STEELE INTERVIEWS: actor Jayson Warner Smith [Rectify]

“Everything out here is just so complicated and there’s so much pain and hate. And I think I might be too broken.” -–Daniel Holden

If you’ve yet to watch Rectify, you’re missing out on one of the best television programs ever. Near-perfect writing, direction and acting. It’s disturbing, gorgeous and compelling. Exquisite writing–helmed by creator Ray McKinnon– and nuanced characters propel this show about a guy released from death row after 19 years due to DNA evidence. Everything and nothing has changed in his small southern town. It’s an ambitious show with a fantastic premise. The state convicted then 17-year-old Daniel Holden [Aden Young] of raping and killing his then girlfriend. He survived the 19 years on death row through extensive reading and meditation. Holden returns home to the devoted mother [J. Smith-Cameron], stalwart sister [Abigail Spencer], a step-father, step-brother who doesn’t like or trust him and a teenaged half-brother.

Female writers and directors added to the mix make this a spectacular, provocative show. The entire cast is superb not only by Aden Young. Stand-outs include J. Smith-Cameron as Daniel’s patient mom Janet Talbot and Adelaide Clemens as Daniel’s conflicted sister-in-law Tawney [truly think she should be nominated for several episodes of season two]. Jayson Warner Smith impressively plays creepy child molester and death row resident Wendall Jelks who incessantly taunts Daniel through the prison walls.

Jayson Warner Smith and I became acquainted via twitter– as one does these days– and he agreed to answer some questions via email. I wanted to hear that southern drawl but some other time. Maybe he’ll record something on my iPhone.

Amy Steele: You’ve been acting since you were a child. What appeals to you about it?

Jayson Warner Smith: It’s one of the few things I’m kinda good at. I love the process of telling a story and creating something for others to learn from and enjoy.

Jayson Warner Smith

Jayson Warner Smith

Amy Steele: What have you learned throughout the years of acting and taking acting classes?

Jayson Warner Smith: Acting is a selfish act. You are doing it for yourself. You can’t be concerned with how it’s “coming off”. You can only be in the moment. If you’re watching yourself or gauging an audience’s reaction then you are entertaining. Nothing wrong with that but it isn’t acting.

Amy Steele: You do a lot of theater. What’s different in theater vs. television vs. film. What do you like about each form?

Jayson Warner Smith: TV and film are almost identical except you have very limited time with TV (and budgets usually). Theatre is an entirely different animal. Yes, you still want to be authentic and real and in the moment so to speak, but in theatre, you have to keep it up for 2 or more hours night after night all while making sure that everyone in the back row is getting it. Keeping the reality of the moment fresh every night is the magic. If you are doing that then it works.

On camera work presents a different challenge. Here you are allowed the joy of just being real with what is going on. You don’t have to project your voice to the back row cause there’s a mic on you and right over you capturing everything. On camera, you don’t need to show your emotion in a big way as you have to in theatre. The camera is right there and picks up EVERYTHING. The challenge on camera is not acting but “being”. You want it to be as real as possible. Of course, we don’t really have sex or kill people or die on camera but we want to be as real and in the moment as possible all while living in an imaginary world. It’s a bit tricky.

I also teach acting now. My goal is to help my students learn the techniques and habits that work best for them in getting to this “authentic/real place”. Whatever works is my motto. I teach what is called “The Strasberg Method” but there are many other techniques that work very well. It’s all about what works best for the individual.

Amy Steele: As I mentioned to you on twitter, you’re very good and super creepy as Wendall Jelks on Rectify. Why did you want to play Wendall?

Jayson Warner Smith: First of all, thank you. That’s a good question. It’s not so much that I wanted to play “Wendall” per se as I really really wanted to work on Rectify. Ray McKinnon is the most talented person I have the pleasure of calling friend now. He and I had met through friends over the years but I had never had the pleasure to work with him in any way other than a day on the set of Footloose (2011). I’d been following his work over the years and just wanted to do whatever I could to be there with him. I had heard the auditions were happening and I wasn’t getting a call to come in. I was very disheartened. Finally I called my agent and asked, “Why am I not reading for anything on Rectify?” “We and casting just don’t see you in these kinds of roles.” they replied. I’d seen the script (another too long story) and I knew I could play Wendall. Unfortunately, no one else did. I told my agent I wanted to read for it. She was reluctant but agreed. I “self-videoed” the audition scenes and sent them in. She sent them on to casting and I had a call-back immediately. I went down to Griffin, GA where the show is shot and met with Ray McKinnon and Keith Gordon. Ray didn’t really like my audition video as I had made some choices that were misguided but, he saw what he was looking for in me. He then spent two hours with me directing a “video call-back” to be sent to network. He was ready to hire me but I had to be approved by SundanceTV. I was approved two days later.

Jayson Warner  Smith as Wendall on Rectify

Jayson Warner Smith as Wendall on Rectify

Amy Steele: How do you get into the role? What type of research did you do? Have you spent time with actual prisoners?

Jayson Warner Smith: No research really. No time with prisoners. I understand what drives socio/psychopaths via years of acting. Mainly though, I just let the script guide me. Of course, I’m not like Wendall at all (I hope) so I have to rely on my imagination and the skills I’ve learned over the years to “go there” with the things that he does.

Amy Steele: Wendall seems evil to the core. What’s the greatest challenge of this part?

Jayson Warner Smith: The thing about evil is that evil people don’t think they’re evil. It’s just that what they consider normal is considered evil by most of humanity. The real challenge is just acting normal while saying and doing really vile things. To be more specific, It’s really the amazing writing that makes him creepy and evil, my job is to make sure what the writers want comes through in the performance. I use all kinds of different techniques that I don’t want to discuss. Mainly I just do whatever works on the day.

Amy Steele: The Rectify cast seems great. The writers are fantastic. Are you all very close even if you don’t have scenes together?

Jayson Warner Smith:They are great and yes, they are fantastic! I am so fortunate to be a part of this. While we are here filming yes, we are all equals. But, once we wrap, everyone disperses and moves on to other projects or back home wherever that may be. On a personal note, I have had the wonderful fortune of doing all of my work on Rectify with Aden Young who plays Daniel. I also worked with Johnny Ray Gill in Season one who plays Kerwin who is probably the most sympathetic character on the show and Kerwin is a child murderer. Fantastic writing and acting indeed. Aden and I have become pretty close. Of course, he is back in Australia now so we don’t exactly hang out. We really spent a good deal of time together though during season two. He and his family rented an old farm house on 100 acres near Griffin and I would stay with them while I was in town shooting. Absolutely first rate folks. His wife Lo Carmen is a fabulous singer/songwriter as well as an actress. And his two boys are a delight.

Amy Steele: You left L.A. so many years ago and moved back to Atlanta. Why did you move? [I think that you can live anywhere and have an acting or creative career if you have talent.]

Jayson Warner Smith: While I have no regrets about my three year tenure in LA back in the early 90’s, I was completely unprepared to be there. I had no credits and no audition experience of the kind you need in LA. It took two years to finally get an agent and I bombed my first two auditions and he quickly dropped me. It was a great lesson. After three years I was broke and had no agent and I was offered a dinner theatre gig back in Atlanta and I took it. I’ve been back here ever since.

Amy Steele: Is there a role you’d like to play that you haven’t had a chance to do yet?

Jayson Warner Smith: I’ve gotten too old for most of them. There are a few though, Fagin in Oliver!, Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey. Mostly I’d like the opportunity to create an interesting character role with some longevity on TV and some meaningful rich roles in films.

Amy Steele: For someone who’s never seen Rectify how would you briefly describe it?

Jayson Warner Smith: A rich dramatic experience that takes its time and does it right. A real Southern American story told by real Southerners. Unfortunately most anyone outside the South doesn’t really know what that means. Their only exposure to Southern life is via TV and film where it is typically presented in a mostly incorrect stereotypical version.

Amy Steele:What are some upcoming projects you’re working on?

Jayson Warner Smith: Very excited. I actually have five films set to come out in 2015. All are independent works. 99 Homes by Ramin Bahrani and Mississippi Grind by Ryan Fleck & Ana Boden [AS note: the duo responsible for Half-Nelson and It’s Kind of a Funny Story] will both be at Sundance in January. I’ll be there too. In 99 Homes I play Jeff, Michael Shannon’s crew chief on a foreclosed home clean out crew. It’s a major supporting role and I will be in and out through the film. In Mississippi Grind I play a poker player named Clifford in an early scene where the two leads Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn meet for the first time.

In I Saw the Light the Hank Williams Biopic I play legendary country singer Hank Snow. I am in one scene where I introduce Tom Hiddleston who plays Hank Williams at a concert. In Heavy Water, an Atlanta independent film, I play Mickey, a homeless man who is the sidekick, so to speak, to Carter Jenkins’ in the starring role. Lastly I have a small role as a hunter in a locally made sci-fi/horror flick called Beacon Point. I get killed pretty quickly.

Amy Steele: So watch for those films and for Rectify to return in the spring on Sundance Channel. If you’ve yet to see it, you’ll find Rectify streaming on Netflix. Thank you to Jayson.

**all pictures are from Jayson’s website.

purchase at Amazon: Rectify

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