Tuesday, January 5, 2016
Interview: Connor Jessup — From Falling Skies to American Crime
Celebrity Extra: Going from the sci-fi action of “Falling Skies” to the character of Taylor on “American Crime” really is a 180 for you. How excited were you to tackle this new character?
Connor Jessup: It’s hard not to slip into what sounds like hyperbole in talking about the experience of working on “Falling Skies,” just because it was so dominant in my life for such an important time of my life. I spent six months a year on that set from the age of 15 to 20. As anyone can tell you, those are pretty important years. It was such a massive experience. It changed who I am. I got to work with so many interesting actors. And I got to work with so many directors with so many different stories in so many different places. It was the best school I could possibly have had. We finished shooting this past January, so it’s been a while now since I’ve been on the ground in it, but it’s been interesting to think about it. It feels both immediate and incredibly far away.
Getting the part on “American Crime” was a mixture of luck, circumstance and experience. And it’s just like it really is just something that happened. I’ve never joined a TV show after it’s been going; here was a proven product. The first season stood head and shoulders above any network TV I’d seen recently. And that, honestly, was incredibly exciting. And then when I learned more about what this season in particular was about and what the character was about, and then as we’ve been shooting — as I’ve learned more and more and more — it’s something I’ve never experienced before. It’s been a real gift.
CE: Can you tell me a little about this new season?
CJ: Every season of the show is self-contained. The first season was its own story. They finished that, and the second season kicks off with a completely new story and completely new characters. This season is set in Indianapolis, and it focuses on a private school and a public school, and the inciting incident this year is that my character, who starts the season as kind of a financial-aid scholarship student at the private school, accuses a few of the other students, players on the basketball team at the private school, of sexually assaulting him at one of the school’s parties. So, that happens even before the series begins. The entire season is an exploration of the ramifications and the ripples that that accusation, that crime, has on the victims as well as on the accused, on the families, the community, the school administration. It’s really a mural of what a crime does in a community like this.
CE: Were you a little intimidated to take on such an incredible and horrific subject matter?
CJ: Yes, I was intimidated. I was terrified. I was terrified not just because of the heaviness of it, but because you are surrounded by people who are doing such incredible work that you feel a certain obligation to that, like if you don’t do everything in your physical power to play as close to their level as you can manage that you’re letting yourself down. It’s not coming from anyone else, and everyone here is lovely and supportive, but it’s a real self-imposed sense of dread. Or it was at the beginning. But that has kind of faded as we’ve gotten into it, and people have been so wonderful to work with and so supportive. But what was important to me — the main thing in terms of the heaviness of it — was that Taylor from the very beginning, and pretty much through the whole season, is ostensibly a victim. And it was really important to me that there was a little more to Taylor than that.
CE: When it comes to playing Taylor, how aware were you of really making sure you get it right and making it true to the circumstances? I know that’s hard when you’re in the moment of filming, but things like sexual assault, especially in kids so young, can be a difficult subject to navigate.
CJ: That’s a really hard question to answer because, like you said, you can’t really think about it in those terms when you’re doing it. You really have to keep thinking of the characters in as specific a way as possible. For me, Taylor is going through a lot of things that a lot of people have gone through, which are very pressing issues right now. But he’s going through them in his own way. He’s an individual and his circumstances are individual. So, my hope is just to capture that individual experience in a good way so hopefully that will speak to some broader experience.
To step back for a second, I find that not a lot of people in popular culture, certainly popular television, are talking about consent or fluid sexuality, or class and how class relates to sexuality, or the relationship between sports and masculinity. And those things are all kind of the focus of the season. So I’m very interested to see how it all comes together and how people respond.
CE: How is life on the set of “American Crime”? Can it get a bit tense because of the subject matter?
CJ: The show has such a large ensemble cast. It takes eight days to shoot an episode. Of those eight days, all of us only tend to work three days per episode. So, those are three tense days. But then you get a whole bunch of days off, so it really hasn’t been too hard to air it out. And the people are lovely. I’ve found that anytime I’ve done something that’s more dramatic, off set people tend to be especially friendly. People know how to balance these things.
Everyone is just so lovely. Everyone genuinely is incredibly decent, fun people. We’ve all been karaoking like six times. It’s a good group of people, and despite the subject matter, it’s been a fun time.
CE: Most of your scenes are with Lili Taylor, who plays your mom. She is always phenomenal. What was she like to work with?
CJ: Dear God, I couldn’t believe my luck. As anyone who has seen her in anything will tell you, she’s a genius. And she was amazing last season, but she was a supporting character then. This year, in my opinion, she is the star of the whole season. She is so — again it’s hard for me to sound like I’m not going insane when I talk about her — but she’s taught me more just with her acting and working with her than anyone else I’ve ever worked with. She spends the whole season on this quest for justice for me. And she does it with such a dignity and such a relentless, almost obsessive, beautiful passion in every scene — she never milks a moment. She never overplays anything. I think she’s really going to affect a lot of people. I know she affected me.
CE: So you’ve got Lili and the wonderful Felicity Huffman working off each other ...
CJ: She and Felicity together are a little slice of perfect.
CE: What sets “American Crime” apart from other police dramas out there — obviously aside from the many Emmy Awards it’s won?
CJ: The good thing about “American Crime” is the plot is obviously there, and the plot keeps things moving, but the core of the show is the human plot, so it’s not a procedural. There are procedural elements, but they are mostly happening in the background. The core of the show is how the ramifications of how all these cracks start to appear in the community and how it affects them.