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.
Alan Sepinwall has been reviewing television since the mid-'90s, first for Tony Soprano's hometown paper, The Star-Ledger, and now for HitFix. His new book, "TV (The Book)" about the 100 greatest shows of all time, is available now. He can be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com