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When Aden Young cracked open the script for "Rectify," he thought, "Oh, here we go again: another guy released from Death Row."
But he kept reading, and within a few pages "I realized this script had some sort of solid anchor. That anchor was Ray and his unique take on life."
Solidly anchored by creator-writer Ray McKinnon, this six-hour miniseries (whose first two hours air on Sundance Channel on Monday at 9 p.m.) tells a unique story about a man who was caged for two decades for the rape and murder of his teenage girlfriend. Then, when his conviction is vacated thanks to new DNA evidence, he is restored to an outside world that proves just as harrowing.
"Just because he's getting out doesn't mean this thing is over," Daniel Holden's lawyer warns his family as they wait outside the prison walls for his return to them and the Southern hometown he no longer knows.
Holden is played with poignant spareness by Young, an Australian actor whose credits include "Killer Elite" with Robert De Niro and Clive Owen, the TV series "The Starter Wife" and the upcoming film adaptation of graphic novel "I, Frankenstein," in which he stars as Dr. Frankenstein.
"Every now and then something comes along that speaks to your personal rhythm," says Young by phone from Sydney. "I felt there was almost a necessity for me to play Daniel."
McKinnon felt a necessity of his own to write "Rectify."
An actor best known for his role as Reverend Smith in the HBO series "Deadwood" and as Lincoln Potter, a psycho lawman on the FX drama "Sons of Anarchy," McKinnon is also a filmmaker who shared a 2001 Oscar for the short film "The Accountant," which he produced and starred in alongside his actress wife, the late Lisa Blount, and longtime friend Walton Goggins ("Justified").
The dynamics of family fascinate McKinnon, as he explains by phone from Florida, where the Little Rock, Ark., native was visiting his sister. Another object of interest: how the legal system can go terribly awry.
"I kept thinking about society's need for order, sometimes in lieu of justice," he says. "If something heinous happens, we want to feel like we can find and root out the evil that caused it. But the pressure to do that can cloud our judgment.
"One day, I just decided to write something about all that, and see if it would manifest."
Loss is the overriding theme of "Rectify." Loss is felt everywhere: the town's loss of fragile equilibrium upon Daniel's disruptive return; the loss, still being felt painfully, of the murdered girl; the irrecoverable loss of decades in prison by Daniel. He is truly a lost soul.
"But there was also the lightness of being that I wanted to present as a part of his experience," says McKinnon.
With halting laughter, Daniel screens a comedy on a DVD player with his young half-brother Jared (Jake Austin Walker). He registers amazement at finding a drink at the convenience store called SmartWater, earnestly asking the cashier if it works.
He relishes a sunset on a drive out in the country with his devoted sister, Amantha (Abigail Spencer), then asks her, "We're lost, aren't we?" She replies with a rueful smile, "Totally."
"Rectify" is part of a new initiative by Sundance, known primarily for unscripted films, to break into scripted drama. It is the network's first wholly owned scripted production.
Filmed in Griffin, near Atlanta, the series has gathered a splendid cast that also includes J. Smith Cameron as Daniel's mother, Clayne Crawford as his wary stepbrother, and Adelaide Clemens as the stepbrother's devout, all-forgiving wife.
But the key casting choice, not surprisingly, was the actor to play Daniel.
"Aden is a different kind of cat as an artist," says McKinnon. "He goes down his own path, which translates well for his character."
Daniel's reception spans the spectrum from tearful gratitude to contempt and threats to a pledge from the man who prosecuted him to reopen the case. There is much talk in his town of "all that he's been through," but Daniel is still going through it.
For nearly 20 years in isolation, Daniel says he found reality in "the time between the seconds. But now that I'm here in this world, where everything's marked by hours or dates or events, I find myself in a state of constant anticipation. What it is I'm anticipating, I'm not always sure."
Somehow Young locates this uncertain state as Daniel and infects the audience with this same anticipation.
But the performance didn't come easily for Young any more than for the rest of the cast.
"Calibration was such a big part of all these characters," says McKinnon. "We talked a lot about that: how much to reveal and when to reveal it, and when not to reveal it and let tension build."
"As it progresses," says Young, "the tensions become more and more pronounced, because there's so much at stake - not only for Daniel and his family, but also for the town itself, having to deal with all the beliefs about the crime that have come to define the town: Was Daniel innocent all along? Or is he still guilty and getting away with murder?"
Those beliefs, entrenched and at odds, seem to matter more than the elusive truth.
But what about that truth: Did Daniel do it?
"We always try to frame an experience, but sometimes life doesn't have a frame," says McKinnon, steering clear of any answer - as the series deftly does.
Asked the same question about the character he plays, Young replies, "I'd love to be able to tell you exactly how I feel, but in doing so, it'd be like showing you the notes in the margins of my script - and I'm hiding that in a drawer."
"Anyway," his interviewer allows, "it's none of my damn business."
"That was my intended subtext," says Young with a laugh.