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'Rectify' Stars Dissect Sundance Channel's 'Emotionally Intense' Drama

The six-hour effort from the producers of "Breaking Bad" explores the intricacies of a convict released into small-town America after nearly 20 years in prison.

Rectify Sundance 2013 H
"Rectify's" Aden Young

Following Jane Campion's Top of the Lake, the Sundance Channel doles out its latest high-profile drama in Rectify.

A six-part series from creator Ray McKinnon and Breaking Bad producers Mark Johnson and Melissa Bernstein, Rectify picks up when Daniel Holden, who was convicted of raping and murdering his girlfriend, is released from prison after spending 19 years on death row and now returns as an outsider to a world he doesn't fully understand anymore.

In a rousing review, The Hollywood Reporter's chief TV critic Tim Goodman called Rectify a "superb character study," which "lets viewers bathe in what it must be like for a man to experience the shock of lost time and the wonder of a second chance."

TV REVIEW: Sundance Channel's 'Rectify'

"It's very much the story of how we as a society have gotten to a point where we have legitimized murder, and somebody escapes that through a series of legalities and is let loose in a world that has tried to shed him," said star Aden Young at a recent luncheon. "In doing so, he brings everything that has defined this town back to the forefront of people's lives and that frightens the s--- out of everyone because people have made their careers on it and other people are skeptical of the possibility of his innocence."

It's fair to say Daniel's release isn't met with open arms. Clayne Crawford's character, Ted, Daniel's stepbrother he's never met, is one of those people unhappy about Daniel's reintegration. "A lot of people feel threatened, and I think that's just small-town America," Crawford said. "Change is terrifying."

Boarding the project seemed to be a no-brainer for those involved; some castmembers even noted that Rectify moves at a snail's pace compared to that of AMC's Mad Men.

"Reading [the script], it felt like a Faulkner novel," Abigail Spencer, who plays Daniel's younger sister Amantha, told THR.

For Young, there was something gratifying about diving into a role that relied so little on dialogue.

VIDEOS: Sundance Film Festival 2013: THR's Video Diaries

"It's a joy to play somebody so still," he said of his character, who barely cracks a smile. "It's a challenge to convey very little. The physical reality of living in a box and wearing shackles, your movement is limited to 18 inches or 12 inches really, and suddenly the world is opened right in front of you. You just feel like someone who has literally fallen to earth. There's a paralyzing nature that you have to bring in."

Young added: "He's very much afraid of feeling anything, because if he feels, something might break. Death might still be around the corner: Is it going to be today? Is it going to be next week? Is it five stays of execution? How many lives do I actually get? Is this real? That's a question we pose."

His biggest obstacle in playing the internal intricacies was maintaining Daniel's truth. "I had to go to that place of rawness so I wasn't lying to him about the human being. So much that we express on television and cinema is crap because we're afraid of being touched, of tenderness, as if they're talons," Young said. "Ray wasn't afraid of going to that world where tenderness exists, where sadness is a factor. You take that and you think how can you break that down? The reality is, you just be. Hopefully that is enough for an audience to become intrigued and empathetic."

Young, who didn't want to find out whether Daniel was guilty of the murder he was jailed for, argued that escapism in entertainment doesn't leave a lasting effect. "The film or TV of quality, I think it should be about inviting you back into yourself as opposed to trying to get away from where you are," he reasoned.

The stillness that McKinnon captured on-camera added another layer to the suspense, castmembers affirmed. "It feels like the seemingly mundane becomes much more suspenseful," said Spencer. "The things we do that no one's watching suddenly feel like, 'Oh my gosh, what's going to happen! Oh, he's just going to buy water.' "

For Spencer, the awkward car ride between Daniel and Amantha following Daniel's prison exit  was a moment that stood out, if only because it was a way into McKinnon's mind. "What an interesting choice to go to the car scene [between Amantha and Daniel] leaving the prison. There's not much going on but choosing that moment, I'm really drawn to ones Ray chose to explore because they were so thoughtful," she said.

Filming in the South was a homecoming for Southerners Spencer and Crawford. So much so that the cast would often go roller-skating on the weekends, simply because there was nothing else to do. And though Rectify's subject matter is serious, the seasoned cast -- whom Spencer dubbed "under the radar" -- would often resort to humor and hijinks when moments got too tense.

"Most of the emotion happened during the takes because it'd almost be too much," she said. "You could never go that far from the undercurrent because the whole season takes place in the first week." Young echoed that sentiment, telling THR, "It was hard to shoot. It was emotionally intense for all of us, so we at times would be exhausted." One day had the cast filming for 19 straight hours, he recalled.

The final thing that Young shot for Rectify was Daniel's confession from 19 years previous. "We did 12 hours [worth] of interrogation for 45 minutes," he recalled. "Ray and I sat in a little van where Ray was playing the sheriff and I was playing Daniel as a young boy; Daniel was high as a kite. The question of what happened that night [of the murder] is a foggy one."

There were times during filming when Young found it difficult to separate himself from the grim reality Daniel faced.

"You lose the ability to manufacture reality away from the take and your brain stem starts saying, 'You're really sad,' when you're not. There's nothing to be sad about except the performance that you're playing is telling your body is really sad," he told THR. "That confusion at times can be very exhausting."

Rectify debuts as a six-episode series, but there could be a continuation to Daniel's story should the opportunity arise.

"I think Ray has a pretty firm idea where he wants to go with the story," Young told THR. "In the brief discussions we have had, there's a whole landscape. Ray and I have talked, speculatively, about the idea of Daniel just getting on the train and going out to America. What would happen there if that were the case."

Rectify premieres at 9 p.m. Monday on Sundance Channel.

E-mail: Philiana.Ng@thr.com
Twitter: @insidethetube