On the Sundance TV drama Rectify, which airs it's third episode of it's third season this Thursday evening (at 10/9 C), Daniel Holden moves back to his tiny Georgia hometown after spending 19 years on Death Row for the murder of a local 16-year old girl. Contending with tense family members and suspicious locals, Daniel articulates a jumble of confused feelings in a lugubrious, utterly convincing southern drawl. His Georgia dialect sounds authentic but in fact, it's a complete fabrication performed by Australian-Canadian actor Aden Young (listen to his real voice, and his accent on the show, here). Likewise, Daniel's church-going love interest Tawny, expresses herself with a breathy twang straight out of a Tennessee Williams melodrama. She's played by Australian actress Adelaide Clemens.
Show creator Ray McKinnon, who grew up in a small Georgia town much like the one depicted in Rectify, rides herd over the cast members' accents. "We have a full time dialect coach and that’s me," he says. "If I hear something that sounds off, I remind the actors how it's supposed to sound." Young tells The Credits, "If I'm ever in doubt about how to pronounce something, I just ask Ray."
Clemens found inspiration in Sally Fields' Norma Rae performance, then honed her accent by attending local church services on location in Georgia and listening to how the people around her spoke. "I wasn't interested in regurgitating a southern accent," Clemens explains. "I wanted to capture a southern accent."
The Acting Showrunner
Before creating Rectify, McKinnon worked as an actor in series including HBO's Deadwood and biker drama Sons of Anarchy. He made no effort to shed his native drawl. "Having a southern accent certainly impacted my career," McKinnon says. "People see you in a certain light and they want to keep you in that box, but it also means getting cast by David Milch to play this preacher man in Deadwood. That role really allowed me to go beyond what I'd been able to explore before, acting wise. I never got bored played southern characters as long as they're complex."
When it came time to cast his own series, McKinnon was blown away when Young and Clemens showed up for their auditions fully loaded with rural Georgia accents. "I've always felt like it's better to underplay the accent rather than over-do it, because we’ve all heard bad versions of the southern accent. Aden and Adelaide came in with just the right amount of southern accented-ness," McKinnon recalls. "If they'd auditioned with a bad accent, I think it would have affected my perception of whether or not they should play these characters."
Home Grown Accents
McKinnon surrounds his two Australian stars with cast members who bring home-grown accents to the production. They include J. Smith-Cameron, Clayne Crawford. Bruce McKinnon, Michael O'Neill and J.D. Evermore and Sean Bridgers, who portray Daniel’s mother, his step-father, his half-brother, a vengeful senator and two local cops, respectively. "There are a lot of wonderful southern actors in Rectify that we found or that I already knew about, and they really help steady the ship," McKinnon says. "They do a great job because it's one thing to have an accent, it's another to play the subtext of a scene and get across the complexity of these characters."
For its nuanced treatment of hefty themes like guilt, redemption, loss and forgiveness, Rectify earned a 2014 Peabody Award. But the series' subtle approach to drama has yet to generate big ratings. "There's a pressure in modern storytelling to not lose the audience's attention and borne out of that fear is a kind of sensationalism," observes McKinnon. "Multi-taskers might find that form of storytelling soothing and re-assuring because if you're making dinner and you miss something, they'll repeat exposition in a couple of minutes and you'll be completely caught up with the story."
By contrast, Rectify, filmed an hour south of Atlanta, in Griffin, Georgia, requires viewers to pick up on awkward pauses, lingering looks and evasive dialogue. "You have to pay attention in a different way with our show because there's a lot that's left unspoken," says McKinnon. "In real-life conversations and relationships, we don't always say what we mean and we don't always mean what we say, which makes us as human beings both confounding and interesting. I talk all the time about subtext with the writers and the actors and the directors and the editors. We're always questioning if we're saying too much or saying too little, because its hard to find the right balance."
Small Town, Big Ideas
Accent and plotline particulars, including a season three "Banishment" plot twist based on actual Georgia law, may be rooted in southern culture, but Rectify also draws mythic power from its small town backdrop. Distinct from a show like season two of True Detective, which traffics in the anonymity of Los Angeles' freeway sprawl, Rectify revives the notion of an old-fashioned community where everybody knows everybody.
"The idea of a village is very important to the show," McKinnon says. "In a small town, people know your parents, your grandparents, they know the tragedies in your life, and that affects all elements of your storytelling including the pace. When you're in your car and you're yelling at someone in Los Angeles, you're probably not going to run into them at a restaurant later, whereas in Adel, Georgia, where I grew up, you probably know that person so you don't yell at them. Because if you do, there's going to be repercussions. When I go back home, my internal rhythms start slowing down. That's partly southern culture, but it's also partly about living in a small town."
As season three tracks reaction to Daniel's plea deal confession, Rectify continues to wrestle with big questions about crime and punishment that resonate well beyond the Georgia state line. "Daniel being banished seemed to us like a great story device and the whole series in some ways has this ancient quality," McKinnon explains. "It's about the person who is marked in the village, like in 'The Scarlet Letter' or whatever. Dialect aside, there's an exploration of the human condition at the center of our story, and that's not just southern. That's universal."
Featured image: Aden Young stars as Daniel Holden in 'Rectify.' Courtesy Sundance TV