Since it premiered on Sundance in 2013, Ray McKinnon's Southern drama Rectify has captivated critics and audiences alike with its moving and contemplative study of newly released death row inmate Daniel Holden (Aden Young) and his family. As opposed to other shows about a murder case, Rectify has always focused on Daniel's integration into society and his family's adjustment rather than the crime itself, marking a refreshing departure from other series you're likely to see on screen (and probably ever will). The journey of each character on the show has been fascinating to watch, but J. Smith-Cameron's work as Holden matriarch Janet has been stunning. Her struggle to bring her son back from the brink has been tender and often heartbreaking. I had the pleasure of chatting with her last week to discuss her character's path, as well as what to expect from the new (and sadly, final) season of Rectify.
VoTV: What was it about the show that made you say yes, this is definitely a project I want to be involved with?
J.: Well, when I first got sent the script, my agent knows I gravitate towards jobs that don't make any money for the agency. She thinks of me as someone who wants to be in a play or maybe an indie movie, and I'm raising a child in New York and I don't want to go far, so she often will send me something. I enjoy being on television but I never pretended to be a straight-ahead television actress. So she sent me this one with this really strong heading in the email, like "READ THIS ONE." And it's not like I get drowned with scripts, but there are certain times of the year when they're casting lots of stuff and even your agent doesn't really have time to read it, so you're kind of trying to skim your way through stuff. So she said, "This one is different, read this." So I downloaded it and by the end of the second page, I think my jaw was hanging open because if you remember the way it starts, it starts with that caravan, and right then I was totally intrigued. Like, wait a minute, he's OUT of prison? Whatever the crime is, this is like when a series would end. It was such novel storytelling and I was completely intrigued. And the way you understood their relationship enough to follow it, but nothing was spelled out to you. The way that scene is written when the guard offers him something to drink and he's kind of nonplussed, I was just completely riveted. And then it got to the part where Janet, who you find out is very buttoned up, just loses it and she just breaks down. I almost dropped the iPad. I was like "What??"
I grew up in South Carolina, although now I've lived in New York more than I lived there, but those years really impress on you and I had sort of been waiting to play this kind of person, this kind of woman. I felt she was partly my mom and partly this neighbor lady of ours and partly Rosalynn Carter. It was such a particularly drawn character, a good-hearted and demure woman, almost out of step with time as is often the case with small towns in the South. And then with a woman like Janet to some degree, time stops anyway; there's almost this feeling that she's been in isolation right along with him in plain sight. Yes, she remarried. Yes, she has a son with her new husband. She has tried to build a sort of replacement family, but I just felt it was so particularly drawn. Also, I'm sure I've said this before, but it's really wonderful that people are beginning to write parts for middle-aged women that aren't one-dimensional.
VoTV: How did you approach playing Janet, this mother whose son had a death sentence hanging over him? How did you get into her head? I suppose it's hard to draw on personal experience in that scenario.
J.: That's an excellent question. I don't know. The truth of it is that Ray just wrote it really clearly to me. Or maybe the kind of actor I am matched up with the kind of writing it had on the show. I feel like I just intuited in a moment to moment way, not in a general way. I guess I felt empathy. I don't have one of those great stories of going and tracking down women who had children on death row. I guess I just instantly emotionally intuited this head space she was in and I just felt a lot of sympathy for her, and all the characters.
VoTV: I love your scenes with Aden on the show. Did you and Aden discuss how you were going to depict the relationship?
J.: I'm trying to remember whether we had anything that was that concrete of a plan. We certainly all did talk the first week we were there about the situation and relationships. We had a little rehearsal which was a little unusual with most TV episodes. I think especially in season 1, she has been sending him books in prison, and I think she had not visited and not rallied to get him out of jail, not because of disinterest or denial (well, maybe denial), but she had not been the activist that Amantha was because I think she was sort of paralyzed. I think this is a woman who was just paralyzed by it and shut down. But what she did do (was something different), and I had a feeling in that "Plato's Cave" episode where they talk in the car about Plato's Cave (the Wal-Mart episode), and they're driving around and he talks about how she helped him with his book reports and alluding to high school. So when he said thank you to her for all the books and you always see him reading, while there wasn't that much opportunity to see Janet reading, there were always books at her bed side. I think there was evidence that they both had an introverted personality and that they were the most alike of the family. Introverted and philosophical. A lot of Janet's lines are very philosophical and certainly Daniel's are. I think even when Amantha is trying so hard to integrate him back into life, Janet speaks up for giving him space. I think she intuits him not wanting to have the spotlight on him. It's a little like Boo Radley; just let him be. I think there's a sympatico that's implied, and I think we were very much aware of that in the beginning. For me, I think we always kept that in our minds, that they understood each other, and that Janet was respectful of his state. We didn't really chart it, but I think we've cited these things early on and there was this implicit connection that they were both oddballs.
VoTV: Daniel's release caused a lot of friction, not only for the town, but more importantly among the family members. Obviously Daniel's assault of Teddy caused a serious fracture for Janet's relationship with him and Ted Sr. Do you think Janet's reaction was right or do you think she was being unreasonable?
J.: I have trained myself not to judge my character almost ever. Even if you're playing someone who is behaving badly, you're trying to understand what their rationale is, what their motive is and to not sit too outside of them. I think it's perfectly understandable. I think she's appalled to hear about what happened, but she also feels her son is in trouble. That place, that home, and that family predates the new family and she has an obligation to her first born. This is just proof how much he needs help and that he's damaged and needs understanding. So if they need to draw a line, she's going to be forced to have Daniel's back because who else does he have? So I do understand Ted's point of view, and again, it's a really compelling predicament. It's totally clever on Ray and the writers' parts to make that kind of conflict because what are you supposed to do in that circumstance?
VoTV: Do you think they'll find a way forward as a family (without spoiling anything)?
J.: I don't want to give away too much. I think things are forever changed for all the characters. But I think that the hardships that Janet and Ted, for instance, lived through is a very big bond. That kind of thing is a very big bond, but it's sort of like for couples who, God forbid, have a child die; sometimes they get stronger and sometimes they grow apart under the strain of it. Not comparing this situation to that exactly, but I feel like it's about as tested as it can be. But I do think there are some very strong bonds that those characters aren't even aware of between them. And even Janet and Amantha; there's always friction there although I always felt that they love each other, but just play devil's advocate for each other. I always feel like they're kind of playing roles in a kind of vaudeville way of mother and daughter. I think Abigail would agree with me that it was almost like a routine that they would play because she would get frustrated at Janet's passivity and Janet would get frustrated at her nosiness and her restlessness, but I think Janet almost couldn't survive without Amantha. So I think that struggling through all these things before and after his release, there were some bonds formed that they don't even know how strong they are so that's what I'll say about that.
VoTV: What can you tell us about Janet's journey this season? She has sort of lost her son again now that Daniel has been exiled.
J.: It's a really interesting season for Janet. I feel like she was really happy to know that there was some silver lining to him copping a plea and having a life. And then the reality of him not being where she can get to him and he's not really, well you'll see, he's not exactly inviting her into his new life. He's just trying to make a go of it. And I think that finding herself once again separated from him lights a really interesting fire under her feet. I think we definitely see new behavior from Janet. It's kind of a breakout season for her in a way. I think that there is some new personal growth happening within her.
VoTV: The show has always been coy about Daniel's innocence. Did you ever form your own opinion about whether he is guilty or innocent?
J.: I feel like where Amantha was "Of course he's not guilty," Janet is just more of a grownup than Amantha and believes anything is possible. The thing is, I would love him anyway because I think he would have had to have been in great trouble to do anything like that. It doesn't fit with the gentle person I think him to be. I think she struggled to really reserve any sort of judgment on him, innocence or guilt, and was just trying to accept him. And I think it takes a kind of daring to be that much of a realist, to go "Well, this person whom I love might have done this. Where do I stand if he did?" And I think Janet would still love him even if he did. It takes a longer time for that kind of devotion to be rewarded, but it's tricky. I don't think she wants to think he did it. I just think it's her nature to think that human beings are capable of much more than anyone thinks they would be and she's not so quick to judge or think in terms of black and white. So I think that Janet doesn't think he's guilty, but has made room in her heart for that idea.
VoTV: Do you have a favorite scene that you filmed?
J.: I have to think about that, there have been so many great experiences. Sometimes they're odd ones that you get a lot of pleasure in because maybe they were difficult and the way we all worked together to crack it was satisfying. Almost all of the scenes that are coming to mind are coming up this season so I don't want to spoil them. Last season, this is an odd one, but I had a scene with Luke (Jon Stern). We had never been in a scene alone together. We'd been in a million scenes where he's briefing the family, but I'd never had a one-on-one scene with him. And Luke and I are pals; he lives in New York as well and we're like the class clowns and we're always getting in trouble on set. We were both kind of worried about it and at first glance it seemed a kind of expositional scene where he's telling Janet what to expect with the plea deal, what is possible for Daniel and how they can support him, and this is where the idea of the New Canaan Project is first introduced. (Ed. Note: The scene J. is referring to is from Season 3, Episode 2). I don't even know how memorable of a scene it would be in the grand scheme of things to an audience. But my first goal that day was not to crack up because Luke and I just have a sense of humor. And then we were all kind of weary as it was deep into an episode and it was one of the last scenes we shot. But it turned out to be, out of nowhere, this really delicate and emotional scene and it was really interesting to have those two people talk as friends, not just a client and a lawyer. It was really tricky, and Ray and Marshall and some of the people who were sitting in another room watching it on a monitor came running out and Ray was like, "Good Lord, when we started out this scene, I thought what have I done to these actors, the scene is very expositional, how are they going to make this interesting?" But then he basically said, "Boy, I didn't realize what actors bring to it." I don't know what we brought to it either as I was thinking the same thing. It was not on the lines, but between the lines. That's also what a writer does; it's not just the words but what's implied or between the words. That was one of those great surprise days, just one of those favorite days on set and so satisfying.
VoTV: What do you think you'll miss most about working on Rectify?
J.: I just think the way it's written. It's just such an unusual, substantive, thoughtful piece to work on. I don't expect to ever come across that kind of thoughtful, rich dialogue and complexity again; that it's not going to be a whodunit, no matter how much you might need to see the crime solved, as a character or as an audience member. You might find out stuff, but it's sort of not the point of the whole drama. It's more a moment to moment exploration of how unsatisfying the justice system is and how ambiguous life is. It's just material that is way more vast and deeper than what you expect to see, let alone work on.
Rectify airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on Sundance.