Guest of Honor

Abigail Spencer Cherishes her Southern Roots and ‘Rectify’ Truths

The "Rectify" star, best known for her roles in distinguished cable dramas, tells Brendan about her "Floribama" roots, her big break from "Mad Men," and undergoing therapy in public.

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Abigail Spencer arrives for The Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) And InStyle Celebrate The 2015 Golden Globe Award Season - Arrivals at Fig & Olive Melrose Place on November 20, 2014 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images)

Abigail Spencer is best known for her roles in distinguished cable dramas like “Mad Men,” “True Detective,” and especially the acclaimed Sundance Channel series “Rectify,” which The Atlantic magazine recently called, “Television’s quiet triumph.”

In the show, Spencer plays the fiery Amantha, who succeeds in getting her brother Daniel released from death row, where he’s been imprisoned for 19 years.

The third season of “Rectify” is now underway. When Brendan met with Abigail, he asked how she got the part.

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Abigail Spencer: I was on the phone with my really good friend, Andrew Leeds, who is an actor and a writer, and we’ve been friends forever. And he was telling me about this show: Sundance TV’s first scripted show.

He’s like, “It’s the best thing I’ve read but they won’t see me for the lawyer.” And I totally bypassed his actor woes and I was like, “Oh, well that sounds really interesting. Like… is there a role for me on the show?”

Brendan Francis Newnam: Mercenary. You’re ruthless [Abigail laughs].

Abigail Spencer appears in a scene from "Rectify." Photo Credit: Curtis Baker
Abigail Spencer appears in a scene from “Rectify.” Photo Credit: Curtis Baker

Abigail Spencer: And he was like, “No.” And I’m like, “No? There’s not a role for a woman between the ages of 25 and 35 on the show?” And he was like, “Well, there’s the part of the sister… but you’re way to pretty to play her.” And I was like, “Well… I’m gonna call you back!”

So, I literally hung up the phone, called my then agent, Craig Shapiro, and I was like, “What the heck is ‘Rectify’?” And he’s like, “It’s the best script of the year.” And I said, “Well why haven’t you sent to me?” And he was like, “Well you’re not really doing television right now.” I’m like, “Well I’m not doing bad television right now. Send it to me right now!”

I mean this all happened within a matter of 15 minutes, I did not even sit down. I was standing in my kitchen. Craig sent me the email with the script attached… and five pages in, I was like “What is this?!”

I went back to the front page and I was like, “Who is Raymond McKinnon? Did we grow up together?” Because it was such an authentically…

Brendan Francis Newnam: …Southern kind of show.

Abigail Spencer: …well-written, viewed, Southern show. And I had not come across that. I am from “Floribama,” which is technically Southern, but I kind of stayed away from a lot of the Southern storytelling because I found them to be arch, or judgmental, or caricatures. But this was transcendent.

And then I called him back, and we began the attack! On the producers and the casting directors and on [series creator] Ray [McKinnon], and luckily the feeling was mutual was I finally got to meet Ray.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Ray was like, “You’re not too pretty for this part!”

Abigail Spencer: Yeah! [Laughs.]

Brendan Francis Newnam: He was like, “I don’t know what Andrew was telling you.” That was a clever ploy on his part to kind of throw you off.

Abigail Spencer: It is.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Your character dedicated her life to helping her brother… and [and in this season of the show] he doesn’t necessarily need her anymore. Or at times even maybe want her involved. How did you get into that space and how did the director prepare you?

Abigail Spencer: I’ve experienced this. I mean… not in the same capacity. I have not gotten my brother off death row, thank God.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah. Haven’t had to.

Abigail Spencer: I haven’t had to. But I have experienced extreme fervor, and drive, and… “Got to get it, got to get that thing.” And then giving my whole self to something, and then I got it… and I felt like it didn’t want me. In a few different areas of my life. So, a lot of Amantha is me on some level being able to explore all of those deeply personal avenues of my own life, but just in this kind of imaginary capacity.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yes. The wondrous nature of acting; you get to do therapy, publicly.

Abigail Spencer: It really is a gift. I really do think that I enjoy the opportunity to become very empathetic to people in circumstances, and situations, and souls that I would never otherwise. I mean that really is the gift, is exploration and empathy.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Now I’m jealous I’m not an actor.

Abigail Spencer: But you get to talk and stuff [laughs].

Brendan Francis Newnam: I think I made the wrong decision. but I’m not going to cry about it, because that will be embarrassing.

Abigail Spencer: No you did the right thing.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So we have two standard questions we ask our guests. And the first one is: What question should we not ask you at a dinner party? What question are you tired of being asked?

Abigail Spencer: I don’t know if people are that curious about me! I don’t know if I–

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, pretend.

Abigail Spencer: Pretend! Pretend that people are curious and they care!

Brendan Francis Newnam: What question was I tired of reading people asking you, while I was preparing for this?

Abigail Spencer: Oh yeah — tell me. Tell me what question you were tired of reading.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I don’t think you would get tired of this, but probably people bring up “Mad Men” a lot, when you played Suzanne Farell, a teacher that Don Draper had an affair with in season three. Your popularity soared after that. Is that fair to say?

Abigail Spencer: Oh yeah. I mean, well, sadly I am so grateful for that question, because I am amazed that it’s relevant five years later. I’m amazed that I got to be a part of such a literary, historical moment in television and play a great, memorable character.

Jon Hamm and Abigail Spencer in Season 3, episode 9 of "Mad Men." Photo by Carin Baer/AMC
Jon Hamm and Abigail Spencer in Season 3, episode 9 of “Mad Men.” Photo by Carin Baer/AMC

So I’m just amazed, and it still happens that every room or role that I’m up for… people say, “You on ‘Mad Men’ — that was the moment” or “that was the first time I saw you.” But what’s interesting is that I was a working actor for 10 years before “Mad Men” came along. So that was, I guess, my 10,000 hours in some capacity.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Clearly “Mad Men” is singular, right? I mean it’s excellently written, the art direction, the performances. As an actor, that did kind of shift people’s perception of you. Did that come from it being the right role, or is that just what great writing does?

In other words, was it just, “Oh, well that was so well written that by being in it, I was really able to show my chops”? Or was it also just great casting, you in that character that meshed at that time, and it worked?

Abigail Spencer: I think it was a few different things. Because I do agree with you, I feel that I am only as good as the writing. Like, you never want to be the best thing in something that’s terribly written. It will only bring you down. You want to be the worst thing in something that’s amazing. Because it will only bring you up.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I’m going to tell my girlfriend this later: Worst thing in something amazing [Abigail laughs]. That’s what I’m going to go for in my relationship.

So the writing was a factor. What else?

Abigail Spencer: Regarding that moment… It was a few things. It was the timing. People were kind of slowly catching on in season one and two, but season three was the shift where “Mad Men” had just taken over pop culture, where everyone in the cast become very well known, and everyone was watching the show.

And then two, it was the right role for the right time for the right girl. I just knew her. I was like, “Oh my gosh!” — she was a school teacher and she lived in the guest house of a family that she worked for, and my mother was a school teacher. And the character was based on the song “Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen. My mother sang that song to me my entire childhood.

Jon Hamm and Abigail Spencer in Season 3, episode 11 of "Mad Men." Photo by Carin Baer/AMC
Jon Hamm and Abigail Spencer in Season 3, episode 11 of “Mad Men.” Photo by Carin Baer/AMC

All of these things. And also I had just had my son, who is now six, and so I was just happy to like, leave the house. I was just so grateful to be there and because I didn’t know… Matt didn’t say, “Oh, well this is going to be this.” It was just… it unfolded. It unfolded throughout the season.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Sure. Six episodes right?

Abigail Spencer: Yeah. Six episodes.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, we have another standard request we make of our guests, and it is: tell us something we don’t know. This can either be an interesting fact about you, or an interesting piece of trivia.

Abigail Spencer: Well OK. An interesting piece of trivia, since I’m in New York right now, was that after “All My Children” — my first job that moved me to New York City, my first professional acting job…

Brendan Francis Newnam: The soap opera, yeah.

Abigail Spencer: …The soap opera. I got a job as a hostess at Josie’s on 74th and Amsterdam, because I loved eating there and I just wanted a discount on the food! So I got a job hosting there. And people would come into the restaurant, and I wasn’t on the show anymore. And I kind of was like, “I don’t know what I want to do my life!” I was writing songs, like, “Maybe I’ll start a band.” I’m 21 and I basically had, and lost, a career already. So I’m just like, “OK, I’m going to be a hostess!”

And I remember people would come in. They’d be like, “Are you Becca Tyree from ‘All My Children’?” I’m like, “Yep! How many will it be?” Just like totally trying to play it off.

Brendan Francis Newnam: The fall from grace.

Abigail Spencer: The fall from grace! I got tipped $50 dollars one time as a hostess. I was like, “Is this normal? This is amazing!”

Brendan Francis Newnam: You’re like, “This is better than my day rate!”