Rectify: Ray McKinnon and the Great Southern TV Show

TV Features Ray McKinnon
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Griffin, Ga., is 2,260 miles from Los Angeles. And though there are trucks parked along the street and equipment scattered across the lawn of the suburban ranch house where much of Rectify is filmed, the show itself feels even further disconnected from Hollywood.

Inside, tensions are high as the crew films one of the final scenes of the second season, which concludes on Aug. 21 on SundanceTV. It’s an emotional encounter between the protagonist Daniel Holden and his mother that requires several takes, first to fix the lighting, then to fix the audio. The budget from SundanceTV is smaller than bigger networks, which means the shooting schedule is compressed, which means there’s pressure to get each shot right the first time.

But creator Ray McKinnon takes advantage of the moment to pull his lead actor Aden Young aside and give him notes, not about what he’s saying, but what he’s not saying—about that moment where you can share your feelings but you choose not to. And what makes Rectify such a special show is its languid pacing, allowing the audience to feel what’s going through the characters’ minds and connect to their struggles. The camera lingers on the mother for four full seconds after Daniel leaves and she tries to take in the enormity of their conversation. “Subtext, subtext, subtext” is McKinnon’s mantra, and the freedom to allow space between dialogue afforded by being on a network like SundanceTV is worth more than any additional budget to shoot it.

“It’s impossible to get to the subtext when you’ve got to cut on the line,” McKinnon tells me at the cast and crew lunch—held in the same abandoned golf course where one of The Walking Dead’s infamous scenes was shot. “So much of the subtext happens between the lines.”

Rectify tells the story of a man exonerated by DNA evidence 19 years after being convicted of the rape and murder of his teenaged girlfriend. But while his sentence has been overturned, not everyone in his small Georgia town—or even his extended family—believes in his innocence. Daniel, who’s spent all of his adult life on Death Row, has to readjust to a world he’d given up hope of ever seeing. It’s a quiet story that feels more like independent film than traditional television, and one that McKinnon only recently imagined could possibly get made.

McKinnon says, “I was inspired by a number of sensational cases of men who were on death row or life without parole for a number of years—up to 20 years—and there being new evidence with them testing DNA and finding out that that was not the guy. And they let these guys out, and I saw some of the press conferences of the first day out, and I just wondered what the second day would be like, and the third, and the fourth. You know, imagining that. That was many years before I actually wrote it. And it wasn’t until I saw Mad Men that I started really thinking there might be a place in television for a show that I felt like would probably not draw a lot of numbers or be sexy in the more network sense of what that was. And then one day I just decided to write it and see what would happen.”

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The first six-episode season was met with critical acclaim, and Sundance ordered 10 more episodes for Season Two. If Season One was about Daniel’s initial readjustment, this one delves deeper into the character as he tries to figure out his future.

“I think in storytelling we expect change to happen at a certain pace,” he says. “We’re conditioned to that, and in reality, does anybody ever completely adjust to the world after enduring and being in the kind of confined place that [Daniel] was in for so long? I don’t think he ever will. So [this season] details his experience and not his adjustment that is intriguing to me and continues to be so. One day he may be adjusting better, and the next day it seems like he’s taken some steps backwards. The experience is not linear.”

Early in Season Two, Daniel makes the rash decision to completely renovate the kitchen, ripping up the floors and emptying the cabinets before he really has a plan in place to repair the damage. It’s the action of someone who never had the chance to mature. He was a young man living in his mother’s house, and now he’s a grown man living in that same house.

“On a symbolic level, Daniel is still in many ways in this odd combination of this self-educated man and this naive teenager to the ways of the world,” McKinnon says. “He just doesn’t have that life experience and we get to see as we watch him go through his days all of the aspects of him come out. In one episode he talks about getting an old beater truck. That’s a goal of his. And if it’s a goal of an 18 year old, it’s a goal that has kind of a lightness to it. If it’s a goal of someone approaching 40, there’s a sadness to that—especially when you wonder if he really ever can find his way in the world to even buy an old beater truck. All those complexities of being in a box for 20 years are starting to play out.”

Finding the right actor to inhabit Daniel was a challenge. “[Aden] was holed up in Thailand or somewhere working on a movie and sent in an audition tape late, late in the game. And it was like, ‘That’s the guy.’ But yeah, it’s a very difficult role to play. To have so many different characteristics—got to be very sensitive, you’ve got to be dangerous, got to be funny, have wisdom. And a lot of those guys at that age that have that kind of presence to hold our attention have already been discovered. We got lucky with him for sure.”

Equally engaging is Abigail Spencer, who plays Daniel’s spirited sister Amantha.

“I was looking for a certain kind of fierceness and intelligence and single-mindedness of this character,” McKinnon says. “And quite a few people read for it, and they just didn’t embody all the characteristics that Abigail just showed up with. It was in her, and it came out in her first reading. When I saw that reading, I was like, ‘Oh my god, there she is.’ Of course you didn’t want to tell her that because it would be terrible to negotiate from that position.”

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Amantha was a tireless advocate for Daniel when he was in prison and is kind of lost once he’s out. Her emotional intensity is high scene after scene, from anger to debilitating anxiety. “It’s difficult to live in that place,” says Spencer. “In the world that Ray has created here, there’s a never-ending well of emotion. There’s a never-ending well of creativity. I really feel like we’re so fortunate on the show, because we just have to go the source.

“Ray is just a magical, magical…Ewok,” she continues. “He’s hairy and he’s lovable and he just demands so much of himself. So it’s that perception that makes me better. Being around him. And he’s funny and to me, I really feel like he’s on a path that I’m interested in in life, which is asking the big questions in life. You know, ‘What does it all mean?’ And he’s kind of able to put it into the story, and I really enjoy his point of view about relationships and about love. And what I love about our show too, and I think it’s a real reflection of Ray, is that everybody’s right. There’s not a point of view on our show that I’m like, ‘I don’t get that.’ You know? Like, I get it. He loves the characters so much. And it’s just a complete and utter joy. I love when he’s on set. I love being around him. I love what I feel called to be when I’m working with him. And I crave it. I met him two years ago, and it has helped me grow in a way that I don’t think I would have been capable of without meeting him.”

McKinnon may be best known as an actor on Deadwood (he was the reverend) and movies like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, That Evening Sun, Take Shelter and Mud. But he won an Oscar for The Accountant, the short film he wrote and directed in 2001, and has written and directed two films since—Chrystal starring Billy Bob Thorton and Randy and the Mob with Walton Goggins. When he first saw Thorton’s Sling Blade in 1996, McKinnon thought, “Wow, Hollywood let a Southerner make a Southern movie.” And then, “Well, shoot, that was probably the only time that will happen, and I missed my window.”

But with Rectify, he’s been given the chance to make Great Southern Television, and he’s taken advantage of the opportunity. Not that it’s been easy. When I ask him what’s next, he says, “I think perhaps a monastery—except with a really nice bed, a private room and a bath. I think I need to be quiet for a while. But yeah, I look forward to what presents itself in the future and try to enjoy the day.”

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