NEW YORK — Abigail Spencer remembers being about to shoot a scene for last season’s “Rectify.” It was set in a hospital room as Daniel, played by series star Aden Young, came out of the coma from his brutal beat-down. At bedside was his devoted sister Amantha, played by Spencer.
Cameras were ready to roll.
“Then Aden whispers to me, ‘I don’t know what I’m about to do.’ And I was like, ‘Me neither!’ ” Spencer bursts into laughter. “It’s this magical thing: There’s only so much technical process you can bring. Then comes a moment of release.”
On this show, the word “release” is somewhat loaded.
Peabody Award-winning “Rectify,” which begins its third season at 10 p.m. Thursday on SundanceTV, is a quiet yet painfully evocative drama about a man jailed two decades earlier for the rape and murder of his teenage girlfriend. Then, when his conviction was vacated thanks to new evidence, he re-entered his small Georgia hometown as a disruptive force who rekindled old questions that plague the community: Was he innocent all along? Or now is he getting away with murder?
“Rectify” feels as true to life as drama can get. And as its story continues to unfold, it seems to have taken on a life of its own, which not only keeps the viewer absorbed, but also keeps the people making it surprised.
At least, that’s what you glean from a lively conversation with TV siblings Spencer and Young as well as Ray McKinnon, the occasional actor (“Sons of Anarchy”) and Oscar-winning filmmaker who created, writes and produces the series.
“You can never take for granted what you think each scene will be about, or who, and that’s the joy of it for an actor,” says Young, who, with films including “Killer Elite” and “I, Frankenstein,” describes “Rectify” as a domestic epic. “I don’t know if we’ve shot a single scene where I’ve turned up and said, ‘This is what the scene is about,’ then, at the end of shooting it, said, ‘I was right.’ We never say, ‘We have to do it right,’ because we don’t know what right is. We’re exploring (the question of) what could right be.”
“The most beautiful phrase in our exploration is ‘I don’t know, let’s try it,”’ echoes Spencer, whose other TV credits include “Mad Men,” “Suits” and “True Detective’s” current season. “That’s a nice place to work from.”
“I wouldn’t have signed on for a show that was explicit. I don’t want to work in a factory,” declares Young. “As an actor, you work in certain environments where you feel the material is second-rate, and you have to cling to something else to focus your character.”
“Well,” McKinnon jokes, “I think we all can agree that because my writing is THIRD-rate —”
“That’s what I was going to say,” Young plays along. “And for me to be Daniel, who doesn’t talk much, is great because I don’t have to rely on the (crappy) lines.”
“I think of what we do as reductive,” says McKinnon, turning serious again. “You can’t go to ‘the simple’ at first, or it will be simplistic. You have to get through the morass of over-complexity of whatever you’re doing, and find the essence of it. That’s the challenge of our writing and our acting, and it’s never easy.
“But that’s what’s required,” he concludes with another deadpan wisecrack, “for it to be really slow, boring television.”
As the third season begins, Daniel has accepted a plea deal that calls for his renewed confession, but keeps him out of jail while forcing him to leave town. Locals sure he’s guilty are enraged that he’s escaping further punishment. Those who have fought to see him exonerated, notably his sister, feel he’s betrayed them.
But did he really do it?
“That’s a really good question,” replies McKinnon, toying with the reporter. “I haven’t really thought about that in detail.”
“We’re exploring what the characters BELIEVE, including Daniel,” says Spencer, providing a straight answer. “I think the different belief systems in the town about what happened are so much more interesting than what really happened.”
“We like stories because they take chaos and make some sort of sense of it, at least temporarily,” McKinnon says. “But I don’t know if the circumstances of this story will ever let us know fully what happened.”
After 19 years, even Daniel doesn’t seem to remember.
And if McKinnon knows, it’s pretty sure he’s not telling.
“Whether Daniel did or didn’t isn’t as important to me as how will all these characters move forward after this event and everything it triggered,” he says.
What it triggered is what “Rectify” is all about.