Interview: Aden Young discusses SundanceTV's 'Rectify'
"One Daniel to another. Perfect," Aden Young says as we're connected on the phone.
It's no surprise that Young feels a deep connection to Daniel Holden, his character on SundanceTV's "Rectify." A 35-year-old man freed after spending 19 years on Death Row for a murder we're not quite sure if he committed, Holden is the sort of deeply tortured and intriguingly internalized character who I suspect must be hard to set aside at the end of the day. It's a bit of a shock, in that light, to be reminded that Young, like seemingly half of the leading men on network and cable TV, is Australian by residency and upbringing and Canadian by birth.
While Young has a strong roster of Aussie film, TV and stage credits, "Rectify" is his biggest America TV role, which offers the pleasant pleasure of enjoying Daniel Holden without a decade of screen baggage. It's similar to Jon Hamm's breakout as Don Draper and, in a perfect world, it would be receiving the same level of acclaim and awards attention.
"Rectify" premiered last spring as part of a breakout year of original programming for SundanceTV and it has just become available on Netflix so that y'all can catch up before Season 2, 10 episodes rather than six this time, premieres on June 19.
In our chat, Young explains why he almost prioritized pulling Chinese noodles over "Rectify," the challenges of stillness and how much he does or doesn't know about what the crime that nearly cost Daniel his life. I did a little goading to try to get Young to talk about the shocking first season finale and although his answer is 100 percent spoiler-free (really, the whole interview is), I put it on a second page, just in case.
Click through for the full Q&A.
HitFix: First off where you are guys in terms of season two production at this point?
Aden Young: We just passed halfway yesterday.
HitFix: How is it different doing this as a 10-episode run as opposed to six. Sort of parsing out energy and whatnot?
Aden Young: Well, you know, you have an understanding of where it’s gonna go so you try to pace yourself. But, of course, you know, "Rectify" isn’t your average procedural. So you never really know where it is you’re going. And it’s emotionally a rollercoaster so you just have to flow with the river, I say.
HitFix: Talking about Daniel, he is one of sort of the most interestingly still characters I think we’ve really ever seen on TV. And it seems to me like stillness has to be one of the hardest things for actors to play. Does that sound right?
Aden Young: Look, I know that to be true. I directed a dear friend in Australia in a short film that I made a decade ago and he’s a gregarious, wonderful storyteller of note. But I wanted to see him play somebody who was essentially rendered rigid by the news of the death of his friend and it was an incredible task to get him to – I’d say to him, "You know, if you even furrow your brow I’m gonna cut." And it’s a difficult thing because there’s a lot to convey with doing nothing. But with Daniel, there’s a sort of understanding that I had, given the amount of time that he spent in isolation, he lives in a different sort of time continuum. And I was able to just allow that to be, to play almost in observance rather than in action.
HitFix: Now is that the kind of thing where in the first week or two of shooting you sort of wonder if things are picking up. If the camera is getting what you’re doing. Do you have insecurity about being too still maybe?
Aden Young: Oh no, not at all, because what was interesting about reading the scripts of "Rectify" was that it very much has a lyrical quality to it and it demanded that sort of stillness and that focus and that intensity of bearing a silent witness in many ways to this new world opening up around him. So I felt that it would sit quite well. I mean, at times it was very difficult to understand whether or not that was going to convey what he was feeling. But in many ways there’s an ambiguous enigma to Daniel that you don’t quite know who he is. And that’s, in some ways, what makes the character quite interesting is that you begin to experience his reawakening through your own self, you know, in watching him do it, because it’s a very slow progression. And it’s a very delicate progression whereas we’re conditioned now to have to get to know the characters within 20 minutes of a feature film for example. And then the rest of the time we just watch them blowing up stuff or chasing somebody or trying to get their daughter back from a mysterious gang in Russia, you know. And so a lot of the times the characters have to be immediately defined and definable. Whereas the beauty of being able to work on such well-written television is that you are able to focus on the emergence of character and the exploration and discovery of character rather than just who this man is and now what will he do. So I think with Daniel there’s a question of unpredictability that always lingers throughout the scenes.
HitFix: Lke you say we have been conditioned to have certain expectations and "Rectify" kind of cheats those expectations. When you’re reading the script how long does it take for you – for the rhythm to click, for you to sort of see what’s going on on the page and in the story here?
Aden Young: It’s an interesting birth coming to the show because I was shooting back-to-back features in Melbourne and Bangkok at the time and they weren’t really the characters that I was interested in playing. And an actor always wants to sink his teeth into something and it had been a while since I had the opportunity to really immerse myself into a character. And I’ve been writing for years and developing my own films and editing with a friend of mine in Australia. And part of me just said, "Okay, it’s time to really focus on that." Then when "Rectify" came through I read it and said, you know, a lot of pilots come through and you see them and you go, “Oh, I don’t know if I want to do this. It means moving to America, Vancouver, wherever it might be.” And you don’t know what the character is and it could be 24 episodes. And I won’t know the director. I won’t know the writers. Look, I’ll make a fortune but, you know. You have to uproot your life and it’s a complete change of life and it's a loss of anonymity and all those things. But when "Rectify" came along, he was such an interesting character, at first I turned it down. I said, "You know, I want to focus on my own work." But he was such an interesting character that the talons were already in. And I remember having these haunted nights where I would wake up and I’d think, "Oh, I could do something with that guy. That’s a really interesting guy and it’s, you know, it’s a short run season. It’s with a channel that is trying something very new. And if it has anything to do with that independent mentality, they might back the director’s vision on this, you know, the showrunner’s vision." And so we began some conversations and it was interesting. And I suddenly realized it ticked all the boxes. If there was gonna be a show that I was interested in doing that would pull me away from the feature world. I said straightaway "Well this is probably gonna be it." And by the time I read episode two I was hooked. I thought, "I know this guy. I know how to play him," which was quite strange because when I finished the series I went back to Los Angeles for a brief stopover before going back to Sydney and I met some friends of mine, Australian actors my age who had also auditioned for the character of Daniel, and quite a few of them said "I didn’t know where to start with that guy, he’s so weird and this and that and the other." Which is strange, you know, because they’re wonderful actors. One of them just landed a huge show as the lead actor. They’re wonderful actors, but it’s sometimes just a personal thing. You can just see it. And in some ways Daniel plays as an amalgam of so many characters I’ve played throughout the years. And so I guess some research had already been done into that psychology of Daniel.
HitFix: Why do you think so many Australian actors were going out for Daniel?
Aden Young: According to Ray [McKinnon] they did a giant casting call. Ray had already had a friend of his in mind to play the role. And that friend was given his own show and was just unavailable, Ray was even considering the idea that he might have to play the role. But given the timeline of the characters he felt. "Well no, this can’t happen." They sent out a huge casting call. They did Los Angeles. They sent a casting director to London and said, "Who can we get there?" And then they called Faith Martin in Sydney and said, "Who did you have in mind." And that’s when she sent me the script and said "I’ve found the one that is perfect for you." And Faith and I have been friends for years. And I just said, as I said to you, "At the moment it’s not the right time." And she would not let up. She called every day. I was in Bangkok and she would call and say, “You have to do this. It’s just something that I can see. And it’s rare – my job is to get the film cast if possible. If it doesn’t happen it doesn’t matter. But this one’s for you." And she just fought and fought and fought. And I finally ended up giving in to her because it was such a bore to have to deal with her every day. I finally just put a scene up on the computer and shot it over the computer camera reading the scene off the computer screen. And within a day I had a call from New York saying, "Can you be on a plane tomorrow night and audition for the role?" And I thought, "Well I’ve only got three days before my next scene here in Bangkok. I can’t possibly do that." I’ve been preparing for two years for this scene in Bangkok where I actually hand-pull Chinese noodles. And I thought, "This is gonna be a big day. I don’t want to screw this up." And they were adamant that they wanted me and I had a very good opportunity role. So I hopped on a plane and I was on a plane for 72 hours in the next three days pretty much. It was just crazy, you know. And after I got off the plane and went straight to set and hand-pulled my Chinese noodles.
HitFix: As you’ve said, this is a character who’s hard to get to know and through the six episodes we’ve seen, there are so many things that we still do not know. How much has Ray told you about the character beyond what we’ve gotten to know in this first batch of episodes?
Aden Young: Not a great deal. We’ve certainly had lengthy discussions, but Ray’s such a sprite, in a way, that the mind meanders and it soon becomes a philosophical discussion as opposed to, you know, a character breakdown. And in many ways I have retreated from the idea of defining Daniel because he is very much a character who is, you know, he’s not the crusty cop pulled out of retirement to solve one last case. He’s not this, that or the other. He’s not the, you know, the crusty surgeon who always come up with the right answers. He’s somebody who is evolving daily. And what’s interesting about coming into this second series -- which is going very fast and we’ll screen in June -- is that Daniel’s growing up and he’s experiencing and beginning to express himself in many ways and looking forward as opposed to wanting desperately to be still, in some ways, trapped in the security of that cell and the security that he is to be killed. But now he’s sort of condemned to life in a way. And he’s trying to find what that means. And so it is an evolution of character and nd as an actor it’s a spectacular challenge because you can’t just rely on, "Oh, this is Daniel and I have to play him this way." I’ve never been an actor who’s ever been excited when another actor says to a director, “Oh the character wouldn’t do that.” I just think that’s madness. I don’t even know what character means. You know, we define character through actions so, you know, given a circumstance your character might change in a millisecond.
HitFix: But how about the things from his past thought. The various mysteries that we don’t know and presumably Daniel knows what he did or didn’t do. Do you know those things?
Aden Young: I certainly have an understanding of those things. As to the bigger question of Daniel’s guilt and innocence, you know, it’s always been something that Ray and I have discussed philosophically to essentially wonder at. To say "What is it that, you know, where does he belong in in his feelings of responsibility for this girl’s death?" And are these feelings shame, guilt or pure evil or, you know, who knows? But one way or the other, whether Daniel is criminally guilty or innocent, he certainly is guilty of the fact that he was responsible for the invitation for that girl to be there on that night and feels that tragedy deep within his bones, that he played a part in it. And so Ray and I we do dance around it. For example I asked him yesterday, as a joke, I said, "Did he do it?" And Ray looked at me and said, “Yes, he did.” And then he kept looking at me and smiled and I said, “I just can’t trust you anymore.” He said, “No, you shouldn't.” And so the question remains even for me -- Did he or didn’t he? And what a joy to not have that defined in some ways. I mean, as the audience will find when they view season one and they’ll find that that night was a night of great tragedy but also a night of great confusion. So how much is there that is still true and what was real or what was unreal it still remains to be analyzed.
HitFix: And the show has now moved to Netflix in its entirety. And so that sort of gives people the opportunity to binge it if they want to. How do you feel is sort of the right way to experience these first six episodes?
Aden Young: Well, I myself don’t have Netflix. And recently I was staying at a friend’s place who did and I was feeling rather poorly one morning and I sat down and watched the entire series of "The Killing," the American version of "The Killing" in one day. I just got hooked. I thought, "Wow, I’ve never done this before." I’ve never bought a boxed set DVD or anything like that. I think "Breaking Bad" was the only other experience, I rent a disc and you can watch 3 episodes. But I think with "Rectify," I was very lucky to be in Los Angeles and they were having a screening of the six episodes at a cinema and I said, “Oh, I’m not gonna come. I’ll feel like a fool sitting with all these people watching me do all sorts of silly things.” And then I thought to myself, "You know, I’m never gonna have an opportunity to do that again. So why don’t you just go and look at it as a filmmaker and see if it conveys the right thing that you’re attempting." And it was an experience. It’s a very emotional experience and to watch it in its entirety is certainly what a lot of people have said they had done through either buying it on DVD or what have you. And for me the experience was quite overwhelming, even though I knew what was coming it was still quite an experience. So I think it’s great and think that medium, if it’s available to people they can say "I’m gonna do this on a Saturday," that’s also wonderful. Growing up, though, I still always go back to the idea that growing up, you had to wait for a show and it filled your week with woe and worry about the characters. So you can attempt it however you wish. I don’t know what’s better or worse.