Abigail Spencer taught Sally Draper how to build a camera obscura, failed to get Ted Mosby to remember her name, and can currently be seen in the second season of True Detective. But for the past three years, viewers of Rectify have known her best as Amantha Holden. After devoting most of her life to getting her brother Daniel off of death row, Amantha sees that dream reach fruition, then witnesses the slew of complications that follow Daniel’s release from prison. Those complications include Amantha returning to her small Georgia hometown, an arc that often set Spencer apart from her co-stars while her character pondered her next move. Rectify returns for its third season on Sundance Thursday, July 9, at 10 p.m. Eastern; The A.V. Club caught up with the actor at the ATX Television Festival, where she spoke about the new season, playing a woman “on the other side of a choice,” and whether or not she thinks Daniel Holden is a murderer.
The A.V. Club: At the start of season three, where’s Amantha at, emotionally and mentally?
Abigail Spencer: About two hours later than when we left off, at the end of season two—so she’s a wreck. I think that the last that you see her and Daniel together, she’s like, “I’m out. I dedicated my entire life to your freedom—not just clearing your name, being totally free and clear—and if you go and do this thing, I’m not going to be there on the other side of it.” The easy way out, in her opinion—even though it’s hard because Daniel’s the one who’s got to go through it. So I think she’s hoping that he’s going to make a last-minute pinch decision and decide to be brave. So she’s in waiting for what happened.
AVC: You mentioned that only two hours have passed since the end of season two and the beginning of season three, and that’s how it’s been for the entire run of Rectify. What’s it like to act within that type of compressed timeline?
AS: And we don’t age? We’ve been doing the show for three years, and it’s weird, we don’t age! Like, Ray [McKinnon, show creator] puts us in, like, where Walt Disney has been frozen, that’s where we sleep in between seasons. I was like, “Can we jump in time a little bit? Because, you know, mama’s gettin’ on up there.” [Laughs.] I didn’t know I was signing onto a show where I would not age at all—as gracefully on camera. [Laughs.] What was your question?
AVC: What’s it like to pick back up on the show, where several months have passed in the real world, but only a few hours have passed in the world of Rectify?
AS: It’s difficult, because there’s a high amount of anxiety and emotionality. You have to be very full, and yet not lean into the traps of what that could provide, as an actor.
I was really excited to come do season three and I really missed everybody, and it’s amazing: When I see Aden [Young] and when I see J. [Smith-Cameron], it feels like home. When I see them, it’s like “Oh, family!”
AVC: It’s a pleasant surprise that Rectify has lasted as long as it has. It’s a unique show. It’s very quiet; it’s emotionally taxing. Did you ever expect it could go three seasons?
AS: I think I’d hoped. You know, it’s that delicate balance of being so grateful when you know something is so good, so you want it to just keep going and going and going and going. And I think the other actors would concur. We’ve all worked a lot, so we know what we have in front of us, and we want to explore it to its fullest.
But also recognizing that could have just been the first season, and I think we all knew that. But I think the fact that it’s gone on as long as it has and hopefully will go on, is a testament to where television is, to the sophistication and the openness of fans and people who watch the show. You know, people like you and the critics are the reason that we’re still on the air. So I think there’s a yearning and a thirst for something deeper on television, and I think Rectify fills that void.
AVC: Season three is four episodes shorter than season two—it’s six episodes, like the first season. Is there a challenge in working with a shorter episode order, because you’ve got a shorter amount of time in which to perform?
AS: We’re all secretly British. [Laughs.] You think it’s Southern, but we’re actually British. [Laughs.]
I found it was more freeing, because we had more episodes written before going into it. It’s a better model for Ray—you know, all we’re concerned about is the quality of the show. Being on a smaller network at the budget and time that we have to do it, less episodes actually gives us more time to explore. So hopefully it will keep the elevated status of the quality of work. Because that’s the hope behind it. There’s no other intention behind it than just trying to keep the work at a certain level.
AVC: As an actor, do you relish the show’s silent moments, where you have to depend on physicality and emotion rather than words?
AS: Yeah. It can be incredibly scary because you really have to let people in and be okay with nothing, because remembering that when we are in our own lives, we are not thinking about anything—we’re not aware that anybody is aware of that moment that we’re having. So it’s really interesting to bring awareness to a very unaware moment. I find that balance of being in those scenes freeing and also, like: There’s nowhere to go, there’s nothing to do, there’s nothing to reach for, because that’s what’s happening for that character. So it almost creates the tension on its own.
AVC: On a different sort of tension, there’s that scene in season two after Amantha has taken the job at the Thrifty Town store. She doesn’t realize the customer is paying with EBT [electronic benefit transfer], and it’s kind of an embarrassing exchange for both parties. Yet there’s no sense of shame to the scene—it treats both sides of the transaction with empathy. What are your thoughts on that?
AS: It was just a very thoughtful moment. I mean, what I love about the opportunity to play Amantha, and this whole storyline of working at Thrifty Town is, you know, there’s nothing wrong with it! [Laughs.] There’s a sadness, because she’s so educated. I mean, she got her brother off of death row—like, what this woman is capable of. But I think that what has been nice is studying the day-to-day of people who are very capable and make choices like that to support themselves. So I love the storyline, I love being in more of the everyday of what America is really like—and Rectify translates overseas, too. It’s just family, and having a job, and missed opportunities, and dashed dreams, and, you know, just falling into a rhythm. And I like that.
I think what you said is absolutely right: How do we keep the customer and Amantha on equal playing field? She didn’t know, so it’s embarrassing for her. And then it’s embarrassing for the other woman, but she rises above it, and so Amantha does, too. She’s learning from the people in her environment. It’s really nice.
AVC: Watching from a big-city perspective, it’s tough to watch Amantha give up her life in Atlanta and return to Paulie. There’s a part of you that’s rooting for her to leave, but she’s made an understandable choice.
AS: I think so, too. I’m from a small town, and I think about it all the time. There have been moments when I’ve been like, “Well, maybe I’m just going to move back to Gulf Breeze and work at my dad’s surf shop—or maybe the McDonald’s next door.” And there’s nothing wrong with it. So I like being in the middle of someone who’s very committed to their choices. If Amantha’s going to work at Thrifty Town, she’s totally working at Thrifty Town. That’s just how she is. And you’ll see that in season three—that gets explored more.
AVC: In some ways, she’s going through just as much of a transition as Daniel is.
AS: Oh, for sure. Season two is really hard on me. [Laughs.] Season three was more of a respite, because at least there were some choices being explored. But Amantha was in the middle of it. She didn’t have a plan. She didn’t know what she was doing. She had to release Daniel.
Playing a transition on camera, instead of being on the other side of a choice, I found incredibly difficult and very taxing. And I think you feel it. I think that’s why people really respond to it. People have been so empathic to me, like, “Oh my gosh, it must be so hard to play Amantha.” And I’m amazed at people’s sensitivity to that, because, you know, Amantha can be a very striking character. [Laughs.] In good ways and in hard ways. It’s hard to play her, and I think it’s hard to watch her sometimes. But hopefully we do a nice tightrope of that. [Laughs.]
AVC: So does Amanda… or Amantha, think that—
AS: Exactly. Exactly! Exactly.
AVC: It’s so hard, right? How many times have you tripped over that name?
AS: Oh, I said “Amanda.” I never had, and then we were in New York at the Peabody Awards and I said “Amanda” once, and Ray was like, “Ah! Gotcha!” It was pretty funny. [Laughs.]
AVC: So does Amantha think that Daniel is innocent?
AS: Yes. I think that what has been hard about season two is that she’s had to start to wonder. But I don’t think because she actually feels that way, I think just because of what’s going on and the choices that he’s making. But I do think that she believes he’s totally innocent.
AVC: And does Abigail Spencer believe that Daniel is innocent?
AS: I’m going to steal a Ray McKinnon line. He said, “I think he did it, but I think he feels real bad about it.” [Laughs.] So I’ll say that.