Abigail Spencer is no stranger to television — since she was discovered at a taping of “Live with Regis and Kathy Lee,” she’s appeared on a plethora of shows, from “All My Children” to “Mad Men” (where she romanced Don Draper as Sally Draper’s idealistic teacher). Her most recent small screen work, a role that’s made her an Emmy hopeful, has been in Sundance Channel’s first foray into wholly original programming, the critically acclaimed drama “Rectify.” In the series, which recently ended its first season and is available now on DVD, Spencer plays Amantha Holden, whose brother Daniel (Aden Young) has just been released from a 19-year stint in prison but has yet to be fully exonerated. As if her unusual name wasn’t enough of an indication, Amantha is somewhat of an outcast, returning to her hometown of Paulie, Georgia after having moved to the big city of Atlanta. Indiewire spoke with Spencer about the complex character, her hopes for the second season, and getting her big break thanks to a chance encounter with Kathy Lee Gifford.
What were your preliminary reactions to reading the script? I mean, I’m sure just seeing the name Amantha is something that catches your eye.
[laughs] I almost thought it was a mistake — “Wait, is that actually how it’s spelled?” This was an interesting moment in my artistic life. I was looking for something with a very strong vision and a singular voice, and it didn’t really matter if it was film or television — I think “Rectify” could be anything and I would definitely want to be a part of it. It could be a play in the park, and I would be like, “Sign me up!” It was just that good, and there was a buzz in the acting community about it.
I requested to read it right away, and within the first five pages, I was arrested. I went back to the front page and looked at Ray McKinnon’s name and looked him up, and I was like, “I don’t think we’re related, but maybe we grew up in the same town…” I felt like I knew him, and I knew the world and heard the sound of her voice and the way that she talked and her inner workings. I decided then and there that I had to play her and that nobody had a choice in the matter. [laughs] Of course there was a lot of people that had a choice in the matter, so then it becomes the task of trying to convince everyone that you’re right for the part.
Luckily I had worked with [producer] Mark Johnson before on “Chasing Mavericks,” so I had him in my corner. It was cool that Sundance Channel was doing this, I just knew, “They’re gonna do this right.” There’s a risk whenever someone’s doing it for the first time. I felt like they had such impeccable taste from the other ways I’d seen them tell stories and market their brand — and, obviously, with the film festival.
Her name, it’s just so Southern and it’s such a hybrid and it brings so many connotations. When you meet her, it’s her personality. It was just crafting everything to support what Ray had written — from the costumes, the boots that she wore, the watch, the chipped nail polish, everything was just trying to support that vision.
I was really impressed by the depiction of a small Southern town. I’m from Texas and could recognize the way of life and the feel of Paulie. How did you all work to get that authenticity and rawness, and avoid devolving into stereotypes?
Ray McKinnon isn’t a stereotype. He and I spoke quite a lot about how within every culture there’s a counterculture, and there’s a right and a left in every community. In every community, there are people who are extreme. And it’s about looking at everyone with deep love and not saying that they’re wrong — it’s just their truth. I think when you take on characters like Amantha and Ted Jr. [Clayne Crawford] and Tawney [Adelaide Clemens], they’re treated with a tremendous amount of respect, so it’s not like “Oh, the Christian girl…” You forget that that might be something that’s spoken, because it’s just something she believes. This town, this story and Daniel’s innocence or guilt — it’s become more about everyone’s point-of-view about that, that’s become everyone’s religion in this town. Really, all of that stems from the script. It’s easy to have a good gauge when the source of what you’re working from is in such a pure form.
Going off of that, the dynamics of the family and even the other members of the town feel so precise. What was it like working with the ensemble of actors to bring these relationships to life?
Everyone in our cast cared so much about the work — we all felt a sense of “How fortunate are we?” Everyone is so perfectly cast and has been working for such a long time and nobody knows who any of us are — it’s great. [laughs] We can just work and be believable, and everyone felt so connected to their characters.
Ray and [director Keith Gordon] set up for us to hang out with each other. It wasn’t so much about talking about the characters, it was just hanging out and getting to know each other. We all lived closed to each other in Griffin, most of us in the same apartment complex, and Aiden would cook and we’d go to his place and we would all make a meal together. It developed over time that we were becoming friends and we were a family, a functional family down in Griffin — even though I was from there and J. [Smith Cameron] is from South Carolina and Ray is from Birmingham, we were still a little out of our element.
The style and pacing of “Rectify” make it feel less like a season and more like a six-hour film. You’ve worked on different TV shows before — how did this show differ from your other experiences?
It all comes from the creator, so it’s really Ray’s taste and how he sees the world, the private moments. Our show is about private moments and private lives — that’s how we knew the story evolved. We’re not always going to focus on “the events,” it’s the moments between, that’s where the show lives a lot of the time. That just naturally provides for the pace of the show.
Of every single thing I’ve worked on, no two are alike; there’s not one blanket thing with network television vs. cable or “cable has to be this way or that way.” It’s just the story, and understanding that. And I felt like I really did. I’m drawn to scenes in movies where you just see characters turning off lights in a room or putting the groceries away, it’s like, “I understand that.” We all have to get ready for bed and we all do it in a different way, and yet it’s all strangely familiar and strangely human.
I think what lends itself to feeling like a movie is that we looked at it like along-form narrative fiction piece, a novel about life. And if that’s cinematic, then yay. [laughs]
Now that the show has been picked up for another season, what are you guys looking forward to exploring further on the show?
I’m definitely looking forward to all of our characters colliding again, and to working with everyone because I think everyone’s paths cross. I love Amantha and Tawney’s dynamic, they’re like apples and oranges. I also love working with J. Cameron Smith, who plays Janet. We love each other and have such a great time working together, but that mother-daughter relationship is so fraught, so it’s delicious to play with.
As far as story, I’m just excited to see what Ray comes up with because I feel like it will be better than I anything I can dream up. [laughs] But I do feel like Amantha is gonna have to deal with herself and what she wants, because it really has been about what’s best for Daniel and what he wants, and that’s all she’s wanted. What would her life look like if she wanted something else? If she wanted someone different than Jon Stern [Luke Kirby], or somewhere different? What if she wanted to stop smoking? [laughs] I feel like I could do anything, and I would care.
You’ve had some great roles on film as well as in TV, a medium that really resonates with people — after all, you’re right in their living room. What would you say is the role that you get recognized for the most?
It depends on where I’m at in the world. It’s been a good mix — a lot of people saw “Oz: The Great and the Powerful,” so there’s definitely a lot of love there. When I’m in LA or New York, “Mad Men” and now “Rectify.” I’m kind of amazed. If I go out my door, people are like, “I love your show,” and I’m like, “Oh my god, you watch it?” It’s the most wonderful feeling, because you do these little things that mean so much to you, and you don’t do them thinking anyone will ever see them. [laughs]
Is it true you were discovered at a taping of “Regis and Kathy Lee”?
[laughs] Yeah, when I was 17 years old, still living in Gulf Breeze, Florida, I went to New York to audition for all of the theater schools. I was in the audience and Kathy Lee talked to me on the air, and was super supportive. And it just so happens that the casting director of “All My Children” was watching the live feed and Kathy called around to a few people and was like, “Oh, I have this girl…” I thought, “Oh my god, this is never gonna work…” I didn’t even know that she’d done that, and then I got a call later that day that the casting director of “All My Children” wanted to meet me. A few months later I ended up being on the show.
That’s pretty crazy.
I know! It’s like one of those discovery stories that you hear about that never happen anymore, like the stories of old, of yore. [laughs] I really responded to the movie “The Artist,” when Bérénice’s character is an extra, then all of a sudden she has this moment on camera and now she’s a star. That only happens in black-and-white movies. Not to say that I was a star after that, because it’s still a lifetime of work for a moment of opportunity. It was just an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. I just felt like, “Man, these things don’t come around that often.” So I just went for it.