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The actor Brent Sexton is two months shy of his 45th birthday. With a warm demeanor and a youthful face that lights up when he talks about things that are important to him, he appears to be even younger. His face lit up quite often earlier this week — as you can see by checking out the video at the top of this post — when he and I met up in Los Angeles, less than 48 hours after the airing of the season two finale of The Killing, to chat about his life, his work, and that controversial AMC series, for which some believe he deserves to receive an Emmy nomination for best supporting actor in a drama.
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Sexton first considered a career as an actor at the age of 13, after being exposed to three acting showcases that mesmerized him: an outdoor theatrical production; the then-new film Starting Over (1979); and the classic film 12 Angry Men (1957), which features a dozen “character actors” of the sort that he would one day become — actors who didn’t necessarily have conventional movie star looks or swagger, but always had a job and made the most of their parts.
After graduating from college, the St. Louis native looked too old to play a kid and too young to play a father, and, finding himself “kinda lost in the middle,” decided to take his act on the road. For four-and-a-half years, he played Officer Krupke and then Detective Schrank in a touring production of West Side Story (two-and-a-half in Europe and two within the United States). “I’m very grateful for that time,” he says today. “I learned quite a bit.” But he always harbored greater aspirations.
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Sexton recalls, “I came back on January 10, 1999, and sat on my couch for about four days going, ‘What am I doing with my life? What am I doing? What am I doing?’ And kind of talked myself into a new way of approaching the business, and ended up making the commitment to be a film and television actor in Los Angeles.” That decision came with a radical chance in behavior, he says. “I basically put all of my energy toward my career. I didn’t really go out, I didn’t party a lot, I didn’t do any of those types of things.” He adds, “My brother’s an aerospace engineer who works for Boeing, and I started thinking, ‘Well, my brother works nine hours a day at his job… What if I worked nine hours a day at being an actor?'” And so he did.
It was a humbling period for Sexton. “I was pretty much starting from scratch,” he says, “working to try to get the co-star credits, and then working to try to get the guest star credits, and, you know, trying to get people to see you differently than just your ‘type’ when they look at a headshot.” (He was regularly solicited to play cops, but, at that time, instructed his agent not to send him any more scripts of that sort.) But he embraced it as an opportunity. “I thought, ‘Well, if I’m gonna do this, I should learn everything I possibly can about thinking and feeling, because, to me, that’s a little bit more of what’s really going on” for an actor.
A major turning point came about four years later, when he was invited to audition for both of the male parts in the film Sideways (2004). He spent an hour-and-a-half with writer-director Alexander Payne, who seemed to be very pleased with his work. On his way back to his car after the audition, he spotted the handsome actor Aaron Eckhart pulling up in his Porsche for an audition of his own, and, recognizing the sort of competition that he was facing — which also included George Clooney and Brad Pitt — realized that it was unlikely that he would actually get a part in the film. “But,” he says, “what I did get was a feeling or a sense that I’d kind of been called up from the minor leagues. It gave me a little bit more confidence and kind of just told me, ‘Yeah, what you’re doing’s working.’ “
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Sexton says that, over the decade between then and now, “There were a lot of great jobs. I worked with a lot of nice people.” He “learned so much” working with the “visionary” David Milch on HBO’s Deadwood between 2005 and 2006. He had a blast working with Ted Danson on an episode of CBS’s Becker in 2009, during which they “could hardly look at each other” without breaking into laughter. And he enjoyed working alongside Timothy Olyphant on FX’s Justified in 2010. None of these were huge parts, but he wasn’t necessarily looking for a huge part. He was happy to be a working actor.
And then, one day, The Killing came along. His agents were contacted by the show’s casting directors, Libby Goldstein and Junie Lowry-Johnson (who he says “have been so terrific for me and my career”), who had thought of him as a possible candidate for the role of Stan Larsen, the grieving father of a murdered teenage girl. For his audition, he was asked to prepare two of four scenes that he was sent, and to be ready to improvise a scene, and he had a good feeling right off the bat. “I read what they wanted me to do and I knew immediately that I had this. There’s an email somewhere at my agents saying, ‘I own this part.'” He went in, performed his scenes — the scripted ones were the scene fixing the dishwasher with Mitch, plus another scene that never made it into the pilot, and he improvised the scene in which Stan breaks down in a gas station bathroom after Rosie’s funeral — and then got called back the next day to meet series showrunner Veena Sud, pilot director Patty Jenkins, and a number of executives. Sud told him that she was “taking the genre and turning it on its ear… wanted slow-burn television… wanted to do something different.” And wanted him along for the ride.
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For 26 episodes spanning two seasons, Sexton navigated his complex character with such skill that he made it look easy. Stan, he summarizes, was “a guy who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, on the bottom of the pile, and had to fight and sort of claw his way to survive… Eventually, he got to the point where somebody started paying him to do that, and then he started having a little bit more ‘luxury,’ let’s say, in his life, and that’s when he got hooked up with the Polish mafia.” Meanwhile, he became involved with Mitch (Michelle Forbes), “the girl that he’d grown up with — they went to high school together, they dated, they were high school sweethearts — he was in love with her.” On a break in their relationship, Mitch had a fling with someone else and became pregnant with Rosie, but it didn’t matter to Stan. “He still loved her and would raise this girl as his own.” In order to be a suitable father, he sought to extricate himself from the mafia, and cut a deal that required him to kill someone, something that has haunted him ever since. “He never really resolved that, and, in his inability to resolve that, he thought, ‘Okay, well, I’ll go and create some pride so I don’t have to deal with this shame.'” That’s how he wound up with a successful moving company, a pleasant home, and a happy family with his wife, Rosie, and two other children. All of that, however, was thrown into disarray when Rosie is found murdered, without any obvious suspects, throwing Stan and his family into a period of deep mourning that tests his moral compass on more than one occasion.
Sexton says that he didn’t let the “massive grief” of his character affect him personally off-set. “I’ve learned to take care of myself. You know, I try to stay conscious of whatever my energy is at all times, really. I mean, I come home from work, and, depending on the day or depending on what was going on, if I needed to adjust, I’d just meditate, or play guitar, or watch some Monty Python.”
But he couldn’t help but wonder, like all the rest of us, who was truly responsible for Rosie Larsen’s death. In cases involving the murder of a child in the real world, at least one parent is usually found to have been responsible. But all of the Larsens, save for Rosie, were away on a camping trip over the weekend of her murder, so they were pretty much ruled out early on. Still, the writers “wouldn’t give anything up,” he says, prompting the cast to start a predictions pool backstage. (Sexton says his prediction was “about 85 percent right.”) He recalls, “We all found out, I guess, at that last table read,” which took place within the last two weeks of April. Somewhat surprisingly, he says “it wasn’t difficult” to keep the secret until the season finale finally aired last Sunday, June 17.
The cliffhanger ending of the show’s first season provoked a great deal of anger — most of it directed at Sud — from people who expected a full resolution to the murder mystery, and instead walked away with “unmet expectations.” Sexton felt that it was an unfair overreaction. “Look, there’s a lot of shit going on in the world today, let’s face it. The banks, the housing, all of that stuff, you know — and people are carrying around high emotion, and anytime that they can find a place it’s going to get transferred, whether they realize they’re doing that or not, so I think that had a lot to do with it.” He says that Sud’s research showed that police often arrest the wrong person before arresting the right one, as happened at the end of season one, and that many other shows ended seasons on cliffhangers without facing such scathing attacks from members of the public. “It’s really about the journey; it’s not about finding out… Didn’t they watch Dallas? You know, come on.”
He’s pleased that the finale of season two was, in comparison, considerably better received. “I think we actually got a lot of the viewers back… I think we made some good stuff.”
Meanwhile, it remains unclear whether Sexton — or The Killing itself — will return for a third season. The show has not yet been renewed by AMC, but, even if it is, could conceivably revolve around Detective Linden (Mireille Enos) and/or Detective Holder (Joel Kinnaman) tackling a completely different case, which would eliminate the need for the actors who portrayed the Larsen family. Besides, when last we saw them, it looked like they would soon be moving on with their lives, as much as possible, in a new home, while Stan awaits his trial and almost-certain jail time for the assault and battery of Rosie’s former teacher Bennet Ahmed.
Sexton himself is doubtful that his character will return. “They haven’t said officially. My guess, though: once you have resolution with the family, I don’t know how you dramatize keeping them around.” He adds, “If they ask me back, terrific… but I’m thinking it’s on to the next one.”
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