‘Rectify’ creator Ray McKinnon on his beautiful, contemplative Sundance series

If you”ve been watching cable drama over the last decade, you probably know the face and rich as molasses voice of character actor Ray McKinnon. He was the joyful, doomed Reverend Smith on “Deadwood” and inscrutable federal prosecutor Linc Potter on “Sons of Anarchy,” among other roles.
But McKinnon has had a second career through these years as an independent filmmaker. He won an Oscar in 2002 for his short film “The Accountant,” which he shared with his friend and frequent collaborator Walton Goggins, and has written and directed several other films.
Starting Monday night at 9 on Sundance Channel, McKinnon gets to combine these two parts of his career with “Recitfy,” a new series that”s part of Sundance”s push to join the scripted drama big leagues with HBO, AMC, et al. The series tells the story of Daniel Holden (Aden Young), a rural Georgia man who spends 19 years on Death Row for the rape and murder of his high school girlfriend before being released through new DNA evidence. The six episodes of the first season (the first two air back-to-back on Monday) each depict consecutive days in Daniel”s new life after his release, as he struggles to adjust to freedom while his sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer) and others try to protect him from the many people in town who still believe he”s guilty.
It”s a terrific series, but also extremely slow and contemplative: not a hard-boiled thriller, but a meditation of what it would be like to emerge from extreme confinement into a changed world, and also how the parts of the world that are the same react to a man so changed by his time inside. (Between this show and the miniseries “Top of the Lake,” Sundance is carving out a brand that seems to be “Independent cinema – but longer.”)
I spoke with McKinnon at press tour about the conception of the series – once upon a time, it was in development at AMC as a vehicle for Goggins to play Daniel – what he”s learned from the great TV creators he”s acted for, and more.
I was actually at this hotel for another press tour the very time I ever heard about this project. I was interviewing Walton and he said originally when “The Shield” ended, he was going to star in it when you guys were developing it at AMC, and then that didn’t work out and he stayed with “Justified.” How far did the project get in development in that phase of its life?
Ray McKinnon: Well I’m not sure what development means, honestly. I wrote a script. Without telling anyone, including Walton. Only my wife knew. And I didn’t write it for Walton. I just wrote this story because I was compelled to write it.It was only after I wrote it that he said, “Hey, buddy. I think I could play this guy.” And he could have. So it was already written. And then AMC had bought it, and they ultimately ended up not making it, and I moved on with my life and moved on from this project. I really wasn’t pushing this project; I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I grew up. And then it came back through Sundance, which is AMC”s sister channel. And I really wasn’t sure if I wanted to go forward because of a lot of complicated reasons, but it just kept coming, and before you know it I’m in a writer’s room. I’m like, “Damn, I think we’re going to do this,” and then we’re in Georgia and we’re casting and all that. So it’s been a journey.
What did you hear about why AMC ultimately passed? Were you given any kind of reason or I know sometimes in the business there isn’t one?
Ray McKinnon: Well, I think they loved the project. I don’t know. I feel like – this is probably not something that the sound byte coaches want to hear, but it is an off-the-path story and ratings are a part of the game. And I think for Sundance, which is starting out, it feels really like a perfect place for it. And they let me do basically whatever I wanted to do. You don’t have some of the pressures that you get as you become more established, I think.
Well it’s not just a off-the-path story. It’s an off-the-path way of telling the story. It’s very quiet and very contemplative in a way that you do not expect from commercial television.
Ray McKinnon: Yes. There was nobody to do this show until Sundance decided to start doing shows. A lot of the places loved this show, and I believe that. But it was – I don”t know if “risky” is the word, but that’s what the show was. And I knew that. I knew it wouldn’t be for everybody and that wasn’t my intention of writing it. I just wrote it because it needed to come out for some reason.
Did it change in any kind of significant way from the AMC version to this one?
Ray McKinnon: Not really; hardly at all. I wrote two episodes before I moved forward with Sundance. And I wrote the second one just ’cause I wanted to see if I could.And I also wanted to see what the characters tell me where we should go next. So when we moved forward I had already written two of the six.
You said in the press conference that you’re drawn to sad stories. Why is that? What is it about them that appeals to you?
Ray McKinnon: I think they affirm my human existence. I also like stories that take me out of my human existence. I need both. I need lightness, I need comedy, but I think fictional stories tell us that, yes, we’re human and that our existence matters.Nietzsche said something about how tragedy not only affirms your existence, but in some ways sings it to the Gods. And it gives you greater meaning. And I think that’s what it sort of does for me. When I listen to a sad song, it makes me feel more alive.
You said before also that you took some inspiration from some of the great television of the last dozen or so years. You’ve been on some of the great television of that period. When you’re working with a Milch, when you’re working with a Sutter, with a Graham Yost, are you just in actor mode or are you absorbing things for Ray the storyteller, too?
Ray McKinnon: Yes, I’m definitely absorbing. When I worked on “Deadwood,” I was making an independent film at the time and I was editing while I was playing the Reverend Smith. And I had already been moved by “The Sopranos” and inspired by “The Sopranos” as a storyteller, because they were doing things that you can’t do in movies, because it’s over a longer gestation time.So I was already intrigued by that art form and then watching Mr. Milch from episode one, man, do his stunt, do his thing and be this teacher that he was. Plus, I”m an older actor, and I knew what we were doing was atypical. A lot of the actors knew that, and so it was a great experience. Watching it evolve, watching him make decisions about my character as he saw what I was doing with the character, and all that wasn’t planned out. That just kept evolving. Each week I”d go, “Holy shit, man.” So it was a great experience. I’m forever grateful for him to allow me to play a character that had that kind of range.

But as someone who”s mostly written movies – whether features or the short film that won the Oscar – what’s it been like to write TV? You’re now writing this story that gets to play out over many hours and you get to really explore kind of the minutiae of what Daniel’s going through.
Ray McKinnon: It’s hard, man. It’s hard work. It strains the brain every day. You have to really be focused every day. But it’s the most beautiful grind. It’s the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life, and it’s like pushing the most unique rock up the hill every day but then it comes back down and you push it up again. Television has a voracious appetite. So I really admire the people that can keep up a kind of quality over time.
Did you map out all these episodes, the seven days, or was it more “I’m just going to write them one at a time and see what happens in the course of each day”?
Ray McKinnon: I probably would have done that but once the machine got involved, there was a thing called a writer’s room. I hired three writers. And we sat there and we mapped out the rest of the season. It was a new way of working for me. I think it’s a better show for it, ultimately.
Whether or not this one winds up continuing past this batch of episodes, do you feel having done this experience that writing another television series is something that would interest you, or is it too much?
Ray McKinnon: I don’t know that answer. I really don’t. But there’s a story that I was thinking about before this came, because I was working with HBO on a deal. We had a deal and I was starting to think about this other story and I was starting to write a little bit on it. And then “Rectify” came back, and I do think about that story from time to time. I don’t know what life has in store for me.
“Deadwood” has had this tremendous afterlife. David is even still trying to make those movies, whether or not they happen, and I know both Yost and Sutter seem to be having some sort of nuclear arm’s race to see who can cast the most people from “Deadwood” in their shows. Is that something that gets brought up for you a lot, either professionally or just personally?
Ray McKinnon: That’s very gratifying when “Deadwood” fans come up to me. Because I had the opportunity to do the kind of work that I always wanted to do. So I like that, and with “Sons of Anarchy,” what a great character I got to play. Kurt Sutter offered me that role, the first few days I had this take on it and some of the writers are like, “Wow.” I wasn’t sure if one day they were going to say, “Ray, you know, it’s just not going to work out.” Because of the take I had on it.
And then that was the take that stuck?
Ray McKinnon: Yes.That was my take. I didn’t audition for it; I just showed up with this take on it, and when writers are looking at you like, “Wow, okay.” But then they embraced it and let me go forward, and Kurt and the staff wrote even more. I freakin’ loved it, man. It was just the best ever. As far as people casting people out of “Deadwood,” just look at the actors that were in the show. I think they get cast ’cause they’re really good actors, setting me aside, but if you look at all of those guys. I mean, W. Earl Brown and Sean Bridgers are in my show, not because they’re from “Deadwood” but because they were the best people for the role. I saw other people. They’re fucking great actors. Sean Bridgers, who you’ll see a little more of as the season progresses, I think he’s just another underappreciated actor and he gets a chance to shine a little bit in this show, and that just makes me very gratified. W. Earl is the goat man in episode five, which is pretty badass.
W was it like on the set that day when Al takes out the Reverend, because it’s such this intense and yet tender scene.
Ray McKinnon: “Damn, I guess I won’t be getting a paycheck next week. Am I still on payroll? I can’t really talk about this. David, please. Let the fucking doctor operate on me.” No, I think because we knew we were doing something that was special and everybody gets emotionally attached to the story and the characters, and that’s the crew as well as the cast. So we all felt that death in a way of somebody we cared about. So it was very, very emotional and we just wanted to do the story justice and the character justice. So when Al got his grimy paws around me… yeah, it was a great experience.
I’m always curious what the tangible impact is of winning an Oscar, especially one of the ones that you won. What came out of “The Accountant” experience and you having that award? Was there any sort of tangible impact on your career or no?
Ray McKinnon: No. Zero. It made it more of a curiosity, I think. I think it’s a wonderful film and I’m really proud of the film and sometimes the hotlight of the Oscar can overshadow the film itself. Not that I’m against having it, but when all this happened I felt, “Shit, am I going to have to be a citizen now? What does a citizen do? I know I’m not going to like it.” So it was a bit of an adjustment. But (career-wise), I would prefer it as Best Supporting Actor. “Deadwood” did more for my career than (the Oscar), and all of the movies that I’ve made, finally I think has started to wear people down, more so than that award.
The first episode sets the template in terms of the look and tone and all that. What did you tell Keith (Gordon) that you wanted?
Ray McKinnon: A lot. We spent weeks together going detail by detail and then I was on the set every day. So there are calibration of these performances, you know. It’s like, how much do we want to reveal of what Daniel’s feeling at the beginning? There’s just lots of choices to make.
And did you have any template in terms of anything that influenced you that you said, “I want it to look like this, or move like this”?
Ray McKinnon: I felt like it’s going to be set in the south and that there are so many traps to fall in to when you tell a story about the south. There’s so many archetypes that quickly become stereotypes and that’s also in the way you shoot. I said I don’t want us to suddenly be shooting like we’ve regressed to the 1950s, you know. I want it to feel in some ways classical but also modern in its style. We talked a lot about that with the wonderful DP, Paul Sommers, and I said I want to shoot what’s real. I don’t want to have a version of the south where there’s just farms and beautiful gardens. I want to see the strip malls and I don’t want to just see one set of strip malls, I want to see the evolution of strip malls to the big box stores. Whatever is real, we can shoot ’cause it’s real.
Finally, as a boy who grew up watching “Dukes of Hazzard,” I have to ask about Sonny Shroyer (who has a supporting role). How did you land on him for that part? It’s a very different kind of performance than I’m used to from him.
Ray McKinnon: Well, Sonny’s from 20 miles from my hometown. So I’ve known him from “Dukes of Hazzard” to when he did “Enos” to when he did a wonderful performance in “I’ll Fly Away” in the ’80s. He played a very serious character, and I just thought it’d be great homage to his career. But I also felt like in “The Sopranos,” you see a lot of these actors who are very much of that world. And they may not go do Shakespeare in the Park tomorrow, but those guys bring an authenticity to that show. I wanted to bring in guys that did that for this, for this culture, and Sonny was one of the guys that’s a real trip to have in there.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com