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

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

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.

A drama about a man named Daniel Holden (Aden Young) who’s released from death row after 19 years when DNA evidence leads to his sentence being vacated (without clearing him of the crime), the six-episode show is emphatically intimate, closing in on the first week in Daniel’s life back home, as he struggles to adjust like a man returned to earth after two decades in orbit. It’s a deliberate story that unfolds in close-ups and small details, one that requires considerable trust in and an ability to work with actors — and the cast, which also includes Abigail Spencer (“Kilimanjaro”), Luke Kirby (“Take This Waltz”), J. Smith-Cameron (“Margaret”), Hal Holbrook and others, repays this faith with wonderful, finely wrought performances. Indiewire spoke with McKinnon about the series, which premieres tonight, April 22nd at 9pm. He kicked off the conversation by saying that he thinks “the new indie is in TV.”

When Indiewire launched the TV section, “Girls” had just started on HBO. Now we’re seeing even more shows that have a consistent authorship in a way you didn’t always have before.

I saw that on “The Sopranos” in the old days. Both as a storyteller and a story watcher, it gave me that feeling of excitement, and that’s continued in television because it can be so fragmented — you can appeal to a variety of different tastes, and there’s some great stuff that applies to my taste.

It’s also must be appealing, the idea of having your work available to a big audience at the same time as opposed to the way a typical indie film slowly makes its way across the country. Everyone can talk about it the next day.

And also technology allowing people to come and find things later. There are a lot of cable shows that gain more popularity over a couple of years because people are watching on Netflix or On Demand. You build it and they would come. We’ll see if that happens here.

People are also now looking at TV at something that will potentially watched several episodes at a time on those platforms. I know the first few episodes of “Rectify” were screened together at a private event at Sundance — how much did the idea of that kind of viewing pattern inform how you wrote the show?

I just wrote the show because I was interested in this spark happening in my imagination. I wanted to see what would happen to this guy. If you find this muse, it guides you that way as opposed to your dictating what happens, and that’s what happened. It’s a six-episode piece, not knowing or really caring if it would go beyond that. That’s not really my business or worth the energy to think about. I thought of it more as parts, and I wanted to do a six-part story.

In a way it’s like chapters, and this show doesn’t have a traditional narrative engine where you’re going to solve a case or go to the ad agency, so in that way it’s like a novel where one builds off another and they intertwine. It’s not a bad way to view it.

I finally got to start seeing “Mad Men,” this last season again, and I watched three in a row and it was like three in the morning. And I was like “I’m just going to watch one more, because I’ve got to get up tomorrow and do what my mother tells me!” I love that experience about television, about the medium now.

The episodes span a very concentrated amount of time — seven days.

I’ve seen real life cases where guys were released after decades of incarceration and thought “God, that must be weird, surreal, and complicated.” I didn’t want to go past that — I wanted to go on a moment-by-moment basis as much as I could. If we went from day one to day 30, we would have missed so much of his re-entry. That’s a huge amount of time to jump forward, since he is like a baby in a lot of ways. So that was always the plan, it just made sense.

Daniel speaks about having trouble grasping time after being in this situation where there were so few markers of it in his windowless cell. Did that guide the pace of the show?

Yes, I did think about how his internal time clock hasn’t been influenced by all the influencers we have. One being sunlight — that’s been around as long as we’ve been around, and that’s a cue. Another is all of these television markers, holidays, the 24-hour news cycle. We’re always aware of time, and to survive those conditions he had to become unaware of time, so it didn’t make sense for him to come out and be totally oriented. I feel like he would be ambivalent to that, because it’s one of the bites of the apple he would have to deal with. I see him in some ways as making decisions about whether to become engaged with worldly things — even in spite of his best intentions, the world draws him in.

In that sense, he’s a character unlike any other on TV before because of his stillness. He’s built up this unknowable but complicated inner life, which adds to our sense of ambivalence about him, and that isn’t easy to convey on screen. How did you go about building that?

Just thinking organically about who this person is. Nature vs. nurture. A large part of his nurture was death row — he was raised in some ways on death row. Also his nature, and I’ve talked to some people who’d been released from death row and I’ve done some research and not everyone’s alike. He was a different cat before he went in. He was a bit off the path, so how he would deal with that experience and aftermath would be different from the next guy.

With the ambivalence, we talked about this in the writers room — if he became like me and you, I’m not sure I’d want to see the show anymore. There’s the possibility he did what they say he did, and that fills you with a bit of unease. There’s the possibility he didn’t do what they say he did, but he’s still an amoral man because he was guided by this system that wrongly convicted them, so why would he choose to adopt their morals? I see him as unactualized and with a life interrupted.

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?

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.

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.

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