Aden Young is giving one of the best performances TV has ever seen — but chances are you haven't seen a single minute of it. As Daniel Holden, the convicted murderer (who may not have committed the crime) at the heart of SundanceTV's Rectify, Young offers an intense, soulful portrayal of a tortured man, gentle on the surface but tempered by rage boiling within.
When Daniel's death row conviction is overturned after 19 years due to new DNA evidence, he reenters a world and a family that have moved on without him and must attempt to carve out new space for himself. But it's a difficult, trying process, and Young is always at its center, quietly watching and waiting and discovering.
Rectify is brilliant television; it has ranked high on my annual top 10 list as long as it's been on the air, and the curious can now catch up with all 16 existing episodes on Netflix. (Season three, meanwhile, premieres at 10 pm Eastern on Thursday, July 9.) But the show simply wouldn't work without Young, its magnetic core, at once hard to pin down and deeply open to every new experience he encounters.
I talked to Young at the recent Austin Television Festival about his acting process, how the show's cast works together, and what he thinks happened that fateful night 19 years ago.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How he approaches the show's ambiguity
Todd VanDerWerff: After two full seasons of Rectify, we still have no idea whether Daniel committed the crime that landed him in prison. Is that tough for you to deal with as an actor, especially since Daniel himself doesn't know?
Aden Young: That night has played out so many times in his head. People are beginning to understand now with neurology, there's an elasticity there. Once you recall something, it changes in its recall. There isn't total recall, especially given trauma. Oftentimes, you'll see people who are suffering Alzheimer's return to a traumatic situation, because that [situation] has such a particular strength to it.
I remember a story that a film director friend of mine told me after she returned to Arnhem with her father, who was one of the paratroopers who was securing the bridge [during World War II]. He immediately sunk into defensive positions, and he was there. He was commanding the situation. Even though the south of Arnhem no doubt had changed so much, he was able to recall immediately what he needed to do.
I think it's a sort of similar situation with Daniel. Even though there's an elasticity there, there's also a confusion. Daniel's not telling us something. Something is in Daniel's head, not to elongate the mystery of did he or didn't he, but perhaps because he's afraid of telling himself.
TV: Clearly, you're okay with that on some level. Has there been a time when the ambiguity of the show has frustrated you?
AY: Absolutely. Yet I've made a conscious decision to allow that frustration in, as opposed to allowing the definite in. Did he or didn't he? How many times do you have the opportunity to talk about a situation that disrupts a life to such a degree?
I've felt that there were processes in play that were more interesting as an actor for me to be challenged by than, "Okay, how do I craft this guilty man's journey or this innocent man's journey?" What happens if I play somebody who undoubtedly has been shifted by the hell that is death row? Undoubtedly, he's being educated by that, and the knowledge that his life is forfeit, the knowledge that he must abandon his family in order for them to continue to rebuild the shards of their life.
That's really what the show is about. It's not about Daniel Holden. It's about his family that was destroyed by this night. Then it's rebuilt. Then Daniel has reemerged back into that mosaic that they managed to salvage, and he's smashed it all over again. He's a big, destructive fellow. I call him Bigfoot sometimes.
For me, I was intrigued by the idea not of Daniel's sin in the first season, but of what happened to get him into that sin. What horrors did he live through in order to get to that sin? That became a more interesting process for me. With the second season, I decided, well, Daniel is now stepping out like an adolescent. He's crept out the door. Friends come to pick him up. He's going for a drive, and suddenly, he's trying to live life. He's imbibing life and of course, like an adolescent, he has no idea of consequence. He's the drunk driver at the wheel. He's smashing everything. There's a lot of things that he doesn't understand that he's in charge of.
What I did going into this season was make a point not to know anything about the season. As an actor, I said to [series creator] Ray [McKinnon] as he began to tell me the story arc of these episodes, "I don't want to know. I don't want to know what I'm going to do for my next exit. I'm just kind of doing this episode. I'm going to quickly learn these lines. I'm going to pay attention to what's going on." Then on the day, where do we go? That was exciting to me, how to take it to another level every episode. It was incredibly daunting and challenging and frustrating at times not to know, "Am I coming from a place of betrayal with my family in mind? Or am I coming from a place of injustice?" Sometimes, yeah, it can be a conundrum of the highest order.
How he plays a role that can be "dialogue-minimal"
TV: So much of this role is very light on dialogue. How do you make sure that Daniel's physicality remains a constant presence?
AY: It's a really intriguing character to play in that regard. Not many roles come along where you have such a physical reality to your personal space. Nineteen years you live in that box, and when you go out of that box, your life's in jeopardy. You've got sonar of where that person might be behind you, where you've been attacked. You had your liberty stolen from you. You had your dignity shattered inside out. That physical reality of being in that space was really interesting to discover just in playing that role.
It wasn't a conscious thing. In the playing of it, when people would take a step close, if I had fur, it would arc up a little bit. I'm really intrigued by that. I'm really intrigued by that physical dance that he has with different people. Of course, you're not the same as you may be with your wife as you are with your best friend. I'm intrigued by the fact that Daniel has got to do that with so many different types of people like Daggett, like Trey Willis, Amantha, Tom.
There are aspects to his personality that physically have to be communicated because so much of it is dialogue-minimal. Yet Daniel has a wonderful ability to sieve and get right to the heart of the core, and usually with irony and wit. That's wonderful to come back to.
TV: How much of this role comes down to instinct versus preparation?
AY: It's a marriage. Ray McKinnon is a sprite, as far as I'm concerned. I don't think he was born here. I think he arrived on some hillbilly spaceship. He's just got a wonderful microscope for eyes. He seems to understand things at a different level, to be a part of that process of philosophizing, intellectualizing, and then relying on your instinct as an actor and as a human being, and bringing that to the set. It allows you to be open to change.
That's the most important thing with the way we work, because we don't have the ego on set at all with anyone, to think they know what they're doing. I was saying the other day to somebody, "There hasn't been a single scene where I've arrived thinking, 'I know what this thing is about'" and then left going, "You see, I knew what it was about."
Every single scene we have to discover along the way, and Ray is there with us. Even though he's written it, he might come up to you, and you're 45 minutes into the shoot. You've done the wide shot, and you walk from the counter to the fridge and sit down at the table. And he'll go, "Let's get rid of it." And you think, "Shit. Well, then you'll never have a wide." He'll say, "Doesn't matter. Now it's closer. It's about this. I don't want you sitting. I want you standing." Or he might come up and say, "Just take that line out. Just go straight from there to there." Or I'll say to him, "Maybe it needs a line." He's open to all of that.
It's very much a collaboration of the academic, the intellectual, and the philosophical. In order to play a script with so much subtext, you need to find the way in, because you're not playing reality. If you were to play a character who spoke like a human being, we'd be sitting there for 55 minutes and going, "When is somebody going to say something?" You're driven by the theatrics of what's happening and the subtext of what you have to hide. You need to understand what that subtext needs to be.
How he and the ensemble prepare episodes
TV: How do you work through that process with your fellow cast members?
AY: As I was saying before, Rectify is very much the story of a man who returns to a mosaic remnant of the family — something that's been rebuilt from the ashes, and he lands right in the dead center of that thin ice. When you arrive on set, there are so many arcs to the characters. There's so much depth to every single character.
There's so much history there because our show has this time capsule that we keep having to look back at with great confusion as to what might be the truth. There's a great deal of weight. When you turn that up, if you're not ready, if you're not prepared to be available to them, then you're not doing any justice to them because they all are available for you.
Daniel's got a [metaphorical] suicide vest on for the majority of [the show, and his family has] to be very careful not to press the button, not to upset him. There's that wonderful scene that Ray wrote in season one where [Daniel's mother] Janet comes and is about to say, "I think it's time for you to hit the road, kid. This isn't working out." But she can see her son's pain. She can see her son's confusion. He's adrift in this world, and she can't abandon him at this point. So she says instead, "I was thinking about redoing the kitchen." Then for Daniel, part of the vest goes off. He doesn't quite understand how to react.
I didn't know how to play that. I didn't know how to get right back to the innocence of that. The night before, my son asked me, "Can I have popcorn?" I said, "Come on, you just brushed your teeth. It's time for bed." He ... [crying sound]. His innocence was so real. He had just lost the World Series. It was a big deal for him. I was suddenly like, "Oh, I can use a part of that."
But part of that didn't need to be there because J. [Smith-Cameron, who plays Janet] was there. She was giving so much. She was bringing that mother. You could read her. You could see her. It's like that with every single one of the actors. They're right on the ball. Some might get angry if they have to be in a situation where their characters are angry, or frustrated, or a little hot-headed. You might have to tiptoe around a little bit. We don't play games. We're a theater group who comes together to explore this thing, and we're only satisfied when Ray starts dancing and hollering and hooting around the set. Then we go to the next scene, and we don't know what we're doing all over again.
Almost every one of those characters is accelerated by an action somebody else takes. That's the beauty of it. As a storyteller, Ray's forced to deal with the character not three days from now but in an hour. We don't have [the luxury of saying], "Oh, we'll get to that in time." It's all accelerated by the pounding Bigfoot that is Daniel making his way back into their world.
TV: You've referred to his destructiveness a few times, even though he outwardly seems quite gentle. How do you keep his deeply buried rage simmering away?
AY: Daniel didn't go to Georgia Tech. He didn't go to Harvard. He went to death row. [He read] Dickens and the greats, and philosophy, and the idea of enlightenment — just to survive paradoxically on death row. That was his education. Marry that to the three and a half minutes it takes to get from his cell to the shower block. Will anyone be there to supervise the situation? Or will they suddenly disappear and he'll be left alone with just the sounds coming from around the corner? He had to toughen up.
I think we all carry a rage in us. The question is whether we let it out or not. We don't know if Daniel let it out the night of [the murder], but maybe he did. I don't know. I don't think he did. I think the monster that he carries is the monster we all carry. Except it's tempered by the blow torch that is life on death row. Season three is very much about that, about Daniel reentering that world of rules and regulations. He's made a decision, and now he's forced to live with it.
Rectify's two existing seasons are available to stream on Netflix. Season three premieres Thursday, July 9, at 10 pm Eastern on SundanceTV.