential to me, because I was a storyteller and had been since before I was an actor -- it was a master class taught by a master. "Sons of Anarchy" was last year, so I knew there was a possibility of this show ["Recify"] happening, so I paid close attention to [Kurt Sutter] and the writers and the whole machine. I feel very fortunate to be in two shows that, while very different, have a very specific showrunner's point of view.

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Are there other shows or films that were influential for "Rectify"?

Watching "Mad Men," I thought maybe this is now a world where "Rectify" could be made. It was a feeling I had, almost unarticulatable -- here's a story set in the '50s in a New York ad agency and a story set in the 21st century in a small town in the deep south about a guy who gets released from death row. It’s a tonal thing. Truth may be stranger than fiction on a plot and narrative basis, but fiction can investigate tone in a way that things based on a true story can't. And "Private Lies," or anything from Terrence Malick. We didn't have the time or money to be more filmic, but we did try to be as filmic as we could in later episodes, in the fifth and sixth. He's definitely an inspiration.

This article is related to: Television, TV Interviews, Rectify, SundanceTV, Ray McKinnon, Aden Young, Abigail Spencer, J. Smith-Cameron





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