Photo: Sundance

Abigail Spencer is one of those actors who has steadily gained momentum over the course of several years, so that now she almost seems ubiquitous: working up from an All My Children role as a teenager to her current status as a lead on two TV series. After guest stints on shows from Ghost Whisperer to My Boys, she resonated as one of Don Draper’s many brunette paramours (certainly, the nicest one) on Mad Men. That arc led to spots on Suits, True Detective (but, season two), and her career-defining role as Amantha on Sundance’s first scripted series, the critically acclaimed (and Peabody Award-winning) Rectify. That series starts its fourth and final season next Wednesday, October 26. Meanwhile, Spencer recently kicked off her starring role in the ambitious new NBC time-travel series, Timeless.

At the Television Critics Association conference this summer, the extremely busy Spencer took a few moments to talk to The A.V. Club right before her Rectify panel. She got a little emotional as she talked about the end of the series that’s obviously meant the world to her, coupled with excitement about her new series that could shift her career into a whole new trajectory.

The A.V. Club: You are such a favorite at The A.V. Club because you’ve been in so many of our favorite shows.

Abigail Spencer: Good for me. That worked out. [Laughs.]

AVC: You have excellent taste in roles: How I Met Your Mother, Burning Love, Mad Men… and we’ve been reviewing Rectify from the beginning.

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AS: Thank you. We need you. That’s what’s been so amazing about Rectify. It has been an experience where A.V. Club, other channels, the critics… we wouldn’t have been on the air if it weren’t for the tastemakers. We couldn’t have gone past season one if it weren’t for you guys and the tastemakers really giving us the energy. Because we really are such a small show on a small network, but that is beautiful and wonderful and it’s creating really interesting stuff. If it weren’t for you guys, we wouldn’t still be doing it.

AVC: That’s very nice of you to say.

AS: It’s true, though. It’s so true.

AVC: You have a lot of really interesting arcs, especially on Mad Men, culminating in “The Gypsy And The Hobo,” one of the best episodes of the entire series. Was Mad Men like a crash course in high-level artistic television?

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AS: What was interesting at that point in my life—I’d just had a baby. I’d been acting for 10 years already professionally and I’d been the lead of like eight different network pilots that didn’t go. I was on the George Clooney track. I was like, “Okay, it worked out for George, so maybe I shouldn’t quit.”

What happened with Mad Men was I had just had my child, I was in a very literally and creatively fertile time in my life, and I wasn’t leaving the house much. So when Mad Men came along, I was so excited to leave the house. Like, I get to go do this beautiful thing. What Matt Weiner taught me… it is because of him. He totally changed my career and really my life. He took such good care of this storyline and this character and this moment in Don Draper’s world. What he taught me was that it could be like this on television. He taught us that.

AVC: That you could do more…

AS: Yeah. It’s a more cinematic, film-like way to approach storytelling. It’s more literature-focused, where each episode is a chapter in the book. Once I tasted that, I wasn’t willing to go back to another format for a long time. So after Mad Men, again, it changed my life: I got to work more, I got to do a lot of movies, and I was doing a lot of film at the time. But when Rectify came along, it was like, “If I’m going to do something in television that I’m going to be a regular on, that I’m going to sign on for for potentially seven years, I want it to be like what I experienced on Mad Men and even greater.” And when I read Rectify and I met [show creator] Ray McKinnon, I was like, “This is the experience. This is the experience.” Because I wanted to grow as an artist. Sure, I needed a job, like we all need to support ourselves, but my deeper longing always is I want to grow and be challenged.

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I remember the first day of shooting Rectify, it was such a magical experience, but I didn’t actually get to see what we were doing. I came to set and watched J. [Smith-Cameron], who plays Janet, and Aden [Young], who plays Daniel, work, and I started—tears just started streaming down my face. Like, “That’s what we’re doing?” It was like catching the wind, you know? I realized that we were really trying to create, to lean into some sort of poetry, some sort of something you can’t put walls around, and catch it in motion.

AVC: What about when you read the script? What about Amantha struck you, so you thought, “I can embody that character”?

AS: It was such a surreal experience, because it all happened in the framework of around 15 minutes. I was on the phone with another actor who was trying to get an audition for Rectify. I wasn’t really reading a lot of television at the time. Something shifted. I was like, “What’s Rectify?” “Oh, Sundance TV is doing their first scripted show.” Since I had such a good experience on AMC with Mad Men, with that being their first scripted, I was like, “Oh, that’s interesting, because I feel like they might really want to do it right.” He had read the script and I said, “Is there a part for me in it?” And he goes, “No.” [Laughs.] He was like, “Well, there’s the part of the sister, but I think you’re too pretty to play her.” I was like, “Oh, really?” I called my agent and said, “What’s Rectify?” He said, “It’s the best script of the season.” “Send it to me.” “Okay.”

So I read it, and within five pages, I thought Ray McKinnon and I had grown up together. I grew up in a small Southern town, kind of a counterculture to a small Southern mentality. I just hadn’t read anything for me that represented the South in a way that wasn’t arch or caricature. This felt really real. It felt the way my brain worked. I don’t know—Amantha just struck me. I could hear the way she walked, I could hear the way she talked. I just felt her energy inside of me and I called my agent and I was like, “I have to meet Ray McKinnon immediately.”

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Luckily, I was able to go in and audition and I read, and I got to choose whichever two scenes I wanted. I was just reminiscing about this last night. So we got to choose anything from the first episode to audition with, and I chose—I kind of put the whole movement of when you meet Amantha in the car on the phone with her mother to the movement of arriving at the prison all the way through to when she sees Daniel free. The thing that she’d been doing since she was 12 years old for the first time. That was my first scene. The second scene I chose was when her and Daniel are riding around the in the car, and it’s their first conversation. The humor of the show is what really kind of… that’s the kicker to me, is the humor. I wanted Ray to know that, like, “I get what you’re doing. I smell what you’re stepping in. I can do it. It’s the way I think, too.” I wanted him to get Amantha’s humor because that’s really important to me, and Amantha carries a lot of the humor on the show.

AVC: You and Aden Young obviously have such a bond as Amantha and Daniel. Was that an immediate thing, or was it something you worked on?

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AS: It was immediate. It was weird—we actually kind of realized it and didn’t want to work on it. It’s organic, but there’s also a newness to Daniel and Amantha. So I think because we connected so much, we needed to keep a little—we didn’t have to work at it. We let it be, but Aden is my brother. I called him two days ago—something was going on, and I had to talk to Aden. I had to talk through it with him. I’m just so grateful that he’s in my life.

AVC: You also have another show coming up.

AS: I do. I’ll be back [at the TCAs] on Tuesday. [Laughs.]

AVC: Timeless looks interesting. Kind of a period piece?

AS: Many period pieces. It’s this time traveler adventure show about this historian who gets looped up in this crazy government thing and then has to go back in time and try and solve the mystery.

AVC: It’s more blockbuster-y for you, but I love how smart your character is. I like that she’s the expert.

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AS: That’s what they pitched me. Shawn Ryan, who created the show, and Eric Kripke, who created Supernatural, are amazing writers and excellent showrunners. When I met with them, because, again, it was like, after Rectify, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do television. It’s a grueling schedule. They said, “You’ll never be bored.” And I collect vintage clothing, I love history, I love time periods—clearly, I was on Mad Men. Many roles I’ve played have been turn of the century. To be able to do that every week I thought was really challenging. And then they said her superpower is her intellect, and I was like, “I like that. I’ve got to try and do that. I don’t know if I can, but I want to try and do that.”

It’ll be fun. Timeless is fun, and I needed fun in my life, too. Rectify has been beautiful and emotional, but grueling. In a beautiful way, in the right way. But Timeless will be really fun and I think I need some fun.